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Travel: Taliesin West

Having finally visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park, Illinois houses last winter, the Hollyhock and Ennis houses in Los Angeles and Taliesin in Wisconsin last year, I recently took one more fresh tour, the Insights tour, through his ingenious Taliesin West. Wright’s winter camp is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, though the docent pointed out that he probably wouldn’t have put it there today had he known what the local government would do.

What they did was mar the landscape he had worked so diligently to study, examine, research, consider, develop and integrate into his unique vision for the art of living he called modern architecture.

exterior at Taliesin West photo by Scott HolleranWhere Wright and his fellowship of apprentices had built a home, lab and place in sloping stone walls, redwood beams and sand to align with the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the government has since made several changes including above-ground utility poles and other decisions he would have considered transgressions against art, nature and man. But then the docent on my recent tour, a student whose father is an architect who studied with Wright, pointed out that Wright thought traffic lights were also against man’s nature, too.

Wright created great American treasures from the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and an iconic Rodeo Drive building in Beverly Hills to New York’s Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania. He had discovered Arizona in 1927, when he was contracted to design the Arizona Biltmore. Wright moved to the Grand Canyon State, staying each winter season, until he died in 1959.

He wrote about his design for Taliesin West:

I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-drenched, air, by the stark geometry of the mountains, the entire region was an inspiration in strong contrast to the lush, pastoral landscape of my native Wisconsin. And out of that experience, a revelation is what I guess you might call it, came the design for these buildings. The design sprang out of itself, with no precedent and nothing following it.”

FLW TW CabaretPools, terraces, icicles, dragons, towers, gardens, theaters and living quarters – where I spotted his copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell – are masterfully forged into an angled camp that adheres to his philosophy that buildings be bathed in warm, natural light. Refusing to make it on a strict north-south axis, he once explained to an archivist that tilting the design off the direct compass points sunlight and shade throughout Taliesin West’s rooms and views all year long. Looking toward the Camelback Mountains and over Paradise Valley, he found in this land the wonders of what was once an ocean floor, accentuating unusual Cholla and Staghorn cactus for their resemblance to strange corals.

As Wright wrote in 1937:

We must believe architecture to be the living spirit

that made these buildings what they were.

It is a spirit by and for man,

a spirit of time and place.

And we must perceive architecture,

if we are to understand it at all,

to be a spirit of the spirit of man

that will live as long as man lives…

 

These buildings were wrested

by his tireless energy from the earth

and erected in the eye of the sun.

It was originally the conscious creation,

out of man himself, of a higher self.

His building, in order to be architecture,

was the true spirit of himself made manifest…

Taliesin West photo by Scott HolleranEach place at Taliesin West, from the sculpture garden to the cabaret, dining room – even the parking lot – bears the mark of Frank Lloyd Wright and must be seen to be fully experienced and appreciated. My pictures are just that. Some photography is forbidden due to copyright issues. There is much to enjoy and explore at Taliesin West. This was my second visit. Each time, I gain something of value. I plan to visit again. Like almost everything in the desert and the American West, it offers strange beauty, grand vistas of earth and sky and it brings out the best in man.

Tours currently range in time from 90 minutes to three hours, and from $24 to $75, with some requiring reservations in advance and most available for booking on site. Tour availability, hours, seasonal and adult/child/handicapped access issues are all addressed on the Web site: FrankLloydWright.org

Accredited architectural undergraduate and master’s degrees are also available through studies at Taliesin West. Tuition is $30,000 for each program. Competition for admission is strong, though applicants with advanced critical thinking and graphic arts skills are encouraged to apply for admission. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, divided into two season sessions at Taliesin West (October through May) and Taliesin (May through October), is a 12-month calendared, year-round program which requires residency on the campus. For more information, call the director of admissions at (480) 627-5345 or visit Taliesin.edu.

OCON in Chicago

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Chicago at night, seen from the top of the John Hancock Tower. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved.

Filling up on arts and philosophy at this year’s Objectivist Conference (OCON), I enrolled in courses and general lectures by favorite teachers and intellectuals and I attended a screening of Love Letters (1945) with commentary by one of my filmmaker friends, who, appropriately, wrote and directed an Academy Award-nominated movie about Objectivism’s fountainhead, Ayn Rand. This was the first OCON in Chicago, Illinois, near where I grew up, and I attended shortly after my article on Ayn Rand’s life in Chicago was published. Combined with visits to the John Hancock Building, The Drake Hotel and Taliesin, I enjoyed every minute.

