Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Upper Crust ethos

Kentuck Knob, a Frank Lloyd Wright house now on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wiki Commons)
One of the things missing in England is Frank Lloyd Wright. There is an installation of a room he designed, an office, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but I’ll need a lot more reasons for a London trip than viewing a single room, even if it was by Frank Lloyd Wright. London, contrary to popular belief, is not close to every other place in England. First, there are the miles and miles of two-lane roads with little motorway involvement. Second, Cornwall is about 200 miles from London. Plus one has to pay 12 pounds a day to the government to take one’s car into the city itself…But I digress.

I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs because they are so perfect not only architecturally, but in their underlying ethos. Wright’s Usonian house idea always intrigued me; these were marvelous houses meant for the middle class, and not the filthy rich. There are only about sixty of them standing today, but one was in the Baltimore neighborhood where I lived for six years. You can see it here.

There were also, nearby, the Frank Lloyd Wrong houses, modern cubes with oddly attached roofs and stacks of glass bricks here and there on the façade, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. (I use the term façade with my tongue firmly in my cheek; to Baltimoreans, the word is fakade. I swear.) I didn’t name them Frank Lloyd Wrong houses. My late good friend the Rev. Jeffrey Proctor called them that after he moved to Baltimore; he, too, was fond of Frank Lloyd Wright, and had a lovely sense of humor.

However, this is about neither the Frank Lloyd Wright house in my larger  environment all that time, nor the Frank Lloyd Wrong houses I had to drive to get to Starbucks.

It is about elitism, and how bone-deep it seemingly is in the American moneyed class. The Old Money class, that is.

It was probably more than 30 years ago that I first became friends with a couple who lived in a swell house on Manhattan’s East Side. It was filled with museum-quality furniture and paintings. After I moved away from NYC, when I was their weekend guest, I awoke to a Courbet hung above the dresser in the room I was assigned. It certainly was fun, too, to be served the de rigueur East Side watercress soup followed by a chicken wing and a mushroom cap at the elegant dinner parties the couple hosted, parties where one might easily meet Nepalese princes and princesses, among other people born to the ermine. (At West Side parties, one actually got fed real, life-sustaining food, although those soirees lacked the monkey-suited serving guys one would encounter on the East Side.)

Still, I quite enjoyed going on the New York Garden Club tours each spring as a guest of my friend’s mother. I got to see Zubin Mehta’s house and garden one year. On those days, we always had lunch at the Summerhouse, a very preppy spot on the upper East Side.

Once, my friend and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be, as she ALWAYS put it, “culture vultures.”  I was keen to see the new installation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Francis W. Little House II Living Room.  “I can’t stand that stuff,” my friend intoned. “If you want to see it, I’ll just go and wait for you outside.”

I did want to see it, and I did see it. No accounting for taste, I thought, and thought nothing of it.

But now, on reflection, and coupled with a later incident, I have decided her distaste was not aesthetic, at least not totally, but cultural/class-based as well.

The other incident?  While disagreeing with my political views, my friend’s husband told me I was childish and used the term “you people” to denigrate my opinion. I ended the friendship over that, and not before time, I think.  

I suspect I was the house oddity for the couple, the unaccountably well-raised member of the middle-class, decently educated, slightly traveled, and with a knowledge of which fork to use. But I didn’t fit intrinsically into their world, just as Frank Lloyd Wright, with his ideas of a decent bit of ground and some lovely furnishings for all, didn’t fit. (NOTE: Wright wasn’t a universal egalitarian. His ideas descended only down through the middle-class, but that was better than most architects of his day, who thought only about the wealthy and their needs).

Regarding its Wright room, the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that the house from which it came “is composed of a group of low pavilions interspersed with gardens and terraces, which, in plan, radiate from a central symbolic hearth.” Wright took into account the architectural/cultural lexicon of a few thousand years, making the ancient concept of the cultural heart/hearth move onward through the Roman vernacular of rooms for specific uses, to the thoroughly modern concept that a home should be an organic whole.

That is not so, of course, in the homes of America’s upper classes. They are not now, and never were, organic wholes. There would have to be separations so that servants would not forget their place, so that mere tradesmen should be forced to use a rear entrance, while invited gentry used the front. (Visiting the house of George Bernard Shaw last weekend, I learned that he refused to use the servant bells in his house; he both believed and lived his socialist ideals, in direct contravention of British upper crust mores, which the American upper crust was aping.)

Upper crust houses have not historically featured flowing spaces, meant to put residents and guests at ease as in a Wright house. Rather, the upper crust manse will feature defined and delimited areas, entry to which denotes one’s position in the hierarchy of the family or in society at large. Admission to the kitchen meant one was a servant; houseguests, of course, could also enter to get a glass of milk before bed and so on, being temporary “family.”

Usonian houses did have separate dining rooms, or at the very least, dining areas. And the kitchen itself conformed to the upper class ideal; it was place where the work of cooking and cleaning up was done, and was not appropriate for guests. Not because kitchen work is inferior and should be reserved only for servants, but because dinner guests are to be pampered and honored in return for the conversation and liveliness the contribute to the occasion. Although he was an egalitarian, Wright drew the line at imposing a host’s tasks on guests--a line I do retain in common with my ex-friend--and kept the kitchen where it belongs, as a separate room.

Unlike my friend, I could easily live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, should I ever be fortunate enough for the gods of civilization to bestow one upon me. And everyone, from the man cleaning the gutters to Prince Charles, would be invited in the front door and given some refreshment on the good china.* Indeed, it has never once occurred to me to treat tradesmen/women any differently than I would treat Prince Charles. As my mother used often to say, they all put their knickers on one leg at a time. (Actually, she said, “What, they pee perfume?”  We got the message.)

Her message was that it doesn’t matter who you are, but what you are matters very much. Who you are is denoted by whether you live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,  a mansion on Manhattan’s East Side, a Frank Lloyd Wrong house, my house, or a tent. Or your car, these days. One’s estate is not what one is; it merely represents one’s current state of finance, something that changes over time for everyone. Everyone. Even my fine friends had to sell some paintings to afford schools for their kids, darn fine schools, but still….And in the end, when they couldn’t afford the inheritance taxes on that fine East Side pile of bricks, they had to rent it out and move to the hinterlands.

But you know what? They are doubtless still referring to those they perceive to be of lesser estate as “you people.” The great unwashed. Yup. The rest of us.  I’m one of “you people,” and proud of it.

But I still wouldn’t mind if the gods of bricks and mortar dropped a bona fide Frank Lloyd Wright house in my back garden.

* Ludicrous thought, as is “good silver.” If you and your family aren’t good enough for the good china, who is? Reverse snobbery…against yourself. If you don’t regularly use the silver, you’ll have to polish it by the time you get it out of the drawer. Far better to regularly use your “stuff” I think.