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BILT E3

One very trendy New York artist has said, ”Money creates taste,” but the truth is otherwise. Money can create fashion, but never taste. 

In fact, more often than not, the only taste that seems to come from wealth is bad taste, and that in huge, ostentatious quantities. 

For instance, the money of George Vanderbilt poured into the mountains of North Carolina near Asheville has created a garish monument to obscene wealth and acquisitional excess called the Biltmore Estate. 

Begun in 1887, it is a 250-room mansion in phony French chateau style that took an army of stonecutters and craftsmen six years to finish. Even today, in the possession of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it is the largest private home in America, situated on 8,000 acres of North Carolina mountain real estate. This has shrunk from its original 125,000 acres. 

It is an astonishing collection of bric-a-brac and great art treated as bric-a-brac. Durer engravings are treated like knickknacks, like so much plundered lucre, heisted from the trove of Europe to show off to admiring Americans, unable to create great art, but sure as hell able to buy it. 

Designed by the ”architect to the robber barons,” Richard Morris Hunt, it is a mind-boggling showcase of things to gawk at, but not to admire. 

It took six years and 1,000 men to build. With a 390-foot facade, the house has more than 11 million bricks, 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, 34 bedrooms and three kitchens, all of which are contained on over four acres of floor space. 

Bowling alley

Bowling alley

The massive stone spiral landscape rises four floors and has 102 steps. 

Through its center hangs an iron chandelier weighing 1,700 pounds. 

Inside can be found a vast collection of art and furniture, more than 70,000 cataloged items, including 23,000 books, furniture from 13 countries, more than 1,600 art prints and hundreds of paintings. One cannot help but think of Citizen Kane

There were indoor bowling, billiards, a swimming pool, a gym. Outdoors, there were croquet, fishing, horseback riding, more swimming and hunting, hiking and camping. 

It is a monument to excess, of a kind Bill Gates can only dream about. 

The Vanderbilts could entertain a few close friends at a dinner table that could seat 64 guests in a banquet hall that is 72 feet long. Meals served at the table were usually seven courses long and required as many as 15 utensils per person. banquet hall

Enough fresh fish to feed 50 people was shipped in daily from New York City. Lobster, twice a week. 

But then, the Vanderbilts were wealthy people. 

George was a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore, who is best remembered as one of the great robber barons of American monopoly capitalism. It was the Commodore’s son, William, who responded to questions of how the family business practices might affect the public by saying, ”The public be damned.” 

The Commodore paid for the Breakers in Newport, R.I., also designed by Hunt, which is a mere 70-room ”cottage.” 

It pales beside the splendiferosity of Biltmore House. 

In fact, the estate is so impressive, it’s a shame it isn’t beautiful. Instead, its a hodgepodge of architectural styles, each displayed with the same aesthetic care as the collected artwork, which is often hidden behind furniture. 

Hunt pulled together a little of this and a little of that, with no controlling idea, so the house is a kind of architectural landfill. 

Library, ca. 1910

Library, ca. 1910

There are some very nice details, but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Instead, like a meal of too much rich food: garlicked langostinos and chocolate cake, they sit in the belly undigestible, waking you up in the middle of the night with disturbing dreams. 

It certainly isn’t aesthetics that brings the crowds. There may be a great deal of art on the walls of the Biltmore mansion, but these gawkers would not be paying the hefty admission price to see Claudes and Renoirs. No, like some tabloid version of ”America’s Most Wanted Mansions,” it is the excess and wealth that bring them in. They want to see how real money lives. 

For Americans have an oddly unsolved double standard when it comes to wealth. They are decidedly democratic in the sense that they believe, fervently, that no one is better than anyone else. They wear their sloganed T-shirts and shorts to prove it. But they don’t imagine that this equality rests at the level of a working middle class. No, they imagine an equality where everyone wins the lottery and has tons of moolah and can make themselves just such a mansion to live in and watch Wheel of Fortune while their servants bring them lite beer and corn nuts. 

It is a proletarian dream of money: Cash without the scruples of good taste. Let’s all put a dozen Jaguars in the garage. Let’s light cheap cigars with $100 bills and bring Uncle Ed around for a game of snooker in the basement while the kids bang away, attempting Heart and Soul on the Steinway. 

For these crowds of gawkers at the Biltmore see the Vanderbilt family as a 19th-century version of the Lotto grand prize. 

And I’m afraid, the Vanderbilts have obliged them by building the world’s largest, most expensive double-wide.with trailer

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

olana

Everyone likes a home with a view. If you are rich enough, you can afford to buy such a property, and if you are an artist, you can design such a house.

