Buildings on paper; Does the show make the grade?

Family legend has it that they bore the model of the house through the streets, carried aloft on their shoulders like a crown of state.

Members of the city's building trades, they say, carried the dollhouse replica of the Henry Lippsitt house of 1863 in a parade - touting the original.

Truth or not, the tale would make a fine emblem for the ambitious exhibition - exposition, one is tempted to say - of ''Buildings on Paper,'' assembled here to advance the cause of architecture.

''Rhode Island architecture is surely the core and crowning glory of this state's artistic heritage,'' the three institutions sponsoring the show (through June 19) declare.

It is, if not a first, then a model of a museum's attention to its architectural surroundings, a model already paralleled by exhibitions in other cities, such as ''Buffalo Architecture,'' at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery through June 27, and by the growing number of guides to cities and states across the country.

More than 300 drawings unreel the rich collection of this historic state.

''Buildings on Paper,'' assembled by historian William Jordy and curator Christopher Monkhouse, aims to present its documents as art, to preserve and restore the condition of those paper works, and to enhance the pride and sense of architectural self-worth in the state as a whole, today and tomorrow.

On the first two counts - as art display and paper preservation - the show succeeds handsomely; but on the third, as promoter of activist impulses toward the built environment of the city, it has only a partial victory.

(From Providence, the exhibition heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Academy of Design, New York, July 13 through Sept. 15, and will be shown at the Octagon of the American Institute of Architects in Washington from Oct. 15 through Jan. 3.)

The show itself fills three institutions here and displays 12 decades under the heading ''Rhode Island Architectural Drawings 1825-1915,'' as its subtitle states.

Lesser-knowns (Thomas Alexander Tefft) rather than luminaries (Peter Harrison of Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue fame in Newport) begin the exhibition at Aldrich House.

The chronology soon brings forth familiar figures in the architectural history of the 19th century, however, with Part 2 at the Rhode Island School of Design and Part 3 at Brown University's List Art Museum.

Almost uniformly the work evidences the draftsman's art. The 19th-century architect could barely put pencil to paper without evidencing his skill with line.

The approach ranges from the interior plan of a 19th-century Newport chateau for the affluent 400, dry and geometric, to the soft pastel of Eliza Newcomb Alexander's cottages; from still paper-doll interiors by Ogden Codman to an N. C. Wyeth-like fairyland pastel of the Dunes Club in the 1930s - complete with Jazz Age roadster.

Brown University and the Brown family figure mightily in the quality of the ministate's architecture. The buildings from the university present a sampler of architectural styles through the 19th and 20th centuries, while the family's Fisher Island retreat in New York by modernist Richard J. Neutra extends the geographical range and chronological limits.

This silverized wooden building, dubbed ''Windshield,'' brought forth a 37 -room house from the Los Angeles architect. ''Unpretentious and livable,'' John Brown declared. ''Expressing the spirit of our time and the puritanic character of New England,'' the architect averred, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

The family declared the house, fitted out with Buckminster Fuller's prefabricated bathroom units, a masterpiece, ''though it horrified neighbors who had built enlarged replicas of the House of the Seven Gables in Salem,'' according to one critic at the time.

Although the architect neglected to attend to Atlantic storms (the structure blew down in 1938 and was rebuilt), and fire finally took the window-limned glass box on New Year's Eve, 1975, the inclusion of the model in the exhibition, and the lengthy description of its fate in a comprehensive catalog, typify the attention to the details of architecture and architectural narrative throughout.

A slide show that introduces the exhibition and walking tours and lectures that have accompanied it amplify the meaning of the assembled artwork.

Alas, however, buildings on paper are only partial things, and the failure to examine the fate of these buildings on the landscape is a real one.

A look at the nearby Central Congregational Church will show the 1980s destiny of its two bygone towers, but photographic reminders of the real architecture would have helped with the concern with the public environment that Franklin W. Robinson, director of the Rhode Island School of Design, says he seeks.

Whatever else buildings do or say, a work of architecture is a rejection of endless design options in favor of one. It is a matter of choice. To see, say, many versions of the Marble House is a pointed lesson in this process. To lack a final photo undermines the instruction.

Again, to see such drawings as that of Roger Williams Park, one of many landscape renderings happily included, gives but a glimpse of might-have-beens - the splendid fountain there was never executed.

Finally, the room showing Rhode Island Tomorrow is a disappointment. Glimpses of the restored arcade, or the plan to relocate the railroad or shape the Old Stone Bank plaza, need just such a forum. But few visitors will have the skills to project the future landscape from a rendering, and no written or recorded material comes to their aid.

Perhaps this is carping in so vast and worthy a labor.

Nonetheless, if such exhaustive surveys aim to be more than academic, they need to examine how to display and discuss architecture off as well as on the wall.

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