“Whereas intellectual movements of the past have been worked out in fields of metaphysics or science, postmodernism as a coherent intellectual discipline has developed out of literary criticism (of all things). The same analysis that purports to show that works of literature can have no objective meaning can apply to everything else, including science, reason, and theology.”
Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times
Though it could be reasonably argued that the advent of modernism traces its roots back to, say, certain mathematical innovations that took place in the Middle East some one thousand years ago, which, quite justifiably, also, might be said to simply be the extension of what had come before them, as we might say is true of everything, all stretching a coagulated and jilted line back to the edges of human history and beyond—nevertheless, it was the work of Copernicus, whose revelation that the sun did not travel around the earth but, in fact, the opposite was true, set off a new era in human thinking. It is from that break with tradition that modernity begins.
I knew there was something off about the smell, and it did taste like there was something wrong with it.
“Don’t eat that,” my wife said as she walked past the table in our dining room towards the kitchen, “I think it’s gone bad.”
By this point, I had already finished half the plate.
“It’s fine,” I said, shoveling a large lump of rice, chicken, and broccoli casserole onto my fork and ignoring all the adverse signs.
Later, over the kitchen sink, I regretted my decision. It’s amazing how the human body works, I couldn’t help but think. Rejecting something foul and inherently destructive, of its own accord and will, knowing just what needs to be purged.
I had been planning to visit a house in Easton, Connecticut the next day, a house of quintessential modern composition. Though built in 1983 (just, I might add, like me), which left it easily 30 years from its artistic progenitors, there was nevertheless no mistaking the International School flair in the pictures. I found it during one of my frequent expeditions through the online real estate listings and decided that I must make the pilgrimage to see it for myself.
The Moderns felt that steel and reinforced concrete were liberators of sorts. No longer would a structure be slave to bulky load bearing walls or limited to only a few stories height. And they took advantage of this, building massive concrete buildings covered in plate glass.
“Hello,” I had written in the ‘please tell me more’ section of the contact-the-realtor area, “I am a writer for The Mercurial, an online magazine based out of Danbury, and I’ve been doing a series on Modern houses in Connecticut”—these statements being marginally true, as I have certainly written for The Mercurial in the past, and, after I’d seen this house, and written a story about it, then I would also be doing a series, or at least starting one—“I was wondering if you would be willing to show me the property. Free publicity : ) Thanks,” and then “signed” my name.
I’d already cancelled on her twice at this point. The first time because of the weather the previous week, and the second time because my wife’s car broke down and I had to drive her to work. Now this.
“I hate to say it, sweetie, but you were right,” I say, sometime past midnight, keeled over on my way back to the couch.
As I pulled up to the house, I stopped at the entry and took out my camera. The house was not visible from the road, but several stout cedars stood watch, sentries dressed in a manner fitting such a reclusive ward.
The driveway was long and the pavement in a state of decay, returning to nature. Small cement cylinders with lights guide the way, as if through time. . .
The Moderns felt that steel and reinforced concrete were liberators of sorts. No longer would a structure be slave to bulky load bearing walls or limited to only a few stories height. And they took advantage of this, building massive concrete buildings covered in plate glass. You are bound to see them in almost any city in the world.
Le Corbusier, one of the most famous and influential architects of the 20th century, believed that cities needed to be purged of the “frightening chaos and saddening monotony” of previous eras. A new kind of monotony needed to be imposed on them. The same fundamental belief system was at work in the country. Just as modern man had, through his own ingenuity and rationality, created such wonders as the skyscraper in urban areas, so too could he bring a greater level of order to the rural areas. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in the countryside outside Paris is one of the more famous and fitting examples. Built for a Jewish couple (the Savoyes) at the end of the 1920s, it was the physical realization of many of Le Corbusier’s, and by proxy many other modern architects’, and indeed modernity’s visions and ideals for the world—a fully functioning “machine for living.”
I drove through Newtown and Monroe on the way. Nice towns, sure enough, but not Gold Coast, for all the posturing. There were strip malls, some with outdated facades, some being newer developments built to look, if I’m not mistaken, like some sort of sprawling barn or surreal Sturbridge Village composed of Starbucks and Thai restaurants. The houses were like sediment, displaying where in the design history of America they were constructed. Another application of modern architecture was the “cookie cutter” housing tract. Now, between beautiful colonials, the same angular raised ranch appeared again and again, and, where open space had survived for a time, developments of McMansions, all heaped on the old house’s aging back like some unruly burden.
Not so once we get south enough on Route 59.
Then the houses by and large disappear, replaced with dried leaf brown and scraggly hills, all growing up new growth New England forest. The very rich aren’t stupid, and they set up a wonderfully effective force field, a moat of what was once poor man’s countryside around them, protecting against the hoards of middle class, like the gates of Rome against the lurking Goths.
