Collaboration -- the you-write-the-words-and-I'll-do-the-music alliance between art and architecture -- usually has less harmony than its lyrical counterpart.
Works of sculpture or paintings, which try to add melody to the scrip of the streets afterm the fact of a building, work as discordantly in the environmental arts as they would in the musical ones.
The inevitable Calder stabiles stastioned beneath so many slick structures become little more than jungle gyms, toy concessions for the art crowd. The yellow form dropped before, say, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank Building as part of the half-a-percent-of-a-building-cost-for-art program, looks like that stilted structure simply laid an egg.
Even Chicago's famous Picasso fails to humanize the plaza it adorns; it performs best in photographs where the camera makes the high-rise architecture dwindle in favor of the sculpture.
No wonder, then, that one designer declared that "labor" was the operative word in the title of an exhibition of art and architecture called "Collaboration ," now making the rounds of the US.
The traveling show, which finishes the first of 13 stops in New York June 7, called on 11 teams of artists and architects to create joint works in honor of the contennial of the New York Architectural League.
Born in an era when the "American Renaissance" tried to re-create a namesake era, the Architectural League sought to knot all the arts and crafts in the rich tapestey of a single building. The noble goal and the architectural teamwork subsided in the early 20th century and seemed extinct in its second half.
Securing the alliance anew for the "Collaboration" show was more part frustration than exhilaration: less inspiring than exasperating.
Above all, teaming such artists and architects as Hugh Hardy and Jack Beal, Richard Meier and Frank Stella, Charles Moore and alice Wingwall, and Cesar Pelli and William Bailey was a foreign approach to creation -- so foreign that some like Stanley Tigerman and Richard Haas and Susana Torre and Charles Simonds split before the labor produced the collaboration.
"Do you actively seek collaboration in your building?" Barbaralee Diamonstein , who curated (masterminded might be a better word) the current exhibition, put the question to the architects interviewed for her recent book "American Architecture Now" (New York: Rizzoli International Publications). Most responded negatively.
"Too much of the '50s were spent simply doing a plaza and then putting Henry Moore in just the right place in the plaza. This is a little bit like putting a monogram on a shirt," one of the more articulate, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, responded.
To have the sculpture and the architect really involved with each other, you must either create the facade of a cathedral or a conceptual sculpture, deciding to affix his supersized form on the side of a building, he said. "I think that the kind of sanitary relationship which we went through in the '50s and '60s is over."
Having posed the question, Diamonstein tried to make the marriage between architects and artists.
"In process," is the way she describes the results of a relationship in its initial stages. That is indeed the best way to label the bonding shown at the New York Historical Society.
The work of Michael Graves, who might be called an artist equal to his show colleague Lennart Anderson, begins the exhibition with a painting of a bacchanalian feast above an art deco altar; the boxlike construction of architect Charles Moore, again an architect with artistlike instinct, ends with the addition of some rather weak bronzed cloth forms of Alice Wingwall.
Both designs can deploy the decorative arts alone more successfully than in ensemble.
Between these exhibits, other architect-artist teams provide more promising portents of the grand alliance sought. However unwieldy the sight of a cable stretching from the World Trade Center through the Chrysler Building, the linking of the vital minds of Frank Gehry and Richard Serra toward down-to-earth ends would alone merit the enterprise.
Elsewhere, half of the amusement of this attempt lies in the verbiage. Vanguard architecture is a wordy pursuit: More entertainment lies in the notion of "The Great American Cemetery," a mini-Levittown above sphinx boxes and urns, or in the Roberts Stern and Graham discussion of their column adorned with a woman's figure than in the actual architecture/artwork.
High intellect may produce high art, but not always.
More seductively, Emilio Ambasz and Michael Meritet station a painted forest of forms as "The Four Gates to Columbus." Less so, the hexagonal house offering doll-chamber views, a dining-room set, and painting of a nude by Pelli and Bailey do credit to neither talent.
Perhaps because none of the projects had a real site, only a few grapple with the issue of enriching a true time and place. Susana Torre involves us in a design of celebration for the waves of immigrants at Ellis Island which, though grandiose, relates to real plans for the ruin at that great gateway site.
Hugh Hardy and Jack Beal try to deal with the seedy traffic to Bryant Park on 42nd Street with a restaurant set into a rather flamboyantly intrusive set of forms. And James Freed and Alice Aycock tackle Times Square, New York's "sham garden of Eden," to dress it up with waterworks.
None of these exhibits does, or perhaps can, suggest the drama of the collaborative process of an actual project described by architect James Polshek in Diamonstein's book. There, the architect tells of his introduction to a Japanese sculptor by a client. With mixed feelings of nervousness and rudeness, Polshek says he approached his potential collaborator:
"I went out to his kiln," he says, "and I saw all these piece from the kiln lying around on the ground -- bricks and curved pieces and ribs, and some were black, and terra cotta and ivory. And I thought, that's it. So I said, "Come on, we'll get up on the ladder.'
"And we got up on the two ladders and had another guy arranging these things on the ground, and then I'd run down and move pieces.And we both got into it, and we actually made a design. He took it from there and filled it in and then built it. And it's really quite wonderful." So it sounds.
Diamonstein, who has prepared a helpful book "Collaboration: Artists & Architects" (New York: Watson-Guptill) along with the exhibition, would like this show to serve as the same kind of catalyst as the kiln and the bricks and the ivory. She envisions its stop in 12 cities besides New York -- Buffalo, Dallas, Los Angeles, Coral Gables, Fla.; Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Akron, Ohio; Evanston, Ill.; Richmond Va.; Wausau, Wis.; and Iowa City, Iowa, where it will wind up in November 1983 -- as a chance to focus on what is do-able in each town, a chance for sighting and siting similar collaborations.
Ambitions for even a "mini-American Renaissance" are fanciful, of course. But even some few such rebondings might enliven our landscape more than the "Victorian knickknacks" of most public art on the bureaus of today's built environment.