Frederic Edwin Church was both of these things, and the estate he created, Olana, is now a state park near Hudson, N.Y., where it sits on the top of a hill overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. catskills from olana

Church worked obsessively on the house and grounds from 1860 until age and arthritis forced him to give management of the estate to his son in 1891. Always, Church’s goal was to create natural landscape views from every turn of road on the 250-acre estate and from every window in the house. And he knew something about landscape views.

Church was one of the most famous of American painters of the previous century. His work commanded the highest prices of any American art when it was new, and inexpensive prints made from them were sold by the thousands to his middle-class audience.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

He found in the New World apt subject matter: the American landscape, from Niagara Falls to the volcanoes of South America. The land he painted was vast, romantic and sublime. It told of a new Eden, almost a new covenant for which America was the herald.

The Heart of the Andes

The Heart of the Andes

Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Edwin Church

From the 1850s through the next two decades, Church’s paintings glorified America’s vision of itself and the Manifest Destiny that was the root of the vision.

Others painted the same subjects. What made Church distinct was his scale and detail: His paintings were big enough to be exhibited like movies, in their own venues with an admission charge, and they didn’t generalize or idealize their flora and fauna, but instead painted them in Peterson field-guide detail. You can name the plants in a Church painting; you can almost name the week and month by their stage of development.

Rainy Season in the Tropics

Rainy Season in the Tropics

The same kind of obsessive detail marks his house, too. Church couldn’t stand an empty wall or a broad expanse of window. Victorian houses are often chock-a-block with bric-a-brac, but Church is notable even by these standards.

The house was originally intended to be a French chateau-style building. But when Church and his wife toured the Middle East in 1869-70, they became infatuated with what they called ”Persian” architecture. It was actually a little closer to the Arabian Nights style Hollywood eventually adopted for its version of Baghdad. olana front hall

They called it Olana after an ancient treasure-fort in Persia. olana studio

Inside, Church displayed all of his many souvenirs. Most look like they’re straight from Pier One Imports. One lesson to be learned: Being an important artist doesn’t automatically confer good taste.

One room avoids the Scheherazade look. The dining room instead mimics a Medieval castle. And on its walls are the paintings Church called his ”Old Masters.” In fact, they are old, dusty souvenirs of Europe, sans provenance, sans signatures, sans anything else but an old look. If a painting was too bright for his taste, Church himself dimmed it in brown varnish.

The dining room is also one of the few places in the house without a view. Everywhere else, each window or balustrade frames what could as well be a painting. view from olana

In 1884, one visitor wrote about her trip to Olana: ”Mrs. Church met me at the Hudson and we drove up here, several miles, through thick woods, like the ascent to the Alhambra. In fact, Olana is placed somewhat like that, on the top of a cone-like height commanding the Hudson. The house is large and all open on the lower floor, with wide doors and windows a daux battants, so that everywhere you look through vistas to shining oak boughs at hand, and dim, blue hills far beyond, middle distance omitted because so far below.”

The Icebergs

The Icebergs

The house stayed in the Church family until 1966, when it was purchased and later donated to the state of New York. It had fallen into a bad state of repair, but renovation has brought the property up to code and turned it into a beautiful place to spend a day.

a portland collage

What makes a city urban?

Those who live in the Western half of the country have to wonder sometimes. For Phoenix or Los Angeles — and most trans-Mississippi cities — are fundamentally different from the core cities of the East. The Western-model cities are sprawling suburbs, spread like a great tablecloth over the landscape.

It isn’t that they don’t have character. LA has enough character for a dozen smaller cities. And even Phoenix has its personality, although it is that of a raw, unformed, undisciplined adolescent.

But for anyone who grew up near New York, Philadelphia or Boston, there is something urgently missing out here that prevents the West from becoming authentically urban.

Purists may argue that any concentration of population must be considered urban. And they are technically correct. But walk the Loop in Chicago or by the row houses of Baltimore and you instantly sense the difference.

It is true that there are small bits of citiness in the West — a neighborhood in Denver, sections of Seattle or San Francisco. But these are fragments.

There is one place that has undiluted citiness in concentration.

On the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon is a true city. Portland has a downtown that could be a relocated Pittsburgh, bridges and all, and walking through its sinewed city center is a glory of chattering urban detail, all screaming out that this is a real city.

For it is the details that define the urban.

a portland strip 5

Portland is filled with the tiled floors, fireplugs, storm drains, eroded curbsides, overarching trees, root-buckled sidewalks and brownstone stoops that make a city feel urban.

It is all the more significant because the Portland downtown is so tiny. You can walk almost anywhere you need to go.

Yet in those 100 miniature city blocks — less than a square mile — you can discover all the urban detail, ornament and design that you need to serve as a madeleine to your Proustian nostalgia for a citiness.

Along the sidewalk, a checkerboard of frosted glass squares underfoot illuminates an old basement.

a portland strip

A brass fire-hose connection splits like a Brancusi torso.

