Visual Arts - Master builder

An architectural sign of the times

It seems reasonable to say that in 2002, people don't go to contemporary art galleries expecting sunshine, baby animals, hollyhocks and other pleasant, happy fare.

Such a paucity of possibility and optimism might partly explain the recent tsunami of shows about design and architecture that have sprung up in national and local contemporary art venues.

By definition, architecture is often utopian, or at least optimistic, for considering how design can impact individual lives. In terms that fixate on the future rather than just the here and now, a tenet of many architecture-themed shows is how changing the basic elements of life through design can hopefully lead to much larger changes.

On one hand, therefore, it is heartening to see the sense of possibility expressed in Ecology, Economy, Equity: The Architecture of William McDonough + Partners at the Atlanta International Museum, even if the kind of change advocated in this exhibition can feel like an ad spot for the firm and its wealthy clients. Spotlighting this socially conscious Charlottesville, Va.-based architect, Ecology illustrates how the promise invested in architecture can cut through the leathery cynicism of contemporary life and art.

McDonough's philosophy can be boiled down to his own catchphrase — Waste Equals Food — which recommends that our industries mimic the regenerative aspects of nature and recycle waste back into reusable products, whether it's purified waste water or castoff upholstery fibers reused as mulch.

Much of what McDonough proposes in this show at the Atlanta International Museum of Art and Design is that architecture should allow windows that open and feature the psychologically uplifting benefits of natural light. That philosophy is a no-brainer, but the simplicity and logic of McDonough's ideas seem their most compelling virtue.

McDonough's designs for the Nike European headquarters in the Netherlands, or the Oberlin College Center for Environmental Studies feature employee wellness centers, light-filled work spaces and roofs that sprout indigenous plantlife like corporate Chia pets. These design innovations suggest a recasting of the granola-y ecology of the '70s into a more design-friendly philosophy to match 21st-century trends. The hope is that it will one day trickle down to capitalism's bottom rungs and those who toil in the fluorescent-lit, veal- fattening pens that comprise most working environments.

Though the exhibition itself is text-heavy and can have a led-by-the-hand feel that inspires flashbacks to fourth-grade civics, there are enough architectural models and small photographs of the finished designs to get a sense of the kind of building and design — both corporate and residential — McDonough is touting. The firm's particular design aesthetic also emerges in repeated images of McDonough's undulating rooflines; plain, window-packed facades; and a hunkered-close-to-the-ground visual affirmation of an Earth-oriented design philosophy.

One of the most persuasive tools is the 55-minute video The Next Industrial Revolution, which allows a more complex, visual appreciation of the magnitude of McDonough's design philosophy. McDonough can preach all he wants, but it is the actual beneficiaries of his design who prove the most powerful advocates, like employees at the McDonough-redesigned Michigan Herman Miller factory, who testify to the sheer, simple pleasure of working in a beautiful building. Equally persuasive are the aerial views of Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Factory, a smoke-spewing dystopian hell house currently undergoing a $ 2 billion redesign that will incorporate natural wetlands, a light-filled factory and a 10-acre rooftop garden.

What is most enlightening about the exhibition, despite the sense that we are being led by the nose toward a predetermined argument that "McDonough Rocks!" is a minute attention to detail that becomes a metaphor for the kind of retrospection and intense examination of what we take for granted. From the design of buildings to the design of the Ecology exhibition, how those things impact the environment can feel like a radical consideration in these live-for-the-moment, disposable times.