About alastair gordon

"Gordon's eye for the convergence of art, architecture and commerce is unerring." -Publisher’s Weekly Alastair J. Gordon is an award-winning critic, curator, artist, cultural historian, and author. For more than twenty years, he wrote on art, architecture and the environment for the New York Times and in 2008 became Contributing Editor on design for WSJ., the Wall Street Journal Magazine, as well as launching and producing the popular “Wall-to-Wall” design blog on the Journal’s web site. Gordon’s essays have been published in many other publications including Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Le Monde, Architectural Record, New York Observer, House & Garden and Dwell. From 2014 to 2019 he was the architecture/design critic for the Miami Herald, and in 2020 launched the “Poetics of Place” podcast series that airs on Spotify and other major platforms. In addition to his critical journalism, Gordon has published more than 26 books on art, architecture, and environment, including such critically acclaimed titles as Weekend Utopia, Naked Airport, Spaced Out, Theater of Shopping, Arquitectonica, Romantic Modernist, Island Follies, and Wandering Forms. In 2016, he launched “Poetics of Place,” a critical writing program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and has taught and lectured at many other institutions. Earlier in his career, Gordon was General Editor of The Princeton Papers on Architecture and served as the Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y. He received an MFA from Yale and has won numerous prizes for his critical writing and scholarship, including fellowships from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Yale University and a special citation for ‘Excellence in Criticism’ from the American Institute of Architects. Alastair is Co-Founder and Editorial Director of Gordon de Vries Studio, an imprint that specializes in books about the human environment.


**Jade, 195
Miami continues to reshape its image and rebrand itself as a vibrant new city under the sun, part Utopia, part Dystopia, but swelling with dozens of riotous new projects, all screaming for attention. Every brand-name architect in the world came to town this week promoting yet another high-profile project like the new Miami Beach convention center and park by Rem Koolhass/OMA; and then there’s a 60-story “exoskeleton” tower and vulvic parking structure in the works by Zaha Hadid; condos by Ceasar Pelli; shimmering glass cubes by Richard Meier over the old Surf Club; twin towers shaped like dueling tornados by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels; and a science museum by Nicholas Grimshaw.31303030206d757365756d3232
There’s something oddly pale and bone-like about many of these proposed structures, presented as they are in garish CAD renderings, as if already doomed and dried out in the sun, exploiting architecture as the mightiest of marketing tools with wildly sculptural forms, oversized balconies expanding giddily into fleckless blue skies, dare-devil verticality, shifting axes, structures revealed in all-over transparency and other forms of architectural voyeurism. The buildings are sparsely populated by slender digital figures–one percenters in tailored suits and bikini-clad super models–who appear to be enjoying a future of sexual experimentation, sunbathing and floating listlessly in electric blue swimming pools. In a rendering for one new structure, a single heroic figure stands in silhouette on a cantilevered balcony, sipping a mojito and watching the sunset over Biscayne Bay. He appears to be the Architect, the new Howard Roark in sybaritic suspension, oblivious and unaware of the rising waters and social unrest brewing down below. And within this sunny, plenoptic Fountainhead, the moody charcoal chiaroscuro that Hugh Ferriss popularized in his Depression-era renderings, has been replaced by a completely shadow-less empire awash in waves of translucent blue pixels.

**formlessfinder AG

As Miami’s skyline rises higher with glassy phallic towers, the city continues to sink at ever alarming rates. On any given day, you can find areas that are already under water, depending on the tide and lunar cycle, yet there was hardly a mention of “green” or climate change all week, except for the engulfing sand dune (above) at the entry to Design Miami that was designed by Garrett Ricciardi and Julian Rose of formlessfinder and hinted at some sort of cataclysmic event. “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” said Harold Wanless, chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” Environmental scientists predict that by 2030–only 16 years from now–the sea will have risen more than two feet and as much as six feet by the end of the century or even sooner, thereby creating a Bling-Miami version of Atlantis with all the flamboyant new buildings submerged. Dutch flood experts were flown in to consult and Broward County has enacted a climate change master plan, but developers in Miami Beach seem to have missed the memo.


This is all part of a trend that started way back in 2011 with Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony Hall in Miami Beach that was soon followed by Herzog & de Meuron’s high-design parking structure at 1111 Lincoln Road, an instant landmark for the “New Miami” with open-frame structure, flaring, fin-like supports, spiraling ramps and disco lighting–something between Piranesi and Lady Gaga. “We proved that a parking garage could become an interesting space,” said Jacques Herzog who proved that an über-garage could become a party space for non-parking cultural events like the “Piston Head” exhibition curated by Adam Lindemann this week with “repurposed” cars created by
Arad Car 2
artists like Damien Hirst, Richard Prince and Kenny Scharf, as well as a nicely pancaked
Fiat by Ron Arad (right). Herzog was in town to celebrate the opening of his firm’s latest triumph, the controversially named Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). It was, without question, the super-star attraction of the week. Despite a rushed construction schedule, the museum managed to open to the public on Tuesday with mounds of sand, pots of overturned palmettos, and thousands of visitors tramping over rough gravel, funneling between chain-link fencing to reach the new Jewel on the Bay, many of them wondering if it was the Swiss architects’ intent to leave building and grounds so unfinished looking, not realizing that the project was, in fact, unfinished.

**PAMM, vertical gardens. Iwan Baan. 2

Patrick Blanc–the French inventor of vertical landscaping–was frantically running around with died-green hair, green shirt, green pants, green boots and long curling fingernails, giving orders to Latino plantsmen, unnerved by the fact that they hadn’t inserted all 54,700 of the exotic plants his plan called for (including 77 local species of salvia, begonia, silver-leafed artemisia, columnea and sedum), and wondering out loud how they could be so late in getting around to finishing such an important task. I said something smug like “Welcome to Miami,” while introducing him to a young blogger from Harvard who complimented him (twice!) on the bicycle-wheel installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei.

**Patrick Blanc-PAMM (AG)“This?” he said, spinning one of Wei Wei’s wheels in response to Holly Golightly’s misdirected compliment. “This is not me,” he said. “C’est pas moi!

The new museum hovers lightly over Biscayne Bay with a degree of humility that is uncharacteristic for a city of architectonic hubris. It’s not an “iconic” mass or signature statement so much as an airy, dissipated assemblage of screens, slender columns, scrims and cubic volumes (containing art galleries) that float between a wooden roof “trellis” above and cantilevered terraces below. Of course, the overall effect will be greatly enhanced when peripheral gardens fill in, the public plaza and neighboring museum by Grimshaw are completed, and Blanc’s dangling gardens are lushly sprouting so that the entire structure begins to resemble the original vision of an overgrown ruin, a kind of monumental chia pet or, as Herzog described it to me, a sprawling banyan tree with multiple trunks and dangling air roots. “This isn’t some strip mall,” said PAMM’s director Tom Collins, and he’s right. “This is really sophisticated design.”

**PAMM, south facade. Iwan Baan. 2 Early proposals showed pyramidal forms and stacked slabs rising vertically, as if to compete with the skyscrapers of downtown Miami, but such temptations were ultimately resisted and lower, less conspicuous forms replaced strident profiles. “Museums work better when they’re horizontal,” said Herzog who, with partner Christine Binswanger, managed to meld the 120,000-square-foot facility into place without
Pérez Art Museum Miami
disrupting the messy urban vitality and natural beauty of the site at the intersection of Northeast 11th Street, Biscayne Boulevard and the MacArthur Causeway. The sea-brewed light is voluptuous, sparkling, almost iridescent with inlets and ocean on one side, skyscrapers and sprawling urban infrastructure on the other. The building sits at the very crux of a dynamic convergence between Nature and Commerce, overlooking Museum Park, the elevated tracks of the Miami Metrorail, the Venetian Causeway, the picturesque islands of Biscayne Bay and the convex shell of the American Airlines Arena (home to the Miami Heat). Cars and people movers whizz past; cruise ships come and go through Government Cut; tankers unload at the adjacent Port of Miami; jetliners stream overhead, making their final descent into Miami International. It’s as thrilling as any building site can hope to be. Now this city, famous for its short attention span, is obliged to rise to the occasion and make up for all the shortcomings in the museum’s spotty collection. To be fair, gifts have been pouring in during the past few months from Jorge M. Pérez, Debra and Dennis Scholl, Mimi and Bud Floback, Craig Robbins and Jackie Sofer, among others, but the art on the walls still pales in comparison to the architecture that enfolds it.

