Eclecticism in modern design

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Buildings designed to do duty for church and state account for the bulk of the winners of this year's American Institute of Architects (AIA) honor awards. This often offbeat architecture in the service of government and God gleaned 8 out of 11 prizes to be given out at the AIA's national convention in New Orleans next weekend (May 22-25).

Aside from their similar clients and their sometimes frantic adoption of the slogan ''new is beautiful,'' the structures share few common traits, ''reflecting the rich diversity in architecture today,'' the AIA says.

''The results celebrate their individual styles and an exciting pluralism that suggests that contemporary architecture is the liveliest and most provocative of the arts in the 1980s,'' the AIA jury finds. (Ironically, though, the 25-year-old building prize went to a building that still appears equally eccentric, Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.)

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This eclecticism in modern, or post-modern, design, in new buildings - rather than the ''extended use'' category for old ones heavily lauded in recent years - appears in the winners chosen from 599 entries. Energy-efficiency also figures less heavily in the jury commentary.

Jurors were Charles Gwathmey, chairman; David L. Browning; Chris Coe, a student representative; Robert J. Frasca; Graham Gund; George J. Hasslein; Bates Lowry; Antoine Predock; and Milo H. Thompson.

The tiling in terra cotta and blue of the YWCA Masterson Branch and Office Building in Houston by Taft Architects, looks less like the clunky municipal forms that characterize ''Y'' buildings than cutouts to pattern the inside of a fantasy-land pool.

The AIA jury calls the YWCA ''a building of anticipation and hope,'' inviting one into the structure's small-scale spaces - a layout that turns the work and play parts of the ''Y'' into ''a cohesive whole.''

Equally playful, with patterns of glass blocks outside and a terra cotta cornice above, the Best Products Corporate Headquarters in Richmond, Va., by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York City, holds the offices of the company.

The building also boasts the insertion of the Rockefeller Center elevator cab , ''two massive limestone eagles that once sat atop the Moderne 1939 Airlines Building'' in New York City, and an art collection - all typical of the discount store's labors to patronize art and architecture in a vanguard fashion.

While a critic might say the Best building plunders the past in its Deco design and lifting of bits of old buildings, the Douglas County Administration Building by Hoover Berg Desmond in Castle Rock, Colo., literally looks like the ruins of it. The old appears built into the new. In the photograph, at least, the blocky structure (''stolid,'' says the jury) splices rough-hewn stone (''the same rough texture of surrounding materials'') into a flat masonry facade to odd effect.

The municipal center of all municipal centers, Michael Graves's Portland Building, a media pet and predictable winner, earned its award. Beyond its longstanding controversy the structure that once seemed outrageous was praised for its ''whimsical, symbolic touch in varied colors,'' its pedestrian colonnade , and its innovative design. It has focused international attention on the city, the AIA commentary notes.

''The new language it speaks offers an alternative to the design and construction of modern office buildings.''

Flat to the point of faceless in this rather fickle array, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse by Wolf Associates Architects in Charlotte, N.C., seems less like its described ''state of the new'' than a relaxation into the old modernism. In this context, no wonder the jury praised this civic building's ''unpretentiousness.'' Built of limestone and glass, the government center ''adds a dignifying force, a unifying element, to the complex,'' the jury says.

The California State Capitol in Sacramento, the only restored building in the lot, is a wedding cake of a 19th-century civic building lovingly resurrected. Among the chores undertaken by architects Welton Becket Associates: salvaging and replacing such historic elements as 500,000 pieces of marble-floor mosaics and reconstructing lighting fixtures, carved-wood bannisters, and wood trim, much of it needing dismantling and rebuilding to conform with seismic codes.

Moving from the public to the private in one of only two domestic architecture awards, the AIA lauded Suntech Townhouses, yet another supersize structure by Urban Forms. Shaping its 18 units into a high-tech extravaganza, the firm used very visible pipe railings, light poles, exposed chimneys, and rooftop bridges to dramatize the condensed housing on its compact site.

In the same idiom of railings, Corbusian volumes, and a boatlike horizontal shape, the Hartford Seminary by Richard Meier & Partners is less high-tech than 1930s historical, yet according to the AIA jury, ''an expression of a church.''

The jury comments: ''By concentrating on the worshipful aspects of sunlight, the design creates a poetic interpretation of a rational theme.''

Looking less for the rational than the vernacular - a fit into the context of the place they occupy - the last three awards go from high-tech tenting in a Saudi Arabian terminal to low-tech lyricism in a Block Island vacation home.

The Haj Terminal and Support Complex by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, designed to handle hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, attaches fabric roofs to high steel pylons in what struck the jury as both a regional manifestation and a ''technological solution.'' Using cable, Teflon-coated Fiberglas roof units, and steel pylons, the architects covered 105 acres. Blending scales, the building takes on an aspect of ''soft monumentality,'' the AIA says.

To see the ease and genuine softness of the Coxe/Hayden Studio in Block Island by Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown is to shake one's head at the more blatant designs here.

Where many seem to slash away at the cutting edge of modern design, the Block Island houses' ''charming simplicity, shingled exteriors, and orientation to views of the salt-water pond below'' are quietly elegant. This should not deceive the viewer into thinking that the grace and light within lack the firm's oft-stated ''complexity and contradiction.'' Multi-sized windows, steep roofs, and odd-angled interiors express what the jury calls ''an innovative blending of individual expression within an established architectural vocabulary. ''Here is New England in its ageless but innovative ease.

Finally, the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va., by Hartman-Cox offers a somewhat stiff architectural solution to the battle between clients who wanted a Georgian addition and those who sought a modern one.

Nonetheless, it too looks low-key and appropriate enough to make one remember what architecture (if not awards) is designed to do.

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