Monthly Archives: October 2011

Modernism in situ: House und site

It might seem a contradiction to speak of Modernist theory and its resulting architecture  in an arslocii way; that is, when it concerns the relationship of house with site. After all, the idea of Modernist thinking was to relate to nothing except pure function and formalism, rationalism uber alles: a utopian visionary truth-finding in the creation of intellectual rules derived from knowledge and mastery of nature, resulting in the building of a perfect machine – not a perfect machine on a perfect site. Anything other than the concept and form was extraneous, beautiful setting be damned. The reality, though, is often different from the ideology.

We have visited a number of great Modernist houses in the United States and what we have learned is that despite the theory, despite the intent, what we have been presented with are amazing buildings in wondrous settings, the two working in tandem, improving each other in immeasurable ways. Yes, the structures can be interesting, although I wonder if they would be as exciting in an asphalt parking lot or sitting right up against an interstate highway. My humble opinion is that Modernist buildings are not alone, after all. The context is just as important as the structure. Think about Brasilia.

The prime example of this success is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, where the house and its environment are completely integrated, one having equal status with the other. It is a pairing that is inseparable, impossible to imagine unpaired. Another, and an unanticipated surprise, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which resides in a geometric swath of denuded watershed along the Fox River in Plano, Illinois. As the house hovers above the landscape, almost as if it were somehow in a final landing phase, its form is repeated and complemented in the geometry of the cleared site, the remaining natural woodland becoming a more solid-walled structure surrounding the glass-walled house. The two in a perfect rapport.

Racing down a country road, completely by accident we happened to spy the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Screech! It is an iconic object built by the icon himself (of the Bauhaus School). And it does attract, with its simplicity of design and materials as well as its diminutive size. The real revelation was how it interacted with its site, the setting acting as a transition, really, from geometric stone walls that pick up the lines and shapes of the house but then let go, as the natural contours spill over and out of their minimal boundaries: the nearby controlled landscape connecting the functionally manmade with the naturalistic. Just as the house is spare, so are the grounds, one echoing the other, simplicity with large effect. The two interact with each other and, aside from the potential of this large white block of a structure resembling a ship cutting through polar ice, there was plenty of design that went into its site to make the two a harmonious whole.

And then there was Field Farm – in Williamstown, Massachusetts, designed by Edwin Goodell for the Bloedel family – an International Style series of boxes, clustered as if trying to mimic, in a modern way, the Taconic Range behind it. The setting is a valley of meadows and fields, 300 acres of land that had been farmed since the mid-1700s. Like the Gropius House, this one sits on a terraced, walled plateau that is formal in design surrounding the house. But just beyond the wall the landscape takes over and becomes meadows, wetlands and, finally, woodlands; the house and its pedestal being just one small element in the vast natural environment.

Yes, we have seen Modernist houses in wooded glens, at rivers’ edge, in sites where one might want to imagine many kinds of houses, not just those mentioned. But a Modernist house on rural farmland is a unique concept. Farms are usually organized systems of land management, often geometricized, divided and delineated, altered by humans, structured and reduced to the ideal of a perfect machine – for food production. In that sense, a functional house fits very well with such a cultivated landscape. Although the furrows are no longer visible, the sense of industry and land use still are apparent at Field Farm. Going into this, I would have said: Huh? Now that I have experienced this combination, I say arslocii.

The thing is, all these houses and others that we have “experienced” are not, no matter what Modernist thinking proscribes, independent islands unto themselves. They are influenced and affected by their sites, often enhanced by them. Their raison d’etre may be dogma but their reality is contextual. You can’t divorce one from the other. The combinations may not always be spectacular, but they are pairings nonetheless. To think that a building can be a totality is naive. A perfect machine still has to exist somewhere; and when it does, it has to have a dialogue with its environment. Whether the architect wants it or not, the two together can achieve placeness, something that goes far beyond just the solidification of theory.

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The Bottom Line

We are slogging through the underbrush, the vines and weeds grabbing at our legs, sharp-edged bush branches snapping at our faces – think jungle movies you’ve seen, minus the machetes. The ground is crunchy in spots, spongy in others, and in places a swampy stretch meanders alongside us. The sky is vivid blue, and clear, made more so by the dark, penned-in area we find ourselves in. And it is quiet. In a forest, this quiet would not be so unusual – but we are, despite the wild, untouched nature all around us, right in the middle of a city. Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphians don’t know that where we are – under their feet, beneath their cars, almost entirely out of sight and lost in the veldt – even exists; and of the one-percent who do, 99.5 percent of them have never been where we are now walking: a canyon carved into the metropolis, nature taking back what the city-builders and titans of industry bulldozed away.

