Fay Jones: With Soaring Splendor

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN architect Fay Jones was 16, he walked into a high school theater and saw a movie that changed his whole life. It wasn't a film starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable; it was a 1938 TechniColor movie starring the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wis. ``I saw the camera moving up those columns and the light flowing in, the camera shooting up those curving walls. And I thought - Gosh! I'd only seen things like that in `Buck Rogers' in the funny papers and `Flash Gordon,' and these were centuries away,'' explained Jones. ``So here's something that's another world, and it's being built. And of course it's the first time I'd ever heard the name of [the building's celebrated architect] Frank Lloyd Wright.

``Well, of course I walked out of the theater that day knowing that it was an architect that I wanted to be.''

As a result of that movie, Mr. Jones was to leave the engineering career he'd planned and become a student of Wright.

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Now, on Feb. 22 Jones received the American Institute of Architects' 1990 Gold Medal Award for his outstanding designs. He muses about how that movie brought together the two roads in his life. Growing up as a boy in Eldorado, Ark., he loved to draw, although that art seemed too delicate to him. He also loved to build things - lean-to's, tree houses - out of salvaged wood, which seemed pretty crude stuff to him.

But the movie voice-over ``talked about not only the technical aspects of construction, the building part of it, but that this was a work of art. So here it was coming together - two things that I liked to do: Here's art [he thumps the metal table] and construction [another thump on the table], and it's coming together in something called architecture.''

Jones was talking to the press over a luncheon of Chicken Kiev and salad at the American Institute of Architects. It was the afternoon before he received his gold medal, plus a couple of verbal bouquets from the Prince of Wales, the royal architectural critic who was the keynote speaker at the AIA awards dinner.

Prince Charles noted: ``Fay Jones's buildings speak of what Ruskin termed `the poetry of architecture' - a poetry arising out of buildings in harmony with their natural surroundings. They seem to evoke the amplitude of nature - without damaging nature. [Jones's] Thorncrown Chapel was built in the woods from timber carried to the site by hand. Not one of the trees around it was touched.''

Thorncrown Chapel received an AIA Honor Award in 1981 (Jones's first of two)

Euine Fay Jones talked about Thorncrown and some of his other characteristic buildings with this reporter in a quiet room at the AIA.

What strikes the viewer about buildings like it and others illustrated at the AIA is the soaring quality of Jones's work, the sense of aspiration, looking up. Did he design them with that consciously in mind?

``Yes, I think that's it,'' said Jones. ``I think this has become more pronounced since doing the chapels.''

When Jones designed the Thorncrown Chapel about 10 years ago, he had been ``looking back at some of the historic and Gothic architecture, which has always been a favorite architecture of mine. ... I felt there was a great age of faith. Here was a great architectural expression of what the culture was like and [on] what things they placed value....''

He explains the development from earlier Romanesque architecture to full Gothic: ``In order to make these spaces taller, they have this ascendancy - whatever it is here that seems the kind of space that's conducive to religious contemplation. It seemed to be a space that had some soaring quality - you know: It's up here [he points toward the sky], whatever it is - not down here.''

Jones, a trim man with gray hair and beard, has quick brown eyes and an angular Southern voice with a bit of Arkansas twang. Gothic, he points out, is something an architect would pick up on ``not with the idea of copying those buildings ... but looking at their ideals and looking at their compositional order. So if they were trying to make them taller, let's keep makin' 'em tall; if they were trying to bring in more light, let's bring in more light.

``The secret is bringing in symmetry, repetition, height, ascendancy. These are kind of the intangible things; they are not physical materials, but they're expressed with physical materials.''

Jones talks of the Cooper Chapel, which is his homage to the Gothic, just as the interior of Pinecote is his homage to the Johnson Wax Building, with its columns like futuristic tree trunks.

He says of the Cooper Chapel, which rises like a prayer in consecutive Gothic arches to the sky, ``This is what makes it all worthwhile - that it's going to be uplifting, conducive to religious contemplation or one thinking his best thoughts.''

He admits, too, that the sky inspires him. ``Sky is very important to me, in that it's that great source of light and there are so many nuances of the sky.... I can't think of any building I've ever done that doesn't have skylights or clerestories or something else to bring in the natural light from the sky.''

After the Johnson Wax movie, Jones went on to get his bachelor's degree in architecture at the University of Arkansas, did graduate studies at Rice University, apprenticed at Wright's Taliesen in Spring Green, Wis., then returned to teach architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Here, he and his wife set up an architectural practise with his partner, Maurice Jennings, an fellow Arkansas graduate.

Among the most important things Jones says he learned from Wright: ``If architecture is a work of art, it's going to make life more beautiful, more wonderful for those who use it. He used to say that a house is more a home if it's a work of art.''

Wright also pointed out to Jones that the younger architect's work reached up in vertical fashion, whereas Wright's own work concentrated on the horizontal. Wright urged Jones to keep on building up.

Jones says, ``I have never tried to develop a style. I would like to solve specific problems in ways that solutions take on style - so they have style rather than be of a style.''

He says winning the AIA gold medal isn't going to change his small (five- or six-people) office one tad. ``I don't plan to gear up to take on any more commissions. I don't plan to change, if what I've been doing got me here.'' He laughs. ``I'm not going to short-circuit the processes that have been working for me.''

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