Chicago Reach for the Stars: Milgram, Siek and Hoenig

OCON was held at the Westin Michigan Avenue across from a skyscraper, so my favorite general session, “Chicago Reach for the Stars,” turned out to be an appropriate title for what was an innovative approach to communicating to a general audience, though I have to admit I was skeptical of the title at first, despite being well acquainted with the session’s instructors, English professor and Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram, arts scholar Stephen Siek and hedge fund manager Jonathan Hoenig. They each valiantly and breathlessly presented a condensed series of what were really like vignettes – the session was too short and it felt rushed – and their trio of presentations were excellent.

Dr. Milgram, a friend whom I had interviewed for my article, explained in her instruction on Ayn Rand in Chicago that in the summer of 1926, the refugee from Soviet Russia was immersed in films, family and fiction. 21-year old Ayn, not yet known by that first name, kept a movie diary, had done some film writing and saw more movies per day in Chicago than at any other time in her life. We learned that she saw the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney on March 26, 1926, at Chicago’s Roxy theater and that she’d rated it “not even zero”. I liked knowing of course that my favorite writer was reviewing movies before she was assigned to write movies – Dr. Milgram said that young Rand had especially liked The Volga Boatment (it earned a five plus rating), which she thought was a sexy melodrama directed by Cecil B. DeMille about an aristocratic heroine and princess who meets a strong, handsome peasant named Fyodor. They’re alone together and in conflict with their political loyalties, which sounds to me like a compelling plot premise, when they must take shelter as newlyweds, with the princess disguised as a peasant, because she is engaged to Prince Nikita. Things take a darker turn, and Dr. Milgram explained that the movie is neither political nor philosophical but it is dramatically tense. Young Ayn Rand saw the motion picture at Warner’s Orpheum theater in Chicago.

There was more, about three sisters – Anna, Sarah and Minnie – who sold dry goods, helped with Ayn Rand’s English skills and they all used to get together on weekends. Our teacher said that the future author of Atlas Shrugged would never forget what her relatives had done for her, inscribing a copy of her first published novel, We the Living, to one of them, and that while in Chicago she wrote four original screen treatments and a short story, “The Husband I Bought” (The Early Ayn Rand). Ayn Rand would soon be on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, where she’d spot her future husband, Frank O’Connor, by chance on the set of a Cecil B. DeMille movie about Jesus Christ and, as we learned from Dr. Milgram, she’d soon meet DeMille himself by chance, too. She impressed The Ten Commandments filmmaker enough to spark his interest in her work but his story editor did not like young Ayn Rand’s stories – she denounced Rand’s story, “The Viking’s God”, as the work of “an erotic mind” who will “never become a writer of any ability.” DeMille hired Ayn Rand anyway as a junior screenwriter. Shoshana Milgram’s talk on the first part of Ayn Rand’s life in America was an exciting glimpse into the bustling city life of a vivacious young intellectual who became Ayn Rand, the person who made the books, movies and philosophy we were gathered to study and apply to our own lives.

Stephen Siek, a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who recently wrote a biography of England’s piano sage Tobias Matthay, spoke eloquently about the Windy City as a magnificent treasure trove of architecture. Calling Chicago the “birthplace of distinctly American architecture” where some of the greatest architects trained, Dr. Siek took us swiftly and gracefully through the late 19th century, showing photographs on slides from 1858 and forward in time to the Great Chicago Fire, which he told us burned for 36 hours, melted sidewalks and destroyed 18,000 buildings, and taking us to the time when young Frank Lloyd Wright, apprentice to architect Louis Sullivan, said ‘we’re building on the prairie here’. Chicagoland was remade on soil which is very soft clay – even softer closer to the lake – that’s perfect for making buildings that stir the imagination, inspire the soul and make history. Tapping Chicago’s once indomitable spirit of strength, he told the powerful story of a Chicago real estate entrepreneur who had survived the great fire but lost his home. The real estate salesman was soon seen again offering to sell private property after the fire, Dr. Siek solemnly told us, posting a sign that read: “All gone, but wife, children, and energy.” No city, Siek explained, was more vital than Chicago.

