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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 09:28 pm

Give us more artchitecture

At the Springfield Art Association, local talent looks for a chance

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Now comes an art show to complement Springfield’s rediscovery of design in its built environment. Architecture as Art, showing through Feb. 18 in the gallery of the Springfield Art Association, exhibits the art of local architects on two levels: first in the displays presented to clients, which are worth hanging on walls, and second in representations of the actual buildings we see around town every day but rarely notice. Architects, the underappreciated artists of Springfield, are here given their due. Some of the architects, accustomed to displaying their wares competitively for trade fairs or contests, were at first puzzled by the assignment for this show, says Angie Dunfee, SAA’s executive director. “We’re going to show your work as art objects,” she told them. “We didn’t want this to be a trade show, but a gallery show.” With the organization and guiding hand of the Springfield Section of the American Institute of Architects, 10 local firms took up the challenge, interpreted the assignment in a variety of ways, and allowed the museum to mix up the displays creatively. The result is fun, edgy, and important. For striking wall art, my eye was drawn to the large computer-generated rendering of the New Learning Center at Hope School by FWAI Architects. The high-gabled building front, dominated by glass, shows interior light shining out into a winter dusk. I think vulnerable children would be warm and well protected here. The computer’s influence dominates the installation of Prather Tucker Associates, which has a laptop continuously showing a movie of trips all around five different designs for a two-story research facility. Seeing the prospective buildings from every possible perspective didn’t make me like them better. Three shadowboxes by John Shafer and Associates, each displaying a different project, engage the viewer by leaving more to the imagination. The “House in Petersburg, IL,” which “includes concepts of the Not So Big House,” and Shafer’s “Mixed Use Urban Design,” combining office space with “live/work units,” convey the idea that this young architect has latched on to new ideas. “I’m all for this show because it will help raise the design consciousness of our community,” Shafer says. “If we can expose folks to alternate ideas like energy efficiency, life-cycle costing, and urban design, we can help people see that doing things the same way may not be the best solution.” A star of the show is Chuck Pell, whose colorful and whimsical original furniture greets you in the center of the gallery. The bold designs of his CJP Architects, including the successful new Conservation World at the state fairgrounds, give hope for a brighter, livelier town. Throughout the gallery show, too many of the best designs are labeled “unbuilt,” which is a disappointment, not only to the architect but to the rest of us as well. Not to worry, though: “Unbuilt architecture,” CJP’s exhibit explains, “is about transmitting and relating an idea or a concept to a potential client. These projects will most likely never be built.” Architect William Maslauski, of the Maslauski Partnership, doesn’t mind saying that he likes the built ones best. His dusty 1965 model for a $45,000 split-level house in Springfield’s Carillon Woods carries this note: “Project was never built. He bought an airplane instead.” No firm met the display challenge better than did Melotte Morse Leonatti, which contributed three graphic-arts panels, color-coordinated with the museum walls, displaying a collage of photographs from the impressive body of the firm’s work since 1978. The three principles of Vitruvius, who wrote one of the first books on architecture, are recounted here: Firmitas, utilitas, venustas. A building should be strong, useful, and beautiful, the ancient Roman was saying. Firmitas, utilitas, vanilla” might be a better description of today’s architecture in Springfield, according to the architects I interviewed at the opening-night party — strong, useful, but plain, even boring. It is not for lack of local talent, they all said, but, rather, a shortage of creative clients that gives Springfield too much vinyl siding, too many cookie-cutter designs. “Conservative” is the polite description these artists give their clients behind their backs, but another apt adjective is “cheap.” Building outside the box tends to be more expensive, both for the custom design of materials required and the risk of low resale value if the design fails to capture the public imagination. Gone is the heyday of the 1970s, when William Maslauski turned heads with his boxy modern office building at 901 S. Second St. (1972) and Ferry and Henderson gave us the innovative First National Motor Bank (1979) “drive-under” facility on Cook Street. But the handsome Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, by the St. Louis architect Gyo Obata, together with the urban design work being done by the RUDAT follow-up committee and the medical-district planners, may prompt Springfield to shed its drab clothes for a new wardrobe. A well-designed environment can raise a city’s sights and transform its self-image. As you can see at the SAA gallery, there are many talented people working here, all looking for chances to work on projects that can make a difference in their community.