VIADUCTgreene » American-ness, Awareness of History, by Paul vanMeter, Frank Lloyd Wright, Genius, Inspiration, Modernism, Philadelphia Flower Show, Philly, Public Spaces, trainshed » Exposition! p.II

We don’t have them like we used to. It’s too bad. As I walk through the great P&R trainshed, contemplating “Springtime in Paris” and VIADUCTgreene, I wonder about our country’s dearth of individualism, our need to beg, borrow and steal from other places and cultures. Though, still, I’m inspired when I pass through the trainshed, realizing that some ideas, especially when it comes to industrialization, were universal. I keep quietly amused that a landscape gardener imagineered the ‘Crystal Palace’ for the Great Exposition of 1851, the first Exposition or world’s fair. I like that the first world’s fair to be held in the USA was in Philadelphia: the 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine (a.k.a. The Centenial Exposition) was over in Fairmount Park. I like that the 1851 Crystal Palace and Horticultural Hall of the Centennial Expo were inspired by the great glasshouses designed to grow the likes of the Victoria amazonica/Amazon water lily, and I like that I can go see them at nearby Longwood Gardens because seeing them at night, especially after a grand display of fireworks, is one heady, heady experience. I like knowing that those oh-so-special gardens, the brainchild of VIADUCTgreene hero Pierre DuPont, were inspired by “the monumental world’s fairs of the late nineteenth century. [...Here] new technology was dramatically brought together for him to behold. As a six-year-old, he was mesmerized by a huge display of water pumps in action at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. At 19, he enjoyed the Exposition Universelle in Paris with its new Eiffel Tower. Pierre was 23 when the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago astounded him with grandiose architecture and illuminated fountains. As his personal resources and professional experience grew and he started building for himself, he drew upon these technical innovations and architectural styles. Pierre was also influenced by a wide variety of garden settings, including Horticultural Hall at the 1876 Centennial, England’s Sydenham Crystal Palace, the garden maze at Hampton Court, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as to the flora of South America, the Caribbean, Florida, California, and Hawaii.”

I like knowing that Joseph Wilson had water lilies and glass houses in mind when he engineered major buildings at the 1876 Expo, and fifteen years later, the great P&R trainshed so many of us have passed through this week. I like that a lot.

I like thinking about how these expositions inspire and motivate great placemaking and the thinking about it; the making of an American vernacular, an indigenous thing.

Even if I’m sad Pierrie missed the point, I like that Louis Sullivan wrote of the 1893 Colombian Exposition: “Meanwhile the virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation … began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread Westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outwardBy the time the market had been saturated, all sense of reality was gone. In its place, had come deep seated illusions, hallucinations, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee-reaction-symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis; the blanketing of the brain. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the braveThe damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.”

I like that he wasn’t completely right. I like that he was meister to certain genius. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLlW), whose mother purchased for him at the 1876 Centennial Expo a set of Froebel kindergarten blocks, wrote years later of the child’s toy: “These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effectswhich were ever got into the architecture of the world” (Frank Lloyd Wright, from An Autobiography). I like how it all comes back to der Garten!

Wright certainly railed about copying from other cultures. He lived and built on the prairie, of Nature; “my church I put a capital N on nature and go there. You spell God with a capital G, don’t you? I spell Nature with an N, capital.” He embraced & celebrated ‘weeds,’ the ruderal garden, intersections of culture and wildness. The Prairie-school emphasizes American-ness, a ”theoretical connection with nature, the design process being derived from natural laws rather than philosophical idealism or classical rules.”

I love that.

I like that in the early 1950s, as the world faced an onslaught of communism, feeling a need to demonstrate that American culture was about more than the worship of money, eminently modern Philadelphia merchant prince Arthur Kaufmann (A.K.) conceived an exposition called “Sixty Years of Living Architecture,” the largest exhibition of FLlW’s work and the largest architecture dedicated to one man’s work. Over 350,000 people visited the exhibition at A.K.’s Gimbel’s Department Store at 8th & Market. It later traveled to Florence, Zurich, Paris, Munich, Rotterdam, and Mexico City, concluding its tour in New York City and Los Angeles. No doubt, by then, the whole world knew we were cool. The eminently modern Oscar Stonorov designed the exhibition and traveled with it (and, Yes, A.K. was related (a cousin) to Edgar Kauffman Jr. (E.J.), who had Wright build a pretty slick weekend house [and then built another equally, or just maybe even more slick, pad in Palm Springs by the eminently modern Richard Neutra]) …. more on all that later. For now it’s nice to know the ‘weeds’ that Wright and so many eminent modernists thrilled over helped stamp out the threat of communism, and some of us still go about our lives doing more than worshiping money.

OK. This is getting windy. Be certain we’ll be back with more Expos and Gardens and kindergartens, being eminently modern, Louis Sullivan, Pierre DuPont, FLlW, Oscar Stonorov, A.K. & E.J. We’ll be ever alert to what inspired them as we go about making a gardenpark, an exposition, VIADUCTgreene!

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