Chicago had the first iron-framed or steel-framed skyscraper, he said, introducing us to Daniel Hudson Burnham, public face of an architectural firm (he got the clients), and to John Root, who, according to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, is the engineering mastermind behind a building Wright loved, and later updated, named the Rookery (it’s still there; Siek urged everyone in the spellbound audience to visit). Taking one’s breath away with a picture of the Rookery’s lobby, which is Root’s design, I marveled at the cantilevered staircase, which Siek described as something out of a Jules Verne story. Wright later put his office at the Rookery. Dr. Siek, who is also a friend and an amazing artist in his own right – I enjoy listening to the beautiful music he plays which I have on my iTunes recordings – brought the lecture to a climax with tales of Sullivan and Wright, lumber magnates, debating architectural scholars and, finally, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, which hired the greatest architects in the world and gave us the only World’s Fair building that remains standing on earth: an art museum which is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a place of reverence for me when I was a child. Siek closed his lecture – and promptly introduced the next speaker – with a word about Wright’s masterpiece, the prairie styled Robie house. The exhaustive talk concretized architecture’s abstractions, applying this fine art to reality, in a way that was made easier by Shoshana Milgram’s portrait of a relentless and ambitious young writer Ayn Rand. The final installment cashed in, giving everything a brash, Chicago touch.

The last talk, titled “Chicago: City of Traders”, was by Fox News guest and hedge fund (Capitalist Pig) manager Jonathan Hoenig. He reminded the Objectivist audience, which needs reminding despite loosening up over the years, that capitalism and freedom – and life – are not always tidy; like Dr. Siek’s story of the real estate salesman after the fire, and Dr. Milgram’s tales of Ayn Rand’s ruthless pursuit of happiness, the trader principle may be activated in blunt, abrasive action that requires people to get up and at ’em. Never has this message been more relevant than now, when Objectivists (and others who claim to want to live in freedom before we die) can and do tend to be rationalists, pretentious academics and ivory tower intellectuals.

Hoenig, donning a vest and explaining in often disjointed fragments how futures trading works in Chicago, demonstrated that Chicago is a financial center of the world; a bold city of big shoulders, as Carl Sandburg once wrote, that bought into the concept of an exchange before New York City (theirs came later after New York and Boston wanted nothing to do with commodities markets). Tellingly, in sync with Drs. Milgram’s and Siek’s themes of hardworking middle-class people, Chicago trading was made initially and primarily by producers who were booksellers, farmers, grocers, tanners, druggists and hardware merchants. Yelling and booming and gesturing in live action for the audience what it means to trade in raucous signals of buying and selling – the requisite being assertiveness, as in life – Hoenig quoted Ayn Rand from her essays in Philosophy: Who Needs It, observing that the Chicago Stock Exchange was founded in 1972 with influence by economist Milton Friedman – the exchange was created by a Nazi concentration camp survivor – and explaining speculation as essential to capitalism and, by implication, to life.

Ayn Rand’s O. Henry – and Ours: Ingenuity, Optimism and Warmth

Shoshana Milgram, Ph.D. taught a course (I’ve previously attended her courses on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, Victor Hugo and Sinclair Lewis) on one of my favorite writers, O. Henry, and it is a personal conference highlight. Starting off with a reference to a line from one of O. Henry’s stories that neatly contains his trademark twist – “He is dead and I killed him …” – she offered insights into his work, which requires more than most short story writing that one check one’s premises, and she provided the life story of the man who’d once been William Sidney Porter. We learned, for instance, and with a bittersweet twist befitting one of his surprising tales, how becoming O. Henry was an ultimately painful, tragic journey (as a writer’s life often is) that began with his writing for the Houston Post, turned on a series of dark, mysterious choices relating to a criminal charge and time in prison and culminated in an extraordinary nine-year writing binge and exceptional career that leaves a legacy of stories based on a benevolent universe premise and O. Henry’s post-penitentiary view that disaster is not inevitable.

rgzpTZibContrasting Thomas Hardy’s Tess, in which people can’t change their stories (Tess is doomed), Milgram showed how O. Henry, whatever his crimes, created fiction that expresses the idea that what might be is what ought to be and that what ought to be is what might be. Citing a short poem as evidence that O. Henry held that happiness is possible here on earth, she noted that O. Henry also did not take domestic failings lightly; in more than a couple of stories, he writes about men who abuse their wives. And O. Henry’s fictional rich people are not automatically villainous – he “does not curse the dollar” – and the poor people are not automatically virtuous. At the time of her death in 1982, Milgram said, Rand owned 11 volumes of O. Henry’s works. Reading from another source, Milgram observed that his style and structure contain compactness and swiftness of resolution with a distinct ability to divert and amuse.

