If you have any interest at all in architecture, you should see "Architects in the Making: Visions and Reality," the fourth annual exhibition of work by students of Washington area architectural schools -- Catholic University, Howard University, the University of Maryland and the Washington-Alexandria Center Consortium of Virginia Tech.
The show at the National Building Museum in the District was organized by the Washington Area Architecture Group. The group is made up of the four architectural schools, the Building Museum, three local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Architecture Students.
The exhibition's subtitle probably should be amended to read "Mostly Visions, Some Reality," because few of the projects shown would be deemed feasible by those who build, finance or inhabit American architecture, especially in the nation's capital -- all the more reason to go see this display of graphically provocative architectural fantasy.
Moving through this exhibition, even the most naive devotee of architecture and architectural art will quickly understand the pedagogical intentions and methods prevailing in many North American academies.
With few exceptions, the exhibition emphasizes aesthetic exploration and experimentation, abstract composition and geometric metaphor, architectural design and design representation as expressive forms of art.
Faculty and students rarely seem to struggle with such mundane architectural issues as construction cost, functional efficiency, building construction technologies, life safety codes, zoning regulations or design for the physically disabled.
Rarely do projects seem to be driven by conventional sociological motives -- architecture as purposeful, social art -- or by problem-solving interests. Even historic preservation and urban design are incidentally represented; when in evidence, they serve primarily as context for specific building designs.
As in many other North American architectural schools, the Washington area programs soft-pedal concerns in teaching design. The underlying assumption is that while in school, students' natural curiosity and inventiveness should not be constrained by practical necessities. Academic projects should be speculative, theoretical and visionary.
Once out of school, the reasoning goes, students will have plenty of time during internship and subsequent years of practice to acquire, and to be tempered by, practical knowledge and experience. Why compromise prematurely?
Thus, the exhibition does not reveal explicitly how future architects might address the challenges of designing and building affordable housing or saving and reshaping suburbia.
Through arresting imagery skillfully delineated, it reveals instead what today's students think such architecture, any architecture, should look like.
And what is the predominant imagery?
First, forget postmodernism and copycat historicism. They're out, gone, forgotten or abandoned by 1990s students with no less certainty than exposed concrete "brutalism" was discarded in the 1970s. Try to find in this exhibition any neo-neoclassical buildings adorned with triangular pediments, arches and keystones, Roman columns or Palladian windows.
Modernism is back, although not the orthodox, box modernism of the 1950s and 1960s. Today's academic modernism is at once more intellectual, more visually complex and aggressive, more theatrical. Its rules are to have fewer rules.
This sounds a lot like deconstructivism. Indeed, much of the exhibition's content has been inspired by both deconstructivist -- and constructivist -- theory and imagery, by the work of contemporary designers like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Arquitectonica and Morphosis. Even the influence of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn can be felt.
Designs mix order and disorder, clarity and confusion. Exposed and boldly expressed structural elements -- girders, trusses, beams, columns and lattice -- can be found plunge throughout building masses. Often these elements are intended to be made of steel, but beginning students invariably use some fictional, indeterminate material in rendering such elements.
Extraordinary two- and three-dimensional geometries abound. Sometimes the geometry derives from the need to impart a specific, appropriate shape to an exterior space -- a plaza, street or courtyard. But frequently the rationale is visual and personal, an attempt to turn up the architectural volume, to defy convention, to go against the grain.
You will see lots of contrasting, colliding and overlapping patterns, shifted grids, sharply angled walls and roofs, curving planes, irregularly shaped rooms and functionless but symbolic objects permeating many designs.
Exotic landscape compositions appear, usually based on some ritualistic or totemic program such as a cemetery or memorial site. Free-standing structural elements, manipulated topography, rivulets and pools of water, colonnades or glades of trees and systematic patterns of planting and paving form giant, abstract bas reliefs embossed on the earth's surface.
To appreciate further the nature of the exhibition, consider some of the projects assigned.
At Catholic University, they include "Architectural Fantasy, Backstage Theater Complex," "Civil War Memorial for Japan," "Memorial for Samuel Beckett," "Between Two Walls," "Institute for Man and Machine," "Crematorium," "College of Democracy" and "Miami Performing Arts Center," a beautifully drawn thesis. An urban design studio tackled the impossible dream, Rockville Pike.
Equally evocative Virginia Tech projects shown are "Urban House for a Bibliophile," "Appalachian House," "Urban Monastery," "Monastery on a Hill," "South Pole Research Station," "The Architecture of Masts" and "Contemporary Living for Professionals at Home." Virginia Tech also displays a series of 13-inch cubes, made with steel angles, along with a prototype desk lamp entitled "Then There Was Light."
Maryland student projects include a hypothetical archaeological museum, shown in a collection of models; a village in Tunisia, exemplifying design based on faraway cultural and regional influences; an international student center and a faculty club, both on the Maryland campus; an equestrian center in Georgetown; a glass factory; and a club in Charleston, S.C., one of the few historicist proposals.
Howard University, in contrast to the other schools, highlights projects that reflect the cultural backgrounds of its students, many of whom are foreign. "World Steelband Conservatory" for Trinidad & Tobago, "An Architectural Interpretation of Rap Music," "Pan-African Trade & Cultural Center" for Fairfax County, and "Archipelago Gardens and Research Center" for Bermuda are shown.
Other projects, locally sited, include a fire station rendered in red on black with white lines, a mixed-use building at New Hampshire and M streets NW, and commercial development at the Shaw Metro Station.
Throughout the exhibit, there are examples of drawing exercises, construction detailing, rough sketches and study models that suggest how students develop design ideas.
Perhaps most striking are the graphics, the incredible diversity of media and materials, of colors and textures, employed by students to express their design thinking through drawings and models. You can enjoy this exhibition merely for the artistry and craftsmanship of the presentations, no matter what you think of the designs themselves.
Indeed, despite the unreality of most of the projects and the frequent lack of programmatic explanation, you can't help but admire and respect the design talent shown by these architects in the making. Remember, it's more a show of vision than reality. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.