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‘Ayn Rand in Chicago’

I’ve returned from a trip to the Midwest and I’m planning to write about Chicago’s first Objectivist Conference (OCON), where I studied arts and literature from Aristotle to O. Henry, learned about Chicago architecture and watched the 1945 film Love Letters (written by Ayn Rand). I also plan to post on Chicago skyscrapers, hotels and my visit to Taliesin by Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’m finishing a manuscript and writing about true crime on assignment so I haven’t had time to post about movies – I ended up seeing and hating one of the world’s worst movies, Disney’s absurdist The Lone Ranger (a nonstop attack on the original) and I saw, enjoyed and recommend Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel, though surprisingly my favorite summer movie thus far remains World War Z – and I am making plans for fall and winter.

Young ARBut, for those who may have missed reading it on my site archives, I want to share the link to my exclusive report on Ayn Rand in Chicago, currently featured on Capitalism Magazine (please read it here) – which I think is the most comprehensive article about the philosopher’s life in Chicago to date. I interviewed an architect who was inspired by Rand’s Howard Roark character in The Fountainhead and remembers her 1963 visit when Rand delivered her most well-attended lecture, a businessman who organized the event – and recalls the bomb threat – and Ayn Rand’s biographer, Shoshana Milgram, who meticulously details the months after Ayn Rand came to America, before she made it to Hollywood. It’s all very inspiring and I hope you enjoy reading the article.

Have a happy summer.

Los Angeles: Hollyhock House by Frank Lloyd Wright

A recent tour of the Hollyhock House by architect Frank Lloyd Wright near my home featured breathtaking views of Los Angeles and a wealth of information about Wright (whose Prairie style home, studio and works I toured last year, as I wrote about here) and his client, leftist socialite Aline Barnsdall.

These tours usually skimp on details of the client’s life and abilities or they fail to cover the essential architectural points about the work and, happily, in this case, our guide Michael was fully informed about both. It was a group tour, so we had to keep moving through narrow passageways and up or down stairs in Wright’s first Los Angeles project, which was built between 1919 and 1923. Wright’s California Romanza style is fully realized – he used the musical term meaning “freedom to make one’s own form” – in house and garden on this 36-acre site. Ingeniously unfolding with unique spaces, innovations and studios for the purpose of an arts colony, Hollyhock included a plan for a theater, actors’ dormitory, shops and art studios and a motion picturehouse. That’s in addition to two secondary residences and the main house, which is what we toured one morning this spring.

Each major interior space adjoins an equivalent exterior space, connected either by glass doors, a porch, pergola or colonnade, as a handout instructs, and Wright himself did not supervise on site every day (he was away building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan). There are dozens of tales of his son, Lloyd Wright, and his apprentice, Rudolph Schindler, who were designated by Wright to help. Other prominent modern architects who favored southern California, such as John Lautner and Richard Neutra, are mentioned. Look for Wright’s nearby Ennis House on another Hollywood hill within Hollyhock’s sights. And, according to the guide, the Hollywood Bowl shell owes to an original – and rejected – Wright design that had far superior acoustics.

That Hollyhock House, named for his client’s favorite flower, was designed for a left-wing lunatic named Aline Barnsdall (1882-1946) is of particular interest, as it appears that Wright may have promptly dispensed with her wildly inconsistent, contradictory demands and instead created what was best for an arts and theatrical colony based on earth. The raging, violent unwed mother and anarchist Barnsdall, who inherited her family’s oil fortune – her grandfather, William Barnsdall, drilled the second producing oil well in the United States (in Pennsylvania) – appears to have been as unstable as she was unhappy, bashing a lover’s head with a Monet painting and leaving her only child Betty, known as Sugartop for her blonde curls, without a father. Barnsdall apparently changed homes as often as she changed lovers, and the staunch anti-capitalist – she plastered her property with billboards for socialist Upton Sinclair – donated money to anarcho-terrorist Emma Goldman, who plotted to assassinate Carnegie Steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick and was linked to the assassination of President William McKinley. Throughout her life, Barnsdall railed against capitalism. She physically assaulted a visitor before dying of a heart attack. You can imagine little Sugartop running from room to room trying to escape her maniacal mother.

