“Hugh Newell Jacobsen,

Architect: A Retrospective”

At the National Building Museum

to Aug. 15

Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the cranky alpha male among D.C.’s elder architects, is best off working close to home. Since 1958, when Jacobsen set up shop in Georgetown, his office has turned out a few dozen of the most beguiling pieces of architecture in the mid-Atlantic, defining—as much as anybody—the essence of the region’s building traditions with a strictly progressive attitude. He knows the colonial design dialects of the Chesapeake watershed intimately—the gabled roofs, the massive chimneys, the sturdy outbuildings—and shows it, with natural economy. But when you take the old boy out of the country, as it were, and put him to work in places he doesn’t know as well, his light touch often turns heavy and his serious interpretations of regional architectural styles run the danger of descending into kitsch.

The range and limits of Jacobsen’s fluency pop right out—wittingly or not—in the new retrospective of his work on view at the National Building Museum. This show is a first in a couple of ways: As far as I know, nobody has ever mounted a study of this scale on Jacobsen, who will surely stand out as one of the late century’s most accomplished and thoughtful regionalists—he never takes his influences straight. It is also a first for the museum, which, recently stuck on exhibitions organized around themes of materials or places or building types, has at last decided to mount a monographic study of an exceptional designer. On this occasion, at least, the museum has managed to find its strength as a missionary.

The show, which consists of wall-mounted photographs, plans, and drawings, as well as wood models, takes you through several small galleries on the museum’s first floor. The galleries are organized largely along a straight line, which represents Jacobsen’s favorite floor plan: a series of modestly sized pavilions connected to each other. He has done some large-scale institutional projects, including a 1993 addition to the U.S. Capitol, but for the most part, he designs trophy houses. (In one remotely proletarian moment, he designed the 1998 American Dream house for Life magazine; cost: $155,000 to $200,000, depending on whether you live in Biloxi, Miss., or Princeton, N.J.) Yet his trophy houses are not the rude beasts that new money in these parts so often likes to build; Jacobsen is all about reduction. His typical house breaks down into a rhythmic set of smaller houses forming a microcosmic campus of utter balance and harmony. It may not be the kind of place where you can imagine sitting down to munch a bag of potato chips (it might spoil the formality), but if you were so inclined, you would be happy soaking up what the great Louis Kahn summarized as “silence and light.”

Jacobsen is the what-if son of Kahn, under whom he studied at Yale in the early ’50s, and Philip Johnson, in whose office he worked in the years immediately following. Talk about power genes: He seems to have inherited Kahn’s serenity and Johnson’s humor, but has wrought the two traits into a structural vocabulary of his own.

He started out as an academic modernist, though his ideology has changed somewhat over the years—which brings up the major frustration of this show. Each room represents roughly a decade in Jacobsen’s career, but there is no plain logic in the organization of the individual rooms. Thus the chronology is scattershot and you have to connect the dots yourself. The early houses, such as the 1959 Thoron house and the Shorb house of 1962, were flat-roofed brick boxes following those of Johnson and Mies van der Rohe—with little more fuss than a couple of blank wall planes in front. But he didn’t hang on to modernist dogma for long: During much of the ’60s, Jacobsen experimented with a variety of old-new fusions, such as the Trentman house in Georgetown’s historic district, with its tweaked traditional rhythms and unorthodox modern details.

Jacobsen developed what would become his patent form in 1971 with the Blumenthal house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: a trio or quartet of discrete pavilions with steeply pitched roofs in a row—like little abstract Monopoly houses—anchored off center by one or two pairs of enormous chimneys, which he often slices off diagonally at the top.

Jacobsen’s pavilion houses since the ’70s have followed Kahn’s maxim that architecture begins with the room and grows from the inside out. Now, a lot of male architects of a certain age these days will tell you how earnestly they follow the scripture of Kahn, but few have ever summoned the critical judgment to pull it off. Jacobsen has, and he did so early on. He likes to posit each room as its own little updated folk house sitting in line with the others along a clearly defined axis. In his plays on vernacular forms, he more than knows when to quit, obsessively trimming away the frills and hiding his details so as to isolate the big gesture of a little building with sharp, simple silhouettes and profiles. And he pours on all the light he possibly can.

His houses bear a distinctive signature, but over the years it has become a trademark to which Jacobsen perhaps has clung too tenaciously for the trademark’s own good. He approaches each site with compositions that seem novel, but at a certain point, his game became one of refining what he’s good at rather than inventing something entirely new.

Jacobsen’s mastery over the lines and, significantly, the architectural scale of his East Coast houses seems to falter if he goes too far abroad—like a tenor taking a crash course in a foreign diction. Take the Advaney house, exported to Holland in 1991. Jacobsen went Dutch with an eagerness that seems out of line when you consider the simple honesty of his mid-Atlantic work; he had never before shown any great bent for stepped Flemish gables, but here they are, one surmises, because they are part of the archaic local tongue and Jacobsen was feeling compelled to act like a native.

When he went to Ohio to design the Kahn house in 1985, it was as if the bard in him had gone on leave and a hack minstrel had taken over and put up an American Gothic pile of deranged proportions, whose massive towers out front look as if they’re trying to mug the center gable between them. That same year, his Rosenak House in Tesuque, N.M., turned into what looks to be—in one of the show’s several instances of awful photo reproduction—the set of a Warner Bros. western. You half-expect Yosemite Sam to come storming out the door with guns a-blazin’. In the East, Jacobsen controls the language. Elsewhere, it seems, the language controls him.

On his own turf, he has avoided the main pitfall of a doggedly regional outlook—that it can turn into “sentimental provincialism,” as the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa described it. But when Jacobsen takes his mandate of regionalism too far on unfamiliar soil, he winds up practicing the opposite of provincialism, which is tourism. Jacobsen’s best work between here and the beach gets its vitality from what Pallasmaa called “an open confrontation between the universal and the unique.” The emphasis in his case is on the unique, but, improbably, both imperatives manage to win. He’d be the perfect guy to have show you around the Chesapeake.CP