Shoshana Milgram suggested with good reason that, for young Rand in Communist Russia, O. Henry may have offered the hint of an un-Soviet world. Tracing Rand’s interest in his work to her writing, Milgram notes that two early Rand stories bear similarity to his work and may constitute an influence: The Night King and Escort. In Rand’s stories, as against O. Henry’s, people do not tend to get away with the crime. Neither did O. Henry, if in fact he did commit a crime as accused at the National Bank of Austin when he worked as a teller (it doesn’t help that he skipped town upon indictment). He’d been trying to launch a start-up publication called the Rolling Stone and the enterprise wasn’t going well, so he was working at the bank and he wound up in an Ohio prison after fleeing to Honduras (which had no extradition rules) and returning to the U.S. to visit his dying wife. One of his ideas before the legal trouble had been to move to Chicago for a writing job. Jumping bail when he was told to report for trial in Austin changed his life.

The class read and studied several stories, including Friends in San Rosario, The World and the Door, A Retrieved Reformation, which evokes Hugo’s Les Miserables, and, of course, Gift of the Magi about two “foolish children” who turn out to be newlyweds that are rather wise. It’s his most famous story, and Ayn Rand had a negative view of the tale, which she described as dramatizing “the futility of altruism.” Milgram wonders whether there might have been a problem in the Russian translation in some version that Ayn Rand might have read – certain Russian versions showed that the couple’s love is based on admiration and shared joy, not sacrifice, though both versions erroneously had gifts not gift in the title – and in any case Rand pegged it as a “sadistic horror story” in the December, 1976 Objectivist calendar. We discussed Gift of the Magi, which I liked, and other O. Henry stories such as An Unfinished Story, The Ransom of Mack and, briefly, Cabbages and Kings. Though it wasn’t assigned for class, I’d also read The Last Leaf at the suggestion of my mother, a retired English teacher who’d enjoyed the story as a girl, and it was pointed out to me that it seems clear in retrospect that O. Henry’s tale of a dying artist who might be saved by one, final masterpiece involves a same-sex couple.

O. Henry was probably an alcoholic. He died at the age of 47; he’d been drinking and had neglected his health and he was admitted to a hospital with cirrhosis of the liver and the most dilated heart his doctor had seen. O. Henry had diabetes, too. The writer known to his friends as Will Porter is said to have said “turn up the lights; I’m afraid to go home in the dark” before he died. Shoshana Milgram read from a play by Upton Sinclair in which a ghost character of Will Porter’s wife encourages us to remember O. Henry as a storyteller who was the voice of the forlorn.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Poetics-9780486295770Philosophy professor Robert Mayhew taught a course about one of the great works of literature, which has survived in fragments. Dr. Mayhew was emphatic that Aristotle’s Poetics be studied with caution, as book two is essentially lost and, as he put it, we are lucky for what we do possess. Even the one text that has survived, he instructed, is not all that it could be; it’s “the least well transmitted” and it’s in the worst shape – one has to fill in gaps – because Aristotle wrote these texts in the fourth century. That, he explained, complicates everything. So how what we have of Poetics is itself complicated, with scribes making copies of copies moving from magiscule to miniscule, raising problems (i.e., moving all CAPS to no punctuation, no accentuation, etc.) and this applies to any ancient work. These are textual corruption issues and Poetics was neglected in a way that most of Aristotle’s works were not. Also, there was a radical change from papyrus to codex manuscripts, so it’s likely that only a single copy of Poetics survived. The upshot: Poetics is an imperfect text.

We owe much to scholars, he said, explaining that Poetics likely consists of Aristotle’s lecture notes which are often elliptical. According to Dr. Mayhew, Aristotle’s Poetics are likely to mean literary creation, which includes epic, tragedy and comedy. So, the title really means something like expertise in literary creation and, while Poetics is broader than poetry, it does include poetry. The first part is a general introduction to literary creation as a kind of mimesis; a type of imitation, as a representation, and Dr. Mayhew suggests that Aristotle is talking about representational art, with detailed discussions of tragedy, epic and comedy that would have been handled in book 2. Again, he warned that the text is tough.

Yet, as one goes through the table of contents, one sees in Poetics the importance of plot and this – the primacy of plot in literature – is what Ayn Rand and Aristotle have in common.