A dull iron streetcar track in the cobblestones is wheel-shined.

An Art Deco 317 glows above the glass doors of the Loyalty Building.

The city is built of hard, durable metals and stone, yet all its edges are softened and weathered.

There is the steep ramp of the old brick parking garage. a portland strip 2

The spear points topping the black iron fences.

The revolving clock-thermometer at the corner of the bank building.

The equestrian statue in the middle of the park, with its benches and chess players.

”Joy The Tailor” is written in mosaic on the sidewalk in front of an empty storefront. Who knows how many businesses have operated in that building since Joy left?

There is the neon ”pizza” sign in the window, a neon ”Western Union” and a neon ”color copies.” a portland strip 4 copy

In front of a blockwide pit being dug out by the steam shovel, men on their lunch hours gather in a crowd behind a fence to stand and stare. One of them is eating a Fig Newton.

The one thing all those details speak of is age. The rounded edges of the curbs, the worn writing on the manhole covers — these things come with maturity.

The younger cities of the West — or the cities such as LA that seek eternal adolescence — cannot achieve the respectable age of the Eastern cities. It is a miracle that Portland survives.

For in LA, as in Phoenix, any building older than our high-school years tends to be flattened and replaced with one of those brittle, obdurate, unweathered and machine-edged monoliths, too juvenile to know better, too inexperienced to have the wisdom time brings to sandstone and concrete.

In a real city, you see the scoops of accumulated footfalls on the marble museum steps, you see ailanthus trees growing in the unattended spaces between buildings and moss on the gutters.

A real city is a stage set for our lives. We eat at the lunch counters, recline in the grassy parks, live when we are young or very old in the plastered apartments above the storefronts, drink grappa at night in the jazz bars.

The urban city is a setting not only physically but also historically. Its worn details, visible at every turn, remind us that we live in history, too. The city was there before us and will be after us.

In a city of strident newness, such as Phoenix, we can forget the big picture and think we are all that matters. In a city full of its own past, you are always reminded of your grandparents and grandchildren.

And it is all in the details.

albers1

The right angle is king of the world.

Look around you and everything is square. The streets, the buildings, the windows in the buildings. The TV you watch and the refrigerator you lean into to grab a snack.

If there is a single, overarching symbol of civilization, it is its rectilinearity. Honeybees make hexagons; humans make squares.

I write this in a square office in my square woodframe home on a suburban block, staring at a rectangular computer monitor, typing in letters on little cubic keys embedded in a rectangular keyboard.

The books I consult are square-edged, the file cabinets I keep my research in are boxes. Even the take-out Chinese food I eat at my square desk comes in a plastic foam clamshell cube.

We are so inundated with right angles, that I’m afraid we don’t see them anymore. They become like the invisible air we breathe. Yet, if you begin to notice them, they can become oppressive. There is a tyranny of the box.

There are reasons, of course, that our built environment relies on the square. Of all shapes, it is the most space-efficient. The dairy industry, for instance, discovered many years ago that square milk bottles took up less space on the delivery truck than the older round bottles.

And because they can share walls, square buildings can fill up space just as efficiently as the milk bottles. It becomes like playing dots-and-boxes, connecting the dots to make little sub-squares.

suncity

There are attempts to break up the squares: the swirling streets of planned retirement cities, such as Sun City, Ariz., for instance. Even in the larger city, new tract housing is often built on curvy streets, but those streets are all contained within the larger squares — the “major cross streets” — of the larger Phoenix metro area. Those mitochondriacal squiggles are almost like the irregular growth of cancer cells inside the regular structure of the urban grid — a virus waiting to bust out and infect the next municipality.

square blocks

What is round is escape: the wheels of our cars, the CDs of our Walkmen, the cylinders of our vodka bottles.

Considering how ubiquitous the square is in the human world, it is striking to discover how rare it is in nature. Certain crystals are square — look at a grain of salt under a magnifying glass — but more common are rhomboids and hexagons.

And nature so dislikes the cubic salt crystal, that she dissolves most of them in seawater as if they were collectively the Wicked Witch of the West.

In fact, nature seems perpetually at odds with right angles. She wears them down through erosion, attacking the sharp mesa edge or the overhanging rocks of Niagara Falls.

Nature grows things asymmetrically, profusely, and just as avidly, breaks them up into chunks and sands them down into dust. You cannot expect humans to match that fecundity or ferocity, so instead, we build safe, boring little squares and put cupboards in the corners.

If you look out over any American city, you can see the incessant cubicularity of its architecture, tiny and regular against the larger, organic rising and falling forms of the landscape it occupies and the constant metamorphosis of the amoebic cumulus clouds that break up the shapes with moving shadows.

How static the architecture seems.