Saturday, July 30, 2005

Saturday at the Cinema—Art Imitates Life in Two of the Summer's Acclaimed Films

In the 1991 film Postcards from the Edge, Meryl Streep plays Suzanne Vale, a middle-aged actress who is grasping at rope ends to pull herself back to reality following a near fatal drug overdose. The film chronicles her attempts to revive a movie career and the obstacles—lingering resentment towards her alcoholic mother, a deceptive lover, a critical director, and an embezzling business manger among them—that conspire to derail her sobriety. "Thank God I got sober now so I can be hyperconscious for this series of humiliations," she says. Later, she confides to a director friend, played by Gene Hackman, "I don't want life to imitate art. I want life to be art."

Two of this summer's art house films—Don Roos's much-anticipated Happy Endings and French director Jacques Audiard's critic's-choice The Beat That My Heart Skipped—somewhat eclipsed in scale by a raft of flashy blockbusters—reminded me of why I'm drawn to small films. The main reason: their greatest sparks come not from computer generated special effects but from the collision of well-meaning yet wounded characters trying desperately to reconcile their brokenness. These kinds of films are pieces of art; art reflecting real-life struggles and revealing the lengths we go to wrestle those struggles into submission.

A lot of us go to movies to escape reality. In that regard, aliens are handy devices to reach that goal. Any of George Lucas's most recent creations work well too. When was the last time you saw an alien have a psychological meltdown after discovering his lover was unfaithful? Or one torn between the demands of a going-nowhere job and the opportunity to chase a dream? The beauty of escape in the experience of an alien (War of the Worlds), caped crusader (Batman Begins), or megalomaniacal chocolatier (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is that the realms those characters inhabit in no way resemble the numbing sameness of our daily lives. I'm not against those kinds of movies. In fact, I've found many of them to be a lot of fun. Whenever I come across an HBO replay of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, for instance, I allow myself to become fully immersed in the glamour of three of the sexiest angels we're bound to see mingling among us on terra firma.

What I find especially satisfying, however, is watching the product of a talented director and his cadre of writer, editor, photographer, and actors after they have articulated and navigated the sameness of real life on film. After all the episodes that unfold in Roos's Happy Endings and Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped, while fiction, are obviously informed by emotions and experiences we can all recognize and identify with. These two directors have refracted the experience of real-life dilemmas through the medium of film. Actually, the only "real-life" things missing in these films are the mundane moments involving laundry, taking out the trash, pulling weeds, and sleeping. What everybody's life needs is a good screenwriter and editor.

In Happy Endings, each character inhabits a house of cards, or resides a bit too close for comfort to one that's about to topple. The fun of the movie is watching how the characters navigate the implosions. In this film everybody has a secret that triggers a collapse of some sort.

About twenty years ago, Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) and her stepbrother Charley (Steve Coogan) had sex, which resulted in Mamie's pregnancy. Unbeknownst to everybody, she gave the baby—a son—up for adoption, even though she claimed to have had an abortion. Nicky (Jesse Bradford), an aspiring filmmaker with a mysterious link to Mamie, has uncovered her secret, and threatens to tell all if she doesn't agree to make the reunion with her son the subject of a documentary. Instead, Mamie persuades Nicky to make the story of Javier (Bobby Cannavale), her boyfriend and a masseur who is also an immigrant from Mexico, the subject of his documentary. Mamie and Javier convince Nicky that the massage business is really a front for Javier's more lucrative sex business. Enlisting one of his regular massage clients, a very beautiful woman with her own curious connection to Javier, in the making of the documentary, soon Mamie, Javier, and Nicky are in business. In exchange for the documentary, Mamie will get access to information about her son's name and whereabouts from Nicky.

Across town, Charley and his same-sex partner Gil (David Sutcliffe) are going through mental contortions trying to figure out if Gil's best friend Pam (Laura Dern) and her lesbian life partner lied about using Gil's sperm to have their son. Charley is convinced, based on similarities between Gil's baby pictures and those of Pam's son, that the young boy is in fact Gil's son also. Charley convinces Gil that the two women lied about the viability of Gil's sperm so that they wouldn't have to share custody with the two men. Confused yet? Well, strap yourself in because the plot takes some interesting and unexpected turns. This film is alive with brilliant performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, and Jason Ritter weaving rich narratives and creating a nuanced and lively ensemble piece. Maggie Gyllenhaal is particularly remarkable as Jude, a free-spirited and irresistibly sexy opportunist who first seduces Otis (Ritter), a sexually ambivalent drummer in a rock band, then Otis's dad Frank (Arnold), a gullible and trusting middle-aged widower. Gyllenhaal's plaintive singing wafts through the film. Her performance is a revelation.