An international pantheon of famous architects congregated for the “Imagine the Future – Now!” power dinner at the Wolfsonian Museum on Wednesday evening, hosted by Director Cathy Leff. Her guests included Norman Foster (has he lost his “Sir” or not?), Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel, Herzog, Binswanger, Dror Benshetrit, Bjarke Ingels, Shohei Shigematsu, Enrique Norten, Laurinda Spear, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and **Nouvel at Wolfsonian, AGIwan Ban, the brilliant architectural photographer who was in town to shoot PAMM. Terry Riley was at both the Wolfsonian dinner and the Design Miami tent, talking about the competition he organized for the Terra and Related development groups that included projects by Christian de Portzamparc, Nouvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Koolhass/OMA who were all invited to offer ideas for a mid-rise residential building on a waterfront site in Coral Gables. “Our solution was to distribute the 500,000 square feet of living between a field of slender towers,” said OMA partner Shigematsu, who turned out to have the winning scheme. The six towers in OMA’s **4 Visions Miami - OMA model, AGproposal have no interior columns, which allows for uninhibitedly naked exposure and maximum views. “One of our theories is that one can offset this excessive compulsion toward the spectacular with a return to simplicity,” said Rem Koolhaas somewhat cryptically given the spectacular vanity of his own proposal. (All of the entrants’ models and drawings were unveiled this week at Design Miami as well as the book Four (4) New Visions for Living in Miami published in tandem with the exhibition.)

**8x8 Demountable house ext-02It would seem that old is new, yet again, and that the future lies mysteriously imbedded in the past, somehow, and yes, it says something about current design trends that some of the most noteworthy artifacts of the 2013 fairs were vintage, like the furniture that Charlotte Perriand created for French industrialist Jean Borot in the 1950s **Prouvé - AGand was shown at the Laffanour Galerie booth; or the vintage Gio Ponti pieces recreated by Molenti&C at Modus Miami in the Design District; or Jean Prouvé’s “Demountable House” of 1945 that French gallerist Patrick Seguin shipped to Miami and reconstructed in the Design Miami tent. It’s the gray patina, the sadness in those weathered boards that make it so compelling and relevant for today amid so many shiny new objects at the other booths. The central structural support–a Prouvé signature “caliper” made from yellow sheet metal–further emphasizes the melancholic, refugee/concentration-camp geist of the worn wood siding on the house’s exterior, while inside an equally Spartan treatment is carried through with whitewashed walls and moody lighting from Prouvé’s own minimal fixtures.


White surgical booties were required footwear for members of the press if you wanted to get a sneak preview inside Charlotte Perriand’s Maison au Bord de l’Eau, a project based loosely on a couple of sketchy renderings that Perriand drew in 1934 for a competition organized by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui–somewhat akin to the **charlotte-perriand-L-QCVyBVspeck of DNA from a prehistoric mosquito being used to create a dinosaur in Jurassic Park. The house was fully reconstructed by Louis Vuitton on a sandy lot ** SKETCH - Maison Au Bord De L'Eauat the back of the Raleigh Hotel–a place so perfectly re-imagined, so finely constructed and finished, and now maintained by young women in blue dresses, that one had to wonder if it was real or a three-dimensional hologram. I wasn’t quite sure, even when I touched the smoothly finished walls with my own fingers. (Perhaps they should have handed out special goggles as well as the surgical booties.) Indeed, the house is more fantasy than reality: the radical modernism of Perriand has been cleansed of all social content and turned into a branding tool for the luxury fashion house of LVMH.

**Miami_Ch Perriand Inside becomes outside in the central deck that is covered by a canopy of white canvas. Below are some potted plants and reproductions of Perriand’s furniture, the Chaise Longue Pliante of 1939 and the Table Basse en Ardoise of 1934, designed specifically for the Maison. All of this served as the manicured backdrop for LV’s Spring/Summer 2014 Collection Icônes with modern, tasteful clothes based on Perriand’s sensibility, clean, minimal and refreshingly non-bling: green silk gingham long-sheath dress, gingham shorts, blue cape, striped shift and leggings, color blocked to match the furniture and architecture. Indeed, Perriand’s entire universe has been appropriated: her smiling face,**Miami_Ch Perriand, 129 her deck chairs and knick knacks, her little dream shack. As the press blurb purred: “Fresh as a breeze from the mountaintops, graphic as the stroke of an architect’s pen, the ‘Icônes’ collections for Summer 2014 invite a timeless feminine elegance…” But Perriand, who passed away fifteen years ago, never had any say in the matter and one wonders if she really wanted to be re-branded like this in our current Age of Appropriation.

Norman Foster was in town, unveiling a master plan for the Norton Museum of Art in Palm **Norman Foster @ Delano - AGBeach to a throng of pink-slacked bankers, Channel-suited board members, architects, PR flacks and members of the diminishing architectural press, all gathered in a private dining room at the Delano Hotel on Wednesday afternoon. Foster himself was nattily clad in a white linen suit, at peace with the world, smiling and shaking hands. “What does this building really want to be?” he said, standing at the front of the room. “‘Please help me rediscover my roots,’ asks the building. Bring in water and green the landscape, inspired by the lush vegetation of south Florida…” Spencer de Grey, Foster’s joint Head of Design, was also on hand, wearing goggle-style spectacles and explaining some of the finer points of the elegantly simple plan, which is shaped in part around a 150-year-old Ficus tree that grows in front of the museum. The deep overhang of **NORTON MUSEUM, 65the roof has a circular cutout to accommodate the tree while a floor-to-ceiling window in the new, multi-purpose “Great Hall” was designed to frame the majestic tree and make it the project’s “anchor and reference point,” according to the architects. “What if the poor tree dies?” asked one board member, peering into the scale model that was prominently on display. (No one seemed to have an answer.) The master plan keeps much of the original 1941 building–an otherwise nondescript, neoclassical pile with courtyard–in tact. It re-establishes the original entry from the Dixie Highway (US Rt. 1) and rotates the central axis while re-contextualizing the older galleries for the 21st Century. Four new pavilions will effectively double the museum’s exhibition space and include a reception area, restaurant, new auditorium and education area to help bring the museum into the community that it serves. “It’s a very wide palette of activities and spaces,” said Foster, pointing to the street-side plaza that features a long rectangular pool to reflect sunlight under the overhang, creating a shimmering pattern and animating the entry facade.

**Christina Bingswanger's Finger - Jade, Raleigh, AG

“Views to the beach are all perpendicular,” said Christine Binswanger (left & right) of Herzog and De Meuron, sitting on the back porch of the Raleigh Hotel with a coffee and half-eaten lemon meringue in front of***BINSWANGER her, pointing at a diagram and explaining how Jade Signature, yet another billionaire condo tower, is being built on the beach in Sunny Isles for Fortune International and scheduled to open in 2016. Binswanger is partner in charge of this 57-story cliff dwelling that looks surprisingly not unlike other condo towers but there are a few notable distinctions. The exterior surface is perforated with floor-to-ceiling glass and deep overhangs that block the sun. Partitions were designed in what she calls a “Vocabulary of Columns”, pulled and stretched to bring in human scale and alternated between units depending on the floor’s layout. The concrete forms, something like the scalloped slots of a cheese grater, express a porous and cellular surface, one that is more articulated and responsive to light and far less soulless than the reflective facades of most Miami towers. A seemingly random pattern ripples between concave and convex with sculpted cartilage supporting each corner as the building ascends to a slightly tapered top. The ground-floor clutter that usually hinders these types  **Jade, 73of buildings has been avoided by using a second-floor lobby and underground parking. Interiors are luxurious white expanses with ten- to twelve-foot ceilings and thirty percent of each floor given over to outdoor space with generously wide balconies. Each unit goes all the way through from back to front, offering both sunrise and sunset, bay and ocean views, while floors are staggered to allow for cross-ventilation, and this, emphasizes Binswanger, should alleviate the need for air conditioning during winter months.