In New York City more than a decade ago, some visionaries noticed abandoned, elevated train tracks stretching north-south near the Hudson River – and, finding their way up to that level, saw that, left to the elements, the tracks and bridge structure were now a thriving meadow of native plants, shrubs and flowers. Today, after years of work and millions of dollars, the High Line has become a ribbon of accomplishment, a tourist magnet, an exotic and expanded pathway to and from work and play, and a blueprint for others who, in their home towns, have a rail relic with the potential for renewed greatness.

In Philadelphia, there are two. One is called the Reading Viaduct, a mile-long bridge of north-south track that once carried passengers to and from the Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City terminal. There is a group trying to emulate the High Line there; at the moment, neighborhood politics – it runs through Chinatown, and some are not happy with the development prospects – are putting, at a minimum, a speed bump into the planning.

A less publicized, and at the moment more monumental, project is what has brought us into this urban Amazon. It is called, by its small group of hopefuls, Viaduct Greene, and what the Reading Viaduct is to rehabilitating old passenger tracks, this has its eye on a nearly four-mile swath of left-behind land that once funneled freight trains into town. Most of it is below street level, defined and contained by soaring old stone walls topped by delicate iron railings; the key proponents of the dream – Paul vanMeter and Liz Maillie – hope to take this “inconspicuous, intimate submersive space of mystery, wild excitements,” in their website’s words, and turn it into a nature path connecting the burgeoning Loft Area just north of downtown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural zone, and especially to the new Barnes Foundation building. The two envision numerous access and egress points along the way, leading to, perhaps, a boardwalk or grated walkway that would allow the walker or bicyclist to travel among the untouched greenery without disturbing it (or kicking up clouds of whatever has permeated the ground-surface over the years). The two also envision money from various deep pockets coming forward to make this a reality.

And now we are with vanMeter, as he leads us through this eerie and wondrous conduit, occasionally stopping us at a spot to show us, on his iPad, where exactly we are in relation to the “real world” above us, and what it all looked like back when where we are standing would have put us in danger of being hit by a locomotive. We push on, from the eastern end, emerging from the darkness of a tunnel underneath what is a parking garage into the improbable lushness of this ad hoc city wilderness. We are in another place from what we could even imagine experiencing – except when, from time to too-frequent time, we are yanked back into the reality of our location by piles of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, some tossed with uncaring abandon from cars passing along the overpasses above our heads, and some from the homeless (one who accosts us with the belligerence of a property owner who has caught poachers in his field) who have found this to be an area far more amenable (and, perhaps, safer) than steaming sidewalk grates and stairwells.

We plod on, like the sailors and film crew looking for the beast on Kong Island. We look up, but, in a bit of disconnect, it’s not mountains we see but office and condominium buildings, and the Community College of Philadelphia campus. And always, even as the sun hits us, and the leaves and branches caress us and whack at us, we are constantly aware of the monumental walls of giant cut-block stone, gray and still sooty after all these years, and not going anywhere. We are, in a way, cowed by these giants (in movie serials of the past, they would begin to move towards each other with an ominous rumble, threatening to squeeze us to bloody pulps at the episode’s cliffhanging ending), but in a way elevated by them – they have an emotional impact not so different from the great walls of cathedrals, or of the Pyramids: they seem prehistoric, the work of early humans in thrall to some ancient gods, and that once a year the sun aligns with the tunnel in some religious denotation of the Heavens’ power over us. Of course, the “early humans” in this scenario were underpaid immigrant laborers, the “ancient gods” were robber barons and railroad capitalists, and the streaming “sun” was the gravy train of good old American commerce. But, these days, that sort of financial strutting confidence does seem prehistoric. And we’ll take our resonant monumentality where we can find it.

