15 October 2008

Staying in a Wright House

Terry Teachout, an arts writer, spent a few days in Frank Lloyd Wright's Penfield House and then blogged about it. The post is here and although you have to read through the narrative of his entire trip, and more, to get to his impressions of the house, they're worth reading:

The Penfield House is one of six Wright-designed houses that can be rented on a short-term basis. It's located in Willoughby, a quiet suburb east of downtown Cleveland. The house isn't visible from the road--it's in the middle of thirty acres of heavily wooded land--and you have to look closely to spot the Cherokee-red gate which tells you that you've gotten where you're going. You push open the gate and drive down the gravel road, and all at once the house comes quietly into view, a simple two-story home built out of glass, wooden beams, concrete blocks, and light tan asbestos-and-concrete panels. Like all of Wright's Usonian houses, the Penfield House seems to melt into the landscape rather than dominating it. As you pass through the unostentatious entrance, you feel as though you're still out of doors, for one of the walls of the twelve-foot-high living room is made almost entirely of glass, and the ceiling and floor extend beyond the glass wall in such a way as to create the illusion that the house is wide open to the surrounding woodland. The Chagrin River is nearby, and Paul Penfield, the owner, has cut a trail through the woods, making it possible for guests to wander at their leisure. Even though the house is only twenty minutes from downtown Cleveland, the city feels as though it's on the far side of the world. One afternoon I sat in the living room watching the leaves fall, and a half-dozen deer sauntered through the yard as though I didn't exist. ...

[One definition of a true Manhattanite is a person who is still enchanted by deer.]

At night we drove into the city to dine and see shows, but we came back to the house as soon as we were done, for we knew within minutes of our arrival on Sunday that we'd want to spend as much time there as possible. Since both theaters were dark on Monday, Mrs. T and I spent the whole day and night at the house, leaving only long enough to buy groceries. After dinner we turned on all the lights, went outside, and marveled at its warm, unassuming beauty. Even though the Penfield House is a work of art in and of itself, Paul and his wife Donna have gone to considerable trouble to make it look and feel like a home, not a museum. I've never stayed in a more comfortable place, or a more soothing one. Some part of this comfort, I know, arose less from the house than from the circumstances of our staying there. To spend four days in a Web-free woodland retreat could scarcely fail to please an Upper West Side writer who lives in the middle of the hum and buzz of urban culture. But it wouldn't have been the same had we stayed in a log cabin or a McMansion, for the all-pervading orderliness of the grid that Wright used to generate the floor plan and architectural detail of the Penfield House is both relaxing and reassuring to the eye. Modern the house most definitely is, but not in the hectoring manner of the International Style. It is, above all, tranquil, a point of repose in a world of pandemonium, a place where you can hear yourself think--or, if you like, where you can think of nothing at all. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself." Such self-sufficient things were the stuff of which our four days at Penfield House were made: falling leaves, train whistles in the distance, deer on the lawn, rain on the roof.
That's a good description of what appeals to me about the best modern houses I've visited. A good modern house is "tranquil, a point of repose in a world of pandemonium, a place where you can hear yourself think--or, if you like, where you can think of nothing at all."

Of course I have no idea what he's talking about when he refers to the "hectoring manner of the International Style." Bullying? Swaggering? Intimidating or dominating? The Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is International Style and it's as warm and comforting as a New England farmhouse. Ditto for the Noyes II House, in New Canaan. I've never been in the Mandel House, which is down the road from where I work in Bedford Hills, but even if it were cold and austere, I have a hard time imagining how it would be hectoring.

Regardless. Impressions differ. Teachout's enthusiasms can be hard to take but I like his description of the FLW house. -- ta

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