**Jade Tower, 34

The rest of week dissipated into a blur of extravagant cocktails and traffic jams, eating nothing but tiny spring rolls one day, three lunches, two dinners the next, a long tent on the beach with Swarovski crystals, no-show celebrities, Piotr Uklanski at the Bass, Hugo França’s sculptural benches at Fairchild Gardens, AIDS benefit, tall super models, media tours, VIP lounges, book signings, pop-up stores and fashion shows, Wynwood, the ubiquitous Craig Robins, Pulse, Ice Palace, Aqua, Nada, Scope, “Untitled” in a tent on the on beach, De La Cruz Collection, Chinese art at Rubells, wandering Lincoln Road with Ron Arad in his flip-up hat and general Miami oblivion. It was sunny and 82 degrees when I left, but Siberian-style white out when I landed back in New York.

A version of this story appeared in the Architect’s Newspaper on December 12, 2013:


R.I.P. SOLERI: Deep in his Desert

“Unless we moderate, unless we reinvent the American dream, then it’s not going to be a dream. It’s going to be doomsday.”

– Paolo Soleri: June 21,1919 – April 9, 2013


April 9, 2013: I just learned that Paolo Soleri, architect, visionary planner, hands-on builder, bell maker and poet-philosopher has died at the venerable age of 93. He was a wise man of the desert and every time I met him it felt as if all of my assumptions were rewashed and hung out to dry. He often spoke in rambling non-sequiturs that only made sense if you stopped thinking and just listened to the rhythms and wavering inflections of his voice. He will be greatly missed by anyone and everyone who believes in an alternate, sustainable and sensible future for our planet. I wrote the following after a visit with Dr. Soleri at Arcosanti in the summer of 2001, two months before 9/11, and all of his words seemed particularly prescient in the aftermath of that day.


*Soleri Drawing

It begins to feel as if some spirit force were pushing the rented Capri up towards the black mesa. The sun has just set behind the outlying malls with a garish display of crimson and ochre streaks. Further out from Phoenix there are blobbish silhouettes of Big Horn and Cypress Butte dissolving into desert mist. I drive straight from the airport, north on Route 17. “Purple Haze” begins to play on the radio and by the time I reach the rutted turn-off to Cordés Junction, Hendrix’s words sound like predestination.

On first impression Arcosanti looks like a ruin, all starts and stops and unfinished business. There’s only a single light bulb glowing, but I can make out a few vague shapes, the looming silhouette of a tower and a crescent-shaped berm. I’m greeted on the ramp by a skunk who flashes his tail and scurries into the shadows. A willowy New Ager appears out of a doorway and shines a flashlight on my face. “We’ve ****Arcology 4been expecting you,” she says with a sleepy smile. Her name is Sandy and she’s wearing a breezy cotton dress–not hippie at all–blonde hair cropped short. Everyone at Arcosanti is apparently asleep or wandering in the blackened desert, so she speaks in a whisper that only adds to the spaciness of my arrival. I follow her past a cluster of dwelling pods burrowed into the side of a canyon, and along a terrace that seems to be leading directly towards the twinkling nodes of Ursa Major.

Cosanti Int.

The concrete has been cast into capricious vaults with one level appearing to push through the next. I have the impression that there are other such vaults, even more layers, stacked and crumbling from beneath the earth and towards the sky. We reach an esplanade that slopes inward with flowers and ornamental trees growing from concrete containers. The walls are streaked with red and yellow as if they had been tie-died.

“Until the late 80’s most people thought we were a bunch of odd people out in the desert,” said Soleri, greeting me in a shadowy canyon of one of his subterranean rooms. “We have been talking about a ‘lean alternative’ in this opulent society, and more people seem to be responding.”

*Soleri Dam

For most of his 60-year career, Soleri, (82 at the time of this writing), has been perceived as a cult figure on architecture’s freaky fringe. But what was once dismissed as counterculture dreams has come up again for reappraisal. He began building Arcosanti in 1970 with observation towers, sweeping concrete vaults and dwellings clustered along the steep basalt cliffs of the Agua Fria River. It was conceived as a prototype that would show how other ****Cosanti drwng 2cities might minimize energy use and motor transportation while encouraging human interaction. By concentrating inhabitants in a sequence of partly submerged multilevel structures, he sought to preserve the wildness of the surrounding desert landscape. Greenhouses provide gardening space and tap warm air for heating.

7arcosanti“Our mission at Arcosanti has been to bring the city up to date, socially and culturally,” he said, “to create an antidote to sprawl.” Thirty-one years after Soleri founded his desert compound, the rest of the BdV PART 14 pix_0019_NEW copyworld may finally be coming around to his environmental philosophy and pedestrian-oriented planning. Last year, he was presented the Golden Lion Award by the Venice Biennale for a lifetime of achievement. “They rediscovered me 40 years too late,” Soleri said, smiling.

Apase, Arcosanti, AG

At a time when signature architects are attended by anxious publicists, Soleri plays the role of enigmatic elder statesman, a desert Obi-Wan Kenobie who defies easy categorization: at once an architect, artist, builder, teacher, writer and philosopher. He is incapable of the snappy sound bite, speaking instead in elliptical bursts peppered with words like vegativity, vectoriality and stardust. Thoughts trail off, sentences double back. And he’s never been afraid of thinking big. Really big. In fact, he seems to operate on his own extraterrestrial scale. During the 60’s and early 70’s, he created a series of renderings for what he called arcologies, fantastical combinations of architecture and ecology. They were vast, vaguely biomorphic cities with spheres and towers built on the ocean or out on asteroids in the nether regions of the universe. “Unless we moderate, unless we reinvent the American dream, then it’s not going to be a dream,” he said. “It’s going to be doomsday.”

Paolo_Soleri_Amphitheater_Line_DrawingThe pathway forks. One branch descends, the other snakes through a colonnade of sloping columns. Sandy leads me up another set of steps and we arrive at the Sky Suite perched at the top of the complex. I was hoping she might stay and chat, but she hands me a candle and a blanket and slips back into the night. The room, this giddy “sky nest”, 3490830110_205949c5ce_zis saturated with familiar smells: musty and nutty but sweet like incense and sage and something slightly stale like old bee’s wax. I’d expected a much more cluttered space for some reason, not so Spartan, and I can imagine the earliest occupants crawling around like modern aborigines waiting for the sun to rise, cross-legged in a circle or making love on the floor.

****Arcosanti - Broad ViewI never visited Arcosanti during its heyday, but I had several friends who came out here as “workshoppers,” to mix concrete and help shape these organic forms and I always envied their experiences. Soleri wanted it to be a densely inhabited living node without cars, for more than 7,000 people, self-sufficient and sustainable. Unlike most visionaries, however, the Italian-born architect didn’t just write about it, he actually came to the desert and like some Old Testament prophet, started to build the thing with his own hands.

