Architectural Illusion

Article excerpt

Looking carefully

Richard Haas is recognized as the major architectural muralist in America. He transforms bare, ordinary walls of buildings into extravagant and inventive architectural fantasies. His gigantic wall paintings are found in many cities throughout the United States, and abroad in such cities as Munich, West Germany and Melbourne, Australia. While he has achieved fame for his trompe l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye") technique, he has said, "I do not intend to deceive people--I want them to react to each piece as a good work of art which has created an illusion."

Painting on surfaces and walls has been a significant art form since the days of the cave painters. Primitive societies followed the urge to make marks of spiritual and cultural importance on cave walls and on landmarks in their immediate world. The fresco painters of the Renaissance adorned the architectural interiors of great cathedrals and churches with large paintings. These artists depicted scenes from the Bible--literally creating visual stories fulfilling a need to inform a largely illiterate society.

Richard Haas has responded to a different kind of need, a need for a kind of ornamental richness which is absent from many of our modern buildings. While his huge murals are illusionistic by nature, Haas says that his purpose is "to embellish and enrich through the re-introduction of decorative elements to architectural surfaces." He looks upon large, blank walls found in our cities as huge canvasses upon which to work his magic.

The centerspread in this issue shows his mural on the wall of the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach. The inset photo shows what the wall looked like before Haas applied his masterful touch to completely change the nature of the wall with paint--color and shadow and texture. He has effectively seduced the onlooker into believing that the wall has depth and dimension. He has used his skill to imply sculpted figures, a recessed arch and carved ornamental forms. He takes the viewer's eye on a delightful, fanciful journey into a make-believe landscape.

"Architecture, like many of nature's animals, changes its skin to satisfy the needs of a shifting environment. Architectural illusion, which I began using in the mid-70s, is mostly a painted architecture that allows an artist to alter the skin more radically and rapidly than actual constructed surfaces do. With the use of mosaic, gold leaf finishes, and sculptural friezes, I have recently extended the range of decor beyond paint alone and made the perception of the work richer."

Note the effective integration of the real plant forms in the front of the wall with the painted forms through the arch. Notice the artist's use of blue taken front the brilliant Florida sky to modify the shape of the building and suggest the top of the arch. See how the real shadows cast by the building are reinforced by the painted shadows. Are you able to distinguish the real from the painted? Would this facade appear different when the sun is in a different position? In his combining an Art Deco Triumphal Arch with the Egyptian images of bas-relief, ibis and elongated caryatid figures, Haas has used ambiguity to delight and engage the viewer. Under what conditions would this mural lose its ability to fool the eye? What would be the ideal conditions for viewing the mural?

Key concepts

* The artist's conception of the environment provides information to other people and to other times.

* The mural is an art form which can simultaneously inform, educate, decorate, celebrate, provoke and mystify.

* Interior and exterior surfaces and spaces are enhanced through the use of murals.

* skillful use of color, light and shadow can make two dimensional surfaces appear to have depth and substance.

Comparing

Haas was influenced by artists of the past whose prints and paintings of buildings and citrus are famous. …