A new philanthropy

Architects, too, have angels these days. Once, designers created in anonymity, lived in obscurity, and suffered poverty nobly if not gladly. The garret is still an apt symbol, but patrons have begun to single out the design field for support, it seems.

Just this spring, for example:

The Pritzger Prize awarded its fifth $100,000 gift, the largest prize in architecture, to I. M. Pei; Columbia University announced a gift of $5 million to its center for the study of American architecture; and the Chase Manhattan Bank is sponsoring the Brooklyn Bridge centennial show that opened at the Brooklyn Museum.

These and other charitable acts reflect a new benevolence toward architectural events and public design.

Julia Bloomfield, acting administrator of Columbia's new center, credits the record-breaking gift it received from shopping center builder-architect Temple Hoyne Buell to both personal contact and the times.

''It's an example of how glamorous the architecture profession has become,'' she says. Look through newspaper advertisements and you find the same appeal: ''He's an architect, and he wears a so-and-so shirt,'' she says.

From the cover of Time magazine to proliferating articles, architecture has a new audience.

Architecture, like art in the late '60s, has become part of popular culture; architect Michael Graves, like artist Andy Warhol, attracts attention. The new conspicuousness encourages contributors.

Often such patrons belong to the profession they benefit. Mr. Buell does. So do other Columbia benefactors, such as Knoll International, the furnituremaker.

That is the traditional source of funds. Johnson's Wax, one of the early donors to architecture, sold the same spit-and-clean supplies that polished up the brass handles, rails, and fixtures of its magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters in Racine, Wis.

(At the same time their arts contributions, including the opening ''Man Transformed'' show at the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian's showcase of design, recorded a larger cultural commitment from the Johnson family.)

The Pritzger Prize, announced this month, also stemmed from the industry-related zeal of hotel builder Jay Pritzger. Through the Hyatt Foundation, he offered the first prize in 1979. The gargantuan sum alone could have secured its status. The $100,000 tax-free award, plus a Henry Moore sculpture, was the equivalent of $300,000, prizewinner Philip Johnson is quoted as saying.

In five years of such munificence, the jury has also singled out architects Kevin Roche, Luis Barragan, and James Stirling - all less than impoverished unknowns and most, like I.M. Pei, predictable monumentmakers.

For all the prizegivers' urge to become ''the Nobel'' of the building world, then, none of their recipients matches the humanitarian impulses of the Nobel winners. This year's Pritzger press release, for instance, gives lip service to I. M. Pei ''as producing some of the best low- and moderate-income housing.'' Meanwhile, the publicity includes only institutional or corporate palaces.

''There's only one [low-income project] that really got built,'' says senior associate August Nakagawa, planner.

Similar ironies abound: Phillip Morris supports a traveling exhibition of art in architecture, commissions its new headquarters from Ulrich Franzen and allots ground-floor space to the Whitney Museum in New York. Meanwhile, the company tore down a fine modern terminal on the 42d Street site to do so.

Likewise, the employment of good design to create a shiny public image (IBM and AT&T headquarters also come to mind) or use of design and the arts to offset negative public perceptions (Mobil and now Arco and Sohio are easy examples) is eternal.

When the Humana Corporation sponsors a competition for its Louisville tower, this hospital-building firm employs design as a marketing tool. Cradling vanguard designs at its offices and outlets has promoted Best Products, as well as the design group SITE and the other architects the company employed.

Perhaps it is too easy to pick out the self-interest in these philanthropic enterprises. Charity begins at home when the Chase Manhattan Bank supports ''The Great East River Bridge: 1883-1983'' show (through Labor Day). ''It's a very New York show and it's a New York bank,'' the museum says.

One should thank the folks at Chase just as one praises the spunk of Best Products. No student of philanthropy can sneer at the self-interest in any giver's motive. The urge to lend some luster to corporate profits has always inspired charity. Nobel, after all, made munitions. And why shouldn't the public environment also benefit from the oil companies that sometimes undermine it?

From specific new cultural structures - the Portland Art Museum by Henry Cobb , the High Museum in Atlanta by Richard Meier, or the Edward Larrabee Barnes Museum in Dallas - to spaces within urban offices - a Whitney branch from Champion International in Stamford, Conn., International Paper Company's space for the American Craft Council - the trend works for all parties.

Across the country, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other neighborhood projects attract business givers to the cause of maintaining decent architecture and historic design, among them Rust-Oleum in Evanston, Ill., which gave $1.4 million worth of paint to 90 groups.

In Minnesota, Dayton-Hudson contributes to a program for community livability; in Virginia, a project called Richmond Renaissance depends on a coalition of public and private interests; and in Tennessee, the Lyndhurst Foundation contributes to a Chattanooga community-improvement program and ''Windsocks,'' housemarkers in vivid colors, come from the First Tennessee Bank in Memphis, Partners for Livable Places, a public-interest group in Washington, reports.

Whether it's Kaiser Aluminum in Oakland, shaping work spaces for employees; Corning Glass, rehabilitating main street and creating a museum in Corning, N.Y.; Levi Strauss with a San Francisco plaza; or long-time supporters (Cummins Engine and John Deere, for example), the urge for investing in architectural excellence does increase.

New York public-relations offices, such as Ruder & Finn or Carole Sorell, which channel corporate clients to arts projects attest to the heightened interest in design. And, as architects become the new celebrities, the future looks more philanthropic still.

''I'm sure a sociologist of the future will come up with the reason,'' David Resnicow of Ruder & Finn says.

''The '60s were the greening of America. The '70s were turning inward. Now the '80s are working on one's nest.'' Whatever the broader causes, the fixing up of the built environment has enlisted a new army of angels feathering these nests.

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