A wonderful exhibition, "A Line Around An Area: Hand Drawings by James Wines for SITE," opened yesterday at City College of New York, showing why the pen will remain a powerful architectural tool for as long as designers dare to challenge accepted ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. Installed in the atrium gallery of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, the show presents Wines's distinctive ink-and-wash drawings for projects ranging from his BEST Products Stores (various locations in the 1970s and '80s) and Ross's Landing Park and Plaza (Chattanooga, Tenn., 1992) to his schemes for a seven-story private residence in Mumbai (2004) and the first Shake Shack in New York's Madison Square Park (2004).

Wines's easy hand and lush, curving forms give the drawings a warm, romantic feel at first glance. They seduce you with views of buildings enveloped by plants, architecture casually melting into landscape. But at heart, they're subversive takes on Modernist orthodoxy. Like those BEST Products stores that undermined the big box with facades that seemed to be crumbling or peeling away, the drawings themselves attack old notions of high- versus low culture. Wines's eagerness to engage the messy business of American capitalism and popular taste has allowed him to find lively expression for projects that most "serious" architects before him would have distained. Rather than turning up his nose at jobs to design discount outlets or a hamburger joint, he dove right in.

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Proposal for a BEST Products store set within a "forest." 

His drawings convey a remarkable balancing act between whimsy, folksy charm, and conviction. They combine the accessibility of cartoons with the complexity of Piranesi's prints. They stick with us because they're anchored to a set of values that emphasize the connection between what we build and how we treat our planet. Trained as an artist, not an architect, Wines has always blurred the boundaries between disciplines—especially architecture and landscape. Long before anyone was talking about sustainable design, he greened his buildings with such fecund intensity that they often disappeared behind plants and trees.

The exhibition begins in an anteroom with a video of Wines drawing that multi-tiered house in Mumbai, a 21st-century hanging garden that would have made Nebuchadnezzar envious. Speeded up, the camera frames just Wines's hand as it dances over the paper and conjures a vision of a modern Indian palace. The rest of the show wraps around the four walls of the atrium gallery with the drawings mounted simply and accompanied by photographs of the projects that actually got built. A giant reproduction of one drawing covers the floor and comes into focus only when you climb the stairs to the studio spaces above or cross the catwalks overhead. So visitors get to walk on a drawing, then think about the way distance can change our perspective and our ability to understand what's going on.

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Sketch of a proposed multi-tiered house in Mumbai.

Wines, who founded SITE in 1970 as an art and design collaborative, is a sly teacher: part showman, part shaman. His drawings entertain us while entrancing us with the beauty and power of art harnessed to nature. 

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A drawing of a civic center in South Korea is reproduced on the floor of the exhibition.