Fans of architect John McHugh have two reasons for excitement: an exhibition of his paintings at Matthews Gallery and the publication of John McHugh Travel Sketches: A Record of His Travels and Observations and a Guide to Sketching in the Field. You’re right: neither one is obviously about McHugh’s architecture. Instead, they involve the other two-thirds of his “three-sided artistic endeavor,” as author Norman Crowe puts it.
Crowe’s new book, from Sunstone Press, features more than 100 drawings taken from eight sketchbooks that survived McHugh, who died in 1995. The drawings depict buildings in New Mexico, other areas of the United States, and Europe. An objective of the book, besides featuring some wonderful sketches by a beloved Santa Fe architect, is to encourage others to embark on “the enjoyable lifelong habit of sketching.”
McHugh loved both traveling and sketching. Rather than using a camera for later interpretation in pencil or watercolors, he worked on location. Crowe approves, writing that “photography does not train our minds to decipher the information before us in the way that sketching can do. That is what Le Corbusier meant when he said ‘cameras get in the way of seeing.’ ”
Crowe, a Colorado native now living in Albuquerque, is an architect and emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning. In John McHugh Travel Sketches, he writes that the act of sketching leads to discoveries otherwise overlooked. “So many of my students, when forced to sit and sketch something, comment afterward that they had never noticed or wouldn’t have noticed [something] had they not sketched certain characteristics of the building,” Crowe said in a talk with Pasatiempo.
The McHugh sketches demonstrate a great sensitivity to well-designed buildings, most of them probably conceived in the vernacular. “His European and early New Mexico drawings tend to show buildings more in context, which is the way that architecture appears and which is probably why he liked Santa Fe — that the architecture all works together in the center of Santa Fe rather than independent buildings free-standing on vacant lots,” Crowe said.
McHugh’s New Mexico sketches capture the apparently timeless adobe buildings, although in some he includes motel and gas-station signs. His wide-ranging artistic taste shows in the sketches’ stylistic variety. The watercolor shapes in his U.S. City Scene and in Fish Town, Malmo are simple, almost childlike. Such works contrast with the jaunty attitude of his pen-and-watercolor San Francisco and with the perhaps more literal European Street Scene in watercolor and graphite pencil.
For his sketch of the Irish town An Clochán, McHugh used a background watercolor wash and colored pencil and then added watercolor tones to highlight each building in the row.
“He’s much more experimental than his mentor, Francesco Montana, with whom he studied at Notre Dame,” Crowe said. That predilection also shows in the subjects of his paintings at Matthews Gallery, one of which, Untitled (View from the Mountain), is enclosed in a skewed pentagonal frame. The Santa Fe gallery shows the architect’s vibrant oil paintings, watercolors, and serigraphs in The Art of John McHugh, opening Friday, March 15.
McHugh was born in Springfield, Ohio, and graduated cum laude from the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then returned to Notre Dame to teach for two years in the art department. In 1946, he set out on a road trip across the country. His fondness for rendering on paper what he witnessed is described by Gillian Wethey McHugh (whom he married in 1954) in the new book: “Anything that took his eye was sketchable, and in order to keep his skill sharp he would stop every hour or so and draw and/or paint anything that happened to be at hand, whether monumental building or telephone pole!”
On his trip west, he stopped in Santa Fe for car repairs and thought he would check into the office of architect John Gaw Meem for short-term employment. He ended up working with Meem for a decade, and then started his own firm with Van Dorn Hooker in 1956.
McHugh occupied himself with what Crowe called “the pure design phase” of the practice. Hooker took care of the other end, the production of documents for the contractor. The firm McHugh & Hooker designed homes and commercial and institutional buildings and did restoration work on historic churches, but its best-known project was the first Santa Fe Opera pavilion. That 1957 theater burned down 10 years later, and McHugh designed its replacement (which itself was replaced 30 years later with a design by Polshek Partnership Architects).
At various times during his 35 years in private practice in Santa Fe, McHugh teamed with other partners: Bradley Kidder, Robert Plettenberg, James Burran Jr., George Wright, and Wayne Lloyd.
“Most of his training would have been in the design of the building,” Crowe said. “There is an expression, ‘The plan is the generator of the form,’ and McHugh would have bought that argument. I think he wanted to make buildings that were New Mexican and that reminded you of the place and the things he loved about this state. He was a regionalist, a proponent of regional conditions, and refining those ideas. A favorite phrase of mine, from Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, is ‘innovating on the edge of tradition,’ and I think that’s how McHugh worked.”
It is an unfortunate truism that famous “star-chitects” sometimes pay less attention to program — the needs of a building’s users — than to form. “Among avant-gardists, that’s a general condition,” Crowe remarked. “I often discourage my students from thinking of themselves as entering the realm of avant-gardism. You can make very beautiful buildings that work beside other buildings and satisfy their function without being bizarre. There’s a subtlety of detail and form and proportion that’s really more important.”
Beauty and practicality — these attributes were expressed in McHugh’s practice and in his “recreational” drawings. “He did this travel sketching for his own enjoyment. There was no intention of ever selling them,” Crowe said. “He just liked to draw and looking back through them to recall what he saw. And they informed his work, because it sharpened his ability to see the form and detail and proportion of the buildings.” ◀
“John McHugh Travel Sketches: A Record of His Travels and Observations and a Guide to Sketching in the Field” by Norman Crowe was published by Sunstone Press in 2012. “The Art of John McHugh” opens with a 5 p.m. reception at Matthews Gallery (669 Canyon Road, 992-2882) on Friday, March 15, and runs through March 28.