In the end, Roos deftly closes each character's story with, well, a happy ending. Without irony or sentimentality, each ending reveals the strangeness, serendipity, and beauty we often encounter in real-life itself.

Roman Duris plays Tom, the beautiful and broken protagonist, in Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Tom wears his struggles on his sleeve. As a result we witness all his disappointments, hopes, and terrors as if from inside his skin. Frustration, anger, exhilaration—when he experiences them they first simmer and rise out of him almost immediately. The only character unflappable in his presence is a Chinese pianist he hires to prep him for an important audition.

Tom's real struggle is in resolving his conflicting desires. He desperately wants to resurrect his youthful talent as a promising pianist, following in his mother's celebrated musical footsteps. He also wants to help his father, a businessman with dubious ethics. Tom is determined to do everything he can to protect his father from what we know is his inevitable destruction. Tom's interventions in his father's failed business partnerships very nearly bring him close to his own end.

Some of the film's most beautiful scenes are those that capture Tom expressing his musical talent on an invisible keyboard and those between him and his steel-willed piano coach played by Linh Dah-Phan. Duris's sister, a concert pianist herself, for his role, tutored him. When Tom plays the piano it is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking. He wants so much to use the piano to impose a sense of control and equilibrium on his life. Nothing about this character suggests he will be successful filling his life only with the beauty of music. We know, just as he must suspect himself, that any efforts to release him from violence are futile. Tom will have brushes with tranquility, but they will be occasional and fleeting.

Happy Endings and The Beat That My Heart Skipped ought to restore your faith in fine filmmaking during a season when the best thing about what’s playing on most screens is the certainty of sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned multiplex theater.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Turning 41—The Art of Aging

Today I turned 41. The day started promptly at midnight with a call from my Grandma, who began our conversation by singing the customary birthday anthem. I then logged into my e-mail account and read two birthday transmittals, posted by my Mom and my friend Steve, both timed at midnight. It probably sounds like there are a lot of people bubbling with energy late at night. Not quite so. All three of these good people live along the West Coast from Southern California to Portland, Oregon. So, as I read their good wishes at midnight in Washington, D.C., their nights were only beginning.

For the most part it was an unremarkable day, which is perhaps as it should be. I wondered if the art of aging doesn't involve integrating the passing of one year and the beginning of the next into the routine fabric of one's day. I used to think it was important to take the day and reflect on my life. I'd take a day off work and sit in the Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral and appreciate the quiet or the moments interrupted by kids laughing or people trying to name all the herbs or remarking on the unusual odor of the dozens of boxwood shrubs scattered throughout the garden. I'm not saying it wouldn't be wonderful to revisit that tradition. It's just that it's maybe not always necessary.

Instead, today I drove to Baltimore to attend a meeting. Nobody there knew it was my birthday. I enjoyed the anonymity of it. Celebrating internally and secretly. I knew that later I'd be going to dinner with my friend Jeff. I'd already spoken with my Mom and my friend Paul. Important people had remembered me.

At 7:00 p.m., I arrived at Jeff's house. He opened the door and sitting in his living room were our friends Rick, his partner Shawn, and Paul. I was completely surprised and thrilled to see them. Rick, Jeff, Shawn, and I have known each other for more than 13 years. At dinner we reminisced about where our friendships began and some of the people we've known over the years. We laughed together. Although the sentiment went unspoken, I think each of us looked acround the table at each other at different moments and marveled that time has treated our friendships tenderly, respectfully, and kindly. We've known good times and difficult times, and we manage to love each other and accept each other despite the idiosyncrasies that make us unique.

When I finally got home, I had some phone messages waiting. My friend and colleague Greg called and sang a splendid rendition of the birthday song. Ada, another friend that has come into my life since I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1991, called and recited a favorite poem, Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Afternoon on Hill." This particular poem recitation has become a tradition, and when I called her later, I told her it had crossed my mind to read it with her earlier in the week. Since I'd forgotten, I was glad she remembered and called to share it with me.

