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MODELING ON THE PAST

By Jane Holtz KayJane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor. / November 19, 1982



Manchester, N.H.

They laughed at ''government green.'' In the design schools, they taught the morality of primary colors - red, yellow, blue as flags of aesthetic honor - and history teachers chided the gullible in government who had slapped an institutional green on every surface in the mistaken notion that the shade offered ''eye ease.''

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Pilasters stuck to interior walls evoked equal mirth, if not outrage. Columns in the orders memorized by school children (Ionic, Doric, Corinthian) struck them as fossilized. For wasn't history, as H.L. Mencken had railed, bunk to the architectural iconoclasts of the modern movement?

No surprise, then, that when a classical concoction hit the landscape it seemed simply silly. J. Paul Getty's $17 million museum modeled on a Herculaneum villa in Malibu, Calif., ''bemused'' a Los Angeles critic and his peers. It would put future archaeologists in a fog, he wrote:

''From the fluted columns, the Doric and Corinthian capitals, the tiled mosaic floors, the bronze and marble sculptures, the layout of peristyles, loggias, temples, and cubicles, they will conclude that the villa was built in the first century before Christ, perhaps by Julius Caesar himself, who could easily have subdued the local savages.''

It is less than a decade later now; in a period dubbed post-modern, the popular museum has, in fact, begun to select three sites to expand. And, in our outrageous, eclectic era, tints of pink and ''government green'' adorn trendy offices; high-style chambers display pilasters and columns; and Beaux Arts-educated designers, once relegated to the attic for the sin of fogyism, are set to work at '30s-style renderings.

Old arguments that called classical architecture an applique - below a paste-on pediment, above a turret - are still now.

Wherein was it written, architects now ask, that greater virtue lies in the crisp cube than in the sinuous acanthus leaf of the ancients climbing up a capital?

''How would a Roman go about adding space?'' was the question architect Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates asked director Robert C. Doty at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, N. H.

With two wings, one to either side, in an unabashedly neoclassical addition, was Hardy's answer.

And what would a Roman call these wings, flanking Edward Tilton's 1929 original? ''Pavilions,'' naturally, says Doty. ''A true Palladian concept.''

How do you obey Roman design formulas? the architect went on. With a formal symmetrical entrance, columned windows, an arched entry, and pale-beige brick that matches the original central limestone structure. . . .

If New York architects don't wear togas, and their clients can't afford the craftsmanly trim of architects copying classical lines of decades past, the Currier Gallery has used such responses to secure a serviceable Beaux Arts-plan building within and a good neighborhood match without.

The two wings accommodate a 10-foot slope in the site. The natural light enters through windows and skylights that parallel or fit into the old structure and the carved facade of that structure is used to make a handsome wall in the new space.

But in architecture, as in life and literature, you cannot always go home so easily.