House of the Century

House of the Century

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Daisy Alioto | Longreads | February 2020 | 16 minutes (3,903 words)

“A house is the physical manifestation of the ego”

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, “My Very Own Dream House”

I. Security

I have always harbored suspicions about fire escape windows. When my mother was living in Boston in the 80s, her TV set sat across from the window that opened onto her fire escape. One night she woke up to a hairy leg entering the window and screamed loudly enough to wake her neighbors and scare away the television thief. An acquaintance who lives in Park Slope listened to an intruder pop the glass out of her fire escape window and watched their iPhone light sweep closer to the bedroom as she silently tried to shake her boyfriend awake. After an eternity, he sprung up and chased the intruder out with a hockey stick.

My boyfriend does not harbor suspicions about fire escape windows, so when he moved to a one bedroom apartment, security considerations became my own research project. The acquaintance in Park Slope sent a link to a $20 window alarm on Amazon. I watched a short video about the installation process and began to read the reviews. The top review was 5/5 stars, written by Mary in Florida and it broke my heart more than any thief ever could.

She writes that she debated buying a door alarm but never did, despite the fact that the rest of the house was baby proofed for two children under two years old. One day, after feeding a bird outside, the younger one slipped back out without her noticing — probably to chase the bird, she says. In a few minutes she sensed the lack of noise in the house, the too quietness. She found him in the pond across the street and he died the next day.

The review continues. “I am a good mom,” she writes, listing the other ways she baby-proofed the home. “I am a good mom.” I’ve forgotten why I’ve come to Amazon. Maybe this is someone’s idea of a sick joke, a manufacturer’s enthusiastic review of their own product gone too far but no… with a little Googling, I find Mary and the local reporting on the tragedy.

I want to reach through my screen and hold Mary. To tell her yes, you are a good mom. It’s not your fault that doors open and babies look at birds. Of course you are a good mother, there’s just so much that can go wrong with a home.

According to Robert Lee’s A Treatise On Hysteria (1871), Greek physician Aretaeus was one of the first thinkers to link hysteria to the female body. “In the middle of the flanks of a woman lies the womb, a female viscus closely resembling an animal.” The womb wanders the body, leaving a slew of undesirable symptoms in its wake. “On the whole it is like an animal within an animal,” Aretaeus writes.





In 1951, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic glass house — constructed an hour West of Chicago — filled modernist architecture patrons with awe. Nora Wendl, Associate Professor of Architecture at University of New Mexico, tells a different story. Dr Edith Farnsworth, the woman for whom the home was built, was deeply unsettled by its transparency. “The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax,” Farnsworth told House Beautiful. However, rather than accept her critique as fact, an instance of a male architect flying too close to the sun by sacrificing function for form, Farnsworth was dismissed as Mies van der Rohe’s allegedly jilted lover. A hysteric.

“All successive histories of the Farnsworth House elect to focus not on the potential flaws of the Farnsworth House that Farnsworth outlines — or the potential flaws of the power imbalance of architect-client relations — but rather on the original, baseless story that Farnsworth was heartbroken and vengeful when approaching the press,” Wendl writes.

Farnsworth’s self-description as a wandering animal, trapped in the glass house like Aretaeus’s zoomorphic womb, is all too appropriate given her gendered dismissal. In truth, the house did heat up in the sun like a greenhouse. Water leaked through its clear ceiling. Over the past 60 years, the site has struggled with flooding. Given the state of the climate, this struggle is likely to continue. The narrative of the Farnsworth house is of a woman, rather than an architect, coming up against their limitations. The wandering womb can never come home.

Ludwig II of Bavaria, born in 1845, was nicknamed the “Mad King” for his lavish spending on architectural marvels. In 1869, he began building the Linderhof Palace in Bavaria, alongside the dense and largely uninhabited Ettaler Forst. On the grounds of the palace, a cartoonish pile of rocks opens to reveal an artificial cave, the Venus Grotto. Inspired by the first act of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, Ludwig II’s grotto portrays the Venusberg, a fairyland belonging to the goddess-seductress.