We emerge, finally, after a six-block walk that takes well over an hour, into a parking lot and then up to the surface, where pedestrians and drivers tootle along, unaware of the amazing bit of natural placeness below their feet, just over the bridge railing, a place they note, if they note it at all, with minimal curiosity. Another amazing, endangered  Philadelphia treasure, that deserves the hard work and good intentions that vanMeter and Maillie are applying to it. But, whether they win or lose, whatever happens with their Viaduct Greene project, it is somehow comforting to know that it represents what will happen when all of us silly anthro-creatures bite the dust and nature has the last laugh, rolls up its sleeve and gets to work.

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He Was a Friend of Mine

The Grim Reaper works in mysterious ways, claiming some too soon and others a bit late. But his aim is true, regardless of the time or willingness of the spirit.

For Warren, it was too soon. I met Warren in 1986 when he and Janet bought the building next door at about the same time that we bought ours. There were some interesting connections that we shared from the get-go: people we already knew, a desire for unique live/work space, art and art-making. And, too, physically, our buildings shared connections: of the land’s history, of being held jointly by several generations of owner-occupiers and their entrepreneurial endeavors, and, of Warren and Janet’s structure having been erected on what was once our building’s orchard way back in the late 1800s. But there was also a connection of friendship and of finding our way simultaneously in our shared new neighborhood.

As working artists, Warren and I spent time together, visiting each other’s studios, talking about projects we were working on. We would take strolls through the neighborhood and find other artists who also were setting up camp – we had a kind of “art-dar” about locating them. In many ways our association was like a continuation of art school: studio visits, discussions, salons which Warren and Janet would throw. And, ultimately, Warren and I had some shows together, first in his large loft space and then in both houses, a distribution of works at both sites in which the attendees would flow from one building then out and into the other, making our houses connected again into a complex of art galleries. It was a great time. Later, Warren’s interests moved to temporary installations and performances. I remember heavy canvas boots with about forty long screws emerging from the soles, salvia plants and several dozen watering cans. Or mass-produced bunnies placed in nooks above doorways, crouched in out-of-context sites throughout the city. Warren’s work became a kind of guerrilla artfare but in such a gentle way.

When Dana was born, we were the ones who brought special pillows and a packed overnight bag to the hospital for the duration of their stay. During the sweltering summer, we bought a paddling pool to cool off in and our trio from next door would come over and join in. We have video tape of Dana kicking and bobbing in the water, just a few months old, looking like a small cork with limbs. When any of their or our relatives, largely from the Midwest, would visit, we would meet theirs and they ours. In many ways we felt like family. While Dana was small, Warren did a good deal of childcare and, once again, I would accompany the two of them as we ferreted out treasures in thrift stores or flea markets. Warren was an excellent dad, including his little girl in his life and being very much aware of her needs. And I loved the little color-packed ensembles he would dress her in – I assumed he dressed her because there was something very Warren in the patterns and the palette. When Dana was old enough to appreciate it, we all built a snow-woman together after a big snowfall. And when our steep hills became bobsled tracks, Warren would be among the first on the slopes with his super sled. I remember vividly the first time he took Dana down the hill and her resulting screams of utter delight together with his equal delight. Warren had that wonderful combination of mischievous childlike wonder, gentleness of spirit and a practical Midwestern groundedness.

Fast forward twenty-five years and a lot of change has occurred – Dana is a grown woman, Warren and Janet moved forward in separate directions, now a new tenant is inhabiting their house next door and Warren is no longer with us. We were invited to a party by the new neighbor, just having learned of the terrible news of Warren’s death, and we sat dumbfounded and sad, encircled by Warren in that huge space. I mean surrounded. It is so apparent that in his absence he is so present. He is everywhere in that place, from the design/build work that he did to make a warehouse a home, to the collection of farm implements that decorate the walls, including the array of fire-engine red and brass watering cans, to the hand-painted furniture that he covered with his own special calligraphy and color-palette, to the folding screens that he fashioned for the function of capturing contained space in a vast room – and they are beautiful free-standing works that bring art into the center of the room, plus the large number of ink and wash drawings, some with text, that are mounted on walls and which, together with the screens and the furniture, bring a sense of artwork from the perimeter walls, and weaves it through the space as all of it envelops you. Warren is there, still. It is a loving tribute to him that Janet has left it untouched. We went downstairs to his former studio and felt his presence there, too, with all his tools and boxes of materials. It was an empty feeling of sadness but, yet, there was a sense of placeness – of the artist manipulating his environment and leaving it forever changed.