The house was unmistakably modern. Austere, clean lines and glass. I fumbled quickly out of my seat to get a closer look. I felt a kind of Beatle-mania for it. There’s something intrinsically exciting, to me, about finding yourself alone in the woods with something so strange and beautiful—Like nothing else in Tennessee.
The day was appropriately cold, and I had no hat, so it cut at my ears, a bit beyond the level I would usually be comfortable with. I was, after all, recovering from a bout with food poisoning.
Outside, the ghosts of the land seemed to scream out around the building with the light and sharp wind, escaping from moss covered patches around exposed boulders and the elegantly designed slate walkways, brought into harmony by years embedded in their surroundings. A beautiful and exotic pine drooped and swayed before the entrance, where plates of glass and an intricately designed wood and glass door waited locked. I had made it a few minutes early.
The break with Modernism into Postmodernism, just as with any break, can potentially be traced to many moments and people. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, are a dramatic and evocative split between the eras.
The realtor drove up in a silver SUV and parked in a spot closer to the house than I had. I was anxious to express my appreciation to her, as I had begun sensing a reticence in our correspondence. (The responses to my emails had begun to dwindle from the short but complete, capital letter filled emails I first received to ones more unnerving, a terse “ok” when I rescheduled the most recent time, a quick “yes” when I emailed to confirm the time). Anyway, suffice it to say I was eager to make a good impression, as I began to realize this was really an unneeded burden for her, especially since I was not in any way a potential buyer.
“Hi,” I said with a broad smile as she descended her ride, introducing myself.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, as we shook hands.
“Thank you so much for showing me the house, I really appreciate it.”
“Oh, no problem,” she said cordially. She was a woman of average height, forties, dressed in a black coat and bright makeup. “Well, let’s go inside.”
The Savoyes began enjoying the fruits of their modern existence right away. The car, for instance, could drop them off right at the door and then proceed into the house, where it curved into an underground garage. The roof, however, being archetypically flat, leaked, costing them yearly restoration fees.
Similarly, the break from the institutionalized irrationality of the Middle Ages led to many advances. Our nation, for instance, grew out of the Enlightenment and its ideals. Just as often, though, “rational man” seemed to bring about only greater and more efficient terror. The French Revolution and its guillotines, the Industrial cities with their unspeakable slums and working conditions, right up to the calculating and systematic way the Nazis removed any undesirables. The Savoyes, after years of dealing with those leaking roofs, were forced to abandon their house altogether in 1940, after Germany conquered France. Oh, and let’s not forget the Bomb, either, it too was—perhaps even more so than the villa—symbolic of Man’s Renaissance and triumph over nature.
We entered through the kitchen door. Inside was wood paneled cabinetry with steel fixtures and appliances; a forest green countertop lay above a center island, where several books waited.
“The kitchen was redone recently by the daughter,” she told me.
“In order to sell it?”
“Yes, I think so, it was apparently out dated.”
I looked around, trying to envision the retro look of a 50s Modern kitchen—“Are there any pictures”—but realized that, being less than 30 years old, the kitchen would have been really only so retro.
“I’m not sure, well, there might be here.” She opened one of the books on the counter, revealing a picture album. “These were taken during the home’s construction.” Bare steel girders and plywood covered with pink insulation surround men dressed in a style that harkens back further than 30 years, with a sepia tone that might well have made these photos contemporary with the design’s inspiration. I suppose a lot does change in 30 years, though.
“The house was designed by a man named Vincent Amore. . . who was out of Guilford. So a local guy,” she said, looking in a booklet. “I Googled his name but not much came up.”
We walk into the living room. It’s awe-inspiring, in its way, with high ceilings and glass walls, but not in the same way the outdoors were. Something about the wood, I think. Perhaps too much polyurethane sealant. It didn’t ache openly the way an aged wood does.
“What can you tell me about the owners? Are they the ones who built it?”
“Yes, they built it in the 80s. Well, he’s a doctor, and she, does something, I don’t remember. They moved out to Arizona a few years back.” She gestures out the 15 foot high glass walls, “You can see the almost 18 acres that the house is built on.” The house is on a hill that overlooks the kind of woods I passed on my way here, as well as a brook that rolls into a good sized pond. “A lot of people are daunted by the acreage.”
The very rich aren’t stupid, and they set up a wonderfully effective force field, a moat of what was once poor man’s countryside around them, protecting against the hoards of middle class, like the gates of Rome against the lurking Goths.
There is one McMansion that peaks through the winter trees and otherwise empty woods.
“I bet they were pissed when they built that house.”
