at Gwenda Jay Gallery

Advertisement, political propaganda, and fashion and theater illustration–all these graphic arts, once considered well beyond the pale of fine art, now summon keen interest from collectors, historians, and exhibitors. This spring the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is devoting an entire exhibit to contemporary shoe design. But oddly, 20th-century architectural rendering, a highly sophisticated form of visual communication, has never elicited much public enthusiasm. Such renderings are often valued less for their aesthetic qualities than for the record they establish of architects’ work, and scholarship on this art form is virtually nonexistent.

Over the past six years, the American Society of Architectural Perspectivists has sought to bring architectural illustration in from the wilderness with juried exhibits of the best work done in the field. The current show, “Architecture in Perspective VI,” now at the Gwenda Jay Gallery, both offers insights into why renderers–or perspectivists–have been underappreciated and prepares the way for them to get their due.

The job of the perspectivist is to translate the three-dimensional ideas of an architect into a two-dimensional representation for the general public. Until recently, architecture schools in the United States taught architects themselves the fine-arts techniques needed to make the transition from blueprint and design sketches to realistic drawing. Up until the 1950s, rendering was considered so much a part of an architect’s practice that architects rarely farmed out illustration work. Those who did usually signed their own names anyway. (Ironically Frank Lloyd Wright, whose style of drawing is as instantly identifiable as his architectural style, relied on the talents of other renderers for his most famous buildings and projects. Marion Mahony [1871-1962] has been credited with a large role in defining Wright’s style and a “talent for delineating Wright’s building that far exceeded the architect’s own,” as Brendan Gill wrote in his biography of Wright. Throughout his career Wright kept his studios busy with speculative and fantasy designs, most unrealizable, and these constitute a vital record of the architect’s creative output. But the fact that the records, now so valuable, were signed by Wright but not made by him would rankle the current crop of perspectivists, who are considerably more savvy on issues of intellectual property than their forerunners.)

Architectural rendering has a long history, dating back to the development by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century of linear-perspective drawing, the key to a perspectivist’s craft. The perspectivist as an independent professional, however, was a rarity before 1950, when the postwar development boom created a need for architectural illustrators. As the marketplace for buildings burgeoned, developers sought new ways to sell their projects, and illustrations communicated both to individual clients and to communities.

American 20th-century styles of architectural illustration seem to draw most heavily on the idioms of the turn-of-the-century Viennese workshops of Josef Hoffmann and on the English Arts and Crafts Movement, whose aesthetic filtered through to American renderers via the drawings of Marion Mahony and, later, of Wright’s other renderers. The combination of exacting, thinly lined ink work with soft, graduated watercolor washes suits architecture well, conveying in line the design’s detail and engineering and in tones and hues its gentle, inviting ambience. The translucence of watercolors lends natural light qualities to buildings that by their essence impose on the landscape, or in urban settings on the skyline. And judging from the A.S.A.P. exhibition, watercolor and ink still seem to be the perspectivists’ media of choice.

The call for entries allowed both real and imaginary projects. Thomas W. Schaller’s watercolor rendering, From: The City, is a dramatically lit fantasy of an urban scene that captures a past vision of the future. Though Schaller, an architect and illustrator both, certainly would not have made blueprints for the half dozen buildings he drew, the drawing’s precise perspective probably required him to produce the kind of design sketches architects work through while planning actual projects. The renderer’s art, which originates in architecture, demands much more precision than ordinary building sketches.

From: The City offers a view from the bottom of a grand staircase. Immediately beyond the stairs is a network of solid, stolid Roman/WPA-styled towers and ultramodern glass and steel bridges. Structural elements are drawn with an ultrafine pen, and though the detail is very complete, it combines with the watercolor shades to produce a scene that seems cast in light, not line. The light in the picture emanates from a low sun, beaming through storm clouds and bathing the city in blues, yellows, and reds. The central tower is washed in a bright yellow white sunbeam like a beacon from the composite era it represents. Schaller’s long-gone view of the future, like the views in Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, combines ancient Republican styles with rocket-tipped skyscrapers, aerial walkways, and most important, beams of light. Architects dream of constructing new and better worlds. In his fantasy drawing, Schaller does just that.

