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Moving to Madtown?

One of the last questions I ask myself as I pack my bags and get ready to move on is whether or not I could live wherever it is I am leaving. Considering how spoilt I am in the homes I have – Ireland and Hungary – it takes a lot for me to say yes. And it takes a helluva of a lot for my yes to be a resounding, unhesitating, yes! But Madison, WI? There’s a city I could move to tomorrow (assuming the next POTUS is someone I can bear to look at).

State capital and university town, Madison is big enough not to know everyone and small enough to be walkable. And it has heart. I could tell. I can tell a lot of the spirit of a town by its signage. What? I hear you say. You’d move countries based on a few signs? Well, I never said my brand of logic was for everyone. But given how I make my decisions, that’s more research than I’ve ever done.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3835 (600x800)IMG_3840 (600x800)IMG_3852 (800x600) (2)IMG_3868 (800x600)IMG_3869 (800x600)IMG_3870 (800x600) The overwhelming sense I got was one of culture and caring mixed in with a healthy dose of quirkiness and little fear of being different.

The city sits between two lakes  – Mendota and Monona (the latter is the one into which Otis Redding’s plane crashed). And there are three more close by: Lake Waubesa, Lake Kegonsa and Lake Wingra. Of its 94 square miles, over 17 are under water. It’s quite something to look out over the frozen expanse of water and wonder how much lotto I’d have to win to be able to afford a lakeside property.

Home to about a quarter of a million people,
Madison oozes an appeal rarely found in my American experience (even though I’m a great fan of the US of A). Everywhere I looked, I IMG_3875 (800x600)saw humour, generosity, and a charming ‘what the hell, life is for living’ attitude. I admit to having a serious case of the moves. And it wasn’t just the thoughts of warm cookies being delivered up to 3am. The city seems to be making a concerted effort to stay local, support local, and be different. That I applaud. The city’s farmer’s market is the country’s largest producer-only market with over 300 stalls. And on a per capita basis, the people here buy more books than anywhere else in the country (okay, so there’s a big university, which by the way numbers 24 Pulitzers and 17 Nobel prizes in its alumni…. perhaps no surprise about the books). It has 260 parks in the city itself and one of the 10 free zoos in the country. And perhaps what’s most endearing – its nicknames include Mad City and Madtown.

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IMG_3816 (800x600)IMG_3821 (800x600)The State Capitol is at the  city’s heart. No building in town can be taller than it and nothing new can be built within a mile of it. It’s the second tallest dome in the country, after, of course, the one in Washington DC. The day I was there, a massive schools art exhibit was in progress and there was
certainly a lot of talent on display. Stunningly gorgeous, it was inviting and inclusive and almost homely, despite the gilded ceilings and the fancy columns. I was particularly impressed with a poster pointing to understanding assumptions.

IMG_3824 (600x800)IMG_3846 (800x600)Walking the streets of Madison, I was completely taken with the place. And I started to think about going back to school – again.  But I’m being fanciful, I know. Still, though, it’s dreams like these that keep me young inside. The possibilities life offers are endless. How cool is that, eh?

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IMG_3898 (800x588)And, of course, there’s also the FLW connection. I know I keep banging on about him but what can I say, I like the chap. There’s a convention centre in Madison that he designed – or at least, he drew the original drawings. There was some fighting with City Council over his IMG_3902 (800x600)
plans to extend out over the lake (and I wondered about the Infinity Room in Jordan’s House on the Rock and how it is supposed to be a tribute to Wright). His signature is there, though, on the wall, as is a bust of the man himself. There’s also quite a stunning photo exhibition of IMG_3905 (800x600)his work which gives some idea of what a proliferate architect he was. I was suitably awed.  Yes, Madison left its mark. It’s an amazing little city in a state that has much to offer by way of hospitality and frozen custard. I mightn’t be on the  next plane, but it’s been filed away for future reference.

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2016 Grateful 42

When I get something in my head, I’m like a chicken with a speck of blood.I start to fixate. I have even been known to obsess. Sometimes, though, life interrupts my efforts to realise whatever it is I’ve gotten wrapped up in and something else takes over. But not always.

Having discovered that the House on the Rock wasn’t one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s creations, I was determined to visit a building that was. Taliesin, his home place, was closed for the season so I had to look farther afield. Apparently some proud owners of Wright’s houses are happy for people to rock up to their front door and ask for a viewing but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. If I owned one, I can’t think of anything more annoying.  But GP, the queen of Wisconsin, came to the rescue.

