Buildings as storytellers; 'Inlaid box' vs. a candy box

One is an ''inlaid box,'' says its architect, an eight-story structure as solid as its stone. It is classically (or neoclassically) composed and serene, a perennial presence to frame the mythical lion-griffin carved into its facade.

The other is a candy box, a confection whose excess of curlicues, swirls, and architectural sweetmeats outdo the Godiva chocolates and designer bonbons sold within.

Both buildings are eclectic. Both are storytellers: that is, a single glance suggests their mission - the medium tells the message.

Neither is a chaste box, however. The splendidly somber-sided Asia Society Building by Edward Larrabee Barnes in New York and the neo-Victorian concoction of Georgetown Park mall in Washington, D.C., designed by a veritable conglomerate of architects under the Western Development Corporation and the Donohoe Companies, fit the designation and time slot called post-modern.

But if both enterprises borrow from the past to create a new present in 1981, the adoptions bear little kinship. More than that, they offer striking evidence that the year, or, for that matter, the decade now ending, has reached no consensus.

The show-stopper structure that trendwatchers expected to set 1982's fashion, Philip Johnson's AT&T Building, has faded into oblivion. Its Chippendale top has settled ito urban invisibility, one of many peaks lost in the parade of Gotham City skyscrapers. Ironically, it was probably seen by more newspaper or magazine readers than pedestrians.

Meanwhile, the other two 1981 arrivals just mentioned share Johnson's much-publicized perusal of history, but their renderings have little in common but the source.

The Asian Society's new headquarters on Park Avenue at 70th Street is not only consonant with history but consistent with the corridor of the avenue. Even that ''inlaid box,'' the alternating flat and shiny bands of red granite, line up to parallel planes put into the sidewalk.

Moreover, the building's Park Avenue side fits into the regiment of solid masonry buildings to either side while its more-diminutive side-street shape and terrace garden reduce the bulk to conform to the brownstones of New York's rowhouse neighborhood.

The architect has compared the patterned exterior to a ''Muslim cigarette box ,'' but the half-moon windows on the second and eighth floors link to a Palladian or American tradition, too.

Meanwhile, the custom interior design of furniture and wallcoverings suggest Oriental origins with shades of rose or green and simplified shapes.

The 71,000-square-foot, $16.6 million building serves as both a museum housing the Rockefeller Collection and the headquarters for the society. If the barrel-vaulted lobby lacks a sense of expansiveness, the elegant chamber housing the collection is dramatic and reverential without being oppressive to the gallerygoer.

The meeting rooms and offices are handsomely luxurious without pretension.

Especially, though, the complex, but not flamboyant, exterior with its deep-set, diverse windows pursues new notions of how surprise and illusion can bring a facade alive without out-shouting the surrounding street.

The sound, if you will, from Georgetown Park is louder - a clamor, if not a cacophony. The brick exterior of the in-town mall displays only a few of the devices within. Pass through the M Street entry, however, and you are in the middle of a visual din.

The 160,000-square-foot, $60 million ''mall park,'' as the developers call it , is more exuberant than the Victorians in all their excess. The yardage of the wrought iron would embroider the Eiffel Tower, with space to spare to fence Central Park. The stairs straightened out from their curving, cascading, sprawling gyrations possess the mileage of a marathon.

Each boutique has its own decor set within the mall's collection of fences, columns, fountains, groups of platforms, and walkways; ornamental columns, hexagonal skylight, and interior elevator, laid out by project architect Alan Lockman.

One estimate is that another $50 million was spent in store decor. The chandeliers drip from above; the tile floor zigzags below (it demanded half a dozen drawings from the architect compared with the usual one), and the steel and glass and plants abound.

Below the building, three floors of parking irritate the neighbors of this supposedly residential section; and so do some 90 units of housing which add to the dense development and the boutiquing of Georgetown. But the special effects outweigh the planning impact.

''I love to watch the people's eyes open and their mouths drop,'' says John Vigilanti, an architect for Western Development Corporation.

The interior designer, Roger Sherman Associates of Dearborn, Mich., has given ornament, not to mention neo-Victoriana, a new look. In New Orleans the firm followed a French ironwork theme; in Pittsburgh, it was a grand concourse. Here, the developers sought spectacle and the Michigan designer complied, even to the point of securing artisans to do the work.

''You could have walked in here and yawned,'' Sherman suggests of the ordinary approach to the project. But only the totally somnolent could do so at Georgetown Park.

Certainly, its surfeit will appeal to the fans of theme and theater. Nothing is shoddy or second-rate in the materials deployed to create the extravagance of the setting. In a sense, this is honest historicism - an updating of the nouveau 19th-century industrialists who flaunted their materialism with gaudy and, to us , delightful excess.

Why then is this animated candy-box re-creation so claustrophobic and even cloying?

Perhaps the consumerist values in designer bonbons and angora artifacts simply need distance and hindsight. It is one thing for Hector Guimard to fabricate a flamboyant Parisian subway stop to enhance public life with iron follies; another for fashion and franchise merchants to enshrine the art of spending in these impoverished times.

People, architect Barnes recently told an interviewer, are just plain bored with problem-solving. They want mood, ''a lot of romantic stuff,'' he said. The Bauhaus was a bore, declared the most talked about book of the season, Tom Wolfe's ''From Bauhaus to Our House.'' However extravagant and simple-minded his polemics, he had a point.

No wonder, then, that the drawing boards are surrounded by folk doodling out design relief for our ennui. There is promise in the prospect and, hopefully, the new year's new work will not demand blinders to prevent befuddlement from the result

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