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Art Facts: drawing inspiration from architecture

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Architectural illustration has recently experienced a revival. The tradition of grand presentation drawings is rooted in the formal education that 19th-century architects received at Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts. But that tradition, along with many others, was expunged during the rise and reign of strict modernism as an architectural aesthetic (roughly the 1930s through the 1970s). Illustrations then, if any, mirrored the pure, spare asceticism of the buildings themselves. Today's architecture is less reticent about its inspiration from the past, and the profession has shown some glee in resuscitating the importance illustrative rendering has in the design of a building.

The architecture department at the Art Institute of Chicago, with its knack for choosing exhibitions that reflect currents in the art of architecture, has mounted "Architecture in Perspective IV: A National Competitive Exhibition of Architectural Delineation." This juried show, now in its fourth year but its first at the Art Institute, is sponsored by the American Society of Architectural Perspectivists. Open now, it can be seen in Galleries 9 and 10 of the museum until November 26.

The 59 pieces in the show were selected from nearly 550 submitted to a jury composed of Chicago architects. Thomas Beeby, now dean of Yale's architecture school, Joseph Gonzalez of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Pauline Saliga of the AIC's architecture department. They selected pieces in two categories: finished presentation drawings, often prepared for a client to use in merchandising a building, and conceptual sketches and drawings, some of which illustrate wholly visionary projects.

Sometimes it's difficult, without consulting the catalog, to determine which piece belongs to which category, a difficulty that may be due to the remarkable variety of techniques displayed. Like architects, architectural renderers (many of whom are trained as architects) seem to feel liberated from the shackles of modernism; in the works here, the choice of medium and style reflects a range of approaches as eclectic as those architects employ in designing buildings.

While critics might dismiss a few of the presentation drawings as purely decorative, some of the conceptual pieces are highly provocative in both technique and subject matter. Penn State architecture professor Daniel E. Willis won this year's Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize for his eerie Memorial to Edgar Allan Poe, which comments on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." And New Yorker Chris Anderson won best in the conceptual category for Proposal for an Idaho Farmhouse, a huge canvas that gives new meaning to the concept of a prairie house: furrows in the field surrounding the house seem to be continued in--to make up--the house's facade.

Artists whose work was selected for the show are fairly well distributed throughout the continent, but the work of a few Chicagoans is worth mentioning: Gilbert Gorski, whose dazzling Prismacolor pencil detail of 181 W. Madison won a juror's prize, as did Rael Slutsky for his interior perspective of a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill project in London. Thomas Rajkovich, an architect who typically produces delicate watercolors in the Beaux Arts style, proposes an amusing redesign of the Water Tower and its surroundings in his pen-and-ink piece.

Somewhat puzzling is the drawing chosen for Ralph Johnson, a design partner at Chicago's Perkins & Will. His remarkable black-and-white presentation drawings, which adorn the walls of Perkins & Will's Wacker Drive office, have an almost expressionist dynamic. Johnson is represented by a color pencil drawing in this show, but oddly his drawing of 100 N. Riverside Plaza, a building he also designed, does not appear. (Rael Slutsky was commissioned by the developer to do a drawing for marketing purposes, and it's his rendering that appears in the show.)

Overall these are works of great technical skill and beauty. Even those with purely commercial motivations--the presentation drawings, which exist only to be reproduced in leasing brochures--easily stand on their own as works of art.

The high caliber of this show--like that of nearly every one the architecture department mounts--makes it distressing that the exhibit does not get better placement in the museum. Like the shoemaker's children who always need new shoes, the museum's architecture department has been basically homeless for the last several years. Ongoing renovation has forced the department to turn its elegant horseshoe-shaped gallery area, which overlooks the Burnham Library, into its office space. By default, then, it has had to put its exhibitions in a rather gloomy spot on the basement level that serves as the link between the junior museum, the photography galleries, and the newly relocated Thorne miniature rooms. Department personnel assure us that this situation only seems permanent, and that ultimately their exhibit space will be returned.

A free lecture on "Architecture in Perspective IV" will be given Wednesday, October 25, at 12:15 in Gallery 9 of the Art Institute, Michigan at Adams. Call 443-3664 for information.

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