Blueprint of an Artist's Mind, At the Building Museum

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

If you were a kid in the 1970s, you knew writer and illustrator David Macaulay as an author of magnificent children's books. In 1973, he produced "Cathedral," a meticulously drafted story about the making of an imaginary Gothic church. He followed with "City," about a fictitious Roman town, "Pyramid," about temples in Egypt, and in 1977, "Castle." In a little less than five years, Macaulay produced some of the most engaging books for kids in a generation -- and simultaneously hooked a lot of little boys (and assuredly some little girls) on the subject of architecture.

Macaulay created imaginary buildings that felt more alive than real ones. And in the process, he demonstrated the power of a sometimes maligned theory of education -- that far more important than the recitation of particulars and facts is the understanding of systems and methods and context.

But as an exhibition that opens tomorrow at the National Building Museum makes clear, Macaulay is much more than an educator, draftsman or storyteller. Using images from his books, video he has taken on research trips and notebooks in which he works out his ideas, the Building Museum tries to unlock Macaulay's creative process. But the real surprise, and pleasure, is what we learn about his perverse streak. Throughout his career, his interest in the materiality of buildings -- how foundations are laid, roofs are raised and domes and arches are suspended in the air -- has been used as a tool to follow the odd and imaginative byways of his dark sense of humor.

"Unbuilding," a 1980 book, was published in the nadir of the Carter years, in the shadow of the energy crisis when American self-confidence was bruised by Japanese and Arab economic exuberance. The premise was that a wealthy Saudi oil baron had bought the Empire State Building -- and with no intention of using it as a New York office. Macaulay's drawings chart the disassembling of the iconic skyscraper for shipment to the sands of the Middle East. In the process, the guts and girders of the building are shown in loving detail. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there is obviously an eerie quality to this fantasy of unbuilding the New York skyline.

Archaeology, which played an essential role Macaulay's preparation for books such as "City," is lampooned in the 1979 "Motel of the Mysteries," which begins with an announcement that a change in postal rates has caused a continent-wide avalanche of junk mail. North America is buried, American civilization extinguished. The book follows the efforts of archaeologists who, centuries later, discover the buried remnants of a cheap roadside motel, which they assume is an ancient burial site.

From that first conceptual mistake, the familiar details of American culture are interpreted in expanding circles of error and absurdity. A toilet becomes a sacred urn, the toilet seat a ceremonial headdress. A television on a chest of drawers becomes an altar. Macaulay follows his conceit beyond these simple visual jokes, assuming that, like the relics of Egypt, the relics of American culture will naturally become a blockbuster museum exhibition. So he imagines items for sale in the gift shop, including a coffee pot and cups made in the shape of the sacred toilet urns.

Perspective plays multiple roles in Macaulay's work. A meticulous use of traditional, graphical perspective is essential to the didactic value of his drawings and their ability to show us the three-dimensional relations of a building's parts. But he is a fan of extreme, or exotic, perspectives as well. "Rome Antics" shows the Eternal City from a bird's-eye view -- literally -- as it follows a pigeon's peregrinations. In "Underground," Macaulay uses a worm's-eye view to draft the complex, sometimes terrifying, hidden world of tunnels, pilings and other buried infrastructure beneath a typical city street.

But perspective plays a larger role as well. Time is sped up (as we see towns and cities take shape over decades) and sometimes reversed (things are unbuilt or fall into decay). Macaulay's free play with space and time allows him to give a comic but revealing perspective in drawings such as "Imaginary International Dome Exposition," in which a collection of famous domes from different places and historical eras have been collected inside Houston's Astrodome.

That drawing hints at why Macaulay, 60, has worked so long and intensively inside what seems, at first glance, an elegant but fundamentally a children's illustration style. The ultimate perspective of Macaulay's work, even the darker bits, is that of an artist who can play with buildings as a child plays with toys. Perhaps it is that strange, playful sense of power that drew children to his early books in the first place. Young readers intuit that drawing gives you power to make and unmake the world, a power far more compelling than mere toys (Legos, Erector Sets) because it is immaterial, unlimited and not dependent on the toy designer.

How good is Macaulay? He's won just about every award he possibly can, including, last year, a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called genius grant). But he also maintains what might be called a very diplomatic relationship with traditional drawing. He will play with perspective and use it to push the limits of what we see. But he won't go so far as Saul Steinberg when it comes to finding dissonance between how we draw the world and how we actually see it. And while he has an odd, sometimes dark sense of humor, he is not Edward Gorey. His "child's" perspective is not a vehicle for unmasking anything deeper than the usual folly and pretensions of adulthood. He is also fundamentally interested in the world as it is. It would be fascinating to see him grapple more deeply with the work of architectural fabulists such as Piranesi (whom he has referenced in some drawings), Claude Ledoux and Joseph Gandy.

But there is a compelling vision revealed in the Building Museum's long-overdue retrospective of Macaulay's work. He entertains, he teaches, he provokes. And he certainly succeeds at his primary ambition, which is to make us look under the skin of the world to see its frame -- or perhaps its skeleton.

David Macaulay: The Art of Drawing of Architecture opens today at the National Building Museum with an all-day, drop-in family festival hosted by David Macaulay. The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The National Building Museum is at 401 F St. NW. For more information, call 202-272-2448 or visithttp://www.nbm.org.

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