Retro-optimism, relying on fashions of the 30s, is such a pervasive feature in current perspectivist styles that the exhibit jurors grew tired of paintings that depicted what jury chairman Thomas Fisher described in the catalog as “buildings at night with searchlights . . . in the background. While these rendering formats are no doubt intended to add excitement to the image, they had the opposite effect.” Despite the jurors’ scorn for searchlights, several works in the exhibit feature them. Gilbert Gorski’s rendering of Booth, Hansen & Associates’ proposal for Chicago’s Navy Pier seems drawn directly from a Century of Progress stylebook. In this night view, shafts of light shoot up from towers alongside the pier. The lights are a clever solution to a sticky design problem: they provide vertical elements in what would otherwise be a dull, squat horizontal view. Orest Associates’ illustration South Ferry Plaza, New York uses beams to augment the vertical design of a retro-futuristic high rise. The building (which resembles the angled, cantilevered towers architect Gary Cooper designed in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead), has a campiness that the hackneyed searchlights complement.

One kind of drawing noticeably absent from this show is the high-tech computer-generated image, which in past A.S.A.P. shows has conspicuously exhibited technological advances in rendering. The only illustrations here in which computer techniques are undisguised are two by Peter Huf that feature computer-generated plans superimposed over scanned images of interiors, materials, and people. The result is a kind of drawing that speaks well to architects but not to the public, which is not trained to interpret such complex visual information. Current fashion no longer favors high-tech design; perhaps because of advances in computer technology, the most sophisticated use of computers now renders technology nearly invisible.

For St. John the Divine Master Plan, New York, Ernest Burden III used a computer to exaggerate the drawing’s focal length, as in a photograph taken with a fish-eye lens. The cathedral, the world’s largest, and its surrounding rectories offer the renderer a considerable challenge. To capture the buildings’ details and still fit the entire complex into a single frame, Burden took a three-quarter view from high up, which stretches and squeezes the site. The cathedral itself, the most intricate of the buildings, is in the background. Burden used a computer to establish the complicated proportions of this unusual perspective–which requires dozens of vanishing points. The result is a traditional watercolor rendering with every detail, down to the masonry lines on the buttresses, in place. Though a skilled perspectivist could have done a similarly exact job, the calculation would have been intensive and time-consuming, making such a drawing commercially less feasible. One might expect that as computer technologies become more advanced, they will become even more invisible.

With developments in scanning in which video and photographic images can be digitized for later manipulation, computer-assisted rendering may take on a photolike quality. If the sampled material comes from another drawing, illustrators could mimic the styles of other renderers. (A similar development has occurred in graphic design: young artists trained on Macintosh computers mimic closely the style of April Greiman, an artist who pioneered Mac-aided design.) Though the drawing of Saint John’s embodies advances in technology, the artist still relies on watercolor to offset the harshness of the building materials and the urban setting. Even the most technologically advanced techniques here don’t fall far from those pioneered by Mahony.

Part of the aim of the A.S.A.P. show is to move rendering and renderers out of their commercial context and to develop a public audience for the illustrations. Some of these works just might do that, but others probably won’t. Some are so firmly buried in mainstream commercial styles that it’s hard to see how they might have lasting appeal to anyone other than the developers who commissioned them. In these works landscapes have been drawn with the same straightedge used for the buildings, trees seem passed down from the thousands of stock renderings that preceded them, and people appear blocky and lifeless. At its best, though, the show offers visionary illustrations that transcend their subject matter.

The jurors gave the show’s top honors to Luis Blanc’s intricate pencil drawing Affordable Housing Now! The Brooklyn artist has designed an imaginary New York street busy with several construction projects. Barricades, equipment, and workmen have made the street impassable. Steel frames, scaffolding, and enormous tarps loom over three small urban homes dwarfed by the new projects. Though Blanc has every vertical and horizontal right where it should be, the drawing is far from static: it conveys the feeling of massive, restless development burying the low-rise city in its path. On the construction barricade in the foreground Blanc has scribbled in graffiti style “Affordable housing now!”–a message the artist offers as a polemic against virtually every other piece in the show. Its antidevelopment stand undermines the perspectivist’s very bread and butter. And what better way to separate the illustrator from the architect? Blanc’s work is especially effective because it expropriates, to a degree, the media of those it criticizes. But Blanc intentionally omits the humanizing use of shading and color developed by Mahony, a feature intended to draw people into the idea of still-unbuilt buildings.