Thursday, September 10
Tuscany on the Big Mysterioso Hulking Lake Michigan, And a Few Words on Organic Development
In any case, you came for architecture, and you ought to have some, rather than bizarre riffs on The Scapular, the Snuggie without Sleeves.
My parents were recently in town, and every time they visit I am cheered by the opportunity to play tourist. Milwaukee, possibly the United State’s most overlooked but nonetheless not under-appreciated large city, holds numerous surprises and delights in plain sight. You can spend hours circling through dull acres of ranch housing and stray one street over to discover a mammoth art deco Gothic church with incongruous lacy wooden window-frames. And then there is Villa Terrace, an unassuming but well-proportioned whitewashed brick wall, a bit of loggia and red tile peeping up above, that sits with surprising discretion along a North Shore street lined with miniature chateaux and brownstone Tudors. It was done in 1926 for a rather forgettable clan of rich Italianophiles called the Lloyd Smiths by David Adler, a pitch-perfect mansion architect of the era. While lacking the panache of, say, a Philipe Schutze--the Italianate Georgian designer who once proposed a synagogue based on Santa Maria della Salute in Venice—his work has the sort of elegant understatement that most architects pursue elusively before the settle for tastefully dull. It's quietly stunning.
At the height of a blue-water Milwaukee lakeside summer (the big mysterioso hulking Lake Michigan, my father dubs it, riffing on something from Tom Wolfe), the house makes eminent good sense. The white walls, appealingly nicked and scarred with a bit of red brick showing through, gleam under the indigo skies, and the cascading rear slope of gardens are green and buzzing with insects that are quietly seen and not heard (or that bite, for that matter). You could well be in Tuscany, and I know Tuscany well. The front courtyard is intimate but not claustrophobic, and cooled by some geometric hedges, an admirable touch. The rooms are mostly low-slung but spacious, with beamed ceilings picked out with little dog-tooth lines of polychromy—simple and even a little plain, but never uninteresting. When we were there, a wedding had taken over one of the terraces, while the house museum still kept on admitting visitors, a rather strange experience, the men roasting in their suits.
The design is by no means pretentious—it is not a Disneyesque evocation of Italy, even if it is an impressively rather exacting one. However, something doesn’t quite work: it’s called winter. The whole problem of transplanted architecture—whether it was the charming dress-up of the gilded-age eclectics, or the hardier, less self-conscious Georgian of our own ancestors—is a constant for a classical architect. The problem is where to draw the line between the dry moralizing of a Pugin or a Ruskin (who, for all their contributions to western civilization, could be puritanical monomaniacs about this sort of thing) and the stage-set quality of an Epcot or World’s Fair. Certainly not all authentic local architecture started out as really “local,” Georgian being adapted Palladian. Nor does inventing something new to fill the gap work either: whatever possessed Frank Lloyd Wright to assume virtually flat roofs would work in a snow-heavy climate, however evocative they were of the prairie, I will never know. Yet, it is hard to think of anything more English (or American) than a Georgian manor-house, and Wright, for all his absurdities, did evoke something of the spare beauty of the Midwest in his work. It helps to not be too prissy about such things, if it works aesthetically in the end. Some architectural theorists have conniption fits about wonderfully witty stunts like the building at Yale by the brilliant James Gamble Rogers which has one side Georgian and the other Gothic, yet it is so perfectly integrated into its surroundings, such an audacious and successful stunt, that it is hard not to applaud its cunning. (Though it helps that it doesn't leak like Frank Lloyd Wright's own audacities.)
Mostly it comes down to cultivating common-sense and at least the bare outlines of mental association. One cannot become a slave to assocationism—it is important, for instance, to realize that not all pointed arches are holy, especially bad pseudo-Victorian pseudo-Gothic ones, but some can be beautiful—but one ought not to ignore it either. People pick these things up for a reason. And sometimes the logic behind it may verge on the cheesy, but it sometimes works: there's a lot of Swedes in the Midwest, and it's cold, so, bingo, Stave Churches. Why not? In this dull age, I'll take what I can get. On the other hand, a white stucco Mission church in damp Minnesota suggests the add-water instant-mud-pies of adobe architecture, which is just disconcerting. A yellow-stucco one suggests northern Italy, which at least has some familiarity with the cold, or even the gemutlichkeit of Bavaria’s alpine chapels. A Spanish Baroque church in Massachusetts seems more outré than traditional, but do it up in brick and white limestone and one has a whole new style, a sort of parallel-universe Christopher Wren in a world where Mary Tudor and Philip had their heir, however improbably. Transplantation is not impossible, but mediation is required, and from that necessity springs the beauty of particularity. King’s College Chapel in Arizona might be a fine place to fry bacon, but modifying it with the narrow-windowed, deep-shadowed feel of Spanish Gothic would render it real again and give birth to something wholly unique and yet traditional.
Climate, though, effectively becomes the test for pretense. Our English ancestors may have complained of drafty Palladian windows, but in time they adapted the master of Vincenza’s lines to their damper, darker weather, and the same with us in America. French classicism dealt with rain and sleet with steeper roofs. Villa Terrace’s shallow tile roofs and courtyard are the problem here, potential miseries in a bitter Midwestern winter. A house is more than its function, but people do have to live there, and surely a solution which is beautiful, historic, and functional is the most elegant of all.