Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

04 OCTOBER, 2012

On Beauty, Quality, Poetry, and Integrity: Anaïs Nin Meets Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1947)

By:

“His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable.”

Among the richest and most rewarding parts of Anaïs Nin’s diaries are her encounters with and impressions of cultural icons, whether personalities like Gore Vidal or legendary cities like Paris vs. New York. Yesterday’s compendium of quotes, quips, and words of wisdom by famous architects reminded me of Nin’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., son of the great Frank Lloyd Wright, recounted in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin’s poignant reflections on why emotional excess is essential to creativity and how technology relates to the meaning of life. Though Lloyd Wright, as he was better known, remained in many ways in the inescapable shadow of his father’s legend, he was himself a highly accomplished and visionary architect.

In 1926, a group known as the Allied Architects was commissioned to rebuild the iconic Hollywood Bowl, originally constructed in 1922, but their improvements failed to accommodate sufficient seating or improve the acoustics. In 1927, Wright designed what’s commonly considered the best shell the Hollywood Bowl has ever had, acoustically speaking — a pyramidal structure that was, sadly, deemed too avant-garde by the powers that be and was subsequently demolished after just one season. The following year, Wright was granted a redo and he designed a collapsible, concentric fiberglass shell with movable panels inside for tuning the acoustics — but that, too, was buried for political reasons. The Allied Architects took over for the 1929 season and built the structure that endured, with cosmetic modifications (including, most famously, one by Frank Gehry in 1982), until 2003. It was that “monstrously ugly” version that stood when Nin met Wright in 1947.

Progression of the Hollywood Bowl shell, 1926-1929

While the Hollywood Bowl is but a passing mention in their encounter, Nin’s extraordinary insight into Wright’s ethos becomes, as so much of her writing does, a springboard for a larger meditation on architecture, the world of art and role of the artist, and the ideological underpinnings of mid-century American culture.

I saw his plans for Los Angeles. It could have been the most beautiful city in the world, for everyone to come to see, as people went to see Venice. But architecture had been taken over by businessmen, and Lloyd the artist was not allowed to carry out his incredibly rich, fecund concepts. The room was full of them. When he took a rolled-up drawing from the shelves and spread it over the table, I saw buildings which equaled the wonders of the past.

[…]

Strength was obvious in him, but sensitivity and imagination were in his drawings. Homes, churches, plans for entire cities. A universe of lyrical beauty in total opposition to the sterile, monotonous, unimaginative ‘box’-buildings now seen all over the world.

[…]

I expected Los Angeles to be filled with his buildings. This was not the case. Fame highlighted his father’s work, but not Lloyd’s—not as he deserved. If his plans had been carried out, the world would have been dazzled by them. His work was on a scale which should have appealed to the spirit of grandeur in the American character, a dramatic and striking expression of a new land. But instead, American architects chose to take the path of imitating Europe, of uniformity, monotony, dullness. In Lloyd’s work there was space, invention, poetry, a restrained and effective use of the romantic, surprises always in the forms, new and imaginative use of structural parts, rooms, windows, and materials. He has a gift for involvement in many-leveled lives, for the variations, caprices, and nuances necessary to the human spirit. Every stone, every roof-tile, every window, every texture or material was designed for the consistent development of his building, its environment, and designed to elevate the quality of people’s lives. Uniformity and monotony kill individuality, dull the senses. Lloyd designed his work to reinforce individuality with poetry, beauty, and integrity. It was planned to create a more beautiful and satisfying human environment. Architecture as poetry. … By contrast, the commonplace, shoddy, temporary movie-set houses around him were painful to see. He called them ‘cracker boxes,’ shabby, thin, motel-type homes for robots.

[…]

The Wright pride. Yes, pride in quality. He supervises his buildings, takes care of every detail: searches for masons who care about stonework, painters who can paint, metalworkers who are skillful. Today, in an age of amateurs, this is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. He speaks out boldly, as Varèse did. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable. Beauty and integrity. And for them one has to be willing to make sacrifices.

[…]

This architect never falls off the high standards, the heights he established for himself. The mediocre and the deformed sprout around him, like weeds, ugly buildings which do not endure and which look shabby after a few months. He is offended, but he does not surrender. He finds it “futile, offensive, and all-pervasive, but not inevitable.

