COLUMBUS, OHIO — FROM its brick tower fragments and tangled beams to its crooked staircases and leaning walls, the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts is the very picture of confusion. This place, this odd conglomeration of shapes, does not have a front door - at least not an obvious one. A visitor has to wander around to find an entrance. As the self-guided audio tour says, ``It's reason out of control, reason gone crazy, obsessive, mad!''
This unusual building, plunked defiantly onto the campus of the Ohio State University (OSU) has triggered a surge of emotion here and across the United States. Prominent architects have flocked to see it. Named after its affluent local donor, Leslie Wexner (founder of The Limited clothing chain), the Wexner Center is gearing up to display contemporary art and to be a laboratory for professional dance, theater, video, audio, and performance art.
It is a risky venture not only for the university, but also for its architects - Peter Eisenman and Richard Trott. At a cost of $43 million, the building seeks to challenge everyone's perception of what an art museum and performance center should be.
The Wexner is dedicated to ``art of the 21st century,'' an ambitious goal set forth by OSU, which staged a design competition for the project six years ago. The jury selected the radical design by the team of Mr. Eisenman of New York and Mr. Trott of Columbus.
``It wasn't a contest to design a pretty building,'' says Trott. The Wexner ``is going to present art that's not known, that's new, that's emerging. So why shouldn't the architecture be consonant with that?''
The level of daring is boosted again by the fact that this is Eisenman's first major project. He has been known primarily as an architectural theorist, having founded the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York in 1967 and taught at such schools as Princeton and Yale. ``But you get tired of doing small-scale experiments and talking to yourself,'' he says in an interview. ``I wanted to build large-scale urban projects.''
``For the first time, one can see that Eisenman is a supremely sophisticated and infinitely subtle orchestrator of space,'' said Richard Meier, architect of the Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., on opening day last month. Philip Johnson, whose works include the AT&T Building in New York, called the Wexner ``a masterpiece'' and said, ``It may be one of the turning points in the history of architecture.''
The Wexner Center shows Eisenman as a good-natured rebel. He likes lobbies that are not square, nooks and stairways with dead ends, and huge beams plunging down from the ceiling only to stop in mid-air before hitting the floor. He is considered the chief proponent of an architectural movement called ``deconstructivism'' (the tearing down of conventions in order to reveal new meanings), though Eisenman thinks the term is ``meaningless,'' he says.
``Architects have got to let go of the traditions,'' says Eisenman. ``Architecture is the most tradition-bound practice that exists.'' The Wexner Center ``wasn't set up for conventional easel painting ... so we need different kinds of spaces.''
The playful and chaotic features are far from arbitrary, says Trott. ``The building has a great rationality behind it. ... The results may appear irrational, but there is a reason for everything.''
EISENMAN and Trott found that the grid of campus streets, located in Columbus, is out of alignment with the city grid by 12 and one-quarterdegrees (a deliberate move by 19th-century planners.) They decided to base the entire structure of the new building on the intersection of those two grid systems - to form a symbolic bridge between town and gown. Everything from the triangular-shaped art galleries, to the giant ``scaffolding'' overhead, to the geometric patterns of stonework underfoot uses this organizational device.
If that wasn't inventive enough, the architects rejected the four possible sites outlined by the university and created their own site: They wedged the visual arts center between two existing campus buildings: Weigel Hall, home of the School of Music, and Mershon Auditorium, a 3,000-seat hall.
``You think of Peter's site as being this kind of weed between these two white lumps of Weigel and Mershon,'' said Michael Graves, architect for the proposed addition to the Whitney Museum in New York. ``With those two buildings, with the rule laid down by those other orthodoxies, he can be the bad boy.''
Eisenman and Trott also drew inspiration from archaeology and Ohio history. One of the most prominent features of the Wexner is its giant brick towers, which evoke memories of an old stone armory that stood there years ago. On the north side of the building, raised planting beds, or ``plinths,'' are filled with knee-high grasses. They recall the Indian burial mounds in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio. The shifting, off-centered angles of the plinths allude to Greenville Terrace - a place in Ohio where two land surveys, one coming from the south, the other from the north, fail to mesh.
But the Wexner Center draws upon more than history. The white scaffolding that runs along the north-south axis symbolizes ``construction in progress,'' says Eisenman. Since the Wexner is for art of the 21st century - for unknown forms of expression - it is ``a building that is waiting to be a building,'' he says.
``That continuum of past, present, and future was in our minds throughout the competition process,'' Trott says.
The art galleries are arranged in a straight, ascending line, rather than in the typical circular form. Soaring ceilings and crisscrossing beams are balanced by cozy, narrow staircases leading from one gallery to the next.
``I love this building ... and the experience you get traversing the galleries,'' says OSU senior Michael Sarka, an architecture student. ``You're progressing upward and outward.''
``This amazing facility ... turns out to be in some ways benign,'' said Chicago-based architect Stanley Tigerman, during a symposium. ``I can't think of anything easier to do than to hang art here. But the building does act as a challenge. It challenges the convention in which art somehow has placed architecture.''
No art will appear at the Wexner until February. For now, the public is invited to ``interact'' with the building itself and confront the questions it raises.
``It isn't an envelope to hold things,'' says director Robert Stearns, previously with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. ``It's not just a blank canvas - it's an active container.''