Yes, I’ve not been blogging for a while. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for the past week, taking a very cool Pittsburgh Field Seminar. The classes are every day, and long, but I’ve quickly gotten to know my way around the place because of all the traveling and touring we’re doing, and not just getting to know its layout, but its history and an understanding of the various neighborhoods, of which there are many. It’s a cool city, but even cooler knowing it better than on the surface. I’m developing a bit of a crush on it, actually, and already predict that I’ll be making a somewhat long-distance relationship with it because of all this. Monthly or perhaps bi-monthly visits in the future. It’s got far too many good things to offer.
Not much more to report for now. Except that this past Friday, I went down to Kentuck Knob, a Frank Lloyd Wright house south of Pittsburgh. Here’s the Wikipedia entry, which has some good info on it. And here’s a little something I wrote after coming home from seeing it:
A house that fits into the side of a mountain like a key fits into a lock, or maybe more a house that grows out of the side of a mountain the way a leaf grows out of a tree. Stone and wood that will never rot, hauled up from the swamps of Tidewater. Octagons of light slowly drifting along the floors, keeping time. The kitchen is the woman, the woman is the kitchen, so says a far too practiced and perhaps overused tour guide, Dolores. We are at Kentuck Knob, where Frank Lloyd Wright meant to never visit, but did, just once, and was showed up by a seventy-one year old building contractor who had initially refused to build a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and then did it anyway.
It’s not a space in which a person keeps house, it is a space one exists in, the way the blade of grass exists in the wind, bending with it. Windows are walls looking out on an old forest, groomed to some extent, enough to make it look as if it is not groomed at all, simply naturally tidy. A triptych of boulders here, for instance, a pond round back of the master bedroom’s window so that one falls asleep to and wakes to the sound of a stream gurgling nearby. If it weren’t for the vintage stovetops that pull down from the walls of the kitchen to be cooked upon, and the matching oven, remnant of my parents’ childhoods, though certainly a product their families never would have afforded, and if it weren’t for the art—Native American bridles and bits, a desk with a stone Buddha, placed down next to the owner’s picture alongside Princess Diana—you would think it, the house itself, a natural product of its environment. Which is the point, of course.
Who were the people who had such a place built, and on such a piece of land as that, high up on a mountain, so that when you walk through the lane round back and pass under a thin stretch of trees onto a hill that looks out and down upon a vista of rolling hills and mountainsides folding into one another for miles and miles? Dairy famers, apparently. Though it must have been quite a dairy to have placed them in such circumstances.
Lord Peter Palumbo is the current owner, International Somebody. Collector of eclectic sculpture. So much sculpture that he’s made the meadow just down the side of the mountain into an open-air museum. A red army of cut-outs, tribal in posture and lined up like good soldiers, own one corner of the meadow, which is groomed lovingly to look, like the house and the land above, as if it has not been groomed so thoroughly. A piece of the Berlin Wall, tattooed with graffiti. A church steeple. An Andy Goldsworthy cairn. Edwardian mailboxes and telephone booths lined up here and there. A touch of England on a mostly untouched Pennsylvania mountainside, a hidden shrine in the woods. Lord Palumbo will soon be coming to enjoy all of this for the next two months, according to Dolores.
What is it about such places that they are able to inspire and to awe, but to also feel, to many, too remote, too artificial in their desire to be organic and natural, too different from what is considered normal to finally seal the deal? None of this my feelings but that of fellow travelers, who crave the civilized world and society enough to mention missing it during a tour.
If only the strange sculpture of the eaten apple weren’t so absurd, its core remaindered on the back lawn among the antique plows, the sort you would need to hitch to a horse, like the one my grandfather kept in his front yard for a long period of my childhood, propped next to a gigantic maple tree, unused, unable to get rid of it even though he has a practical, utilitarian nature, and it had not been used for decades. Is that art? Not really. Maybe it is actually an extreme form of practicality. One never knows when one may have need of it. Depression-era syndrome: refusal to cast anything aside, to waste.
On the drive back to Pittsburgh, I watch the mountains and their thick canopies of trees rising and falling across the horizon. There is so much green here, which is something with which I am familiar, but not in these shapes and sizes, the land holding you within its folds of green the further down the mountain you drive, making you feel smaller and ant-like.
Back up on the ridge, on Kentuck Knob, in the Frank Lloyd Wright house, the feeling of being ant-like, a creature, is in the details of the inside-out house, but you are given perspective, a way of seeing everything at once, not feeling enclosed. Are his houses art? They must be, not because they provide perspective, as almost any house will do almost by default of the form of making something to live within, but because the perspective is so consciously planned to lift you outside of the ordinary.