"Tools of the Imagination," which opens today at the National Building Museum, is a splendid display of design genius.
Original drawings by Thomas Jefferson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Gehry provide a rare and intimate view of America's icons at work. The drawings also attest to the importance of having the right tools for the job, which is the central point of this show.
A polished brass volutor recalls advances in design technology during the 18th and 19th centuries. The instrument was invented to enable classically inspired architects to draw the spiral of an Ionic column capital. An ellipsograph, which is to the ellipse what a compass is to the circle, helped designers get their domes in perspective. A centrolinead aided in achieving perspective in a view where the vanishing point was off the drawing board.
Next to the precious antiques, which are displayed mostly under glass, computer screens flash with digital images. Cutting-edge software is required for the complex buildings rising today. But the marvel here is that only one maker could be persuaded to share a fragment of proprietary computer code.
"This is pulling back the curtain," says guest curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino, an associate professor of architecture at Virginia Tech's Washington-Alexandria Architecture Consortium.
Piedmont-Palladino's exploration begins with Jefferson, the nation's only architect president. He exulted in a letter over the arrival of the latest tools, which had to be ordered from England. An unused piece of grid paper remains from a supply he received from France circa 1790. A drawing lent by the Massachusetts Historical Society shows how Jefferson used such paper to plot the curve of the dome at Monticello.
Ink and watercolor drawings of a staircase by Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to study at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, were borrowed from the Octagon. The elevation and section convey how hard 19th-century architects had to work to portray light and shadow. Now, software can simulate the sun's passage with the click of a mouse. (Visitors can watch simulations cycling on various screens.)
For sheer artistry, a streetscape of New York's American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien stands out. Streaks of blue sky erupt from behind a photo montage of the building and its neighbors along 53rd Street. A series of Sullivan sketches from 1922 detail 14 hand-drawn leaf forms, from which he sought to develop a new ornamental language. Some wound up in cast-iron decorations on the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago.
Most of the tools on display are from the collection of David and Renae Thompson. He is an architect with RTKL Associates. Heavy instruments intended for studio use came in elegant and protective mahogany cases. For travel, an architect in 1810 would have appreciated a pocket-size silver and shagreen case filled with small silver, ivory and steel tools, which the curator likens to a portable PC.
Vintage tools were developed with help from gunmakers, jewelers and watchmakers, whose skills included fine metalworking and an understanding of precision instruments. In the 1990s, Gehry turned to the aerospace industry for software to plot his sculptural designs. A section of the exhibition is devoted to the evolution of the Gehry-designed Ray and Maria Stata Center, completed last year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The architect's black line doodle is translated into 3-D digital images, which are converted into models of multicolored boxes under a crumpled skin of silvered paper. It is possible to make the leap from model back to line drawing, but just barely.
Fans of the avant-garde will be rewarded with a conceptual Library for One proposed by three MIT graduate students. There are also examples of work by three members of the so-called "New Generation" of emerging professionals: Jeanne Gang of Studio/Gang/Architects in Chicago; Hernan Diaz Alonso of Xefirotarch in Los Angeles, and David Adjaye of London.
The exhibition closes with the Freedom Tower in New York. The project is offered as an example of the next wave in design technology, rather than a comment on the design of the building, which was conceived by master planner Daniel Libeskind but has been evolving under the control of David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
"We're staying away from that," Piedmont-Palladino says of the design. "This is about the tool."
The tool is Revit software, which creates "building information models," or BIMs, that embed data in every line of a drawing. Revit "lets you understand the building as a living thing," the curator says.
As an architect, Piedmont-Palladino prefers "primitive tools" to computer programs. That definition would apply to two acrylic drafting triangles I.M. Pei custom-designed for work on the National Gallery of Art's East Building a quarter century ago. Until Piedmont-Palladino tracked them down, the historic artifacts had languished in a file drawer.
A supply of 700 colored pencils from the studio of Paul Rudolph, a Yale dean of architecture in the 1960s, fared slightly better. After Rudolph's death in 1997, they were stashed in a cardboard tube and left to the Library of Congress. Piedmont-Palladino's assistant, Reed Haslach, assembled 318 of them in a rainbow from red to teal to graphite -- a No. 2 pencil purloined from the Beverly Wilshire hotel. (The architect designed a house in Beverly Hills in 1982.)
The idea for "Tools" surfaced during the tenure of former chief curator Howard Decker, and Piedmont-Palladino invited him to her walk-through on Thursday morning. Decker, an architect, could not pass up a computer drawing tablet. He quickly sketched a stylish temple, columns and all, but declined to click Save.
Modern Jeffersons leave no trace.
The exhibition continues through Oct. 10 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org.