The house, gardens and grounds are magnificent as usual thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright. Sure, you’ll hear the typical comments and complaints – the leaks, the imperfections, the cost overruns – but the under-renovation Hollyhock is almost a hundred years old and it still captures the imagination with grace, privacy, purity of purpose and clean, elegant lines. It must seen and experienced, and, in tour guide Michael’s case, explained, to be rightly understood. There’s a goddess of hospitality, the first built-in entertainment center, seamless rooms, cork floors in the modern kitchen, and light bursting here and there with precision as southern California sunshine caresses the home from rise to set. The (group) tour’s climax is the livingroom, made for a grand fireplace, concrete art piece, moat with a footbridge to light the fire, grand piano, writing spots, reading room and a view of the city that emphasizes order, structure and straight lines extending to the Pacific Ocean.

Hollyhock house, part of Barnsdall Arts Park, is located at 4800 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles 90027. Tours are available as of this writing Friday through Sunday every hour on the hour from 12:30 pm until the last tour at 3:30 pm and visitors are advised to arrive early. Groups of ten or more are asked to call for specific information and available times in advance: (323) 644-6269. Admission rates currently are $7 for general admission and $3 for seniors. If you go, remember that the house was commissioned by a woman whose money originated with the creative efforts of a man who drilled for oil in the Keystone state – and it was made by a genius with a single vision of his own. Also see my reviews of Wright’s Chicagoland homes, Taliesin and Taliesin West.

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Disney California Adventure

This year, Disneyland’s Disney California Adventure (DCA), which has changed the name from Disney’s California Adventure, finishes its long-planned makeover.

I first reported the changes here. The Little Mermaid attraction is one I am pretty sure I was the first journalist to call for back in 2006, when I made a case for it in my DVD review and asked Disneyland President Ed Grier about it in my column. This summer, DCA is scheduled to open Cars Land, Carthay Circle Theatre and the Buena Vista Street entry into the park, which is adjacent to Disneyland. A recent promotional feature – and Disney plants those everywhere – detailed the new additions, which will mark the completion of the studio’s five-year DCA expansion. Previous additions include Toy Story Mania, the laser/water World of Color show and the forementioned The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Disney also plans to open the unfortunately named Mad T Party this summer at DCA, with what the company describes as nighttime family fun inspired by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

World of Color is fabulous when it’s logistically feasible and comfortable to experience – no small feat – and other additions are fine, and I’m especially excited by the new theater and the Buena Vista Street, in the hope that Imagineers, in studio parlance, considered my 2005 argument for honoring the creative spirit of California, including the tremendous achievements of Walt Disney. We shall see. But Cars Land – and readers may know that I’ve never been a fan of the Disney•Pixar series on which it’s based – sounds like a dud.

According to Disney, Cars Land sits on a 12-acre expansion which includes three all-new attractions, retail shops and food facilities, all built and inhabited by characters from the movie Cars (Sally, Ramone, Lightning McQueen and Mater), including Radiator Springs Racers, a twisting, turning, high-speed adventure through Ornament Valley and the town of Radiator Springs, “the cutest little town in Carburetor County.” The scenery is inviting enough. But apparently no one wins the race in the four-minute Radiator Springs Racers.

Or, rather, in the words of Imagineer Kathy Mangum: “When Guido and Luigi drop the flag, you take off out of the building at a high speed and now you’re racing each other side by side all around the mountain and the monuments, and it ends with a finish line where one of you wins. It’s always a random finish so you never know who’s going to win.” By my judgment, that’s a win without a victory, with no real chance for a guest of superior ability to win. It takes the race out of racing and spoils the fun of competition, the premise of racing. I know we live in an egalitarian age of scoreless children’s games and gradeless tests and courses, but I remember when racing bikes and go-karts and sprints across a field allowed people to compete in the benevolent spirit of play. Kids learned what it means to win, lose, practice, try harder and win the next time. They learned what it means to fail and, most important, they learned what it means to succeed – to be rewarded by effort – and win; to be good at something. This ride turns winning into a random accident. I may be wrong but I doubt boys and girls will want to repeat the experience of passively “racing” once they catch on to the fact that their most dedicated efforts to win are meaningless. Cars Land’s engine sounds like a killjoy.

Other Cars Land attractions will include Luigi’s Flying Tires, which may bear a resemblance to bumper cars, and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, where guests ride baby tractors as they whip to the left and right in rhythm to the music. Guests in this land also will enjoy new, “Cars”-themed dining and shopping locations such as Flo’s V8 Café, Radiator Springs Curios, Sarge’s Surplus Hut and Ramone’s House of Body Art.

