Peter Pringle's America: In the Wright frame of mind

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The Independent Online
EVERY so often the incivility of New York can walk right over you. Literally. The other morning my wife had the misfortune to trip and fall at the corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue, an elegant residential area on the edge of Greenwich Village dominated by the offices of Forbes, the money magazine, and the New School for Social Research. My wife landed in the gutter and as she struggled to get up people on their way to work simply looked the other way. One young man stepped over her and hurried across the street.

At moments like these I feel like cutting loose and heading for the prairie. Why engage in this endless, unwinnable battle with filth, noise and hostility? Why try to make peace with the mass organism of New York that is incurably at war with itself?

And yet just as it becomes unbearable, New York offers unexpected antidotes. In this case, for example, a dose of the Guggenheim Museum can do the trick. In this wonderful place you are not only bathed in art but also immersed in the most famous building designed by America's greatest architect and foremost city- hater, Frank Lloyd Wright. Communing with Wright's spirit, gone from his body these 35 years, will help to exorcise the city's demons, or so I have found.

The Guggenheim is like no other building on Fifth Avenue, a spiralling shape symbolising growth and cocking a snook at the uniformity of the buildings around it. The Guggenheim symbolises not only Wright's genius, but also his unrelieved hatred of cities, especially New York. As far as he was concerned American cities were filled with the 'mobocracy', his own dismissive term for US city dwellers. He railed against the urban clusters as a 'persistent form of social disease'.

From his first experience of New York in 1926, when he came from the Midwest to get his 'worm's eye view' of East Coast society, Wright never really changed his mind. The city reduced its inhabitants to insects, he decided. 'Streams of more and more insignificant facades and dead walls rise and pour out of hard-faced masses behind and above human beings all crawling on hard pavements like ants to hole in somewhere or find their way to this or that cubicle.'

In 1958, the year before his death, the only future he saw for New York was oblivion 'by way of the atom bomb'. The thought recalls John Betjeman's 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', but one has the impression that Wright's comment was the more serious.

Once out of Fifth Avenue traffic and its boorish commuters, and into the snail shell of the Guggenheim, the museum wraps around you, shutting out unpleasantness and propelling you heavenwards. On the way back to earth, down the spiraling walls you can see the paintings - providing the canvases are not too large.

The building came to be known as 'Wright's joke on New York'. Typically, Wright had more thought for the environmental factors than for paintings. He maintained that architecture was the 'mother art' from which all other forms should flow. With supreme arrogance he neglected to think about, or didn't care about, the art; in particular, how the larger paintings could be hung. They couldn't easily be hung, clearly, because of the continuously curving walls. 'What do you call this stuff?' he would say as he whisked through a collection, twirling his cane dismissively.

Wright took care through his long life - he lived to be 91 - to reside outside cities. Like Jefferson, another American genius architect, who lived in his courtly mansion at Monticello in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, Wright eventually forsook even the suburbs of Chicago for a hilltop in Wisconsin.

For city lovers the anti-urbanist in Wright has long been bothersome because they cannot reconcile his genius with his desire to avoid cities, an obvious source of inspiration for architects and the ultimate showcase. Wren lived in London, Borromini in Rome and Gaudi in Barcelona, so how could Wright possibly not live in New York?

That Americans have still not forgiven him this aberration is evident from the outpouring of Wrightiana currently accompanying a spectacular exhibition of his work, 35 years after his death, at the Museum of Modern Art. It is the largest exhibition ever assembled by the museum's department of architecture and design, beginning in the 1880s when he was a precocious teenager in provincial Wisconsin. There are 350 of his drawings and 30 scale models, some assembled for the show.

To view these works is to understand why this man hated cities. His buildings needed elbow room. They symbolised innovation and self-confidence: Wright would not be fenced in. There one can see the low-slung, solid Midwestern houses, the forerunner of the ranch-style, and there is the romantic outpost of Taliesin West in Arizona, and the cantilevered Falling Water house in the Pennsylvanian woods. He wanted people to enjoy America's space, not its culture. For that there was always Europe.

So, he built the Guggenheim for a moment's separation from this city. The building transports you elsewhere, into the desert or out into my imaginary prairie. But, usually, by the time I've spiralled my way down past the art, enjoying about as much as I can stand, I'm ready again to face the streets of the city. And I am thinking a New Yorker's thoughts, such as: if we lived in a nice place like Milwaukee, I'd still have to catch a plane to New York to visit the retrospective on Frank Lloyd Wright. Or the Guggenheim.

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