Richard Haas

Aspen Art Museum

To a summit high in the Rockies they ascend with halting gait each summer solstice, the veteran druids of the International Design Conference in Aspen, rallying once again to release the stale verities of Good Design into the pure Colorado air. The choice of Richard Haas as token artist to illustrate the theme of this year’s conference—“Illusion is Truth: Perception as the Basis for Design”—appeared a typically literal-minded instance of Aspen’s traditional policy not to overtax the mental stamina of the senior conferees. However, this small exhibition of Haas’ work (models, maquettes, and photographs of murals in Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, and New York) transcended illustration. By eliminating the elements of scale and urban context that support the illusory quality of Haas’ work, the show allowed a cutaway view of the conceptual framework beneath his most recent trompe l’oeil facades.

Like his boyhood neighbor Frank Lloyd Wright, Haas explores the architectural implications of 20th-century urbanization. But where Wright’s vision of a decentralized America gave architectural expression to Henry Ford’s belief that “we shall solve the City Problem by leaving the city,” Haas has created flattering backdrops for the countermigration of the baby boomers back to desolation row. His early murals registered a sense of wide-eyed surprise at this unexpected sociological phenomenon, like billboards announcing the discovery of cast-iron architecture by the youthful “urban pioneers”. In his newer projects Haas reconstructs the roots of gentrification in 19th-century urbanism.

Historian John Kouwenhoven considered the conflict between vernacular and cultivated traditions the fundamental dialectic of American architecture. Haas’ murals for the Edison Brothers Warehouse in Saint Louis recapitulate the relationship of commerce to culture as it evolved in urban American building a century ago. The brick commercial infrastructure is overlaid with the “marble” trappings of cultural high-mindedness: allegorical statues, chiseled inscriptions, ornamental allusions to classical Rome. Haas has converted the exterior of a converted warehouse into another warehouse for defunct architectural codes.

The interplay between the vernacular and cultivated traditions is developed further in the Center Theater murals in Milwaukee, where, among fragments of late 19th-century City Beautiful ornament, Haas incorporates an International Style curtain wall—the public face of a 20th-century cultivated style of architecture consciously modeled on the vernacular of industrial design. A central emblem of Modernism thus takes its place in the warehouse of eclectic ornaments that were shorn off the face of urban America by Modern architects.

Haas’ closing of the gap between art and industry reaches an apotheosis in his painted skyline vistas for the penthouse dining room at Philip Morris headquarters in New York City, where executives lunch amid evidence of culturally enlightened corporate largesse. But perhaps Haas needs that gap to breathe; what’s missing here is the direct encounter with the industry of architecture itself. The sense of exhilaration Haas achieves on the exterior surface of buildings derives largely from his ability as a muralist to override the practical and conceptual considerations that can delay or compromise the realization of an architect’s vision. You want buildings with ornament? Here, have a cornice. You have reservations about reviving obsolete architectural styles? Well after all, it’s only an investment in paint. Richard Haas does not so much create as dispel illusions, exploding our credulous acceptance of architecture’s creative constraints.

Herbert Muschamp