My pals in SoCal think they’re in a struggle against architectural ignorance. I would say they’ve picked a battle they may yet win. Meanwhile, the puffed-up, self-inflated NorCal county where I live remains, in its man-made elements, among the grimmest places in the state, with little to lose and less to save. I shouldn’t feel surprised. You may recall Frenchy Winkler’s nouveau riche décor in Small Time Crooks (Woody Allen, 2000). Of an enormous antique concert harp parked in the middle of her drawing room she declaims, “I like the visual sweep!”
If only! If only!
Mind you, this is a locale in which one putative neighbor of mine, an entrepreneur of campy space-opera cinema (whom no one has ever seen fetching grout and nails from the village hardware), is exalted not for his silly movies but for his high-brow taste, which inclines toward Neo-Imperialist Mission Hegemony. And that’s fine in a way: his vast properties integrate perfectly with nearby Taco Bells, Rite Aids, and In-N-Out hamburger joints. (For so-called new money, the only principle of aesthetic unity seems to be, well, unity. Whatever it is, it mustn’t stick out like a sore thumb but must harmonize with the surrounding landscape. Of course, if the surrounding landscape is fake pilasters and fake truss-beams and fake porticos, rather a lot of shit is going to harmonize.)
To illustrate the predicament: a few days ago The Lesser Half and I decided to search for the Berger House, a Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” model that the Bergers, impecunious school teachers, constructed with their own hands in the mid-50s from Wright’s plans. It wasn’t quite DIY, as they were guided piecemeal through the project by Wright’s associate Aaron Green.
We found the address* on-line, plugged it into the DB5’s navigation system, and off we went, noodling among the twisty near-vertical lanes above the town of San Anselmo. (Hard to know what to think of a town named for a medieval Schoolman who devised a proof of God’s existence based on the definition of the word God, which should also work for lots of stuff that isn’t particularly holy.) When our A.I. companion finally announced “Destination ahead,” murmuring in what The Lesser Half calls the “Honor Blackman setting,” we pulled over and hopped out. In every direction driveways disappeared upwards into heavily forested hillside. Nothing vaguely resembling a Frank Lloyd Wright structure was visible from where we stood. OK, no big deal — the lot is probably tucked away, out of sight from the road. We’ll ask someone.
One after another, locals walked by with growly David Lynch-like puppies levitating at the ends of taut leashes. “Excuse me, can you tell us where the Wright house is?” No one knew anything about it; only one person seemed even to understand to whom the name “Wright” might refer. We checked the address again, and later, at home, confirmed it by zooming in from outer space by satellite.
There, we hovered over and circled round its odd faceted — if virtual — beauty in 3D mode. And you can do the same: the Berger residence is plainly visible from Medium Earth Orbit at an altitude of 12,552 miles. Just forget about asking the neighbors.
But wait, there’s an epilogue. Summoned for Jury Duty recently, a fate made bearable only for its being an excuse to hang out in one of the great masterpieces of modern civic architecture, Wright’s final and posthumously completed work, I found myself in a pool of juror prospects, all pontificating about the slow wi-fi as they continuously checked their Rolexes. To the gal next to me I said, “At least if we’re going to sit here twiddling our thumbs, we get to do it in this building.”
“Hohoho,” she said — and I mean said; it wasn’t actual laughter — “You mean the International House of Pancakes — that’s what I call it. It sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“Ah,” I answered, or rather thought, inaudibly, “so it does.”
* You can paste this address — 259 Redwood Rd, CA 94960 — into your Google or Apple satellite map to see the house yourself.