I think one memory I will hold in my mind about Warren was this one: It was another of those cold snow-covered wintry days, darkness arriving too early and a kind of bleakness in the air. I looked out my window at the long night and there, along our shoveled sidewalk path was a landing strip of lights, small white paper bags nestled into the snow with a single lit candle in each. The effect was like flickering candles set adrift on a stream. The white snow holes glowing and illuminating the landscape. It was magical. It was Warren. 

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Spud Everlasting

We have Spud back, and the forces of placeness seem to be in ascendancy and proper alignment once more.

A Toyota Vanwagon – atop the short list of the greatest overlooked and undersold of motor vehicles – Spud (so named because, when we first met up with him, we thought he looked a bit like a potato on wheels) has been with us since he (Spud’s a he, by the way – don’t ask, he just is) was in low double-digit miles and still had the aroma of Japanese factory about him, back then in 1984. For that quarter century Spud has been a trusty steed, a family member and a friend who never outstays his welcome. Who among us can claim such achievement and pedigree?

For three  recent months he was in the clutches (no pun intended, though he does have manual transmission) of alleged repairers and restorers who did nothing of either, but were able to lube a path between our wallet and their pockets. But now that he’s returned to his rightful spot on our driveway – a spot on which, despite the alleged r&r, he continues to leave a spot – a brief discussion of placeness vis-a-vis Spud is in order.

First and, perhaps, least profound, is merely the matter of his being gone: There, on our driveway, he was for those three months not there and yet very there. In other words, his presence was felt by his absence. There was just thin air where Spud should have been hunkered, ready to roar, yet we could “see” him there, nonetheless. (Persistence of memory and the mechanisms of personal apparitions make the thin air somehow thicker.) We would no more have moved our other car (name: Junior; gender: undetermined) into Spud’s empty spot than one would sleep on that side of the bed left vacant by a temporarily or permanently departed loved one. That sort of a-place-for-everything/everything-in-its-place placeness is the most basic kind.

Beyond that, there is Spud’s role in getting us to arslocii places. In truth, for the past few years it’s been Junior who has been our magic carpet, affording us the transport to places as far-flung as New England, Canada, the Midwest and points south that have been the subjects of a lot of our writings here and on our website. But, for two decades before that, Spud hauled us (and hauled ass) all over the place; Junior has been a champ, but we equate road trips with Spud. Junior – a 2007 Ford Focus wagon – is a terrific, zippy, gas-sipping and highly accommodating vehicle, but Spud was always the third traveler on our trips.

And therein resides the third bit of arslocii: Spud didn’t just take us places – he is a place, and one just oozing placeness, maybe because he is so full of nothing that he can be anything. For us, he has been not only the repository of transported stuff but a repository of memories: of journeys, of our younger selves, of time spent with those we miss with all our being. Spud was like a room, an intimate personal space, where souls met and dreams came true and new worlds were encountered, and minds and possibilities grew with ever-increasing experience. We slept in Spud, would feed ourselves even as we “fed” him in dusty or icy service stations across America (his sustenance usually more hi-test than ours). He appears in photos we cherish. He transferred lots of people, cats and things between locations, with rarely a complaint. And, when he was incapacitated for long-ish periods in our driveway, he became, without any evidence of sadness or ego, a willing storage shed, a handy wintertime refrigerator-freezer.

We know that, someday, Spud will die, as all things do, and that that occasionally empty spot in the driveway will be empty of him from then  on. As you might have guessed, we have a tendency to anthropomorphize, perhaps to the point of clinical interest; so, then, we will mourn Spud’s passing and, with him, the end of a grand period in our lives and, to the point of this piece (there is one, somewhere in here), the loss of palpable placeness. Even then, and being us, we likely still will not park Junior in Spud’s spot. (We still have cat beds placed around the house, and our guys have been gone for some time. It helps us to “see” them again, every once in a while, out of the corner of  our eye, and, for that moment, the world seems a better place.)

But that’s another day. We hope. Because we are about to take Spud out on the road again, today, for the first time in a very long time. There’s a bit of trepidation – a fear of a late-night breakdown, but not enough of a fear to derail the pleasure of climbing back up behind the wheel, turning the key, and knowing that we are, for now, in all senses of the phrase, in a good place.

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