Everybody knows that the passing of time and the capriciousness of everyday life with its myriad responsibilities and routines can interrupt friendships. If you're like me, hundreds of good intentions for keeping in touch with friends are piled in the dark corners of your subconscious. One of my best birthday surprises was a message from my friends George and Dawn Opie. Their birthday wishes were especially welcomed and appreciated because so much time has passed since we last communicated. Our friendships know a lively history. George and I met at the University of Illinois in 1985. We shared a room together in a cooperative living situation along the lines of a fraternity. Somehow our paths separated, and years passed. Then, we renewed communication when each of us lived in Southern California after college graduation. By that time, George had married a lovely girl, Dawn. We took advantage of living on the coast of California by going to the beaches together. Again, life's detours separated us.

Several years into my time in Washington, I heard from George. He had finished law school at Southern Illinois University and he was working for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City, Virginia, only three miles or so from where I lived. Again, he, Dawn, and I renewed our friendship. And, later, again, time and life interfered with us. So, their call today was the perfect conclusion to a remarkably unremarkable day.

I've been wondering what is different for me on the first day of my 41st year. Visibly, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically I feel just as I did yesterday. I reflect on what's important and know that the answer is also unchanged with the passing of a day, and a year. The relationships I share with my family and friends are the most meaningful things in my life. They are beautiful, satisfying, often complicated, and sometimes imperfect amazing works of art. The really wonderful thing for me to comprehend is that, as I get older, they will age with me.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Ian McEwan on the Reality of Terror

You're not likely to find a more beautifully written piece of prose on the recent terrorist attack in London than Ian McEwan's New York Times editorial, dated Friday, June 8. In it he focuses not on the identity of the terrorists, the mechanisms they used to disrupt the lives of Londoners, or any of the other myriad factual details that have filled new stories in the hours and days since the bombings. Instead, he's interested in revealing the underpinnings of our psyches.

A year ago my bosses, a married couple with two young boys, left Washington to run our company from their new home in Ashland, Oregon. I can't be certain, but I think their plan to retreat from Washington was set in motion in the long hours following the terrorist attacks here in September 2001. I recall one of them saying that buried not too far below the surface of her consciousness was the anticipation of another such attack. She said she couldn't relax, couldn't let her guard down, couldn't ever really feel at ease living in this city.

McEwan's editorial reminded me that I too, somewhere in my subconscious, share those feelings of dread. I like to tell myself that my life hasn't changed, but more and more I see that it's an attitude of life-preserving, even sanity-preserving, defensive posturing. This evening while I was at the gym, I caught myself looking out the large windows considering the effects of a terrorist attack on the freeway that runs east and west through southeast Washington and its neighborhoods, one of which is my own. Four years ago, such thoughts would never have occurred to me.

I don't want to suggest that I'm obsessed with these kinds of thoughts. And I'm not packing my bags to leave town for a rural retreat. All I'm trying to say is that there's an undercurrent of anxiety running through my psyche. Read McEwan's piece. He articulates with far greater eloquence where we are these four years later, and, for Londoners, four days past.

July 8, 2005

The Surprise We Expected



THE mood of a city has never swung so sharply. On Wednesday there was no better place on earth. After the victory of the Olympic decision in Singapore, Londoners were celebrating the prospect of an explosion of new energy and creativity; those computer-generated images of futuristic wonderlands rising out of derelict quarters and poisoned industrial wastelands were actually going to be built.

The echoes of rock and roll in Hyde Park and its wave of warm and fundamentally decent emotions were only just fading. In Gleneagles, Scotland, the Group of 8 summit meeting was about to address at least - and at last - the core of the world's concerns, and we could take some satisfaction that our government had pushed the agenda. London was flying and we moved confidently about the city - the paranoia after Sept. 11 and Madrid was mostly forgotten and no one had second thoughts about taking the tube. The "war on terror," that much examined trope, was an exhausted rallying cry, with all the appearance of a moth-eaten regimental banner in a village church.

But terror's war on us opened another front on Thursday morning. It announced itself with a howl of sirens from every quarter, and the oppressive drone of police helicopters. Along the Euston Road, by the new University College Hospital - a green building rising above us like a giant surgeon in scrubs - thousands of people stood around watching ambulances filing nose to tail through the stalled traffic into the casualty department.

The police were fanning out through Bloomsbury, closing streets at both ends even as you were halfway down them. The machinery of state, a great Leviathan, certain of its authority, moved with balletic coordination. Those rehearsals for a multiple terrorist attack underground were paying off.