The plaster shell of the space is as pearly as the instep of Fragonard’s swinging woman. The king installed electric dynamos to light the pool with a succession of colors. Ludwig II cited the Blue Grotto in Capri, where a natural effect of sunlight helps to illuminate the sea cavity from below in rich lapis blue. However, the rococo Venus Grotto is not only blue. It is at times pink as a baby’s fingernail and mossy as oxidized copper.

The grotto is a victim of water from all sides. Ground water permeates its walls, while the humidity of the lake compromises the fake stalactites above. As such, it’s been undergoing repairs since at least 2015, not projected to be completed until 2024.

Unlikeme, my boyfriend does not harbor suspicions about fire escape windows, so when he moved to a one bedroom apartment, security considerations became my own research project.

II. Vision

“I’m just an animal looking for a home.”

– The Talking Heads, “This Must Be The Place”

The first recorded book of architectural theory, On Architecture, dates back to antiquity and comprises a ten part treatise by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Vitruvius is famous for articulating a triad of core qualities that each building must have: firmitas, utilitas, venustas. This translates to strength, functionality and beauty (aesthetics). Architects have embraced this trinity with religious fervor. Structures adhering to this triad represent the best in architecture.


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A home represents the idea we’ll no longer wander; we don’t talk about the ways we wander within the home. In Farnsworth, public opinion diagnosed the woman and not the architecture. In Ludwig, the grotto was a proxy for both. However, women and closeted kings aren’t the only people to fall short of the myths of home. James Joyce’s Ulysses transposes the hero’s journey onto two groups with a fraught relationship to their homelands: the Jews and the Irish. In the chapter Ithaca, Leopold Bloom returns home only to realize he’s forgotten his keys. He must decide whether “To enter or not to enter. To knock or not to knock.” Eventually, he scales the wall to his garden. “Did he fall?” Joyce asks. Yes, with his full body weight, we learn.

By 1886, a group of frustrated advisors vowed to depose Ludwig. Historians speculate the coup had more to do with Ludwig’s homosexual desires and various eccentricities than his wreckless spending, which primarily affected the royal rather than state coffers. Nonetheless, he was found mentally unfit to rule by a psychiatrist named Dr. Gudden who had only met the patient once (twelve years prior). “He is teetering like a blind man without guidance on the verge of a precipice,” Dr. Gudden wrote. If he was a woman, he would have been branded a hysteric. Instead, his crime was to have acted like one.

Three days after Ludwig was officially removed from power, doctor and patient went walking together in the late morning. When they didn’t return, they were both found dead in the shallows of Lake Starnberg. Ludwig’s death was ruled suicide by drowning, although this explanation is far from universally accepted: an autopsy found no water in his lungs.

Was Ludwig attempting an escape by boat, swapping the floating scallop of his grotto for something more practical? His watch had stopped at 6:54pm. Did the setting sun shine through from beneath and illuminate him?

***

Ant Farm was a San Francisco design and architecture practice known for their pop culture performances. In 1971, they developed a national reputation for their Inflatocookbook, styled like The Anarchist Cookbook, but for inflatable architecture rather than bombs. This of course drew comparisons to radical contemporaries, such as the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. In 1967, the Yippies famously attempted to levitate the Pentagon.

In 1974, Stanley Marsh 3 invited Ant Farm to Amarillo, Texas to assemble Cadillac Ranch– a field of cars tipped forward and buried up to their windshields. The overall effect is Stonehenge meets a John Chamberlain sculpture.

Marsh was the third in a line of Stanley’s propelled to arts patronage by their oil money. However, he preferred the ‘3’ to a Roman numeral, as a reflection of his humility. He lived in a house called Toad Hall, probably named for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or A. A. Milne’s stage adaptation Toad of Toad Hall. Toad’s house is described as a “Jacobean residence with bits of Tudor. Finest house on the river.” What separates Toad from Leopold Bloom? When we write animals, we give them homes. Architecture, which is meant to suppress our animal nature, instead reveals it.