*Soleri w. model

I’m glad I came. I lie on the bed beneath an eye-shaped window and gaze out at the stars. Part of me feels at home, calm, even safe. Another part of me wants to check in to the nearest Marriot, and call my wife but there’s no cell service out here. “Why bother with that hippie crap?” said one friend before I left New York. I certainly hadn’t anticipated this sense of wellbeing. There are all the smells and the sense of intimacy–so familiar–and the untethered sense of space, psychedelic, sexual, hallucinatory and drifting. For a moment it all comes back: the feeling that you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I thought I was pretty well grounded against the old spatial flux but feel something slipping, loosening within the soft folds of my cerebral cortex.

****Arcosanti 2

What is this feeling of heightened expectation, believing that anything was possible? At the time it was easy to dive into the globular ectoplasm of fuzzy humanity. It felt good, being absorbed into the amoebic movement, swelling and spreading: Got a revolution! sang the Jefferson Airplane, turning noun into verb, but it felt like a real war for a while–them against us, armed with verbs–and somehow, we would win. For some, the moment of surrender came with the break-up of the Beatles. For otherssoleri_02 it was the bloody insurrection in Chicago, the pool-cue assault at Altamont, the Manson murders, or the Watergate hearings. That which had seemed epic now seemed mocked and marginalized, almost inconsequential, reduced to a cliché. Yippies became Yuppies. Cocaine replaced LSD. Disco ascended the charts as did big hair and heavy metal and most of us were left with an oddly hollow feeling of withdrawal, emotional coitus interruptus.


How do we go back if we don’t know where to begin? Tim Leary spoke about a Magic Theater and the Beatles sang of Strawberry Fields. Carlos Castaneda, in his best-selling fable about peyote, wrote of the sitio, a place of psychic strength. Griffin, a wandering hippie mystic got it right when he said: “All the lines and dots intersect at any dot.” No matter where you are, you’re always at the center of the universe. The biomorphic sinews of Soleri’s desert outpost have somehow survived into the opening decade of the 21st Century so it seems like a good place to start. At least it’s still here as a place, as an idea. I see the constellations and a wavering line on the horizon where a distant butte rises from the earth, but it’s too dark to see much else. I hum the same throbbing Hendrix riff that was playing in the rental car: Duhn, dihn… Dunh, dihn... and drift into a sweet, numinous sleep.


Parts of this account were previously published in “Deep in the Desert, No Longer Far Out,” the New York Times, July 26, 2001:


Other parts were published in: Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties (Rizzoli, 2008)

WANDERING FORMS: A Visit to Wendell Castle’s Studio

“I like a piece bulging and sort of limp. It has to have some tension or else it will look like a big snake that’s swallowed a bunch of pigs.” – Wendell Castle

 From travel journal, December 12, 2011: Early flight to Rochester, upstate New York. Really? Yes. Rochester. Skyway’s ceramic blue, godless and serene. Ground’s barren and brown, no snow. Morning light’s as sharp as Ginsu knife cutting through empty concourse as I trudge to curb and find 79-year-old Wendell Castle sitting behind wheel of BMW, silver hair brushed back, wearing goggle spectacles like early aviator. We drive across Genesee River, as banal as any river I’ve ever crossed, highway skirting downtown area with nondescript high rises, mirrored cubes, multi-decked parking, the only landmark being Ralph Walker’s 14-story Genesee Valley Trust from 1930 with wings of a dark, demented angel rising into skyline. I’d heard about that four-pronged spire and seen it through the window of the plane banking over city on final approach. It gave me a chill: Goth wings reaching up, so-called “Wings of Progress,”in ribbed aluminum, oxidized and black, anchored to ornate grille-work, vaguely sinister like Batman’s Lair, looming over this city that once prospered on wheat and optical equipment.  We drive to the studio first, a former soybean mill on Maple Street, built in the 1890s, clad in cedar shingles. When he bought the building in 1968 there were a thousand mice in residence so he got a cat. He also added  a porte-cochère, an L-shaped addition and further improvements, as the spirit moved him, until it grew into the 15,000-square-foot hive it is today. Dust-flecked light filters through a window in the big studio. Walls are white and floors a pale concrete strewn with wood shavings. Ideas flow freely here. Large drawings are tacked to boards showing future projects, simple outlines drawn in Magic Marker. Benches are covered with chisels and mallets, spoke shaves, small-scale models made from clay or foam, and clamps in every size and shape, hundreds of clamps. There are drill presses,  long-bed jointers and a monstrous L. Powers band saw made for building ships.  Castle moves about easily, shifting an unfinished piece of furniture, touching one of the hydraulic chisels, and despite the silver hair, he seems like a much younger man, trim and fit from carving and lifting heavy slabs of lumber. He stops and stands for a moment as if about to say something, but then moves on silently. There’s no particular sense of urgency. He employs six full-time assistants but continues to carve many of the pieces himself, especially when it’s the first in a series. “It’s important that I stay involved,” he says. “I can make decisions along the way.” He leads me through a series of spaces that unfold like the chambers of a Nautilus shell, dusty and lit from flickering fluorescent tubes, connected by darker passageways, steps or ramps that go up and then down again. How many rooms in all? I make a mental count of twenty-something but suspect there are probably more and at one point feel as if I’m waking through the convoluted synapses of Castle’s own brain. I follow him upstairs through more workshops, a room with a fireplace and billiard table, into yet another studio where assistants are making tables from laminated plywood infused with red epoxy. “I’m always thinking as I draw,” says Castle who crouches to open a dusty cabinet. (We’ve entered a cramped little office on the upper level.) “My drawing table is like a retreat,” he says. “That’s where it all happens. I draw a little every day and my drawings are the starting point. I would never just start to carve a piece. I come into the studio on Saturday morning and I don’t answer the phone. I just draw. It’s always been that way. The moment of discovery.”
They come as a revelation, not full-scale outlines but early concept studies going back to his student sketchbooks of the 1950s. They are raw–some scribbled in ballpoint–and tell more about his inner landscape than the final three-dimensional works. Unruly impulses are still in gestation, undigested, erupting as bubbles and blobs across the page, highlighted here and there with written observations, “My aim is to elevate furniture into the category of sculpture,” in one notebook which might well serve as the leitmotif for his long and winding career:  Furniture becomes Art, Art becomes Furniture.  Loose sheets lie scattered across the floor and he pulls more out from a hidden nook in one of the walls. “There’s a certain vagueness here that’s open to interpretation,” he admits, arranging the notebooks into neat little stacks. We leaf through some of the spiral-bound books together and then he has to go to meet a group of students from the Institute of Technology.

His early work was skeletal and spindly, a kind of 3-D calligraphy in space, made from strokes of bevelled wood in place of ink. Two stools received attention for being more like sculpture than furniture and set the tenor for a career that would always waver between utilitarian and aesthetic. The stools were made from recycled gun stocks mitered and dowelled  like bones with forked appendages and crutch-like arms. Priscilla Chapman of the New York Herald Tribune described
one of these early experiments as a “mad, branchy piece of wood sculpture designed on the principle of a child’s high chair,” but questioned whether it could be used for actual sitting.  There was a coffee table with legs that Castle carved into smokey ligaments reaching around a vermillion slab that hovered on top like a surfboard. A chest of drawers from 1962 rested on six wavering, twig-like legs, two of which extended up to become pull handles  for the drawers.  By the mid-1960s the work began to bulk up with oak and walnut lamination that sprouted outward like hollow gourds.  A cherry-wood blanket chest from 1963 was plump and expectant but also mysterious and withholding, the very opposite of those lanky, anorexic stools he’d been making three years earlier. It might have been a ripened cherry or a “fantastic species of giant seedpod,” as one critic described it, perched on a bulbous base and could be opened by pushing a three-fingered handle sprouting, oddly, from the top.