In fact, now the disaster was upon us, it had an air of weary inevitability, and it looked familiar, as though it happened long ago. In the drizzle and dim light, the police lines, the emergency vehicles, the silent passers-by appeared as though in an old newsreel film in black and white. The news of the successful Olympic bid was more surprising than this. How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?

The mood on the streets was of numb acceptance, or strange calm. People obediently shuffled this way and that, directed round road blocks by a whole new citizens' army of "support" officials - like air raid wardens from the last war. A man in a suit pulled a fluorescent jacket out of his briefcase and began directing traffic with snappy expertise. A woman, with blood covering her face and neck, who had come from the Russell Square tube station, briskly refused offers of help and said she had to get to work. Groups gathered impassively in the road, among the gridlocked traffic, listening through open windows to car radios.

On television, the news programs were having trouble finding the images to match the awfulness of the event. But this was not, or not yet, a public spectacle like New York or Madrid. The nightmare was happening far below our feet. Everyone knew that if the force that mangled the bus in Tavistock Square was contained within the walls of a tunnel, the human cost would be high, and the rescue appallingly difficult.

Down the far end of a closed-off street we saw emergency workers being helped into breathing equipment. We could only guess at the hell to which they must descend, and no one seemed to want to talk about it.

In Auden's famous poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts," the tragedy of Icarus falling from the sky is accompanied by life simply refusing to be disrupted. A plowman goes about his work, a ship "sailed calmly on," dogs keep on with "their doggy life."

In London yesterday, where crowds fumbling with mobile phones tried to find unimpeded ways across the city, there was much evidence of the truth of Auden's insight. While rescue workers searched for survivors and the dead in the smoke-filled blackness below, at pavement level men were loading vans, a woman sold umbrellas in her usual patch, the lunchtime sandwich makers were hard at work.

It is unlikely that London will claim to have been transformed in an instant, to have lost its innocence in the course of a morning. It is hard to knock a huge city like this off its course. It has survived many attacks in the past.

But once we have counted up our dead, and the numbness turns to anger and grief, we will see that our lives here will be difficult. We have been savagely woken from a pleasant dream. The city will not recover Wednesday's confidence and joy in a very long time. Who will want to travel on the Underground once it has been cleared? How will we sit at our ease in a restaurant, cinema or theater? And we will face again that deal we must constantly make and re-make with the state - how much power must we grant Leviathan, how much freedom will we be asked to trade for our security?

Ian McEwan is the author, most recently, of "Saturday."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Resolve and Memory as a Memorial

At 7:30 this morning my phone rang. Buried beneath pillows and entangled in sheets and a down comforter, I tried to make out my friend Jeff's words. He was saying something about bombs in London. My sleep-addled mind conflated my memories of standing in the vast atrium of Helmut Jahn's Illinois State Office Building in Chicago and my recollections of Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re Tower in London. I drifted back to sleep with the terrifying image of myself standing in Jahn's atrium as the glass walls of Foster's London tower collapsed around me.

An hour or so later, I bladed across Capitol Hill from my house to Union Station where I hopped on the Metro rail red line train for my commute to work in Bethesda. I'd heard on the news that security in the city, and especially on the Metro rail system, was elevated to one of the Department of Homeland Security's terror alert codes. Since they were instituted shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I've studiously avoided getting to know their various meanings. I decided a long time ago that the federal government's imposition of these alerts was in its own way a source of terror. Apparently my fellow commuters felt similarly. There appeared to be no glimmers of anxiety or fear among us.

The terrible events in London today brought to my mind memories of the hours and days immediately following our own encounter with terror. In my mind, it was a period characterized by chilling uncertainty and incalcuable loss. In the lengthening shadow of September 11, 2001, civic leaders and committees have, with a great deal of awkwardness, stumbled on their journey to erect a suitable memorial to honor the hundreds of people killed on that day, to put together something tangible to speak to the significant loss. In addition to a memorial, the same leaders and committee members have made attempts to reconstruct the parcel of land, the enduring symbol for what was lost on that day, in downtown Manhattan.

Nobody would argue that we require tangible markers for the remembrance of significant historical and cultural events. I can't help but wonder, however, if the huge engine powering the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan and the creation of a memorial hasn't lost sight of the real mission there—the commemoration of individual lives extinguished in an unexpected and seemingly random cataclysmic event.