IMG_3757 (800x600)IMG_3779 (800x600)In the city of Milwaukee there’s a church – the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. It was one of Wright’s last major commissions. He actually died before it was officially opened, which is a shame. A shame that he missed seeing the effect it has on people.

I was also eager to see it because I had heard that it was what Ayn Rand based the Stoddard Temple on in her book, The Fountainhead. But that bubble has burst. Stoddard, apparently, was based on a Wright-designed church, but on a 1906 Unitarian church he designed in Oak Park, Illinois – Unity Temple. [Fascinating article here on the Rand/Wright relationship.] But I didn’t know this when I was there. The one I was sitting in was built to human scale, with no traditional religious imagery (or minimal imagery, if you discount the floor plan being in the shape of a Greek cross). It matched.

IMG_3764 (800x600)IMG_3773 (800x600)It is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in. And so comfortable. Not a word I’d usually associate with a church. But why not? What is it about church architecture that says no to comfort? Perhaps people might spend more time in them if they were more IMG_3776 (800x600)welcoming.

The pre-service (if that’s what it was … ) started at 8.30 am so we had an early start to be sure to be there on time. When we arrived, the car park was nearly empty – not a good sign. And there were just four others in the church, not including the priest (cantIMG_3766 (591x800)or?), who was already in full voice. Did I mention it was Greek Orthodox?

I was clueless. We sat. We listened. I got lost. People started arriving around 9.20 and the mass itself started at 9.30. And people kept arriving. Conversation happened all the while. Old and young alike stopped to say hi to friends and neighbours. It was all very convivial and so not Roman Catholic. The choir in the upper balcony was in fine fettle. The congregation resembled the cast of My Big Greek Wedding and was remarkably white. It made for some great people watching. Two hours into it all, things were still going strong. But the pews were comfortable. I said that, right? As neither of us had been baptised into the Orthodox faith, we couldn’t take communion. This was clearly stated on the leaflet. But we could partake in the bread afterwards (even if I’m still not sure what that was about). It wasn’t easy to figure out the ritual or to understand all that was being said and sung. But it did feel holy. In a surreal sort of way.

I was particularly taken with how relaxed everyone was. And how right the church felt. How usable. How for the people. I’ve been in modern churches and not liked them much. I think they often fail to capture the spirit of it all. I’ve been to fabulous old ones, too, that while stunningly gorgeous, are just a tad too ornate to be real. But this was different. It was simple, usable, and cosy without being small. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to see the Man himself stopping by and sitting down for a chat.

Back in 1958, in a letter in which he refers to the church, Wright had this to say:

The edifice is in itself a complete work of modern art and science belonging to today but dedicated to ancient tradition—contributing to Tradition instead of living upon it.

This week, thousands of miles removed from Milwaukee, I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience Wright’s work. The last time I spent so long in a church was in Prague, one Easter, when I had to turn to someone standing beside me and check to make sure I was at mass, in a Roman Catholic Church. It went on forever with 13 readings … in Czech. That I resented. This was different. This was special.

 

 

 

Mistaken identity

On occasion my own stupidity astonishes me. I’m gullible. There are times I find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. And sometimes I just get the wrong end of the paper plate. Like thinking that the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, was a controversial creation by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I couldn’t have been  more wrong.

Having just missed the last tour the day before, we drove back the following morning in plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock first tour of the day. As we hung around the visitors centre, it soon became clear that Wright’s wasn’t the mind behind the madness. It was Alex Jordan’s. And who, in the name of all that’s ever been draughted, was Alex Jordan, we wondered and why had I given up a day in Chicago to tour the one and only thing he ever designed or built? A house that has been called the tackiest place in America. A house that some call creepy? A house that others say is evil?

IMG_3587 (800x542)The story has it that Jordan’s father wanted to build a parody of FLW’s work in the shape of a Japanese house. Jordan took over the project from him and the original house came to be, a warren of low-ceilinged, dark IMG_3594 (800x589)IMG_3593 (800x600)IMG_3610 (800x600)rooms, lit with lamps that look like Tiffany lamps but are not. In fact, lots of stuff looks like other stuff, but isn’t. It seems Jordan took great delight in fooling people and would pay more for a good forgery that he might for the real thing. The place has no freestanding furniture or designated bedroom and while certainly intriguing and different, it’s not built to live in. It’s a house, not a home.

I was enthralled. I still haven’t decided if I liked it but it certainly made an impression. Every nook and cranny has something to look at. The lighting is poor though and the carpeted ceilings take some getting use to. Seats are built into walls. Trees and waterfalls vie for space with pianos and double-bases.  Random collections of musical IMG_3607 (800x600)instruments play tunes like the Hungarian Rhapsody. It’s all very surreal.