Stack lamination is a slow, thoughtful process–cut, plane, glue, clamp–one layer at a time, imitating the growth or re-growth of the original tree from which the planks were milled in the first place. “I like the idea of sort of gluing wood back together into a tree trunk–reconstituting the thing you’ve torn apart–the way it expands at the bottom, the way roots spread out and support the furniture,” says Castle. “How does a tree do it? This is something that always appealed to me. So did the opposite idea where theoretically the thing wouldn’t stand at all because it didn’t have what it needed at the bottom. The idea of opposites is something I like a lot,” he says. “I made a piece that had twelve legs and shortly thereafter I made a piece with only one leg.” A lateral, drifting motion began to appear in the late sixties in leaf-shaped
tables and settees, doublewide benches with wishbone legs, tables that split and stretched or bloomed like broad-lipped petals. “In a sense, I was trying to disguise the fact that it was furniture but not to the point where it couldn’t be used,” says Castle whose dealer, Lee Nordness, compared the new work to wandering, attentuated organic forms. Table bases resembled tree trunks, expressing the flare or “buttressing” of an oak, as if rooted in the floor. Tops were elliptical or clover-shaped with indentations and other irregularities. Further breakthroughs came through improvisation, as with a petal-shaped coffee table (1966) in rosewood with a wrinkle and elliptical perforation in the middle, one of his more graceful forms, that opened to reveal itself with both horticultural and erotic subtleties: a base that flared like a peduncle unraveling into an expanding ovule, around which spread the lobe or petal, recumbent and accommodating, something like a lily pad on water, caught for a moment in the process of becoming something else. Library Sculpture sprouted a table and two cantilevered, tub-like chairs, while the central trunk had to be anchored to the floor with bolts. “Tree-Like Form Sprouts Chairs,” read a headline in the Detroit Free Press, as if Castle’s hybrid creation was a freak of nature, a Frankenstein of furniture. Was it art, or furniture, or an ecstatic happening in wood?

“Furniture would grow out of the ceiling and out of the walls,” said Castle after making Wall Table No. 16 in 1969 and would do just that with two operative “bases,” one anchored to the floor, the other to the wall, challenging all suppositions about what a table was supposed to be. His total-room concept came close to fruition in a suite designed for dealer Nordness where eight separate components flowed like parts of a single organism: crescent sofa suspended from the ceiling and curving in harmony with an elliptical coffee table, a bench, stools, standing lamp, drooping bookcase and combination table-chair. The period from 1968 to 1970 was a particularly fertile plunge into the unknown. Stand-alone pieces transformed themselves into multi-partite constellations and free-form human landscapes. A bed became a tree, became a giant beanstalk, became a shell-like desk with cantilevered couch, suggesting new ways to inhabit three-dimensional space. For one client, Castle carved a sleeping platform with elephant-stump legs and a tear-drop desk that looked like a harbor encircled by a ridge of hills. A lamp rose from the far shore of this dreaming machine like a lighthouse beckoning the sleeper back from the edge of unconsciousness. Enclosed Reclining Environment for One was a blob-shaped chamber carved from laminated oak that could be entered through a little Hobbit doorway. The snugly shaped interior was padded with foam rubber and upholstered with a natural-colored Flokati rug allowing just enough room to enfold a single person in soul-searching solitude. “When you get inside, it’s almost like being in your mother’s womb,” said one visitor. Another compared it to a “free-form coffin.”

Two hours later, Castle collects me for lunch and we drive up Maple, past the Connor Elementary  School, quaint two-story houses, neatly fenced yards, overhanging elms—Anytown, USA–to Oakwood, through hand-crafted gates into a rolling estate with orchards and gardens that slope down to a river valley. It’s a surprisingly grand 19th-century manor with a greenhouse at the back and inside, a compilation of rough textures, tufted handmade things, un-curated rooms with early wood pieces by Castle, ceramics by his wife Nancy Jurs, musical instruments and artworks by friends, all cluttered into a living collage. Just after dinner, Castle hauls out a battered old guitar and a handmade ukulele and starts strumming. At times he appears shy and reserved in a Midwestern way, but now falls eagerly into Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” then stops to pour us both a whiskey.  I pick up the guitar and sing “Helpless,” and am about to slide into something by Dylan when Castle storms into “Hobo’s Lullaby,” followed by Guthrie’s classic “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” singing with such passionate intensity that I lean back and just listen, feeling as if I’d drifted into some union gathering of the 1930s. A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run…

There’s something in the work that’s restless and moving, like the sea, like the Great Plains, and I think of the dust-bowl ballads he sang that night and how he was born in the flatlands of Kansas where horizon frames sky and he grew up drifting from town to town, Emporia, Staffordville, Blue Rapids, Coffeeville, his father teaching vocational agriculture, before settling in Holton. “I was the leader of the neighborhood gangs for building tree-houses out of scrap wood,” recalls Castle, and while his work is decidedly modern, there’s something grass-fed and unvarnished, a vulnerability and laid-back slowness that’s very much in the American grain. Thoreau wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and Castle’s best pieces have a measure of that wildness in their methodically carved, hand-rubbed forms. One recent piece, called “Moby Dick,” has a backrest perforated with holes bored at different angles and I can’t help wondering if they represent harpoon wounds or blowholes of the title’s subject: the unattainable American Myth, the White Whale itself, Melville’s conundrum of hubris and predestination. “I’ve always been drawn to the Transcendentalists,” he says. “I like ambiguity and things that are mystical.”

We’re sitting in a local restaurant and he begins to sketch something on a paper napkin that looks like a kidney with lips and bandy legs. “Sometimes I just draw a shape, an egg or a blob, and see what I can make out of it. I enjoy going to work every day,” he says,  pausing to peer up through his blue goggle glasses. “I’m not even interested in vacations. I’m on vacation all the time.”

A few days later, heading back to the airport through stubbled fields and subdivisions on Scottsville Road (Rt. 383), I remember the sketch I’d seen in one of Castle’s notebooks: two wings, reaching up as if unfurling, drawn in 1973 as a newel post to be carved for the Gannett News offices on East Main Street. Castle’s wings are less forbidding with twisted fluting that culminates in a billowing, almost cartoon-like flourish, but there’s a similarity to Ralph Walker’s Wings of Progress and it makes me think how Rochester must have etched it’s way into Castle’s psyche over the years, just as Castle’s changed this city and become a landmark in his own right, certainly as much as Walker’s sullen skyscraper.  Even the bourbon-swilling banker sitting next to me on the return flight knew about him.

These are outtakes from Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms, a survey of W.C.’s work from 1959 to 1979. The book has been published by Gregory R. Miller & Co. in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It is now available for purchase in stores and at Amazon.com. The exhibition will run through February 24, 2013 and was curated by Evan Snyderman and Alyson Baker.


Travel Notes, Feb. 4, 2000, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand: Morning mist unfurls at Wat Phu Takiang while walking slowly, very slowly, down pathway, holding Father by an arm as he keeps pointing to long low hump that veers west through jungle thicket. Old rail bed, he says. Takiang. Does he remember? Yes. Is he sure? Nods, and continues down path shaded by flat-fingered fronds, matted ferns underfoot and splintered bamboo, insects cricketing with muted, hollow sound. A series of depressions appear parallel, evenly spaced, where wooden sleepers once lay but rotted and decomposed decades ago, leaving behind faintest impressions, only visible at certain times of day, in certain angles of light–early morning is best–and it’s first moment of journey that feels real, to see something that hasn’t been trussed up for tourists. So far, it’s been part pilgrimage, part joy ride with at least one minor detour into Heart of Darkness. Morning elephant ride down track into muddy waters of Kwai was ridiculous–are you kidding?–clinging to black hairs on enormous head, almost slipping into river while someone on movie crew–Matthew?–shoots video as if we’re characters in TV reality show. Father sits in plastic chair on far bank, watching, waving.

There were more than forty camps between here and Thanbyuzayat. Now there’s almost nothing except the ghost tracks swerving away from river, cutting through chalky hills, back to the river again before vanishing among weeds. This is what remains of 150,000 dead and their dubious achievement: 415 kilometers of track through impossible terrain.