By all accounts, the families of the dead have, as each anniversary passes, disbanded from the public expressions of remembrance. Instead, they choose to remember their lost privately. I wonder how many have also distanced themselves from the shifting memorial design motifs and reconfigurations of the master plan for "ground zero." Perhaps, like me, and millions of others, they read about the missteps and starts and stops there with curiosity and disbelief.

Michael Arad, a talented young architect, created a simple and straightforward design for a memorial at the site of the fallen World Trade Center. It demonstrated restraint and expressed a certain timelessness in its abstract composition. In his design, trees were scattered randomly around the site. Two voids articulated the footprints of the towers. Names of each victim were to be displayed randomly in stone and in a manner not unlike those of the Vietnam War dead on Maya Lin's iconic memorial. His was a fitting tribute to the absolute surprise that overtook all the people who died on that pristine late summer day.

While the armature of his design remains intact today, it has undergone modifications and been "improved" by other design participants. And, most people familiar with the design process believe there will be further changes.

Whatever rises one day at "ground zero" will be primarily for public consumption. In their homes and on their city or town streets, at their places of work, walking in their local parks, or simply sitting on their porches, the people who lost sons and daughters, husbands, wives, lovers, siblings, and friends, will remember in their own personal and private ways. I'm guessing that any monument built, however graceful or beautiful, won't be necessary to stimulate their recollection of what was lost.

I was fortunate in that nobody I knew personally died on that day nearly four years ago. But, when terror enters our lives again, as it did today in London, my honor for and commemoration of the dead, the hurt, and the wounded is manifested by a resolve not to be afraid, not to submit to intimidation by foreign terrorists, or even the tactics of our own government, which would have us live in a continued state of uncertainty and paranoia.

Somehow I think the spirits of the 9/11 dead appreciate our simple act of remembering that they once shared with us the experience of living. I believe they would encourage among us a deliberate resolve to live boldly without fear.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Notes from a week in the "stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders"—

Last evening I returned from a weeklong architecture seminar organized by the national chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. This particular study tour (Summer Seminar on Chicago Architecture, June 27-July3) focused on the history and development of architecture in Chicago, Illinois. Each day participants heard specialists speak about topics ranging from the great Chicago fire of 1871, a catalyst for change in the city's architectural landscape, to the development and flowering of what we call "Prairie-style" architecture under the discriminating design aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the second day, Bob Bruegman, Head of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, delivered an illuminating lecture. Bruegman explored patterns of growth in the city after the Chicago fire all the way to present growth into the sprawling "exurbs" and the surprising shared characteristics of the city and its surrounding areas. Bruegman is preparing a book on the subject of urban sprawl and it was fascinating to hear him articulate ideas that we will read about in greater depth when his book is published.

Sidney K. Robinson, another professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about Japonisme in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Interestingly, one of the most compelling points Robinson made was not related directly to his discussion of Wright. It did, however, provide insight into Robinson's philosophy on architecture. It also revealed a genuine sensitivity to preservation thought. Robinson lives in Aurora, Illinois in a residence designed by self-taught architect Bruce Goff for Ruth Ford. It is one of Goff's most famous house designs. Based on the program for a Quonset hut, the structure looks as though it arrived in the Aurora landscape from another planet. It is composed of various kinds of glass, steel, and coal. Robinson has lived in the house for more than 15 years. He was asked by somebody what, after having become acquainted with the house's system, he would change to make it more comfortable. "The question is not what I would change about the house, but how I can more fully adapt to its program," was his basic response. In an era where our comfort and convenience take precedence over nearly every other aspect of our shared lives on this planet, his was an especially generous and deferential response. I must say it was one of the most meaningful insights I gained all week.

Later in the week, Sidney invited us to visit the Goff house. Apart from some critically important structural improvements, primarily the replacement of skylights over each of the two bedrooms, Robinson's impact on the house has been minimal. His relationship with it is more like an animated dialogue. He treats the place with respect. He also knows that his is an ephemeral existence while the house will, we hope, live long after him. In fact, I learned from our organizer that Sidney has created a fund to keep the house in good repair.

Daniel Burnham's design plan for Chicago is sometimes dismissed as being purely aesthetic with little regard for the practical day-to-day functions of the urban citizen. In her excellent seminar presentation, Kristin Schaffer, a professor at North Carolina State University, argued that the vast scope of Burnham's plan was informed by more than just an incisive eye for spectacular design. Burnham's personal beliefs and values infused every component of his plan for the city. By imposing a sense of order on the city and its inevitable growth he hoped to empower the citizens, inspire imagination, and elevate the collective spirit. Schaffer's lecture revealed that regard for both the beauty of our shared physical spaces and the way in which the public benefits spiritually from order in the environment are at the core of Daniel Burnham's monumental city plan.