The animal within the animal.

***

When I was 10 years old I played a game called “Arctic Tundra,” which consisted of building a shelter from my portable fan while on its highest setting. My materials were whatever was in bed at the time, except for my sheets or blankets. I loved the thrill of shivering behind a wall of limp pillows and irregular stuffed animals. The whole point was to build an imperfect buttress for my own discomfort.

I taught “Arctic Tundra” to my little sister. In those days, I wasn’t imparting the best example. I also told her tales about a rabid dog named Cassidy that lived in my dad’s new neighborhood. I told her that an old tomato we saw on a walk was a human heart. There was an unfriendly dog named Cassidy, but she lived in my mom’s neighborhood. This bit of mirroring was lost on both of us.

While I acted out environmental extremes, there was another trajectory of home happening in the background. My parents divorced just before my 10th birthday, and my father moved from a hotel room to a rental house to an apartment to another apartment to a tent in my aunt’s backyard. An extension cord snaked across the deck, connecting his TV set to the house like an umbilical cord. The myth of Cassidy belonged to the rental house where other imagined menaces swirled. One day while out for a walk, perhaps the same walk when we saw the tomato, the mailman stopped to ask my dad where we were living. He thought it was interesting timing for the family he was renting from to have moved out. My dad was polite, but as the mailman drove away he grimaced. The family was Saudi Arabian. It wasn’t long after 9/11. Did we understand what the mailman was insinuating? Did we understand that he was wrong?

I wonder if that mailman has ever experienced true domestic failure — foreign attack being the only type he was primed to expect.

***

I can’t stop thinking about Mary. She volunteers her story in the reviews section of Amazon, and yet she anticipates the criticism that comes with telling her story. She is afraid of being seen as a “bad mom.” In Mark Greif’s n+1 essay “Octomom, One Year Later,” he describes Octomom (Nadya Suleman) in the press as a “tentacular comic book monster, slithering her baby-oiled limbs into the American moneypot.” We are supposed to resent Suleman for being a burden on her fellow countrymen. Her body is like the feminine grotto Ludwig II’s advisors so despised.

After the 1970s, Jerry Rubin turned his back on the radical lifestyle. “I know that I can be more effective today wearing a suit and tie and working on Wall Street than I can be dancing outside the walls of power,” he said. In 1994, he was struck by a car while crossing the street near his apartment building and died two weeks later from complications..

Advice for women living alone suggests leaving a pair of muddy, men’s boots outside your front door. If you don’t have a man in your life to donate them, you can buy them secondhand. My boyfriend’s old apartment had a broken peephole. Missing the interior glass, it instead functioned as a telescope for anyone standing outside to look down the hallway into the living room and kitchen. He lived there for five years and never noticed. There’s just so much that can go wrong with a home.

***

After the inflatables and before Cadillac Ranch, Ant Farm built a bulbous periscope of a house on the shores of a private Texas lake. It’s been compared to a space shuttle, a phallus, a swamp creature and a “time machine” (by Playboy). In The Dallas News, architecture critic Mark Lamster explains that the house was constructed using boat-building techniques. A frame of pipes set three feet apart were covered in layers of chicken wire and filled in with cement, says Lamster. Just six years after construction began, the structure required additional layers of moisture protection. The structure was called “House of the Century.”

Strength, functionality and beauty (aesthetics): Architects have embraced this trinity with religious fervor.

In its prime, the upholstered interior of the house was a pink, padded esophagus of 1970s taste. The wooden floor, gleaming like a bowling alley, dips into seating pits. Tinted plexiglass windows stain the space with patches of yellow light. A female model looks longingly out at the lake, one nipple exposed. This prime was short-lived.