Driver takes us further north, up Rt. 323, to outskirts of village that used to be Rintin, near 200-km marker, south of Khao Laem Resevoir. Father totters down path descending through high-feathered Lalang, only inches at a time, me clutching his hand, looking for more artifacts through dusty light, curious about wild orchids. Poor Dutch buggers, Spring 1943–or earlier?–on our way back from Burma, he says, but all seems peaceful now as if nothing ever happened, just lianas dangling and strangler figs, pitcher plants, blooming Raffelesia, and my Father’s shirt soaked with sweat. Cholera, he says and gulps more water which only makes him have to pee again. Japanese built a small, makeshift hospital nearby but they closed it down, burned the bodies, abandoned the camp and threw everything into the river. No birds to be heard, no cicadas in underbrush. 
 Rintin turns out to be the place of eerie stillness, the quiet, haunted place.

Stumble across diary entry of Scottish M.O. named Hardie, written at Takanun, not far from here, mentions Father by name: September 13, 1943: The rail-laying party reached this camp six days ago and has passed on upwards. The track is now being strengthened and titivated. Captain Gordon of the Argylls, who walked down here the other day from a camp 10-12 kilometers higher, passed three skeletons and two decaying Tamil corpses on the way. Scan through rest of diary but can’t find another mention of Captain Gordon, just the single, fleeting glimpse, stunned by such an appearance and wondering why Father was walking down the line like that, a character in someone else’s narrative. Who were the decaying corpses? Who were the skeletons? (Learn later that Hardie was gathering facts about atrocities, keeping secret count for International Red Cross and eventual War Crimes Tribunal.) Had to look up “titivate” which means to make neat, smart, or trim, and afterwards dream of Father walking through Valley of Death, limp bodies draped in aztec mounds, and all I want to do is get the fuck out, wake up in strange room, 4:30 AM, perforated blocks, green paint. Where am I? Sit up in bed, switch on light and read from little book of proverbs provided by Buddhism Promotion Centre of Thailand. Pull yourself up from the slough (of passions) as an elephant pulls itself up from the bog, uncanny and apt considering I’d been riding elephant same day, mired in slough of my own making. Next morning, at breakfast on terrace, I write note to self: Resist Nothing.

We’d arrived a few days earlier at Bangkok International teeming with pungent humanity, no air conditioning, flight from Tokyo four hours delayed, endless lines at immigration but kindly Thai official greeted us and pushed Father’s wheelchair through labyrinth of back rooms, all the way to minivan waiting at curb. Shroud of smog hovered over city, jammed with rush-hour traffic on 50th anniversary of King Adulyadej’s reign, main avenues blocked for procession with elaborate krathongs and Bai-sri flower arrangements hanging from trees and street lamps. Billboard on one corner had giant likeness of King’s face, geeky, pouting, wire-rimmed specs, crawled down Watthama Road to elevated expressway, between unfinished high-rises hanging precariously over edge. Father nods asleep as we pass Buddhist temple with fluorescent lights hanging at crazy angles and dragon with scales the size of flip-flops. English-language radio station (Wave FM 88) blares report of rebel insurgents crossing border from Myanmar, taking hostages in Ratchaburi, not that far away, driver shrugs and says situation under control, not to worry. Stopped at checkpoint by Army officer with ugly, pockmarked face, sack of green onions dumped onto pavement, brand-new stereo pulled from box with Styrofoam puffballs. Surge of paranoia but we’re soon waved north, past rice paddies and canals, traffic signs no longer bilingual, families standing along edge of highway, hand-made shacks, pretty young women straddling motorbikes clutching plastic bags stuffed with vegetables. Pull into bright, modern gas station near Pak Raet, help Father into men’s room, buy bottled water and chocolate, stroll through picnic area with children playing on edge of klong, miniature roadside temple, pink and ornate, with travel deities (I assume), plastic flowers, fruit, candles, pop bottles, burning incense. I say prayer for Father and safety of journey. Route 323 veers north at Boek Phrai with blinking lights and exclamation marks. Big POW transit camp was somewhere near here. Banpong? Fresh report on radio from Health Ministry announcing 800 civilians held hostage at Ratchaburi Hospital by so-called Army of God led by charismatic 12-year-old Htoo Twins with magic powers to change shape, dematerialize, make bullets pass through flesh without harm. First sight of Kwai on left, simmering with copper streaks and flecked patterns on surface, twisting and turning through low-lying farmland,  past Lat Bua Khao and Phong Tuk, following same route that Father took on 65-mile, barefoot trek in 1942. Sun slings low in sky as highway skirts edge of river near Tha Maka where I can see barges filled with teak pulling against current.

Feb. 5, Amphoe Muang: Dragons are energetic, short-tempered, stubborn but also brave, honest, sensitive, eccentric, and “soft-hearted” according to cheap little Chinese calendar I buy at souvenir stand near Bridge. I am Dragon, so is Father, and we are both compatible with Rats, Snakes, Monkeys, and Roosters. Mai khaen grows in clusters along slippery embankment at Wampo. Ironwood? This is where Father lay for several weeks, he’s sure of it, near edge of river, sandy embankment, sick and gazing in delirium at distant hills, volcanic shapes like Ming Dynasty landscape etched into subconscious released again, somehow, sixty years after fact. I approximate place where he lay on crude map–something that a child might have drawn for a treasure hunt–that shows rail line branching off to encampment with sleeping huts, cookhouse, medical hut. (POW’s were allowed to swim in river here until cholera outbreak.)

Rebuilt section of line operates for tourists now and we cross a viaduct made from rough-hewn logs, semi-vertical baulks lifted into place by the scarecrow men. Father looks pale and wobbly himself so I ask him to sit on bench in shade of cave in side of hill. Buddhist shrine in back, strewn with flowers and incense–another world altogether–and from there, overlooking river, he makes a sudden and unwanted connection to past: Five fellow officers were executed on the spot, near cave, and he was forced to watch, thinking how it might have been him if he hadn’t been weak from fever and unable to join escape party. God, how benumbed and broken I feel in shadow of his War, like the child to his looming presence and survival stories at dinner, in Princeton, around big mahogany table with silver bowls, nauseated by so many scenes of torture and hanging, burning bodies, can you pass cranberry sauce? Old friend of mine says all periods of history press down on us at same time, including present and future–How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time (W.G. Sebald)–and I can see how time is pressing against Father’s chest and shoulders, almost crushing him into the floor of the cave, forcing him to relive that day in 1943.

Movie crew’s still setting up afternoon shot so I stroll down Saeng Chuto Road, happy to be on my own again, wander among little shops and food stands of Amphoe Muang, devouring big bowl of tom yum goong with prawns and wild mushrooms, boy selling strips of spicy chicken on stick, down Pak Praek, past Talat Sot and modern highway bridge, long-tail boats, ruea hang yao, painted with dragon eyes, nestled onto mud banks.  I turn down Songkwae Road skirting river to point where all three branches converge: Meklong, Kwae Noi and Kwae Yai. Run into mob of workers from some suicide factory in Southern Fujian who’ve been bussed in for cheap holiday but don’t understand what to do with off-time except mill back and forth across Bridge in packs, barking in Hokkien dialect, pushing everyone out of the way, eager to enhance their single day of leisure. Woman carrying newborn baby and birdcage has no problem negotiating precarious passage, tiptoeing over open  ties while still taking photos, spitting, bouncing baby, and never being crushed by train that crosses every five minutes. Has she even seen David Lean’s movie or read Father’s book? (Doubtful.) I attempt to walk in opposite direction, against primary flow–from Kanchanaburi to Tamarkan, instead of other way around–but get stampeded, almost shoved into river, before turning back. Entry scrawled in notebook that afternoon: Never, ever, try to cross Bridge on River Kwai, Chinese New Year, Year of Dragon!  Allied flags hang limp over gateway to JEATH War Museum next to Wat Chaichumphon, like miniature version of Bridge, and while called “museum,” it seems more like freak show. (“JEATH” stands for Japan, England, America, Thailand, Holland with Japan getting first billing.) I walk past fake guard tower into long bamboo hut with attap roof and sleeping platforms, very hot inside, fan blowing against photographs stacked haphazardly along walls with scenes of pyres, starved men lifting logs, captions misspelled. Display cases hold war memorabilia, spent shells, rifles, bayonets and something called “True Map of Death Railway.” A blue-and-red steam engine in yard once pulled freight along same Death Railway and there’s also a boxcar with naked POW behind iron bars like monkey in zoo. (Revenge of formerly oppressed?) Another gallery has life-sized figures of POWS in plaster, crumbling and painted over with murky flesh tones. Group of tall Norwegian tourists file out of bus, look at torture scenes, shake heads, get back on bus and go to Sai Yok or some other package deal: river rafting, eco tour, elephant ride, waterfall. River Kwai is just another pop destination, cheaper than Phuket, and why not? Auschwitz has its own kind of atrocity tours. Once a year there’s Disney-style son et lumiére at Bridge with smoke and laser beams, strobe lights, pyrotechnic explosions and sound effects to recreate Allied bombing of 1945.

