NEW CLASSICISM: Where is architecture leading?

How might the Roman-toga architecture of the Renaissance look on the landscape of the 20th century? "Speaking a New Classicism: American Architecture Now" covers that question with a show of contemporary designs mimicking antiquity. Like any costume job, the wardrobe of designs by 20 architects fits the form of contemporary life rather more than ancient days.

The exhibition, designed and organized by Helen Searing and Henry Hope Reed, began at the Smith College Museum of Art and completes its second stop at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., Sept. 8.

An ambitious catalog underscores how the assembled architects have dressed the backward-looking designs for houses, offices, and public buildings with the verve of the strip, the elegance of modernist materials, and the engagingly irregular angles, planes, and windows in a new kind of wit and irony.

The old-style classicism, of course, implied an icy discrimination.

It insisted on conforming to rules and resulted in a rigidity in patters of creation. Despite the fact that Palladio and other model Renaissance classicists looked back over a blank millennium to ancient Rome and also had to reinvent their art, classicism made historical reference its major goal.

"American classicism," as defined by Professor Searing, is otherwise; it is "pragmatic, good-natured, witty, and generous." it is closer to what historian Joseph Rykwert defined as "The First Modern" (MIT Press); the neoclassicism "associated with revolution, objectivity, enlightment, quality."

The drawings, models, and plans shown in two large rooms at the Clark Art Institute tally with these notions.

Architects Christopher and Timothy Morris, for instance, bring a panache that is anthing but cool, orderly, or symmetrical to their "Passive Solar Home."

Once you pass the poplars that line the approach in their drawing, you confront a plethora of glass panels, at least six sloping roofs, a cutaway second-floor patio, skylights, and, for piece de resistance,m a swag of cloth draped, to who knows what avail, about the entourage.

Dead on, the north and south elevations of the Morris design suggest a palace , its gable flanked with two bays; but the erratic windows, the latticework, and the large and small windows, scaled to an "Alice in Wonderland" of many sizes, play games of another sort.

While copycatting is clear, the debt is not always to tradition so much as to the very contemporary written and designed works in which Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown stressed complexity and contradiction.

Thus the 20 exhibited architects borrow classical and modernist vocabularies and speak them with forked tongues, mumbling or stumbling the new classicism, Professor Searing concedes.

Take the Piranesi-like "House of Poliphilos," done by Thomas H. Beeby with comic flair, or so it seems.

Stairs lead up to nowhere and back -- and up and back again. The windows, the columns, look like a child's dollhouse made by an especially mad inventor. But the architect's word merely play it deadpan. Classical architecture "provides archetypal images related to the sacred art of building," he declares in the catalog.

Sacred, perhaps, but no more so, it seems, than the cliched clown playing Hamlet.

Call it a new classicism, postmodernism, or simply a pluralistic search for new designs, there is nothing simple or single-minded about the projects presented. Robert A. M. Stern's Dom Headquarters, for instance, has the look of a 1930s picture palace while his ponderous poolhouse carries an entrance worthy of a pharoah heading for his eternal slumber within the pyramids.

Stern in his written statement emphasizes the use of classical tradition to make a public architecture speak to the public; the speaking seems less a simple declarative sentence than opera, its dramatic and histrionic flair far livelier than the thoroughly boxed International Style.

Still, the show of new classicism falls somewhat short of providing the assessment it attempts.

Only a reading of the catalog shows which of the exhibits are mere wall hangings and which are about to materialize on the landscape. The Corinthian plaster columns at the entrance and the drawings, however lovely, tell too little; combined with the paucity of photos of finished projects, they add to the paper quality of the analysis of trends.

Those of us who slept through the period when America's turn-of-the-century classical revival had nodded off into a moribund state may have still other misgivings about his fashion. We wonder, for example, whether the movement may not still produce soporific architecture.

In drawings, at least, John Blatteau's addition to a Bayonne, N.J., hospital, for all its delightfully liquid precision, has a worn-out weightiness of form.

So, too, Philip Johnson's postmodern pirouette. His postmodern Sugarland Office Park in south Texas looks like a bottom-drawer rendering for a state agricultural school.

Look around at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's own 1950s structure and one really worries. Are we to have more such lackluster classical jewels? Will the revivalists simply breed a high-toned Kentucky Colonel Colonial or Palladian pizza stand?

Do we even have the craftsmanship to carry out the details and carvings that Professor Searing values?

Henry Hope Reed, co-organizer, writes of driving by the Museum of Modern Art a generation ago with one of many craftsmen who looked at the unadorned facade and moaned, "That . . . place is destroying us."

"Later I realized that they were only too justified in yelling," Reed writes. "The modern architect, when asked why he did not design a classical building, would smile in a superior way and say, 'I would be delighted to do it, but where are the craftsmen?'"

Well, where are they still?

Because the new classicism still lacks such ornament, you may need a tour guide to tell you that the Knoll showroom in New York (however agreeable) is an heir to antiquity -- a "linear" version of traditional modes; while Charles Moore's fountain for the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans (again delightful) seems like a stage set rather than a child of history.

Brunelleschi, another would-be classicist, borrowed from both the ancient and the modern (Gothic) periods to create his Florence dome. Similarly, it is clear from this show that contemporary architects can't simply go home to Rome again.

If they can gather the riches of both periods, they may eventually break through an era of exploration and eclecticism to find a valid relationship to the past and present.

But to create a new classicism that is neither servile nor sterile will be no easy task.

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