Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bonus Track

Some years ago we were invited to give a lecture at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh. It wasn't a great lecture as I recall, slightly scuppered by both the size of the auditorium (enormous) and the running order for the evening which placed us between a contemporary dance troupe and a jazz saxophonist. In such company two English blokes talking about bus shelters and social housing must have seemed fairly bizarre.

Anyway, the highlight of the trip was a visit to two Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Pennsylvania: Falling Water and the less well known Kentuck Knob. While Falling Water was clearly an extraordinary piece of architecture, it was Kentuck Knob that was the more interesting for a number of reasons. The house was (and may well still be) owned by Baron (then Lord) Peter Palumbo. Palumbo collected iconic modernist houses in the same way that you or I might collect DVD box sets. At the time he also owned Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House and the Maisons Jaoul by Le Corbusier. Rumour has it that Palumbo had planned to buy Falling Water to complete the set but was scuppered by the fact that the Kaufman family had left it to the Pennsylvania National Park. So he bought the nearby Kentuck Knob instead.

Kentuck Knob is run as a visitor attraction with Palumbo living in a farmhouse nearby when in residence. There is a book and souvenir shop at the gate and a little bus that drives you through the woods to the house itself which sits at the top of Chestnut Ridge. The grounds that the bus passes through are a sort of high art amusement park peppered with sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy and Claus Oldenburg as well as random 20th Century artefacts including a section of the Berlin wall and a K2 telephone box.

The house itself couldn't be more different to its celebrated neighbour. It is a Usonian house, a single storey, relatively modest ground hugging building with a large overhanging roof. The plan is sort of rhomboid-ish, two squished rectangles at one hundred and twenty degrees to each other with an odd faceted kitchen at the centre between the two. The interior is finely honed and beautifully made, quietly impressive rather than spectacular.

Palumbo had been responsible for carefully renovating the interior and furnishing it with FLW designed pieces. Despite the thoroughness of this exercise the interior also featured a number of incongruously personal objects belonging to the owner. So, sitting on one immaculate Frank Lloyd Wright designed table was a framed photo of Baron Palumbo proudly presenting Margaret Thatcher with one of those foam mounted giant cheques used for charity fund raising. Next to it was another photo of him chatting to Princess Diana.

Palumbo himself appeared at one moment, wandering through the kitchen during our guided tour in a pair of green Hunter wellingtons and smoking a cigar. He stopped briefly to tell a short and slightly pompous story about (for some reason) George Bernard Shaw before ambling off to empty a wheelbarrow full of leaves.

I was reminded of all this after reading this excellent article (via @tragedyhatherle's twitter feed) which describes Lloyd Wright's various LA houses. The article describes Frank Lloyd Wright's particular and characteristically eccentric approach to building houses on hills. Like the Ennis House, Kentuck Knob could be described very well as being "of the hill" rather than on it. As well as being embedded in the site to the extent that large rocks are incorporated into the facade itself, the house is positioned just off the tip of the ridge on which it sits. Although the view from the ridge is impressive, Lloyd Wright deliberately positioned the house so that it wasn't visible from within.

The perversity of this move is admirable, although it arises from a belief that architecture should not compete with nature. Jeffrey St Claire's conclusion in his counterpunch article that the technically challenged Ennis House should be left to be reclaimed by nature is both interesting and provocative. Kentuck Knob, with its strange garden of artefacts and equally curious back story as the plaything of a wealthy semi-exiled English Lord would make an equally compelling ruin.