Father was never clear about where he’d come from, what made him who he was. He’d patched all of that together after the war with the help of my mother. The first chapter of his own book was called “Death House” and it referred to a bamboo hut at Chungkai where he was taken to die along with others who were beyond hope. The yellow glow of the makeshift lamp gave enough light for me to see my comrades of the night, he wrote. They were ten dead men dressed in their shrouds of straw rice sacks. It was hard to tell they were corpses. They might have been bags of old rags or old bones. He survived against odds with help of friends, faith and an amazingly stubborn will to live, but a part of him never left the place with the corpses and rice sacks. It took him several years to understand what his new life, his calling, was meant to be, but it began here, on the banks of the Kwai, at least that’s how he used to tell it, and sometimes I think of him suspended in this nether world, deep in the river valley, amidst vague outlines and purplish light, a ghost among other ghosts. Faces come forward and then recede. Tell them not to worry, he says. My end is not as bad as they fear.

Photo on left shows E.G., January 21, 1942, aged 26, three weeks after being shot by a 7.7mm Ariska machine gun in northern Malaya (then British Malaysia) and a month before capture by Japanese. Photo on right shows same man aged 84, Allied War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, February 5, 2000, two days before he collapsed from stroke. 

This is the second in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.
See also:


                   FINAL APPROACH: “The beast flies up in them.”

I remember him saying in the most offhand way that he’d crashed an airplane into the House of Lords. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke, but it turned out to be true, almost true. His plane stalled and lost altitude over Parliament Bridge but swung away, just missing Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster on a foggy evening in November, 1936. He managed to follow the wavering line of the Thames towards an RAF base in Heston, but the engine sputtered and conked out completely as it glided over Borehamwood, quiet as a sparrow. An elderly resident of Broughinge Road contacted the police after she heard loud splintering followed by an earth-trembling thud behind her cottage in the wooded end of Meadow Park, seventeen miles north of London. She hurried outside but felt too frightened to look up. “Surely, no one will have survived,” she said to the constable who arrived ten minutes later. The fuselage was crumpled vertically among the saplings, sticking straight up, aileron and elevator sheared off, propeller and engine scrunched into the cockpit.

I missed the sign on A63 but took Welton Road and circled back past housing estates, a fish-and-chip shop called Medici, past Barclay’s and Morrison’s, to the intersection with Skillings Road and turned left across the railway tracks to the old RAF aerodrome. God knows, it’s not a place you’d ever think to go on your own, in rainy Yorkshire weather, driving a rented Vauxhall Astra up slippery M1 to M18, east on M62, through Goole towards Hull, but it’s a part of history, his story, a missing part that I wanted to see for myself.

The original 1930s Aero Club is still in tact with white stucco walls, recently restored as a commercial complex. The airfield’s a pleasant pasture with wild flowers growing in clumps here and there among red boundary markers. A paved runway looks much the same as my father’s day, lengthened considerably but still branching off the river at a 30-degree angle. The old clay pits have been turned into a bird sanctuary and a concrete pillbox stands guard at one end of the property, last vestige of war, painted in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern. A collie races up the footpath that separates the river from the airfield. “The drums of war were beating and someone had to respond. I did. Not with enthusiasm but with a grim sense of duty,” wrote my father fifty years after the fact. He’d seen a notice in the Student Union calling for young men to train as pilots in the Royal Air Force.  The Hawker Hurricane was just off the assembly line and the Spitfire made its maiden flight at Eastleigh. But while drums may have been beating, they were distant drums. Actual war was another three years off so it wasn’t so much a grim sense of duty that drove him to the recruitment office on Dumbarton Road that day, as a humiliating lack of funds to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow. His father didn’t have the 24 pound to pay the next semester’s tuition, thereby interrupting his plan to become a missionary doctor in China, as inspired by Eric (“the Flying Scot”) Lydell, the great track and rugby star who’d won Olympic Gold but renounced a life of athletic glory to work among the peasants of Tientsin, China. If my father couldn’t be a missionary doctor in China he’d be a dashing pilot in the RAF. He signed up in the Fall of 1936 and went for training in Hatfield, Hertfordshire at the De Haviland School of Flying. (The RAF was still farming out its training to private flying schools.) They felt his pulse, drew blood, peered down his throat, poked something up his ass, told him to blow into a rubber tube and  hold his breath for sixty seconds. They tested him for balance and color blindness. They tested his night vision by making him sit in a darkened booth with a restraining collar around his neck naming various shapes that popped up on a screen.  He’d expected a  regimented and Spartan routine but Hatfield was more country fair than air force base. It had a fancy restaurant, swimming pool, squash courts, putting greens and “en-tout-cas” tennis courts. (“Riding lessons and hacking can be arranged at the Aerodrome.“) In fact, it was operated as a country club and RAF trainees were given temporary membership, but a few weeks later my father was posted to No. 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School), in Brough, Yorkshire, not far from Hull and moved into   a damp Nissen hut near the gasworks and railway bridge. In the morning he did physical training and in the afternoon he attended lectures on navigation, aircraft recognition, Morse signaling and air gunnery. He flew his first solo in a Blackburn B-2 “Lizzie” with dented metal fuselage.  An afternoon haze hung over East Riding as he flew east above the Humber, singing to himself,  over a  bend where the river split around a knuckle-shaped spit, silver light  slanting off tidal markers, riffles, wind streaking the water a gray willow hue, reed warblers flitting over salt marsh and brackish lagoons.

The other trainees continued to Goole at the confluence of the Ouse and Trent Rivers and further out to the foothills of the Wolds, but my father turned and banked the B-2 over a line of shadowed mounds made by Roman ruins, suffering a headache after late night at Ferry Inn, same crowd–Ratcliff, Langford, Mackenzie–but an unpleasant buzzing “at the roots” of his eyes. (He’d had two strange falls the same week, scrapes on both elbows and a gash on his knee.)  Colored specks, miniscule angels, clustered in the retina, were occluding  his line of sight and he had the premonition of himself and his fellow pilots falling from the sky, their unholy lives on fast forward, as if flickering through the broken projector in the Officer’s Club, all racing to their graves. And they were. Four died before final training. Another eleven perished by the fall of 1940, which made fifteen out of the original twenty-four. (My father would have been number sixteen if he hadn’t been so lucky.)

He could see where the river narrowed and made a natural crossing–the Romans called it Petuaria–where fingerling sandbars stretched out from the banks as he continued his descent over tidal swales, drainage canals and dry sedge. The landing field came up abruptly at an angle after the heiroglyphic outlines of Welton Waters, an abandoned clay pit where fragmented pools of water glistened with oil and puffy, iridescent reflections.

