Echo of the 1920's

Winter becomesm the whiter-than-white Hartford Seminary, melding the starkness of the new structure into the dappled lawn of brown and white.

On a January day the big boat of a building is not so much adrift on its four or five acres of New England soil as anchored. Its white porcelain panels and block-sized cubist bulk achieve a kind of belonging with the collegiate Gothic, the Tudor mansions, and midsized wood-frame houses of the neighborhood.

The seasonal settling-in may not please the architect, Richard Meier and Partners, but it must soften the critics who fault the designer for creating elevated icebergs aloof from their supposed grounding.

Here, the conditions of climate and place - the icy day, the place iced white by nature - combine with the elevated mission of the seminary and the beauties of white Corbusian modernism to melt the sternest soul. The alliance of form and function in such a scenario presents this extreme of contemporary design at its most compelling.

There is nothing of candlelight or incandescent religiosity in Meier's design. Rather, the architect puts the spell of the sunlight to work here. It is a luminosity created not so much through the see-through use of glass as through what he has called ''the dialectic of 'open' and 'closed.' ''

A Meier building cuts away, cross-sections, and contradicts its own right-angled masses. It is layered and permeable. The gatelike frontispiece of the seminary, for instance, is both fixed and not fixed to the main part of the rectangular structure.

In use, this ''gate'' functions like a light well admitting sunlight and a shelter protecting one of many balconies from the cold.

This, plus its pure aesthetic appeal (and not the flowery notice that it suggests ''a ritual passage -- a remnant of the medieval cloister'') justifies the ''false'' front.

Meier's vocabulary continues to be 1920s Corbusier -- a page from the past when cubism and whiteness were a polemic for the purity of Modern Design. He has repeated this language frequently enough, from private houses to his New Harmony , Ind., Athenaeum, to make it his own. Almost.

Elsewhere, stories have been told of wealthy clients wheeled about by his imperious aesthetic, down to the tale of a master bed split in two for art's sake.

''Architecture in blue jeans -- socially conscious design -- does not impress these architects,'' Arthur Drexler put it coolly in introducing Meier as one of the much-publicized ''Five Architects'' shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972.

Like Meier, many of the architects (they include Michael Graves, John Hejduk, Robert Gwathmey, and Peter Eisenman) have gone on to a degree of notice, if not notoriety, for their post-modernist Form uber alles.

Not so here. The shared concern of a caring architect and a knowing client, Dr. John Dillenberger, president, theologian, art historian, is apparent throughout from the painstaking selection process to the positioning of the rooms.

It was Dr. Dillenberger who decided that the disarray of Meier's Bronx Development Center and the more diminutive nature of the majority of his buildings did not matter. His judgment is supported both by the elegance and suitability of the seminary and by the growing number of projects (museums in Atlanta and Frankfurt) which have accrued to the architect.

Meier, like his ''Five Architects'' peers, has gone from a paper world of prominence to a larger, more visible, and public one.

The 27,000-square-foot structure here is apportioned in three floors of space dedicated to the study needs of practicing ministers. The handsome curving reception desk and entry are sandwiched by a bookstore and library on the left, meeting room and chapel on the right on the first floor.

The top two floors of offices and classrooms flow in a coordinated fashion relieved from tedium by views outside and vistas on the building itself, its balconies, terraces, chapel, and meeting room.

The stairwells and chambers which rise the complete height of the building give a kind of architectural uplift - both through their verticality and the play of light that further relieves the horizontality of the block-long building.

The detailing, immaculate down to the signage, and reserved in an austere fashion, adds to the chaste grace of the monochrome of white, toned only by gray rugs and blond furniture. It is a spare, yet airy elegance appropriate for a religious ''think tank.''

Another scholarly island of repose, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., by Kallman, McKinnell, and Wood, tries for this intellectual retreat by using 19th-century vs. 1920s elements.

Theirs, too, is a journey back in time from their more familiar work, replaying Corbusier's brutalist period to a mixed and mellower historicism.

With Frank Lloyd Wright via Japan (or Japan via Frank Lloyd Wright) on the long, heavy-roofed exterior and arts-and-crafts-movement woods, mixed with Viennese right angledom in the atrium-based interior, this Cambridge cloister for scholars tries for bookish tranquillity through a more traditional palette.

Somehow, though, for all the literal softness of rugs and drapes, vintage sconces, and fine furnishings at the American Academy, the Hartford Seminary's snowy showmanship provides more warmth.

There is a double dimness to winters nowadays. When the lights go down as tenants trim their energy bills, in a strange way, perhaps that seasonal element works to the advantage of Meier's more severe but light-filled world of white.

Is a white world really livable? some have asked.

One supporting response is the seminary's chapel, a stunning space contoured with the blocky precision of a Mondrian. Punctured by one blue window, focused on one spartan slim black altar, it is a superb if sometimes dizzying corner, viewable from those three floors.

A negative contrast to the all-white life style is the ragged look of a wash supply wagon or the limp form of a post-Christmas poinsettia, highlighted against the perfectionist surroundings.

Perhaps neither people nor places can live up to a white-on-white ambiance. If neighbors and visitors have to work too hard to measure up to Meierdom, in the case of this airy and elegant institution it is worth the attempt.

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