“Mm. But it’s not visible when the leaves are on the trees.” She motions to the deck, which lines the side of the house and has one dock of sorts that floats over the backyard above a concrete pillar. “You can see that all the wood on the deck has been removed. It was damaged during the big storm last year, Irene I guess. Melanie thought it best to leave it bare, thinking that whoever bought it would want to have it redone custom, but now we’re reconsidering.”
I was struck by her saying “Melanie,” because that’s who I thought I was speaking to. . .
The bedroom overlooked the back, too, with the bed facing the plate glass, and on the side wall a television and wires hoi-polloi below it. The furniture was soft and banal. The master bath was separated by a wall, but one that didn’t reach the ceiling, which gave the room a strange open yet dislocated feeling.
I don’t get the sense that people who live in these houses are ever totally comfortable. The lack of stuff, the individual, cold, leather covered seating. The glass walls that seem to attempt to bare all their problems to the world, like a kind of continual confessional booth. It seems that, in trying to be rid of everything that makes us imperfect, we only end up ignoring it, pushing it away from view, and allowing it to sneak out and manifest itself in some menacing way.
The break with Modernism into Postmodernism, just as with any break, can potentially be traced to many moments and people. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, are a dramatic and evocative split between the eras. By that point, it was well established that people could use rational thought to improve life in certain ways, but the belief in an orderly, secular, and single Truth had eroded. The belief in relative truth, Postmodernism’s basic tenet, had replaced it.
“The bathrooms have also been redone.”
I nod, looking around. The ‘closet’ is like a dressing room you might find in a fancy gym locker room, complete with bench.
“It’s a lap pool,” she says, as I aim my camera, “wait, here, let me open it up, it will look better.”
She presses a switch and the cover begins rolling into the side, revealing two sections, one presumably the lap pool and the other a hot tub of some kind. The walls are all glass.
“These modern homes are great for photography—everything is lines, it makes the compositions so easy.”
She smiles politely.
The upstairs is more of the same.
“This room is an awkward size. I would put up a wall and turn it into two rooms,” she says, as we stand in one of the bedrooms. “But then I guess you wouldn’t get the light.”
“Well, there’s a row of windows at the top of the wall here,” I say, pointing up to the other side. Turning back to her I ask, “What’s the reaction been from the people you’ve shown this house to?”
“Oh, they love it. It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Of course, the people who come here are people who already like Contemporaries and get filtered by their agents.”
She told me about a family with a four-year-old that she showed the house to last Sunday. They live in a Colonial in Easton.
“The wife said she was bored with the Colonial. ‘It seems like everyone in Connecticut lives in a Colonial.’ So she said she wanted something different.”
Some people are like that, I guess.
When the war was over, the Savoyes returned to their house. It had been poorly treated in the intervening years. The Nazis had used it to store hay, and the Americans, when they occupied the area after liberation, had continued to use it roughly. The bomb had been dropped. The war was over. If you want a vision of Postmodernism, just look through their eyes—the sleek, well-reasoned design of the house outside, the superstitious and natural home of a feudal serf inside.
When we’re back in the kitchen we talk about the subdivision potential for the property. She tells me there’s a map in the booklet and asks if I want one. It has a lot of the house’s details.
We talk about a few other things, the neighborhood, the schools. The proximity to major roads, etc. Real estate stuff. As we do, I browse the photo album. A surprisingly large amount of wood was used in the framing of the house—Le Corbusier would surely disapprove. It made me wonder, is this house modern or not? Is it looking to the past, the way a Postmodern architect would, and just happens to be the style known as High Modern, or is it truly an example of it?
I take a picture of a rotund man smoking a cigar surrounded by the construction of the house. Richard Prince—the name comes back to me later—who became famous by photographing other photos. That would have been the art contemporary with the house, in fact.
As I was leaving I finally got her name: Tori. She didn’t offer a surname, so I decided not to ask. Perhaps it’s not important.
“A little bit of everything,” I say to her.
Later, I look into the booklet, at the subdivision plan. “PREPARED FOR SUSAN & JOEL EISENBERG, 410 MOREHOUSE ROAD EASTON, CONNECTICUT” in the block letter handwriting of an architect or engineer. I suppose this would be known as the Eisenberg House.
“The will of the age conceived in spatial terms,” Mies van der Rohe said about architecture.* You can’t escape your age. We are here now, reevaluating the past, which lies so openly for us to judge. A picture of a picture of a picture. . .
It was funny, returning to Monroe was like waking from a dream—the pursuit of an idea abandoned in the face of the real world. The drudgery of everyday existence. A pile of ideas compromised and turned to practical applications, piled on top of layers of older practical applications. The ease of modern living, and the ease of modern living, and the ease of modern living.
I stopped at the General Store in Newtown for a sandwich, before driving back home.