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Subdued Views of Architectural Renewal


GREEK REVIVAL AMERICA by Roger G. Kennedy, New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang, 456 pp., $80


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by Beverly Russell, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 143 pp., $35


by HRH The Prince of Wales, London: Doubleday, 160 pp., $40

PATRONS AND ARCHITECTS: DESIGNING ART MUSEUMS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by John Coolidge, Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 143 pp., $19.95

BUILDINGS don't mature. They get old and they crack. So occasionally, when people take a hard look around them and see the cracks, a new wave of restoration sweeps through America's cities.

A ``postmodern'' renovation wave hit US cities in the late 1970s and early '80s. The American cityscape had last been redone in the ``modern'' era, after World War II, by a booming postwar economy.

That modern wave of renovation featured efficient, industry-inspired architecture based on the work of Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Le Corbusier.

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The recent postmodern makeover tried in vain to add interest and surprise to cracked cement and weathered steel.

Faux finishes, hollow columns, granite veneer, and other chic trickery dominated the design vocabulary.

Everyone tried to settle in, to get comfortable. But often the colors did not define and accent the architecture, they were just disturbing. Coverings on walls and chairs tended toward the sticky and synthetic rather than toward natural materials and fibers.

Being on the cutting edge was a little uncomfortable.

So, as American fads go, the postmodern wave receded. Buildings still need to be redone, but the ``individually expressive'' chaos in design over the last 10 years has left little foundation for doing useful renovation.

Now, careful introspection rather than broad-stroke discussion dominates architectural exploration. And that's the focus of some of the most successful of the year's new architecture books.

Roger G. Kennedy's Greek Revival America has columns everywhere - Ionic columns, Doric columns, Corinthian columns, columns just like those that were postmodernism's stock-in-trade.

But this book's success is its narrow focus on the 30-year Greek Revival Period in America (1825-1855). Kennedy describes America's transition between Revolution-era, rough-hewn Puritan founders and the merchant-statesmen who dominated the early 19th century.

He doesn't let comfortable myths stand. The United States' Greek Revival was not the result of a new democracy hearkening back to Athenian roots. It was more the result of rich, aristocratic merchants decamping on ruins in the south of Italy - armed with sketchbooks and plaster for making casts.

Kennedy enjoys following these nouveau riche around the world, watching them gather artifacts and ideas for a new American architecture.

We see Joseph Allen Smith of Charleston, S.C., trot the globe. Nicholas Biddle, a Philadelphia financier-turned-cultural-phenomenon, ``traveled with [James] Monroe to London and Cambridge, where he performed the feat of confounding a group of dons with his knowledge of both ancient and modern Greek idioms. Monroe pronounced it to be `a kind of American triumph.'''

Kennedy ascribes the death of the Greek Revival to the pain and pessimism of the Civil War.

``For a few decades, Americans thought themselves fit for temple residences, using architecture to contend against the chaos. But all the while, around and below them, lurking in the shadows behind their columns, mocking their pride, was the inevitable recompense for the institution of slavery.''

On this potentially dusty topic, Kennedy, who is the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, writes with fluid language and grace. Beautiful photos, elegant typography, and the straightforward, helpful text make the book a pleasure to read.

Beverly Russell gathered expert advisors to assess trends in Architecture and Design 1970-1990: New Ideas in America. But talking in postmodern, post-Blast, post-Structural high-tech talk can wear you down.

Page after solid page of text, laced with acronyms and ``in'' language, is fit only for the experts. Overblown and uninformative photo captions like ``Bombed-out building in the blitzed city'' do not help clear the air.

Each swashbuckling chapter begins with quoted rock or pop music lyrics, followed closely by a flood of tiny, instructional photos, crowding the pages, vying for space with text that does not yield.

The book works a little bit like a high school yearbook - if you know the cute catch phrases and obscure references before you read the book, you will have a good time.

One person interested in rebuilding and renovation is His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture is notable in that everyone simply has to pay attention to its author.

His strong feelings about ``the wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress ... the sheer, unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings ... not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning'' forced him to write the book, Prince Charles says.

Invective is hurled at the architectural establishment and the poor job it has done rebuilding post-World War II Britain.

The first target of royal remonstrance is the faceless modernism of the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s.

He describes a photo tagged Birmingham's Central Library: ``But how can you tell? It looks to me like a place where books are incinerated, not kept! Built in 1973 in Paradise Circus, it is an ill-mannered essay in concrete `brutalism' intended to shock (which it certainly does). An insult to the grand civic buildings amongst which it squats.''

Prince Charles's second target is any sneaking impulse toward postmodernism. He warns: ``And don't be confused by post-modernism and all the other `isms' that clever architectural critics and commentators conjure up in order to lull us into a false sense of security!''

Despite the excellent photos and artwork (including a few of his own watercolors), the book's rambling stride weakens its impact. Royal rhetoric loses its punch as the book wanders.

But by the end, Prince Charles does convince us that he sees a living, breathing vernacular on which a humane architecture can be built.

In Patrons and Architects: Designing Art Museums in the Twentieth Century, John Coolidge lets us watch architects bare their souls.

Coolidge has architect Philip Johnson describe the experience of building an art museum: ``Purely aesthetically speaking, the museum is an architect's dream. He has - as in a church - to make the visitor happy, to put him in a receptive frame of mind while he is undergoing an emotional experience. We architects welcome the challenge.''

Coolidge first talks of the small museums built to house individual collections - the Yale Center for British Art, Philip Johnson's Sculpture Gallery, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Louisiana Museum of Art.

Then come the big museums by great architects of the century - Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, Le Corbusier's National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery in West Berlin.

Coolidge's essays, taken from a series of lectures, avoid academic rhetoric, and give a well-documented picture of the production of architecture for an educated public.

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