• I spent most of last week gadding about Connecticut and Massachusetts. On Tuesday I went to New Haven to see Long Wharf Theatre’s new production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which I reviewed enthusiastically in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
I also paid a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, one of America’s most celebrated teaching museums, which is housed in a 1953 building designed by Louis Kahn. It was Yale’s first modern building, and I gather that the locals didn’t much care for it, for the curators started tinkering with the interior almost as soon as it opened, and it was only recently that the building was renovated and restored to something closely approaching its original design. Not having seen it prior to last week, I can’t say whether the renovation was an improvement, but I was definitely impressed by the restored building, which struck me as a near-ideal place in which to display and view paintings.
Unlike most college museums, the Yale Art Gallery has a permanent collection comparable in quality to the remarkable building in which it is housed. (Go here and here to see some of the highlights.) Even if you don’t have any other reasons to go to New Haven, it’s worth a visit all by itself.
• In a nice coincidence, a reader writes apropos of last week’s posting about Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse:
Architecture is an applied art–i.e., it must actually work at the same time that it is beautiful or evokes emotions of awe or wonder or whatever. Obviously, this applies to architecture that aspires to be more than merely functional–not to a Wal-Mart, which is unconcerned with anything but function. If you eliminate attempts to be anything other than functional, it’s much easier.
But isn’t the Farnsworth House “easy” in a similar way, by eliminating any attempt to be functional?
Someone like Louis Kahn, who was intensely concerned with solving the problems of a site or a program, and did so with beautiful, elegant forms, seems to be much the greater architect than Mies.
A couple of days later, I heard from a second reader who came after me from a diametrically opposed direction:
You said: “The problem with the Farnsworth House–and with all minimalist architecture–is that it is cruelly unforgiving of the ordinary clutter of everyday life.”
This house was built as an escape from the clutter of daily living, a place to clear the mind of the complexities and chaos of life, to focus on other aspects of existence. For me, the minimalist simplicity and serene sense of order is what makes it a successful retreat, a refreshing change. The clutter is left behind at home in the city. I think most of us do aspire to be able to escape from our own messy environment occasionally.
The second owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, filled the tiny 1,400-square-foot house with hundreds of small objects and collectibles. It still looked great, and served as his retreat from the stresses of his busy life for 30 years.
These statements appear at first glance to be incompatible–but might they both be true?
I agree wholeheartedly with my second correspondent that the Farnsworth House provides an unrivaled opportunity to escape from the hum, buzz, and clutter of everyday life. I’m not so sure, however, that Mies would have been inclined to allow for much clutter in any home he designed, be it a weekend retreat or a full-time residence. Like so many modern architects, he created buildings that impose an exterior vision of life on their owners. This, of course, is what art does–but as my first correspondent rightly points out, architecture is an applied art that exists not merely for its own sake, but for the sake of those who use it as well.
One of the things I find most interesting about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses is the way in which they integrate form and function instead of allowing one to predominate over the other. Yes, they shape the lives of their occupants–everyone who has written about the experience of living in a Wright house admits as much–but as Ada Louise Huxtable pointed out in her brief life of Wright,
Wright’s houses never insisted that their occupants reshape themselves to conform to an abstract architectural ideal….His houses are positively gemütlich compared with the enforced antisepsis that has reached a challenging astringency as the architectural avant-garde strives for a reductive perfection.
I think this is at once rather too hard on Mies and the least bit too easy on Wright, but it does point to an aspect of the Farnsworth House that certain of its more fervent admirers are apt to overlook. It also begs an interesting pair of questions. Are buildings meant to be lived in, or lived up to–and need these alternatives be mutually exclusive?
I’m just asking.
• Over the weekend I drove up to Boston to see two very different plays, the Huntington Theater Company’s production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and American Repertory Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I’ll be reviewing both shows in Friday’s Wall Street Journal.
Non-compensated endorsement: the next time you spend the night in Cambridge, I strongly suggest that you stay at the Charles Hotel and dine at Legal Sea Foods.
• Yesterday I returned to New York, where I have four pieces to write and a string of shows to see. Tonight I’m going to the Metropolitan Opera House to watch American Ballet Theatre dance Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and George Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante, neither of which I’ve seen for a number of years. On Thursday I’m seeing a preview of Crazy Mary, A.R. Gurney’s new play, and over the weekend I plan to catch three installments of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges. Next Monday it’s Neil LaBute’s In a Dark Dark House. A week from today I hit the road again, this time to spend a few days visiting my family in Smalltown, U.S.A.
More as it happens.