The house itself is accessed by a long wooden walkway that wends its way through the treetops high above the ground below. The view is magical. Especially in winter.

IMG_3598 (800x600)IMG_3637 (800x600)IMG_3612 (800x600)IMG_3656 (800x600)As Jordan added bits and pieces, people passing by started asking for a look around. And he started charging 50c for the privilege. He used this money to indulge his obsession for collecting things, sending staff around the world in search of oddities to add to his retreat. (Where was I when he was hiring?) If he spent three nights in the place, that was it. And while I liked its quirkiness, it would he horrible to heat, terrible to read in, and way too dark for sanity. But it is certainly something.

As we went from room to room walking in procession along the winding corridors that seemed subterranean, I was struck by a sense of displacement. I usually have no trouble imagining myself living anywhere. I have a fondess for stately homes and can lose myself in IMG_3664 (800x600)IMG_3658 (800x600)IMG_3661 (800x600)fantasies about holding court around a vast dining-room table without much trouble, the overwhelming sense I had here was one of extreme loneliness. Jordan called it a retreat and it is just that – a retreat – somewhere to escape to, to be alone, to lose yourself in. And get lost I would. Never the best at
orientiation, I was completely lost and didn’t know which way was up.

The lamps, the blue-glassed windows, the stained glass, the stones, the rocks, the trees.  My favourite room in the whole place though, wasn’t the library. It was the infinity room. At 218  feet long it has 3264 windows
and  extends unsupported for about 140 feet over the valley below about 15 stories high. Now this was a room I could spend time in. If it had a chair. Or a couch. I’d even settle for a beanbag.

IMG_3620 (800x600)IMG_3624 (800x600)IMG_3704 (800x600)IMG_3713 (800x600)IMG_3717 (800x600)IMG_3725 (800x600)I imagine though that it could get a little hairy in high winds and I’m not all that sure about the glass floor at the end – looking through that was a little head-wrecking. But it is absolutely stunning. Breathtaking.  Even if it wasn’t FLW.

But the house was only the half of it. The madness continued. In 1971, Streets of Yesterday opened. This indoor re-creation of old time America is a nostalgic look at how things used to be. There’s a hotel, a cinema, a theatre, shops, houses, and what’s claimed
to be the world’s biggest carousel. There’s fortune-telling machines, French postcard viewers, cobbestones, and trees. There’s all sorts of stuff you can try out with tokens. And because we were only getting half the tour (it being winter), we got our
tokens for free.

The full tour can take a day and is miles long – literally – dotted with restaurants and cafés. The complete attraction experience. While I thought the house was mad, this was bordering on twee. Not quite there, but it’s just one angelhair of candy floss away. And it’s all down to one man’s determination to build stuff people would want to some see, an attraction tailored-made for middle America. Frank Lloyd Wright it ain’t but  it’s certainly something.

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The shadow of life

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
~ R.D. Laing

Quite a mouthful that. Try saying it aloud. When I read it today, I immediately thought of shadows. Now, I am not at all sure where the association came from (and has that ever stopped be ruminating ….), but intangible though it was, it sent me searching through my photographs to confirm a deep-seated suspicion that alongside closed doors and flowers behind bars, I also seem to have an obsession of sorts with photographing shadows.

It’s not the objects themselves that interest me, but the way light interacts with them and distorts what might otherwise be a mirrored reflection. Although far less solid and far more ephemeral, it is the shadow that attracts me. This realisation then made me wonder even more because it would seem that much of my working life is spent dealing with tangibles – texts, words, plans, structures , budgets, people – and yet what I find most interesting is the effect they create, the influence they have, their reach.

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel reckons that most people think that shadows follow, precede, or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses, and memories. The reach and influence of what we say and do, the shadow of our actions, if you will, can divide the indivisible. So often we have no idea of the signifance of a throw-away comment, a random act, a spontaneous decision. We see what’s solid, what’s real, and all too often fail to notice the shadow that realness creates. And yet, as Martin Luther King would have it, everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.

So if in noticing that failing to notice shapes my thoughts and deeds; if I see the shadows that surround my words and ideas; if I accept that everything is a shadow of what I do not see, then might I arrive at a meeting of minds with Frank Lloyd Wright and accept that  the present is the ever moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow. In that lies hope.

While I attempt to figure it all out, I will still appreciate a shadow for what I believe it is – a glimpse of a parallel reality.