On background, Dr. Mayhew (editor of Rand’s The Art of Non-Fiction and several studies of Rand’s fiction) said that there are two contexts important to understanding the meaning of Poetics: 1) Aristotle is not projecting all possibilities in literature, and 2) Plato had an extremely negative view of what we know as representational art. In Republic, for example, he sought to ban art. Plato argued that art is a product of inspiration and mania, not a rational skill, so it doesn’t involve knowledge and, since art is representational, it is twice removed from reality (remember, reality for Plato is the forms) and art is therefore a copy of a copy and thus worse, less significant, less a bearer of truths than physical concretes, Finally, Plato asserted that art is dangerous because it is emotion and emotion, he argued, must be repressed; in other words, art is emotionally evocative so art is dangerous. Plato also said that art is not conducive to proper moral development, so representational art should not exist; we should have only background music or Spartan marching tunes; Homer is acceptable only if heavily censored. Mayhew observed that this is why Friedrich Nietschze dubbed Plato an enemy of art.

Aristotle answers each of Plato’s points in Poetics, asserting that literature is a skill with certain principles which can be learned by reason; he proposed that literature is an imitation of reality but said it’s a useful one from which we can learn; it’s not removed from universals – in fact, it deals with essentials – and literature is more philosophy than history. It moves us closer to reality. Aristotle also responds to Plato with the view that literature does arouse emotions and there’s nothing wrong with that and he insists that literature can be and often is conducive to one’s proper moral development which is, in fact, necessary. So Poetics is in part a response to Plato and Aristotle thinks the ability to produce art is related to reason; it’s not something that comes from the outside with those consuming it as some type of passive vessel. Aristotle asserts that the ability to create literature, sculpture, architecture, etc. are the product of reason – not divine intervention or madness – and that there are good ways and bad ways of making art. Aristotle sees art as a body of knowledge and he says that there are limits and rational standards that art must live up to in order to be art. Furthermore, Dr. Mayhew explained, Aristotle held that poetry is not just meter; there is literature that doesn’t have meter and there are two main modes of literature: narration and dramatization. Aristotle, Mayhew maintains, holds like Ayn Rand that art is the product of reason, though he does not sufficiently stress the difference between fine art and utilitarian creation (Mayhew added that this is what Aristotle scholar John Herman Randall claims – that Aristotle makes no distinction at all).

When asked about recommending an English language translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, he said that he doesn’t have a favorite, but Richard Janko’s translation is good, and Penguin’s edition by Malcolm Heath is good, too. Mayhew concluded that Aristotle agreed with Ayn Rand that art is as rational as technology and that Aristotle would have disagreed with Rand that industry is as spiritual as art, though, to Aristotle’s credit, he regarded shipbuilding as similar to art. But it is clear that Aristotle holds that plot is the primary way in which the poet or fiction writer recreates reality; Aristotle thinks you can’t separate thought and character completely in a good play. Dr. Mayhew said that Aristotle wrote that literary structure is more important than what you’re structuring; that well-constructed plots should neither begin nor end from a random point and that the middle of the play is the intensification and climax and the end is its resolution. In fact, plot parts should be presented in order and in magnitude, neither too small nor too large. Length should make the work easy to remember. With regard to an artist being selective, Aristotle praises Homer for trying not to include the entire Trojan War in his epic. So it seems clear that the father of logic sees a plot as an integrated series of events – he criticizes episodic tragedies as events that do not follow logically – and Aristotle notes that nature is not merely a series of episodes like a bad tragedy. In chapters 10 and 11 of Poetics, Aristotle refers to the best kinds of plots, which “present a story in terms of action [which] means to present it in terms of events…”

On the last day of the course, Robert Mayhew brought Aristotle’s Poetics back to Ayn Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged is based on Aristotelian ideas, noting that she probably discovered that it was Aristotle’s principle that we should portray men “as they might be and ought to be” (which he said she referred to nine times) sometime between 1944 and 1945. Rand encountered this reference in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock. But does Aristotle think people should be portrayed as they ought to be as Ayn Rand means? Mayhew says the answer is a qualified Yes, though he said that he thinks she should have left off quotation marks which Mayhew says he thinks she included because she was relying on Nock’s translation. Certainly might be and ought to be are not the same to Ayn Rand as to Aristotle; she states her literary goal as the presentation of the ideal man; Aristotle says the tragic playwright should present a great person who is brought down by error or morality. To Aristotle, some breach or error brings down an otherwise good person (Aristotle describes this person as an intermediate of the good and the bad).

So, to Aristotle, we shouldn’t see wicked men going from bad to good – nor should we see great men becoming bad – because it doesn’t produce pity or fear and that is the purpose of tragedy. This way, Dr. Mayhew suggests, they’re not hit by a bus out the blue; their demise is based on a character flaw, like newspaper magnate Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead, whose ending is tragic, not caused by some accident, and Aristotle writes that the second best structure is that which some would say has a double structure like Homer’s The Odyssey, in which the suitors go from being good, to living it up, to ending up dead, while Penelope and Telemachus go from being virtuous to a good life. Aristotle’s purposes of literature are contained in two passages that give us a lead into his viewpoint: he says that music (which includes literature) should be part of an education which is appropriate to a free and noble man. There are three core, character requisites, according to Aristotle: education, catharsis and amusement or realization. These arc toward the child’s moral development.

