Deconstructing the Art of Architecture

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 27, 2007

In the past 30 years, anyone who has paid attention to children's books, or just to bookstore displays, has encountered the work of David Macaulay.

Beginning with 1973's "Cathedral," the writer-illustrator has used his intricate yet unfussy line drawings to construct two-dimensional paradigms of such grand structures as pyramids and castles.

Macaulay's books don't depict actual buildings, yet their fictional edifices are based on the careful observation and rendering of real-world structures.

Those who haven't followed his career carefully might assume that he's only interested in, as the title of one of his most popular books puts it, "The Way Things Work." So it's interesting -- in fact, delightful -- to learn that this sober draftsman has a sense of humor. Some of the drawings in the National Building Museum's "David Macaulay: The Art of Drawing Architecture" reveal that the illustrator deconstructs attitudes toward architecture as skillfully as he does the art of building itself.

Although it has been called Macaulay's first major retrospective, the exhibition doesn't include excerpts from all of his projects. In fact, many of his best-known books aren't represented. Divided into five sections, the show begins with an in-depth look at Macaulay's most recent book, 2003's "Mosque." This part of the show, which includes sketches, photographs and videos as well as finished drawings, stands in for all the artist's similar books. In detailing how he created a fictional 16th-century Ottoman Empire mosque, the display implicitly also shows how he built his cathedral, castle and the rest.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Macaulay conceived "Mosque" in hopes of creating a book that "might actually be needed," according to the wall text. The idea was to celebrate and demystify at the same time, showing both differences and similarities between the construction and purposes of Muslim and Christian sanctuaries. He explains that mosques are oriented to the kiblah, the imaginary line toward Mecca, and are focused on a large central prayer room, without the processional and ceremonial spaces found in cathedrals. He also notes that the Istanbul mosques he used as models include areas for schools and soup kitchens.

Theology aside, one thing each kind of structure shares is labor: Macaulay never forgets the people who make the plans, cut the stone, wrangle the pieces into place and embellish the final structure, whether with gargoyles or the ornate painted tiles he renders with ink and then colors with pencil.

Contemporary architects have largely converted to computer drafting programs, and some of their designs -- Frank Gehry's is a notable example -- would be impossible without it. Yet Macaulay hasn't made the switch, "because I want to be in control," he told exhibition curator Kathleen Franz, an American University assistant professor, in an interview in the museum's Blueprints magazine. No doubt control is important to such a painstaking draftsman, but looking at these drawings of the building process, Macaulay's explanation seems incomplete. Couldn't it also be that the effort of making a detailed drawing is his connection to the workmen he extols? He'll never push a mammoth stone toward a mosque or a pyramid, but at least he can do the earnest labor of rendering every line on the paper with his own hand.

From the "Mosque" section, the exhibition travels backward through Macaulay's career, examining such themes as perspective and structure. He likes to assume vantage points that are humanly impossible, attributing them to such creatures as pigeons and worms. (It would take more than a worm's size and flexibility, however, to achieve the illustrator's view of Manhattan's West 42nd Street from the subway; it would also require X-ray vision.) The exhibition layout, done by Malcolm Grear Designers, playfully emulates Macaulay's unusual perspectives, placing reproductions of his illustrations below or above a person's sightline.

Finally, the show reaches several late-'70s projects, including "Great Moments in Architecture." These puckish drawings show that Macaulay, who earned an architecture degree but never entered the field, isn't simply some neotraditionalist champion of centuries-old landmarks. He does emulate 18th-century Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who depicted grand if imaginary ruins and dungeons. (The most Piranesian piece is "Veduta della stazione grand central," which depicts a wrecked Grand Central Terminal.) Yet Macaulay's satirical illustrations also recall the sketches of contemporary postmodernist Robert Venturi, a practicing architect who has skillfully lampooned the unexamined assumptions of modern building fashions.

The "Motel of the Mysteries" series presents some future Americanologists' excavation of the Toot'n'C'Mon Motel, as if it were Howard Carter's expedition to King Tutankhamen's tomb. Other drawings include an inflatable cathedral, a field where the cabbage-like tops of ornate classical columns grow and a skyscraper so tall that its upper floors are encased in ice. Closer to the edifying style for which Macaulay is known, yet still humorous, is "Imaginary International Dome Exposition," which places five famed classical and neoclassical toppers (including the U.S. Capitol's) inside the Houston Astrodome.

If some of these pieces assume a grown-up sensibility, the show doesn't neglect Macaulay's younger fans. Throughout the exhibition, red-tagged texts pose questions and propose exercises for kids. There are several activity stations where children can learn more about the things Macaulay sketches or take a shot at sketching themselves. Interestingly, while the show includes a few audio and video features, it excludes computers. When drawing, Macaulay says, "you are forced to look at what's in front of you."

That's a skill he clearly hopes will never be surrendered to the click-and-drag aesthetic.

DAVID MACAULAY: THE ART OF DRAWING ARCHITECTURE Through Jan. 21. National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448. Open Monday-Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sundays from 11 to 5. Free; $5 donation suggested.

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