The sporting goods retail heiress who commissioned the house split with her husband. “It was one thing to put up with a house that was less than functional, but the added psychological weight of a divided family was too much for its ferro-concrete shell to bear,” Lamster writes. The July/August 2006 issue of Dwell magazine claimed that the House of the Century “lies mostly submerged in a Texas swamp.” Co-designer Chip Lord denied that the house was in such a state of disrepair and said that it was undergoing restoration, although photos accompanying Lamster’s 2019 piece show plants climbing the sides of the house, as if sucking it back into the landscape.

Ant Farm continued to create. On July 4th, 1975, two members drove a Cadillac through a pyramid of burning television sets. Artist Doug Hall introduced the piece while dressed as John F. Kennedy. “What has gone wrong with America is not a random visitation of fate. It is the result of forces that have assumed control of the American system…These forces are: militarism, monopoly, and the mass media,” Hall said.

Militarism, monopoly, and mass media: Another triad. In The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years, Alfred Goldberg writes, “I first saw the Pentagon in February 1943, less than a month after its completion. I identified it immediately, even though I had never seen a picture of it.” Empire is instantly recognizable. We may even know it better than our own home.

“The Pentagon has unity, oneness. It commands attention not because of its beauty–it is not a visual delight–but because of its size and its function… Even before its completion the building was described unfavorably and often disdainfully as gigantic, gargantuan, massive and fortress-like. Some called it a monstrosity,” Goldberg writes. The pentagon might be the most American building there is. After all, it is un-American to expect the pursuit of happiness to be its own protection.

III. Time

Americans see home ownership as an achievement signifying one’s independence — and by extension, control over the circumstances of our lives. We have little cultural conversation devoted to the idea that a house can be a thing that happens to you. A house may start out strong, functional and beautiful — but what happens when time turns against you?

The Internet is full of scary stories about the invisible problems that afflict a home: termites, mold, asbestos, lead paint, foreclosure. Our inability to see structural problems in the most basic sense (architectural) is just a symptom of our reluctance to acknowledge the architecture of loss so fundamental to an unequal society. The punishment for being an outsider in any sense. It’s much better to chalk these losses up to unnatural disaster.

Forget a poltergeist, how about EIFS? A stucco substitute that has led to hundreds, likely thousands, of destroyed homes. EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish System) was supposed to prevent moisture from getting into the walls. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t allow moisture to leave the walls. In 2002, the New York Times interviewed a lawyer who filed nearly 600 homeowner claims in New Jersey alone against one of the manufacturers of EIFS, Dryvit. A nationwide class-action settled in Tennessee three years later extended the same terms to other states, but it only partially covered repair costs. “Note – there can be similar problems with real stucco as well. Look for cracks around windows, joints in walls, where two walls come together, etc. Look where flashing ends at roof runoffs. From the ground, look at where the water has splashed up – does it show deterioration,” writes one self-identified Certified General Appraiser on an appraiser’s forum.

We hear about people who lose their houses suddenly, but not about the ones who lose their houses slowly. We don’t hear about what happens in the liminal space between diagnosis and loss. A Google search for “Dryvit damage” turns up images of moldy, black wood and gummy insulation that looks like it could be rung out in ropes. One ‘victim’ told The New York Times: “’We had set up a rainy day fund, and it didn’t rain, it poured.”

***

At the climax of the play Toad of Toad Hall, we find out that Toad Hall has been usurped by enemy animals. Badger, helpfully, reveals that an underground passage into Toad’s home will allow them to catch the invaders unaware. Toad is doubtful, having never heard of the tunnel before. “I know every inch of Toad Hall inside and out,” he says. Badger explains that he knows about the passage from Toad’s father, who gave strict instructions to only tell Toad about the secret entrance in case of an emergency. “That’s what he said, Toad. Knowing the sort of animal you were.”

Amarillo, Texas forms the third corner of an isosceles triangle with Austin and Marfa. It has neither the hyperreality of Austin’s curated Instagram graffiti or the cachet of Donald Judd’s expressionless Rubik’s cubes. After Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo is best known for the Pantex plant that employed many local residents through World War II and even now, although the facility’s mandate is to reduce America’s nuclear stockpile by dismantling old weapons. Pantex has earned Amarillo the nickname “Bomb City.”

