Here’s a show that asks: “What is art?” It’s not exactly a novel question in this context, but it’s certainly worthy of continued discussion.

Architects particularly like to debate this issue. Their concern may stem from a basic insecurity about their profession. Unlike the “fine” arts–painting, sculpture, and the like–the contemporary practice of architecture has aspects of science and business that often threaten to overwhelm its art.

Gallery owner Gwenda Klein has given several Chicago architects a forum for responding. “Architecture as Art,” open now at the Gwenda Jay Gallery, complements another show running concurrently there. “Art as Architecture” features work by New York painter Ellen Frank in collaboration with New York architect Lee Skolnick, and they explore the obverse question: when do the “fine” arts shade into architecture?

Klein, who’s interested in the relationship between “an idea and the execution of an object,” hoped that the architects’ projects would shed light on how a design is transformed into a finished product. Assisted by Chicago architect Yosef Dov Asseo, she has gathered the work of 14 local architects whose views on the interplay between the two disciplines differ widely.

Asseo explains that architects often disagree over which components of their work are artistic and which are simply mechanical. “My drawing is not the art,” he says. “The architecture is.” To Asseo, the drawing is only a means. Other designers firmly believe that architectural drawing can be an end in itself. That belief is reinforced by the growing number of art collectors interested in acquiring architectural drawings, models, and other products of the design process.

Gilbert Gorski’s meticulously crafted presentation drawings in graphite, pencil, and prismacolor (typically commissioned by clients for promotional purposes) have brought him renown simply as a renderer. He says he’s suspicious of architects who “remove themselves from the design process through technology,” by using computer-generated designs, for example. His project is about architectural ornamentation–he believes that “the elements of unpredictability” in ornament are what make architecture exciting. Jim Plunkard’s presentation drawing comments wryly on the process. This design for an apartment interior whimsically incorporates multiple images of Bugs Bunny–because the client’s art collection is composed of cartoon art by Bugs’s creator, Chuck Jones.

Other contributors offer works that may be daring–even bizarre–considered as products of the architectural profession but seem pretty conventional as art intended for display in a gallery. Eastlake Studio’s submission is a good example. First, it is pointedly a collaborative effort. In a sort of throwback to the 60s, Eastlake’s principals eschew personal identification and stress that this object was conceived by nine designers. The object is a glycerin-filled acrylic cylinder in which nine plastic colored cubes are suspended. It sits on a pedestal ornamented by a nine-square pattern. It’s described as a toy–indeed, it shares qualities with snowflake-shake toys–and visitors are encouraged to touch and manipulate it. Intended to show that the essence of design is process, it invites collaboration not only between the designers but between the designers and gallery visitors.

Dirk Denison’s four-part work–one piece each of paper, cork, wood, and metal, entitled Object/Frame/Maze/Labyrinth–illustrates his desire to “make final products other than habitable forms.” Though Denison describes these pieces as architecture, it is difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend how that might be. (It helps immeasurably to have Denison standing by explaining the piece to you, but unfortunately his continued participation is not included in the price of the piece.)

Steve Wierzbowski, who’s a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago as well as a practicing architect, offers a project that is wholly conceptual: an investigation into ideas of infinite bigness and infinite smallness as reflected in Zeno’s paradox. Wierzbowski’s project consists of seven framed pieces of xeroxed verbiage addressing the bigness/smallness/Zeno issues. Wierzbowski explains that the piece is ultimately a comment on the creative process, because he did not actually “create” the work himself. Rather, he described the concept to one of his office colleagues, who executed it: Wierzbowski did not see the finished work until it was hanging in the show.

In the end, only you can decide what art is. “Architecture as Art” runs through March 24 at the Gwenda Jay Gallery, 301 W. Superior. Hours are 10:30 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. Call 664-3406 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.