In one of her visits, Nin has a chance to look through Wright’s notes and comments on architecture, where she finds the following telling micro-manifesto:

I am concerned with our natural environment, how we can discover and utilize form, and perfect the endlessly varied, stimulating and beautiful services it provides for mankind. It is the architect’s opportunity and responsibility to understand and practice the art of creating with and out of them a suitable environment for mankind—advancing the art with every conceivable means, including, among others, poetic license and poetic prescience. And now, after billions of years of experience and preconditioning on this earth (from the development of the first one-celled amoeba to our present human complex) we have no valid excuse for not performing superbly.

Image adapted from Jason Rzucidlo

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

04 OCTOBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on Life, Death, Art, and Freedom

By:

“Oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us the celebrated thinker’s list of “rules + duties for being 24″ and her 10 rules for raising a child. On February 13, 1951, shortly after Sontag’s 18th birthday, she jotted down some fragmented notes on her current reading — War and Peace, Caudewll, a biography of Dostoyevsky — then turned the existential lens inwards, as one inevitably, and often reluctantly, does around personal milestones, adding to other cultural icons’ meditations on the meaning of life:

From Rilke:

… the great question-dynasty: … if we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision, + impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?’

Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it– but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast; which is merely to say that I reject weak, manipulative, despairing lust, I am not a beast, I will not to be a futilitarian. I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.  

But how, when one can, to instrument the fact of wholeness + love? One must attempt more than the surety of reflexive nurturing. If ‘life is a hollow form, a negative mold, all the grooves + indentations of which are agony, disconsolations + the most painful insights, then the casting from this … is happiness, assent– most perfect + most certain bliss.’ But how protected + resolved one would have to be! And this leads one outside art to the dying, the madness– oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?

More of Sontag’s meditations on life — including her thoughts on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms — are collected in the second volume of her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Architect Says: A Compendium of Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom from Iconic Architects

By:

Gehry, Eames, Le Corbusier, Fuller, Hadid, and more.

There’s something inescapably alluring about pocket-sized compendiums of quotes by great architects and designers — take, for instance, those of Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. Fittingly, The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom (public library) gathers timeless wisdom on design and architecture from more than 100 of history’s most vocal — and often dissenting — minds. What emerges, besides the fascinating tapas bar of ideas about the art and science of building, is the subtle but essential reminder that what lies at the heart of creative legacy aren’t universal formulas and unrelenting tents but perspective, conviction, and personality.

Frank Gehry (1929–) speaks to the power of ignorance and insecurity in the creative process, and echoing Orson Welles:

For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did, and I get the sweats, I go in and start working, I’m not sure where I’m going — if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t do it.

Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) offers a list of “the only requirements to be considered when building a house”:

  1. sex life
  2. sleeping habits
  3. pets
  4. gardening
  5. personal hygiene
  6. protection against weather
  7. hygiene in the home
  8. car maintenance
  9. cooking
  10. heating
  11. insolation
  12. service

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) reminds us of the joy of the analog:

Is anything more pleasurable to the mind than unsullied paper? The studious comparisons and selections of ‘stock’ in textures and colors of cards and paper?

Tom Kundig (1954–) stresses the importance of cross-pollinating perspectives:

I learn more from creative people in other disciplines than I do even from other architects because I think they have a way of looking at the world that is really important.

Thom Mayne (1944 — ) explores the relationship between simplicity and complexity:

Architecture is a discipline that takes time and patience. If one spends enough years writing complex novels one might be able, someday, to construct a respectable haiku.

Glenn Murcutt (1936–) voices something George Lois has since echoed:

We do not create the work. I believe we, in fact, are discoverers.

Le Corbusier (1887–1965) stands for the honesty of drawing:

I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.

Jan Kaplicky (1937–2009) on creativity as subtraction:

It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It’s just a waste of energy.

Then there are the contradictions:

Some of them, of course, are but a caricature of the infamous architect arrogance. From Louis Kahn (1901–1974):

The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.

Really? (At least he didn’t say “my building.”)

The Architect Says comes, unsurprisingly, from Princeton Architectural Press.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.