NEW CLASSICISM: Where is architecture leading?
How might the Roman-toga architecture of the Renaissance look on the landscape of the 20th century? "Speaking a New Classicism: American Architecture Now" covers that question with a show of contemporary designs mimicking antiquity. Like any costume job, the wardrobe of designs by 20 architects fits the form of contemporary life rather more than ancient days.Skip to next paragraph
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The exhibition, designed and organized by Helen Searing and Henry Hope Reed, began at the Smith College Museum of Art and completes its second stop at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., Sept. 8.
An ambitious catalog underscores how the assembled architects have dressed the backward-looking designs for houses, offices, and public buildings with the verve of the strip, the elegance of modernist materials, and the engagingly irregular angles, planes, and windows in a new kind of wit and irony.
The old-style classicism, of course, implied an icy discrimination.
It insisted on conforming to rules and resulted in a rigidity in patters of creation. Despite the fact that Palladio and other model Renaissance classicists looked back over a blank millennium to ancient Rome and also had to reinvent their art, classicism made historical reference its major goal.
"American classicism," as defined by Professor Searing, is otherwise; it is "pragmatic, good-natured, witty, and generous." it is closer to what historian Joseph Rykwert defined as "The First Modern" (MIT Press); the neoclassicism "associated with revolution, objectivity, enlightment, quality."
The drawings, models, and plans shown in two large rooms at the Clark Art Institute tally with these notions.
Architects Christopher and Timothy Morris, for instance, bring a panache that is anthing but cool, orderly, or symmetrical to their "Passive Solar Home."
Once you pass the poplars that line the approach in their drawing, you confront a plethora of glass panels, at least six sloping roofs, a cutaway second-floor patio, skylights, and, for piece de resistance,m a swag of cloth draped, to who knows what avail, about the entourage.
Dead on, the north and south elevations of the Morris design suggest a palace , its gable flanked with two bays; but the erratic windows, the latticework, and the large and small windows, scaled to an "Alice in Wonderland" of many sizes, play games of another sort.
While copycatting is clear, the debt is not always to tradition so much as to the very contemporary written and designed works in which Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown stressed complexity and contradiction.
Thus the 20 exhibited architects borrow classical and modernist vocabularies and speak them with forked tongues, mumbling or stumbling the new classicism, Professor Searing concedes.
Take the Piranesi-like "House of Poliphilos," done by Thomas H. Beeby with comic flair, or so it seems.
Stairs lead up to nowhere and back -- and up and back again. The windows, the columns, look like a child's dollhouse made by an especially mad inventor. But the architect's word merely play it deadpan. Classical architecture "provides archetypal images related to the sacred art of building," he declares in the catalog.
Sacred, perhaps, but no more so, it seems, than the cliched clown playing Hamlet.