Julia Bachrach, the Chicago Park District historian, offered a lively presentation on the development, and conservation, of Chicago's vast park system. Among other things, she discussed some of Frederick Law Olmstead's enduring designs, the ways the parks were intended for use, and how Olmstead might be pleasantly surprised by their continued uses today. Julia's keen grasp and understanding of her topic were typical of the seminar's speakers. Each one demonstrated a great sense of stewardship for their particular piece of our cultural landscape.

In addition to auditorium lectures, participants were led on foot through upscale residential neighborhoods along the Gold Coast, the commercial and financial corridors of LaSalle and State Streets, and the working-class town of Pullman. In temperatures above ninety degrees and under a canopy of dense humidity, Dennis McClendon of Chicago Cartographics, led us on a tour through the skyscrapers that create a man-made canyon of LaSalle Street. Despite the heat, we all agreed it was a fascinating sojourn. McClendon, as was the case with the other guides and lecturers, articulated a very sensible and thoughtful interpretation of changes in the city's architectural landscape. Later, he and I spent time together on our own talking about new construction in the city. The Spertus Foundation has commissioned the architectural firm Kreuck & Sexton to design a glass-encased mid-rise tower along Michigan Avenue. It's a breathtaking design. McClendon notes, however, that it is not sympathetic to the wall of distinguished buildings that comprise the great avenue. While I like the design very much, I agree with him that it would be suitable most anywhere in the city with the exception of Michigan Avenue along Grant Park, where it will one day rise.

The grand finale of the study tour was a daytrip to Aurora where we spent an hour at the Goff house and, later, an hour or so at Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House located in Plano, Illinois. Many of us took the study tour just to see the house Mies designed and built for Edith Farnsworth from 1946 to 1951.

The elegant program of Mies's minimalist glass box could not be more different from Bruce Goff's expressionistic "happy" house, as Sidney Robinson referred to it. ("One year I tried to be depressed," he said, "but it's such a happy house. Every morning I'd wake up and the house seemed to say brightly, 'Hi!' How can you do anything but respond in the same happy manner?") Floating in a wooded landscape, the Farnsworth house is an essay on serenity. In fact, once settled on the travertine stairs to the house, none of us really wanted to tear away from it.

Bought at auction from its owner Lord Peter Palumbo in 2003 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and the Friends of the Farnsworth House, the house is now a protected piece of our cultural and architectural heritage. The sale generated a great deal of concern among preservationists. Some thought it would be purchased, dismantled, and removed from its site. Others wondered if that was a bad thing. These questions cannot be comprehended until you see how fully integrated the house is with its site. The hundreds of photographs of the house, even those by noted photographer Ezra Stoller, can only partially convey the mood of the house, its essential character. The house, in fact any three-dimensional object, can only be appreciated by seeing it in person or, in the case of the Farnsworth house, in situ.

Many people argue that modernist architecture is cold and uninviting. This would be a peculiar and inaccurate argument to level against Mies's Farnsworth House. To make such a statement rejects all the good one's soul derives from nature. The steel and glass house is essentially one with its wooded surroundings. Every component of its design—from a continuous travertine floor that passes seamlessly from the terrace into the living spaces, to the floor-to-ceiling glazing that makes up the walls on all four sides—acknowledges and embraces nature.

Others suggest that they would feel uncomfortable living amidst such a severe design aesthetic. Lord Palumbo, however, raised three children in the house. Considering the building seems to float magically in the landscape, I'm guessing the children never felt the need for a tree house. While standing beside one of Mies's famous Barcelona chaises, I could easily imagine a stack of newspapers and a few of my favorite books piled by the fireplace's hearth.

The rigor and minimalism of modernist architecture eliminate a great deal of superfluity from our lives. Modernist environments, however, don't necessarily demand monasticism from their admirers. Modernist spaces allow us unique opportunities to explore and express elements of our distinct personalities. At least that is how I choose to view it. And, given the opportunity, I could, without hesitation, embrace Mies's spare aesthetic while imposing a few of my own personal preferences for design, albeit with a certain restraint, on one of his buildings.

If you're thinking about taking a study tour with the Society of Architectural Historians, I recommend it without qualification. You will leave a better-informed student of the places where we live, work, and find recreation.