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Eclecticism in modern design

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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.

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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.