Well, intriguingly, an elegant exhibition currently at the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects downtown dispels both prejudices. "Learning from Tradition: Beaux-Arts Student Architectural Drawings," presents a modest number of early 20th-century student architectural designs that manage to fuse the dead-seriousness of the beaux-arts with the lightheartedness of the art deco. And in so doing, the show confirms something that I have suspected for some time, that art deco was really classicism in modernist disguise.
The show is built around a number of student projects, mostly rendered large in pencil, ink and watercolor by J. Everette Fauber (1908-1986). He was a Charlottesville-born architect who studied at the University of Virginia and went on to conduct a general practice in Lynchburg that included historic preservation.
As his early student works are on display, there is a certain refreshing spirit not just to his approach, but in the hypothetical subjects of what were probably class assignments. There is a design for a big-city sports arena, a private rail car for the president of the United States, a sylvan resort hotel and, get this, a summer residence for a mayor. Today, wouldn't taxpayers flip out at that?
But there are also projects more readily associated with the sense of authority that the beaux-arts engendered Fauber's peace memorial and the interior of a library. These bring to mind Richmond buildings that are actual beaux-arts landmarks, the Carillon (Cram and Ferguson, architect), the Jefferson Hotel (Carrere & Hastings, architect) and the Dooley (or art and music) interior wing of the Richmond Public Library (Baskervill & Son, architect).
But more than being whimsical architectural designs, to 21st-century eyes hardened by the output of slick, computer-assisted design programs, these decades-old, oversized renderings and elevations are spectacular works of art in themselves. Much of the pleasure of this show is seeing the hand (of an obviously talented, architect-in-training) at work through meticulous underpenciling, ink drawing and finally, coloring. If there are some things that technology will never supercede, the marks of a sure-handed artist on paper top the list.
In addition to Fauber's, there are a number of other student works in the exhibition. These include projects by two men who later became prominent Richmond architects, Louis W. Ballou and the late Marcellus E. Wright Jr. In many ways their works are like Fauber's tight, symmetrical, formal and colorful, but with an underlying playfulness. And this, as Bryan Clark Green, an architectural historian and the show's curator, points out in his succinct gallery notes, is what the beaux-arts advocated. "It was a teaching method, not a style." And while it is obvious that the method aimed to instill strict discipline, somehow individuality and inventiveness ultimately were not repressed.
One final note: Not only are these works on paper luxurious, suggesting an era past when an individual could take the time to create such flights of fantasy, but these designs soar in the gallery setting of the Barret House, a Greek-revival mansion that has been restored smartly by Virginia's A.I.A. as its headquarters. A visit to "Learning from Tradition" is a double treat. S
"Learning from Tradition: Beaux-Arts Student Architectural Drawings." The Barret House, 15 St. Fifth St. Continuing through June. 644-3041.