Aristotle says the young are not yet ready for the study of ethics because they are still guided by feelings and require an education. So, he says, the young should not be exposed to malice and depravity. Most important with regard to education, Aristotle says, is education that can take on a certain quality, such as when we see a play or hear a piece of music and certain tunes evoke certain feelings. Mayhew said that Aristotle’s remarks on the role of art and moral development are good – he reminded the class that Ayn Rand wrote that “art is not the means to any didactic ends” – and Mayhew said that, while he used to think that Aristotle thought that art held a didactic function, he doesn’t think that anymore.

While it is not clear what Aristotle thinks is the purpose of art, moral education is certainly part of it, Mayhew argued, and we have more to learn about his views on catharsis. In Greek, catharsis means purgation, in a medical sense; a cleansing of disease and purification in a religious sense. There is one mention of catharsis in Poetics (so maybe Aristotle says more in book 2, which is lost) and Robert Mayhew suggests that this interpretation of catharsis – the moral development of children, with catharsis aiming at moral purification – might well be true: In other words, art can contribute to the habituation of moral virtue as a release and reduction of excessive emotion. Robert Mayhew’s thesis is something to think about, especially for and among those who choose to think.

Travel: The Drake Hotel

The Drake Hotel is located on Chicago’s Gold Coast at the start of what’s known as Magnificent Mile. For years, I noticed it primarily and prominently as the landmark that proudly stood just off Lake Shore Drive as the road curves around Lake Michigan at Oak Street Beach and one enters the city, with its towering skyscrapers from the John Hancock Building to what were once known as the Standard Oil Building and Sears Tower, from the north. The Italian Renaissance style building was a solid, sturdy presence that stood 13 stories high under tall, elegant calligraphy letters that simply announced: The Drake. Now I know (and only partially) what I never knew before I’d entered: The Drake is a grand hotel.

20130722-213110.jpgIt was envisioned by a self-taught, self-made architect named Ben Marshall (1874 – 1944) in the year 1917 and it opened on New Year’s Eve of 1920 – the March 1921 issue of The Economist promised readers that the structure would be “of unusual magnificence, [and that] nothing like it in appearance, arrangement or finishing had ever been attempted in this country…” – after being funded by the sons of an innovative hotel businessman named John Burroughs Drake, who’d been known for his ability. The Drake sons, John and Tracy, pictured in the frame at right, built flamboyant Ben Marshall’s hotel.

The Drake Hotel originally cost $10 million to build. There were 800 rooms served by 900 hotel employees (now there are over 500 rooms in the hotel, which is owned by Hilton Hotels). The design features the first three floors of ballrooms and other “public” spaces and the upper ten stories in the shape of a ‘H’ in a “piano nobile” application of 16th century Italian architecture. The result is described rightly by hotel historians as a balanced, formal composition of restrained detail influenced by palaces in Florence and Rome. Made of smooth limestone and overlooking the famous Chicago road, parks, beaches, buildings and lake, The Drake sits like a grand guard at the entrance of the entire city, affording a wide, generous view of the lake.

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Drake Bros. restaurant at the Drake Hotel. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

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Front desk at the Drake. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

During a recent stay at the nearby Westin Michigan Avenue for an arts and philosophy conference, I went for several daily walks along the streets and avenues and, one day, I decided to visit the Drake. I merely wanted to peek at the lobby and, expecting some dusty old palace, I was taken away. Entering on Walton Street, its official address named after the architect’s wife, Elizabeth Walton, I was surprised at its accessibility and lack of formality. There was no doorman. There was hardly anyone in the entrance at all. I found a dark and somewhat mysterious corridor to the left – more on that later – a dark bar to the right and some stairs straight ahead. I walked up and discovered the lobby, pictured here below, and much more to explore. There were more stairs, a bank of elevators – one of which I would later ride and find inside a cushioned place to sit – a front desk to the side (also pictured here) and, up the stairs to the left and around the Palm Court with the water fountain down another passageway, a restaurant simply called Drake Bros. The hour was a bit past breakfast, though it was also premature for lunch, so I wandered inside the dining room and found a table, seen above at left, overlooking the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Lake Shore Drive and much more, so I settled in and ordered bacon and eggs and a cup of coffee. Everything was delicious. Service was excellent. The cost was reasonable. The view was typical Chicago: cloudy, gray and waves coming over the sand.

