“Architecture I”

Leo Castelli Gallery and ICA

It was inevitable that such a show as “Architecture I”—an exhibition of architects’ drawings and models—would occur, following the numerous museum exhibitions of architectural drawings which have been presented in the past two years. Organized by Pierre Apraxine (curator of the Gilman Paper Corporation, which is one of the few major collectors of architectural drawings), “Architecture I” brought together the work of seven European and American architects (Emilio Ambasz, Raimund Abraham, Walter Pichler, Aldo Rossi, James Stirling, and Robert Venturi), who represent “the diverse esthetic and philosophical attitudes prevalent in contemporary architecture.”

But this show raises questions which have nothing to do with positions in architecture. Because “Architecture I” was mounted in New York’s most famous contemporary gallery, doesn’t it follow that someone is asking if architectural drawings will sell? What this exhibition implies—just look at its title—is that while this is the first show of its kind, and its avowed motives are still demi-pure, what happens when architectural drawings really hit the market? Will the stock climb for architects or for a new hybrid, the artist-architect? The question is: does this show really serve architecture?

Architects make drawings and models for several reasons: to define a form which will best resolve problems they set for themselves in designing a building; to communicate information about that building, to explicate its form; and to present the appearance of the building in its ideal built state, to sell the building. It is self-evident that architectural drawings have, as their raison d’etre, architecture: its creation, presentation, and promotion. The drawings and models play a definite and important role in the conceptual process, and it is that role which we must understand to appreciate the validity of the drawings.

Walter Pichler’s drawings have been avidly collected by museums and such collectors of architectural drawings as exist. His reputation as a sculptor and numerous exhibitions of his projects (including one in 1975 at the Museum of Modern Art) have contributed to his “collectability.” The sheer beauty of the drawings almost belies the fact that each one of them contributes directly to the design and construction of a group of buildings on Pichler’s property at St. Martin, Austria (documented in the current exhibition by photographs). They are conceptual sketches (some as amusing as the one entitled Laubhutte or “bower,” in which a pair of legs emerges from a dense box of foliage) and finely detailed working drawings which provide specific information from which the buildings will be constructed. The most highly finished of the drawings are reminiscent of those which emerged from or were influenced by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, with their graded colored washes, ruled lines, crosshatching—all very solid, very descriptive, and very beautiful. Pichler has routinely sold these drawings in order to finance his future projects.

The group of vividly colored drawings by Aldo Rossi, mounted and inscribed by Rossi so that they resemble drawings by Klee, appear too precious to have anything at all to do with serious architecture. These drawings, however,are the ordinary products of Rossi’s method. He draws constantly, setting down his observations, building upon them, describing, recombining and reorienting forms and details until a new order is established. His project model for student housing in Chieti, which seems at first sight to have been in spired by Parker Brothers’ “Monopoly,” is dependent upon a drawing of bath houses (“La Cabine dell’Elba”), and so on. The validity of such drawing is unquestioned.

On the other hand, Raimund Abraham’s painting of his “House with Projected Landscapes,” his multipatinaed bronze and wood model for the “House without Rooms,” the large double drawing for “9 Houses” were all done long after the projects had been finished. (None of Abraham’s houses is meant to be built; they are not for human habitation, but exist in the drawings and models as environments for the mind, visual poems.) These projects have been worked up into art objects for the current exhibition. Here architecture has been transformed into painting and sculpture.

This is also true of the rather fuzzy drawings by Richard Meier. Meier’s large body of built work is without exception pure and pristinely elegant. In the end, his buildings are beautiful objects which are best expressed in the models. The drawings are illustrations; they do not illuminate his ideas. They are irrelevant because the energy of creation is gone, the struggle to visualize and to realize an architectural form is past. These are the souvenirs the architect sells to celebrate what he has already accomplished.

Does “Architecture I” satisfy the public’s intense, media-hyped interest in esoteric architecture, as much as it legitimizes a new and commercially viable art form? That question is the inherent danger in this exhibition. If architects allow themselves to be seduced into producing more and more beautiful drawings, and get further away from dealing with the real crises confronting architecture today, then they are doing great harm. In compromising their achievements as architects by putting architecture at the service of another art, they lose more than they gain.

Stuart Greenspan