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From the Architect’s Drafting Table

Thursday, May 16, 2013
Thank the thieves who broke into Stuart White’s car during a trip he made to Italy in 1962, and stole his passport, some money and his camera: without them the drawings he made of the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, now on view in an exhibition of his drawings and architectural plans at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, might not exist.

Left untouched were a money belt that his mother had urged him to bring with him, containing $200, and his drawing pencils and pad. Without a camera, White had to rely on his skill as a draftsman to show the colossal monuments of Mycenae and Delphi, and the Parthenon in Athens. “I scarcely dared draw it,” White said of the Parthenon. “My heart was beating too fast.”

Sitting in a chair in the Johnson Sisters Library on the second floor at AVA, where the show of his work runs through June 7, White, modest in manner, gazes over at his drawings. “They’re sketchy, not perfect,” he said. But they have one signal virtue: when he looks at them, “I can feel where I was.”

The ruins in White’s drawings bristle with energy and life, testimony to their overwhelming effect on a young man seeing them for the first time. The “incredible power” they radiate is “the power of their belief in the gods,” White said. “These are inaccessible, beautiful locations.” He paused. “They’re not a site a developer would pick.”

Now 76, White knows from developers and builders, and projects that get made and projects that don’t. He’s been an architect for more than 50 years, most of them spent with the firm of Banwell White and Arnold (now Banwell Architects) in Lebanon, from which he retired in 2010.

He was the lead architect for AVA’s building renovation, which earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold-certification in 2008; and he has designed buildings for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests in Concord, which earned him another LEED Gold-certification. He was a member of the AVA board when the gallery began life as the Community Gallery, Inc,, 40 years ago and, since 2011, is once again on the board.

But for all his years as an architect, White has been a drawer of places and buildings even longer, since he was a child growing up in Noroton, Conn.

From a young age, White was drawn to architecture. An uncle, Franklin Wells, who was an architect, gave White drawing tools and taught him how to draw perspective. And when, in the late 1940s, Wells drew up plans for a new house for White’s parents, a modern house instead of the classic, suburban Colonial, White was able to read and interpret the plans for his skeptical mother.

After studying art and French at Princeton University in New Jersey, White went on to architecture school at Columbia University in New York. “There was nothing else that really interested me,” White said.

This was the early 1960s, when the International Style of Mies van de Rohe, Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson — the glass and steel boxes that lined Park and Fifth avenues in New York — was the dominant American style of urban architecture.

It was also an era of robust argument about the place of architecture in urban life, and how architecture both exemplified the magnetic promise of cities, and their epic failures. The year 1961, for example, saw the publication of two influential books on architecture and urban planning: The Life and Death of Great American Cities , by Jane Jacobs, and The City in History by New Yorker art critic Lewis Mumford.

White gestured to a drawing on a wall, a design for a high rise that he’d made during graduate school. It shows a tetrahedron structure that looks a bit like a cruise ship. “A big city in itself,” White murmured. “Not a typical high-rise. Of course you’re an idealist then, it would have been (for) mixed incomes.”

After a five-year apprenticeship in Cambridge, Mass., White heard about an opening in the office of Roy Banwell in Lebanon, applied, got the job and moved to the Upper Valley in 1968. One of his abiding interests as an architect has been how to make buildings that are energy-efficient, a concern that arose partly from his own designs for the house he and his wife built in Norwich in the early 1970s. He recalled showing the plans to a colleague who asked him, “Stu, how will you heat it?”

The colleague then counseled White to incorporate solar heating into his blueprint because, he said, “the world is running out of oil.” Ironically, the colleague passed along this trenchant advice on Oct. 16, 1973; the next day OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) announced its oil embargo of the United States in retaliation for American support of Israel after the start of the Yom Kippur War in early October.

The plans and drawings that White included in the show are for structures that would emit minimal to zero carbon emissions. Some of these structures were built, and others were not. The purpose of an architectural drawing is not only to show a client what a building will look like, said White, but “what the spirit of a place is.”

Although most architectural drawings are now done on computer, White prefers to draft the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen. “Computer drawings are so beguiling, so real, but I think there’s something you can’t convey with a computer,” he said.

One project, in the late 1970s, was for a building in Manhattan that dated to 1912; the idea was to retrofit it to take advantage of a south-facing facade that, rarity of rarities in the city, was completely open to the sun.

There would be roof gardens and trellises that would bear shade-providing plants and vines. The owner was gung-ho, the plans were drawn, and then, as is typical in byzantine bureaucracies, where money passes hands in order for things to get done and you’re in one month and out the next, the project fell apart.

White wishes more architects would pay attention to designing buildings that are net-zero, or at least energy-efficient. “I don’t know why it is that the superstars don’t get into this, at least from my perspective.”

That was not a problem with White’s design for refurbishing AVA, said Bente Torjusen, the nonprofit art center’s executive director.

“Stu goes about it with a deep, deep knowledge,” she said. “He is really, really dedicated to education.” The result, she said, is that the people who work and exhibit at AVA think of the building as a “living organism.”

White is emphatic on this point, in his soft-spoken way. Architecture, he said, is not merely a question of “What does it look like?” The question, more properly, should be, “What is it? How does it serve the world?”

There will be a panel discussion with Stuart White and other artists exhibiting at the AVA Gallery on Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m. The artists will talk about drawing and the artistic process.

White enjoys looking at his drawings because“I can feel where I was.”

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