The Real Deal New York

“I fear they have become the culture”: Richard Meier’s accusers say firm is whitewashing his misdeeds despite the #MeToo movement

With Meier a continued presence at his firm, 5 of the architect’s accusers told TRD the shop hasn’t properly responded to the sexual misconduct allegations
By Kathryn Brenzel | February 22, 2019 04:40PM

From left: Stella Lee, Judi Shade Monk, and Lucy Nathanson (Photography by Emily Assiran)

On a recent trip to Germany, Stella Lee met a fan of Richard Meier, the prolific architect who has faced several sexual misconduct accusations over the last year. The person was upset — not by the nature of the allegations — but by the fact that it had tarnished the designer’s reputation.

“There remain many who continue to admire his work, and I can appreciate that because the work itself is high quality and played a significant role in the high-end residential real estate boom in New York City,” said Lee, who along with seven other women have publicly accused the architect of misconduct during their tenures at his firm. “It doesn’t change the fact that the brand is damaged and that the firm’s figurehead has abused his position.”

Yet it’s that name and brand the firm’s current principals remain committed to. And nearly a year after a New York Times investigation revealed a slew of misconduct allegations, five of Meier’s accusers told The Real Deal that the firm hasn’t done enough and is whitewashing the architect’s alleged misdeeds.

Earlier this month, TRD revealed Meier remains a consistent presence at the firm, despite a previous report that he would “step back” from day-to-day operations. In a recent interview, Richard Meier & Partners’ newly named managing principal Bernhard Karpf said that Meier, in fact, shows up at the Midtown office twice a week on average. And he explained why the firm continues to operate as “Richard Meier & Partners Architects” with no immediate plans for a name change.

Some of the accusers never thought much would change at the firm.

“I never found it very convincing, this idea of [Meier] stepping down,” Lee said.

During the recent interview with TRD, Karpf said the firm’s name represents a shared “vision” and teamwork. He evaded questions about the allegations against Meier, calling it “last year’s news.” This week, the firm said in a statement that “we are a diverse and inclusive workplace committed to fostering an environment in which all our employees are comfortable and secure. Today, while very mindful of the past, we are working on new opportunities and projects and continue to deliver iconic design and execution to our clients.”

For Lucy Nathanson, Karpf’s words stung. In the spring of 1995, when she was Meier’s personal assistant, she said she was summoned to his apartment to do some last-minute work, as the New York Times previously reported. She said Meier placed a book of 19th Century French pornography in front of her. When she was waiting for the elevator so that she could leave, Meier pressed up against her with an erection, she said.

Earlier this month, Nathanson told TRD that Karpf — who wasn’t a manager at that point — noticed that she seemed upset.

“Oh God, Lucy, it hasn’t happened to you has it?” Karpf asked, according to Nathanson. It was then that it dawned on her that there could be other victims.

The two then went to the kitchen, where Nathanson described what had occurred at Meier’s apartment, she said. Nathanson said Karpf let her cry on his shoulder and advised her to sue Meier, though she eventually decided against it. When asked about Nathanson’s assertions, a representative for Karpf declined to comment.

A few weeks later, Nathanson lost her job due to what Meier called a “restructuring,” she said. Karpf’s characterization of the scandal as “last year’s news,” Nathanson said, is self-preservation.

Nathanson said Karpf is trying to “save himself and his job and his status. I just feel so betrayed.”

She noted that she had considered Karpf a good friend and thought he was “a terrific guy.”

Judi Shade Monk, who worked at the firm from 2003 to 2008 and has accused Meier of grabbing her underwear through her dress at a holiday party, said Meier’s behavior with women was well-known in the office. But pre-#MeToo, the reaction was different.

“Women just rolled with it,” she said. “If you have professional, high-level aspirations, then this is an occupational hazard. Even when these things are unsolicited, it was as if it was our fault. That women were too tempting and men couldn’t be expected to control themselves around us. The blame wasn’t on the man. In hindsight, it’s absurd.”

At the time of the holiday party, she was new at the firm, and said she didn’t want to leave because it would seem like she, rather than Meier, was the problem.

She said the current principals of the firm — Karpf, Vivian Lee, Reynolds Logan and Dukho Yeon — were her mentors when she worked there. By not rebranding, Monk believes the firm is failing to recognize the cultural shift #MeToo brought about.

“They are outstanding people and great architects. I hate to see them be tarnished by hanging their hat on this,” she said. “Richard’s behaviors expose everyone’s livelihoods. Every single person in that firm is vulnerable, and they don’t deserve that.”

The precise nature of Meier’s continued involvement could potentially have legal implications for the firm.

Employers have no legal obligation to get rid of someone accused of, or known to have committed, sexual harassment, according to Larry Pearson, a labor and employment attorney at Wigdor LLP. But not doing so when the person has been accused multiple times of harassment could “seriously undermine” a company’s ability to argue that it doesn’t tolerate harassment or is responsive to such complaints, he added.

In the event of legal action against a company, leaving such a person in a position of unaltered influence “carries significant legal exposure,” Pearson said. But the individual’s degree of influence in decision-making is a “key factor” in determining what discipline the organization is meting out and what it is willing to tolerate, he added.

“Even if the person is just acting as a rubber stamp it leaves open the question of how much influence they really have,” he said.

Further, any employees who enable or ignore issues of harassment, discrimination or retaliation could be held personally liable, regardless of their position in a company hierarchy.

Monk noted that while the principals were promoted when Meier “stepped back,” no new partners have been named to the firm. Current and future clients, she said, should get clarity on just how involved Meier is.

“They need to have the confidence in themselves that they are bigger than that name,” she said. “It’s time to implement a transition plan that will take them into the future. Because the firm’s success is theirs as much as it is Richard’s.”

Stella Lee, who has said that Meier exposed himself to her at his apartment, noted that the architect is famous but not “Harvey Weinstein-famous.” People recognize his name, but don’t always remember the Times story. His accusers weren’t well-known figures in the industry either, which “limits their ability to generate the common knowledge acceptance of these accusations the way someone like Gwyneth Paltrow might be able to accomplish,” she said.

“That’s the problem here,” she said. “It then leads to a sort of willful cultural amnesia.”

Part of the response, too, could be that the firm is banking on a culture in the real estate industry that may not be receptive to the #MeToo movement, she said, pointing to Karpf’s comments that clients have continued to do business.

“A lot of what Bernie [Karpf] was saying points to the fact that these developers care only about the bottom line,” she said. “These development companies are often run by an old boys’ club culture that would rather sweep this type of behavior under the rug rather than support and stand up for an ethos in which this is no longer acceptable.”

Liz Lee, who worked as a communications coordinator at the firm from 2002 to 2004, was summoned to Meier’s apartment, and when she arrived, he was naked, the Times previously reported. He later, Liz Lee said, put his hand on her buttocks.

“You feel bad for the principals who have been beaten down into this position of defending the namesake,” she told TRD. “It’s a very unhealthy environment that they are just surviving in.”

Karin Bruckner, who worked at the firm from 1989 to 1992, told the Times last year that Meier had rubbed up against her while she was standing at the copy machine. The firm, she said, needs to get away from the perceived starchitect image — the idea that one person is the “lone genius” behind the work. That would, however, require structural change and transparency, she said.

“The issue is so much bigger than sexual harassment,” Bruckner said in an email. “These people are wildly gifted and capable. I wish they could step out of Richard’s shadow. But they must change the culture, and I fear they have become the culture.”

With additional reporting by Erin Hudson.