The illusion of trompe l’oeil to save the city from its ugliness

© richard haas I 112 Prince Street, SoHo, New York, USA (1974-1975).

Almost 50 years have passed since the creation of that trompe l’oeil on the side wall of the building on the corner between Prince Street and Greene Street in Manhattan (New York) – painted (almost for fun) by Richard Haas – which in a couple of decades would have made the American artist the greatest architectural muralist of our time. Yet he, an American, born in 1936 in Spring Green but raised in Milwaukee (WI, USA), never attended architecture school. Despite this, his artistic works are true architectural works, to the point of playing an equally important role in the urban landscape as many real buildings. The mural depicts a faux cast iron facade that mirrors the front of the building. It was commissioned by Citywalls, Inc. while the physical creation was done by a sign painting company called Van Wagner Outdoor Advertising. Two real windows on the side of the building were included in the project along with a personal touch of a black cat in one of the painted windows.

© richard haas I Architectral Centre, Boston, USA (1975-1977). Peck Slip Arcade South Street, Seaport, New York, USA (1978).

Trompe l’oeil – which is French for “trick of the eye” – is a technique that uses realistic images in a way that causes the eye to perceive the painting in three dimensions. With this technique Haas painted hundreds of murals – but also many interiors – in the United States (New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Miami) and abroad (Berlin, Munich). Notable urban works include Portland’s Oregon Historical Society, the main branch of the New York Public Library, Fort Worth, Texas, Homage to Chisholm Trail, the Gateway to the Waterfront in Yonkers, and Michigan’s The Dwelling Place. Hass’ murals were the subject of the documentary film Painting the Town: The Illusionistic Murals of Richard Haas (1989).

But his work also includes dioramas, lithographs, woodcuts and etchings of which he is not only an expert but also a teacher. Today, his works are held in the collections of museums such as the MOMA in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Haas’ awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship (1983), the Westchester Arts Council Artist Award (2003) and the Jimmy Ernst Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2005). We spoke about his artistic experience in The City is My Canvas (2000) and Richard Haas: An Architecture of Illusion (1981), of which I have the Italian version published the following year (by Sivana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan) with the presentation of the well-known art critic Gillo Dorfles. A very beautiful book in which the author talks about his childhood and his artistic career but also about the study of (Italian) architects of the past who inspired him.

© richard haas I Edison Brothers Stores, Inc. St. Louis, USA (1984). Homage to the Chicago School, 1211 North LaSalle Street, Chicago, USA (1980).

In generalist culture, public art can essentially be traced back to small graphic works on occasional walls created by more or less talented artists – each with their own commercial footprint – who usually reproduce figurative subjects or abstract compositions. The wall is just a support for them without relation with the place. Haas’s art is instead a monumental art made up of real and prosperous city pieces commissioned by real clients. Throughout his illusionistic views, the artist has completed bare buildings, linking them in their undesigned parts as well as them into the urban context for the benefit of an urban continuity that reduces contradictions, contrasts and ugliness. These are extravagant and creative architectural fantasies capable of transforming the urban landscape around them. His art – in addition to fixing the “mistakes” of architecture – reveals a deep affection for buildings, an intelligent sensitivity to the way cities functioned – to the point that his job can be compared to that of the “town planner” – but also an erudite sense of history that is “classical” and “classicist” (i.e. Baldassarre Peruzzi, Andrea Paladio, Robert Adam e Sir Jhon Soane) were “classicism” is the instrument to gain order and beauty.

© richard haas I Homage to the Chicago School, 1211 North LaSalle Street, Chicago, USA (1980). Oregon Historical Society, Portland, USA (1989).

The idea of ​​a classical fantasy is a theme that runs through many of these works. In Boston, on the empty side of the Architectural Center, Haas reproduced an imaginary internal view using the section/(internal) elevation of a hypothetical 18th century monumental building (with clear reference to a Étienne-Louis Boullée e Claude-Nicolas Ledoux) creating an impossible depth for a “blind wall”. The same goes for the embellishment of the Edison Brothers Stores in St. Louis, a huge anonymous industrial building to which the artist, working on three sides of the volume, gave Beaux-Arts grandeur with arches, pilasters, obelisks and painted sculptures. A tribute to the Chicago School and in particular to Louis Sullivan is the intervention on three sides of an eighteen-storey condominium at 1211 North LaSalle Street in Chicago, in which the artist reproduces a sequence of bay windows on the eastern side. In a 2013 interview Hass reported the disappointment that occurred more than once among potential customers who, interested in purchasing an apartment attracted by those windows, showed their surprise once they realized that those windows were actually painted.

© richard haas I Byham Theatre, Pittsburgh, USA (1993). 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, New York, USA (2007).

Like any artist or architect who places art in a “real” space, one must accept the temporal nature of such work. Thus, over time his works have undergone a physiological aging of the materials used (paints) but also the activity of vandalism and overlapping of graffiti which imply conservation work and repainting of some murals. While when a building that is no longer needed is demolished and replaced with another often inconvenient one, his works are there to remind us that the city must be cared for and loved.

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