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Lobby at the Drake. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The property has an amazing history. Host to Sinatra, Marilyn and Diana and dozens of movie stars, presidents and industrialists, the Drake continues to attract guests who seek the best and it’s easy to see why. Designed by an architect with no formal education, owned by a family that lost the hotel during the 1930s Depression (they got it back), it is a fascinating place to explore. After my meal, I ventured down another set of stairs and down a corridor to find a row of luxury boutiques and shops – see the display window below for a sense of the Drake’s attention to detail – from Chanel and fine jewelry to a bright red cafe (also pictured) and hotel gift shop. I didn’t have time to see the rooms or suites and one day I’d like to be a guest but I did come back after dinner with a friend for dessert and drinks for the free jazz performance, presented by Chicago’s Jazz Institute, in the Palm Court. Again, everything and particularly the waiter’s service was perfect. It’s rare to experience perfection and even rarer these days to find it where one might have reason to expect it most. I’m glad I finally went inside the Drake, which feels at once safe, rich and a little bit daring, too.

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Boutique window display at the Drake. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved.

 

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Exterior view from park in front of the Drake. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

 

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Cafe in the corridor at the Drake. © Copyright 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved.

 

Travel: John Hancock Tower

20130721-120931.jpgJohn Hancock Tower on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile in Chicago is a grand achievement. It moves with the wind. I’ve been up on top at the bar, observatory or restaurant many times and this summer’s visit—I was staying across the street at the Westin Michigan Avenue—was as exciting an experience as when I first visited the top of what was once Chicago’s tallest skyscraper shortly after it opened for business in 1970.

It’s a building that rises high above one of the few surviving structures from the 19th century’s Great Chicago Fire, the city’s water tower, made of Joliet limestone and symbolizing a contrast that captures the best of Chicago’s spirit: strong, solid, sharp, hardworking, defiant. Also at ground level around the Hancock tower is another commercial building, Water Tower Place, which fits the Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile model of unabashed capitalism. In fact, the skyscraper was built and owned by a big business: the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Like that enterprise, Michigan Avenue’s stores, companies and hotels are great, American symbols of freedom, capitalism, innovation, industry and wealth: Bloomingdales, Chicago Tribune Tower, Walgreens, The Drake Hotel and the tall, black, cross-beamed tower that represents big business and an American founding father at once. Never mind that the Hancock tower’s anchored by a generic Best Buy now in a city ruled by a Clinton-Obama crony in a city known more for nightly mayhem and murder—with this once-magnificent mile itself assaulted by roaming thugs—than for the freedom to create, assess for risk, insure, build and make money. Chicago, where Ayn Rand once lived on the city’s south side and was enthusiastically received by her largest audience in 1963 for a speech on America’s persecuted minority—big business—has been transformed into a thick, government-run cartel by Big Government types empowered by a former church and community activist who became president named Barack Obama.

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John Hancock Tower 2013. Photo by Scott Holleran (c) Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

The tower still stands. From the skyscraper’s Web site:

  • The distinctive, stacked x-cross bracing allows the building to sway only 5 to 8 inches in a 60-mph wind
  • Enough steel to manufacture 33,000 cars was used to make the frame and weighs 46,000 tons
  • The 2,500,000 pounds of aluminum could be used to create a skating rink covering all of Lake Michigan
  • The complete development took five million man-hours
  • 1,250 miles of wiring carries enough power to supply a city of  30,000 people

Construction started on May 5, 1965 and was completed on May 6, 1968. The architectural firm is Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the building is designed by architect and design partner Bruce Graham with Chief Structural Engineer Fazlur Kahn. The building contains 897,000 square feet of office space, 172,000 square feet of retail space, 17,371 square feet (on the 94th floor) for the observatory (admission costs $18; $12 for kids, children under 3 are admitted for free) and it comes with a 34,307 square-foot facility for broadcasting. There are 49 floors of residential condominiums. The John Hancock Building cost $100 million at the time of construction and took approximately 36 months to build.