In college, I went to a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In the final act, the actors tore up the floor of the wooden house that constituted the set. Beneath the floorboards were hundreds of stuffed animals. Piles of plush bunnies and bears, loosely packed like popcorn. So many stuffed animals that the cold air from the fan would never reach you.

***

I’ve been writing about architecture for four years, and the Vitruvian triad encompasses nearly every criticism I could think to offer about a structure in the abstract. Yet, I am obsessed with all the ways this triad falls short, and the structures that fall outside of it. My own triad of the home is more of an equation: security and vision divided by time lapsed. The truth about a home is complicated. “The House of the Century” has been called a swamp creature, but tilt the scales of criticism and suddenly the occupants become the monsters, or perhaps the designers, for falling short of occupational longevity. “Now I ask you, my fellow Americans: Haven’t you ever wanted to put your foot through your television screen?” Doug Hall (as JFK) asks. The crowd applauds.

Our inability to see structural problems in the most basic sense (architectural) is just a symptom of our reluctance to acknowledge the architecture of loss so fundamental to an unequal society.

There were writers who did not think Dr. Farnsworth was a hysteric, and accordingly painted Mies van der Rohe as un-American. “Once people close their ears to the ecstatic gibberish they now hear in favor of the bad modern furniture and worse modern architecture, and open their eyes to the truth, then the reign of error will be over… the age of reason, beauty, and comfort i.e., the Next America, will be with us,” wrote Farnsworth House critic and House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon. Frank Lloyd Wright, eager to be thought of as the premier American architect, was Gordon’s natural ally.

Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” was inspired by Mies van der Rohe but finished before Johnson’s mentor could complete his own. Like Ludwig II, Johnson was a closeted gay man who idolized Wagner. He spent his 30s dallying with Nazi propaganda. “One might easily interpret the Glass House solely as an exercise in camp, an outlet through which Johnson could resolve his decidedly unresolved homosexual inclinations,” writes Mark J. Stern. Johnson was both an anti-semite and a visionary, and his peers celebrated him as a quintessential citizen. He routinely tops lists of Best American Architects.

There are villains in architecture, and we routinely pick the wrong ones. In order to tell you what became of Toad Hall I have to tell you what became of Marsh — or, rather, how he was unmasked. In 2012, a Houston attorney representing ten teenage boys from Amarillo filed lawsuits against Marsh alleging sexual abuse, according to Texas Monthly. The attorney made contact with “easily a dozen other young males” who said they experienced abuse that fell outside the statute of limitations. By that point, Marsh had already quietly settled five other such lawsuits without admitting wrongdoing. With these next 10, it was no different. Marsh died in 2014 and Toad Hall has since been sold.

Near the house is yet another piece of architecture, winding away into entropy. It’s a piece of land art by Robert Smithson called Amarillo Ramp, commissioned by Stanley Marsh 3. The artist Emmy Thelander visited Amarillo Ramp in 2013. She wrote, “It appeared to be the soft-curving spine of a snake or an animal emerging from the ground. Unlike the crisp-edged form in photographs taken after its construction, the piece is now a semi-circular mound with gradually sloping sides.”

Smithson didn’t finish Amarillo Ramp himself: he died in 1973 while surveying the area from a plane. Doug Michels, co-founder of Ant Farm, also suffered an apparent accidental death. In 2003, he was consulting on a documentary near Sydney, Australia when he fell while hiking to an ocean lookout. The documentary was about a group of killer whales that collaborated with local fishermen to hunt baleen whales–a rare mutual relationship between the two species.

***

How are we meant to process all the extraordinary ways of losing when we can’t even process the ordinary ones? I buy the window alarm.

* * *

Daisy Alioto manages audience development at New York Review of Books. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalPlayboy and more. Her last Longreads feature was about a Hungarian expressionist painter and anti-fascist. We previously excerpted her feature on micro hotels.


Editor: Sari Botton

Fact checker: Matt Giles

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