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Soaring visions 

Master/Plan: Visionary

Architects and Their

Utopian Worlds

Through Dec. 23 at

Cornell Fine Arts Museum

Rollins College, Winter Park





Auspiciously, on Sept. 11 the Cornell Museum debuted an exhibition of the visions of six architects, each as transformative as Minoru Yamasaki's ill-fated World Trade Center towers, and each as bold. The show was organized by Biennale O, a nonprofit formed by three local architects who organize exhibitions that draw attention to architecture. The group's inaugural effort, Master/Plan: Visionary Architects and Their Utopian Worlds showcases Morris Adjmi, Michael Graves, Chad Oppenheim, Paolo Soleri, Adrian Smith and Geoffrey Warner. In contrast to the uninspired construction that makes up much of Orlando's built environment, the soaring, clean designs of these national and international architects open up possibilities and ask questions about the present and the future of our cities.

Overall, Master/Plan has a few clunky spots; one could do without the commercial messages from the architects' brochures that are available to visitors, and the presentation would be stronger with more hand-drawn work and fewer computer monitors, which put a cold distance between the viewer and the image. "Utopian visions" is a term described by Biennale O as either an "ideal place" or "no place," one that is freed from the practical constraints of everyday buildings; we see in the exhibition dreams of a better place created by the selected master architects.

For example, Soleri is best known for his creation of Arcosanti, an ecological community in the Arizona desert. In Master/Plan, Soleri proposes expressionistic concrete shapes on a supreme scale, and his huge drawings are artistic visions themselves — vigorous charcoal line drawings with energetic notes scribbled in the margins. Matched in scale is Smith's (of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture) delicate, wraithlike tower to be built in Lake Michigan, which will one day complete Chicago's grand urban plan. Starting from the base, interlaced vertical towers twist around and create an actual wind generator. Super-scale architecture as iconic sculpture finds an outlet with these two talents.

In contrast, more intimate scale work by celebrity designer Graves (who designed the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort and has a product line at Target) is dense and urban. Graves' images of a resort community on the Canary Islands show his trademark tradition-based forms: squat, conical towers with stylized pediments and arches. The glass boxes syncopated with harlequin-striped entry canopies lend a whimsical sense of place. Graves' own beautiful colored-pencil drawings on yellow tracing paper have great warmth and style. His architecture is classic and timeless compared to Miami-based Oppenheim's sleek, contemporary forms displayed on digital monitors: giant sculptural wind farms; hillside buildings hunkered into the earth with rooftop vegetation neatly trimmed; a pair of bent tower slabs leaning towards each other, "kissing." Oppenheim's serene modernism speaks of a new ecological hygiene and a sustainable way forward.

New York-based architect Adjmi's buildings in Celebration are the only local structures represented in Master/Plan. Adjmi worked with the influential Italian Rationalist architect Aldo Rossi who, through teaching and writing, honors the artifact-like nature of urban form. At Celebration, Adjmi created a collection of austere cubes facing one another across a flat emerald lawn. One can digest Adjmi's notes and then go to Celebration to experience the space firsthand. Seeing the place affirms the quality of his vision.

The single-family residence, easily overlooked in the grand scale of the other work in the exhibition, is the focus of Warner from Minnesota-based Alchemy Architects. His carefully proportioned rectangular form is repeated and clumped together in various ways. The exquisite, highly tactile models are tempting to touch, and a few of Warner's toy house kits sit on a pedestal for experimentation by curious viewers.

With Master/Plan, Biennale O makes architecture worth talking about again, which is the group's intent. Hopefully, the exhibit will inspire conversations within the community about our region's aesthetics and how we can make them better.

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