Buena Vista Street sounds better than Cars Land. Disney reports that DCA guests will be welcomed through a new entry and onto Buena Vista Street, depositing guests into an atmosphere similar to what Walt Disney experienced upon first arriving in Los Angeles, California, in the 1920s. Buena Vista Street will feature Red Car Trolleys, inspired by the transportation system that once served Southern California, and the Carthay Circle Theatre, modeled after the site of the 1937 world premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Carthay Circle Theatre will become home to a new lounge and an elegant restaurant, designed to be DCA’s premier dining location. Imagineer Coulter Winn recently explained that the concept is to transform DCA’s entry into a period street, the way Main Street at Disneyland takes guests to Walt’s Midwestern hometown. “We decided to re-create the Los Angeles that Walt Disney experienced when he first arrived here in 1923,” Winn said, “a street that told the story of the first couple of decades of Walt’s experience in California. There are a couple of buildings that were re-created that are significant. The first is the entry turnstiles, which take design cues from the Pan-Pacific Auditorium that was designed in the 1930s by Welton Becket, a friend of Walt Disney’s. Walt went to Becket in the ’50s when he was planning Disneyland, and Welton Becket told Walt that he already had all the talent he needed to do his Park at the studios. And that group of individuals that Walt picked later became Imagineering. So, that’s the Disney connection to the Pan-Pacific.”

As guests enter Buena Vista Street through the turnstiles, they come into a forecourt or a small town square, Winn said. “One of the main things we’ve done with Buena Vista Street is to introduce a ride onto the street, re-creating the California Red Car trolley network. So we have a Red Car stop at the front, and the Red Car runs between the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the entry to Buena Vista Street, with a total of four stops. What was formerly the Golden Gate Bridge we’re replacing with a re-creation of the Glendale-Hyperion Avenue Bridge. Hyperion Boulevard was where Walt Disney located one of his early animation studios. So, again, that has a connection to the story of The Walt Disney Company. As you proceed under the bridge, you get into a little bit more of an upscale recreation of early commercial Los Angeles, which took some of its design cues from Wilshire Boulevard and early Westwood.” Now, if Disney does manage to recreate an early vision of the lives and settings of singularly exceptional artists, such as Walt Disney, who sought to make money from their work, that would be a uniquely daring and amazing California adventure.

Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois

Having toured the Ennis and Hollyhock houses in Los Angeles and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, I finally crossed an item off my bucket list when I toured some works by Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois. It was around Christmastime, and the winter in northern Illinois was unseasonably kind, so I was able to embark on the audio walking tour in Oak Park.

The reasonably priced tour comes with an audio electronic device similar to an iPod, which was explained in a tutorial, a map in brochure and a set of headphones. They were all sufficient, though the device didn’t always work as intended and the headphones are one size fits all, so constant adjustments were necessary. The autonomy of walking through Oak Park’s wide, tree-lined neighborhoods is worth the hassle and the package includes a guided tour of Wright’s 1889-1898 home at 951 Chicago Avenue. Here, he raised six children with his first wife and added a studio, where he created a new American architecture, the Prairie style, and designed 125 structures, including such famous buildings as the Robie House, the Larkin Building and Unity Temple. The restored site is presented as it appeared in 1909, the last year that Wright lived in the home and worked in the studio. The house and studio are simple, clearly and thoughtfully planned and everything I’d always imagined they would be. My favorite parts of the home and studio tour were the children’s playroom and the studio workspace, best described as a place designed for man at his best. Standing at the drafting tables is an exalted experience. The whole experience stirs the senses and makes you want to get to work and create.

From there, the audio walking tour, which does require coordination and syncing the pedestrian with the technology, cycles to ten Wright houses and the Unity Temple, which remains an active religious facility that offers a separate tour for a fee. Individually, each is striking in its own way, and I’ve included a snapshot here as a sample. The audio provides a strictly architecture-oriented lesson, not an historical or biographical narration, and I found myself wanting to know more about how the commission was developed and for whom and how Wright regarded each finished work. The tour loops along Forest Avenue to Austin Gardens and up Kenilworth Avenue back to Wright’s home and studio past several other interesting houses designed by various architects. Overall, this is the largest concentration of Wright-designed structures in existence. All the houses are privately owned and occupied by residents and visible from Oak Park’s public sidewalks.