The observatory is open from 9 am to 11 pm every day, 365 days a year (last ticket sold at 10:30 pm) and I recommend if you have time for only one that you head for the skyscraper’s bar, The Signature Lounge, instead to save money – drinks are expensive but you can sit, have a beverage or some food and enjoy the view of up to four states, lots of flat land and Lake Michigan for miles and miles. Ask for Virginia if she’s working; she’s the best skyscraper waitress in town as I recently discovered. There’s a fine dining restaurant, too, which I’ve patronized in the past and it was just OK. I prefer dining at the top of the Standard Oil Building (now named Aon Center) on Randolph but that’s another skyscraper. I have been to the top of the Sears Tower (now named Willis Tower) in the winter but it’s not my favorite building.

Hancock’s proximity to so many other area treasures—Lake Shore Drive, Oak Street Beach, The Drake Hotel, shops along Michigan Avenue, scads of businesses, companies, burger joints, Billy Goat Tavern, the Chicago River, Grand Luxe Cafe, Tribune Tower, Chicago River and its Marina Towers and Wacker Drive—make it an excellent choice for touring while visiting the Windy City.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 20130 All rights reserved.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013. All rights reserved.

I grew up in and near Chicago, taking residence at various homes on School Street, Eddy Street, on Chicago Avenue in Evanston and in Wilmette. I used to take the El—the Skokie Swift, the Evanston Express, every train on the city’s downtown and northward—to work near Old Orchard, the Apparel Center across from the Merchandise Mart, a building on Jackson near Sears Tower and I’ve danced on stage at Park West, the Vic, Cabaret Metro and Neo and nearly frozen my tail off waiting at all hours at every El platform hitting those useless heating buttons in years gone by. I wrote my first articles on assignment in Chicago. Went to my first sports games there, getting crushed on opening day at Wrigley Field and putting up with drunks in the bleachers and getting my wallet stolen at Comiskey Park when I went to see the White Sox. I’ve been lucky to have lived in Chicago and I still love it. The city I’ve loved is on its way out (same as the country) but intelligent, friendly, decent, hardworking people—and great buildings—do exist. They’re in Chicago to look up to. The more reason one has to look down, the more reason to seize the moment and look up. And, here, for now, is Chicago’s John Hancock Tower.

Travel: Taliesin

A summer trip to Wisconsin included a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. 20130722-220547.jpgEmbarking on the estate tour, which suitably requires a lot of walking across Wright’s estate, the knowledgeable guide fully explained each aspect of the property, which includes many buildings conceived, designed, created and constructed by the world-famous architect and his teams early and at various later points in his career. Among the designs are a school where his Welsh, Unitarian aunts taught, a windmill named Romeo & Juliet, a barn, smaller homes and structures throughout the Spring Green, Wisconsin, estate and, of course, his home – which was burned down and later reconstructed – including his library, office, bedroom, dining room and the birdwalk he made for his companion. At left is the tour bus, which is comfortable. (All photographs copyright (c) 2013 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be used without express written permission).

Below is a snapshot of the home, which is located on a small hill, the terrace in the distance, where the tour group paused for a short refreshment. The picture shows the architect’s use of contrast on the house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic approach to design for living.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Spring Green, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Holleran Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

Below is a view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home at Taliesin. My personal tour highlight was being in the dining room where guides confirmed that writer Ayn Rand had dined with her husband Frank O’Connor at the table as a guest in Wright’s home. I also learned that a small bust of Thomas Jefferson was a gift from Gutzon Borglum, the man who made Mount Rushmore. The bust looked to me like it was Jefferson’s likeness at the Black Hills, South Dakota, national monument. To go from room to room in the home where the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged dined with the man who made Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum and the Johnson Wax Building and see and inhabit the spaces, angles, shades and views created by the master artist was an exalted experience. I can’t recommend it more than that. I encourage visitors and tourists to ask the tour guide and interior attendants questions; they often have answers. It takes about 15 minutes to drive to Taliesin from the nearest resort. The estate tour takes about four hours – other tours are three hours and there’s a visitor’s center with gift shop and information – and, for more on this blog about Frank Lloyd Wright, please see my posts about homes in Oak Park, Illinois and the Hollyhock house in Los Angeles, California. [6/8/14: I’ve also visited Taliesin West].

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Spring Green, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Holleran Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

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The barn; the creamery tower’s top is not a cross; the guide explained that it is intended to symbolize a cow’s udder. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

 

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the wooden windmill Wisconsin native Wright was told would never work (it did, defying experts) named Romeo & Juliet for its distinctively, mutually supportive two-part design. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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Taliesin windmill by Frank Lloyd Wright. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

 

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Taliesin windmill by Frank Lloyd Wright. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.

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the school Wright built for his aunts. Copyright (c) Scott Holleran 2013 All rights reserved.