Almost anything that encourages color, wit and a sense of history in the practice of architecture gets my vote. Likewise, anything that might stimulate a sense of adventurousness in the often hidebound community of Washington developers, builders, designers and architects is worthy of encouragement.
For these reasons an exhibition of architectural models, drawings and photographs currently on view at the Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown can be recommended--with a fundamental asterisk.
Titled "Ornamentalism: The New Decorativeness in Architecture and Design" and based upon a recent book of the same name, the exhibition presents an interesting assortment of contemporary architectural projects from around the country. Like the book, the show suffers from an attack of trendiness and a basic misapprehension that a limited aspect of current architectural practice represents the wave of the future. But the show has the advantage of presenting artifacts, not theories, and the artifacts are quite varied in size, intention and effect.
Large projects predominate. One of these, the show's headline attraction, is Michael Graves' municipal office building for Portland, Ore., the most argued-about large structure of recent vintage. As presented here, in three dimunitive models displayed in the gallery's M Street window, the building is pretty, almost picturesque.
But even from photographs of the completed building it is possible to judge some of the unfortunate differences between thought and execution. Lacking the classical garden motifs that Graves designed for the building's top, and absent Graves' exquisite hand-colored touch, the final product clearly is a much rawer thing than envisioned. And even in the form of these tiny models, the proportions of Graves' squatly monumental building seem ungainly and his combinations of vaguely classical, vaguely Egyptian motifs seem arbitrary.
If Graves' intentions to resurrect color, recreate the human scale and reinvent symbolism are laudatory, his designs so far seem stressfully exaggerated. This conclusion, in any event, is supported by another of his projects in the show, a private residence (the Plocek house in Warren Township, N.J.) that is at once undeniably grand and absurdly overwrought.
By comparison, two other much-published projects in the show--apartment houses designed by the Miami firm Arquitectonica and Robert Venturi's abortive proposal to save the Marlborough Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City--seem refreshingly down to earth.
Though of questionable relevance in a show devoted to the revival of architectural ornament, Arquitectonica's projects are a treat: big, brassy, bright variations on the grid that make real sense in Miami. Venturi's work as a whole is not lacking in examples of intellectual conceit, but his idea of enveloping the festive older building with curved wings of a huge, sleek contemporary hotel is straightforward and appropriately playful. In addition, his exaggerations of scale, in model form, sing with an intrinsic comprehension of spatial relationships.
Such relationships hardly are the issue in another of the show's stellar exhibits--beautiful renderings of three different conceptions of a new skyscraper in Houston. Nor is ornament the issue. It is simple, prideful height--the building will be more than 1,200 feet tall. Although one might legitimately question whether another office skyscraper is precisely what downtown Houston needs, each of these competition proposals (by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and the winning design by Murphy/Jahn demonstrates a welcome, sophisticated return to the idea of a building with a well-defined bottom, middle and top.
The exhibition's emphasis upon large-scale projects is unfortunate (the book is more balanced in this respect) because in general the smaller the project, the more it pertains directly to the theme of the show.
Although I don't particularly care for the overripe elegance of the design for a hotel restaurant in Fort Worth (Roger C. Ferri & Associates), nor for the rather unresolved self-consciousness of the exterior elevation for Le Cygne restaurant in New York (Voorsanger & Mills Associates), these two examples represent an area of design that is especially hospitable to inventive ornament. Designing small commercial spaces with fashionable aplomb--the oddball exception of Clyde's Tysons Corner duly noted--is pretty much an art lost upon contemporary Washington.
A couple of small residential projects--the Richard Haas trompe-l'oeil Renaissance-style marbling of an otherwise nondescript apartment lobby in Chicago and Peter Wilson's design for a vacation house on Fire Island--demonstrate the stage-set theatricality of much of the new work. This is not a bad thing. One of the benefits of revived ornament is to show that a lot can be done with a little--with, for instance, Haas' coat of paint or Wilson's flat, screenlike structures that transform a conventional yard into an intriguing outdoor room. (How well Wilson's design actually fits its tract house surroundings is a nagging question for someone who hasn't been there.)
So, for all of its lack of coherence, the exhibition contains many an interesting idea. With the book--handsomely produced by Potter Inc., and written by Robert Jensen and Patricia Conway, with a foreword by Paul Goldberger--this is another matter altogether.
Sure, there are issues of broad import involved in the revival of ornament. It is one of the more flexible, and in a way one of the more positive, reactions to the antihistorical, future-worshiping machine esthetic of the Modern movement. Ornament was a big issue to the early Modernists, who saw it as an esthetic sign of a socially drained and economically unjust society.
If Adolf Loos' famous equation of ornament with crime today seems almost silly (and almost criminal in its ultimate effects upon our cities), then it must be remembered that Loos was, at the very least, making a serious polemical point whose aim was social reform.
In its place, Jensen and Conway offer unquestioning acceptance of every wall with color or a column on it and call the result Ornamentalism, a soothing phenomenon that shows us "some release from the burdensome realities of the present" as it "dances on the surface of technology, using it but denying its aura." As a definition of the best impulses of architecture today--now that's silly.
The exhibition continues through July at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.