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'Architecture in pursuit of extremism'

By Jane Holtz KayJane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor. / April 29, 1983



The architectural prizes that ''bloom in the spring'' are no surprise. Indeed, they come with numbing regularity - awards for the softest use of concrete, the gleamingest glass, for solar-coaxing or brick without peer, matchless masonry or whatever it might be. All of this culminates in the May Day plaudits of the American Institute of Architects for distinguished buildings.

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The awards chronicle trends, applaud the built obvious, and endorse supposed excellence. But this is the season for architectural follies as well - for three-dimensional extravaganzas. Never have designers created more brazen forms; in fact, we think they deserve blue ribbons, too.

As each new high-rise gyrates and skids its way to the sky, and each post-modern prankster creates a historic collage with the facade of his building , why not give out a separate set of awards for ''architecture in pursuit of extremism.'' As Peter Schejdahl put it recently in Art and Architecture, ''architecture is modern culture's number one criminal activity.''

The following, then, are our choices for 1983:

''The War of the Windows Award,'' by far the toughest to choose, had two claimants. In this era where ''big is beautiful,'' the competition for megascale manifestoes is understandably keen. Thus, the final selections - one designed for Miami, the other for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - were battling to the end.

The first, called the Helmsley Center and designed by Arquitectonica, has a window that measures eight stories high and 240 feet wide.

''We're the biggest!'' insists partner Bernardo Fort-Brescia, likening his firm's window to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Not so, asserts Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler, who, in a recent speech, assigned that title to the 100-by-125-foot windows in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's triangular high-rise structure in Saudi Arabia. Since Jeddah's giant windows are closed and those in Miami have an opening, it's an open-and-shut case that Jeddah takes the prize.

The second-place ribbon goes to architectural sculpture of a sort. Although the waves of the Vietnam Memorial tempest have becalmed since their hard boil in a Washington teapot, the flood of military markers may yet overwhelm the United States. Therefore, our ''In Memory We Trust'' engraving goes to an architectural endeavor whose time is about to come in New York City, Cincinnati, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

These are among the places wanting to pay architectural tribute to the controversial war by memorializing it. The sites and structures, one can be sure , will stir trouble, cost money, and result in art only accidentally.

As if this Vietnam inundation of flag-waving forms weren't enough of an architectural excess, a committee for a Korean War memorial introduced legislation in Congress last month for a Washington site of its own. ''There are memorials in Washington to commemorate almost every war,'' says a representative of the group, which also wants to celebrate veterans ''defending freedom and democracy'' in bricks and mortar.

Again two competitors, each boasting equal merit, catch the eye for the ''Oops, There Goes the Neighborhood Button.''