Above the door of the so-called Pilot’s Hall hung a rather Masonic looking insignia hand-painted with wings and bull’s-eye above a billowing explosion (or was it a parachute opening?) with zigzagging bolts of lightning and a seven-pointed star gleaming from the top.  Inside, Dr. Ingle, M.O. from Hull, was having his tea wondering if he should have grounded A.C.2 Gordon, just as A.C.2 Gordon completed a near perfect three-point landing and taxied up to the corrugated hangar. He waved at Goudie, the welterweight engineer from Inverkip, and waited for some sign or compliment but got nothing. Goudie was distracted. Goudie was enraged. He threw his monkey wrench and kicked the landing gear of an old Shark Torpedo Bomber, screaming “Fucking Fucker’s Fucked!!” loud enough so that everyone in Brough, even dead Romans, could hear.

I couldn’t see my father in this place, no matter how many times I walked the perimeter of the field and tried to imagine him gliding over the mud flats on his final approach. He was clumsy with tools and all things mechanical. He had trouble putting up a Christmas tree or changing a lightbulb. He was surprisingly clumsy, beyond the normal big-man clumsiness, and whenever he fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase or cut his hand on the lid of a can, it was extreme, with curses, blood, stitches and bruises that often took weeks to heal.  I just couldn’t imagine him operating one of those machines.

In the late 1990s I stumbled upon a box in my parent’s attic that contained a manila envelope stuffed with RAF memorabilia: letters from the Air Ministry in London; a “Certificate of Competency” (No. 11002,) bound in blue leather with a silk tassel issued on November 14, 1936, stating that my father was certified to fly any type of land plane except for “public transport or aerial work flying machines.” There was also a ragged shoulder patch with silver wings and the RAF emblem as well as a photograph of twenty-two trainees posing in front of a De Haviland biplane. It must have been early in the program because they were still dressed in civilian clothes. My father stands taller than the rest, over on the left, wearing an old jacket that’s too tight over a turtleneck sweater. He seems a bit baggy and unkempt compared to some of the others who look like proper Oxbridge gents, entitled, dressed in tweed jackets, club ties, neatly folded pocket handkerchiefs, hair waxed and parted. My father was the son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper, not highborn, dropped out of university, played rugby, joined in the occasional pub brawl, and still spoke with a broad West Highland accent.

All the pilots had signed the back of the photograph, each in his own stylized script: D.G. Ractliff, A.B. Landgford, D. Mackenzie, T. Krikwood, and Freddy Langford who wrote his name with an almost Elizabethan flourish and wore his hair brushed back in a casual wave. A few of them were “spoiled sods,” according to my
father, especially Ratcliff and Harvie who acted like public school boys.  Henry Hind was not a snob and considered the most talented pilot in the squad. (His father was someone high up in the Air Ministry.) Harry McDonald was an odd-ball loner, tall and gaunt, who spoke  like an Englishman but came from a middle-class background in Glasgow.  In the photograph he stands stiffly next to my father with a pale face and eyes shut, an uncanny premonition of things to come.

I was shocked when I found the photograph of the wrecked plane taken at night in the lurid flash of the Fox Photos camera. How had he survived? All the branches and saplings must have slowed his descent and softened the final impact, gashing holes through the wings and fuselage. He hardly ever talked about the crash because it didn’t fit with the rest of his war narrative. It hadn’t ended well. His head slammed into the padded console and four of his front teeth were knocked out, punching through his upper lip.  He fractured his skull, broke his collarbone and spent three months at the RAF Officer’s Hospital in Uxbridge where he lay around in a plaster cast, smoking, reading magazines and flirting with one of the nurses. In one account he wrote that the plane suffered “metal failure” but it seems clear that he either ran out of fuel or blacked out. (One of the letters from the medical board inferred  as much.) Whatever the cause, the Air Ministry made it clear that he wasn’t welcome back in the program.  The photo appeared in the morning papers along with a sensational account of reckless RAF pilots, no names mentioned, and how “they” endangered public safety. (There’d been a fatal crash a few weeks earlier in Slough.) Upset about the bad publicity, upset about the loss of an expensive plane, the Ministry released my father as “unlikely ever to reach the standard of fitness required for aerial duties in the Royal Air Force, and they (the RAF Central Medical Establishment) regret that it is therefore necessary for you to relinquish your appointment on account of ill-health,” suggesting that he consider trying for a different branch of the armed services, signed Your obedient Servant, J.M. Wright, Air Ministry, Adastral House, Kinsway, London, W.C.2.

After leaving hospital in Uxbridge he was allowed to renew his pilot’s license but repeated pleas to the Air Ministry went unanswered. Some of his fellow pilots were discharged like himself, others died in training or went on to become heroes in
the Battle of Britain. (Only a few would survive the war.) He rather morbidly and methodically recorded their fates on the back of the photograph from 1936, writing the event and date in his own miniscule script beneath each name: Crashed. 16th Nov. 1936, below his own name while under his friend Harry McDonald he wrote simply: Killed. 11th Sept. 1937, with no further explanation.

I drove out to Uxbridge from London on a rainy Saturday but arrived a month too late. The old RAF base had already been decommissioned and the wreckers were making way for a shopping center and housing estate. There were no dashing young pilots lounging about in silk scarves lighting one another’s cigarettes, nothing like that. In fact, there wasn’t much to see at all, just a decrepit hangar and a few of the original brick barracks laid out like a borstal  school. Windows were boarded over and the concrete steps leading up to the old hospital had caved in. I walked across the rain-splattered tarmac wondering why I’d bothered to come.  Like any son, I always wanted to hear about my father’s adventures but I also wanted to know about his mistakes, his troubles, not just the heroic parts.  He had a hard time admitting failure and tended to turn everything in his life into a kind of Biblical allegory.  I certainly don’t want to add to the allegory, but whenever I think or dream of myself in his shadow, whenever I think or dream of my own son, I imagine a continuum of sorts. I  see my father’s crumpled plane and the northern wildness in his eyes. I see myself and I see my son. Perhaps I’ve come out here to find a moment when he was mortal and grounded just so I can walk through that ineffable break in space and throw my arms around him.

This is the first in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.
See also:


The air was vitreous, intractable, crystalline

– Patrick Leigh Fermor

From travel journal, 9/18/11: Bumped into low dormer on Mesrutiyet Street and head still throbbing despite ice pack and two Advils in taxi crossing Bosphorus at dawn. Left early, flew west and south to Nevsehir in central Anatolia. Ancient land of Hatti, a place I’d wondered about since first reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. Seemed impossible that such a place actually existed with lion-colored uplands and underground city of Derinkuyu, but here I am, after all, as if dreaming.

Golden melons grow along side of road, so ripe they burst open in the sun, spilling out their seeds; vineyards without stakes, dimrit vines splayed out on dry soil, same method as six thousand years ago. Some believe this to be geographical home of Dionysus, god of epiphany, Mount Nysa and Bronze Age kingdom of Hattusa, ancient beyond comprehension: 14th Century BC, and Hittite princes racing two-wheeled chariots down same road as this–although unpaved and no cell service–holding trumpets, spears and earthen jars, clay tablets inscribed with bulls, falcons, rams, yokes, axes, threshing flails, and the pictogram of a handsome god with tongue of fire. (Was this the son of Typhon and his “dark flickering tongues of flashing fire?”)

Spend rest of morning in hot-air balloon over southern ridge of Karadag Valley, long and jagged as a dragon’s spine. Surprised how gently hushed and safe it feels, rising slowly in desert air to 1,500 feet, only sound being the wind and creaking of Kooboo cane basket, looking down to ruined earthworks of our host. (Occasional blast of propane fires into throat of balloon to keep afloat.) I assume high altitude will make headache worse but feel surprisingly revived as we climb. What’s the myrtle freshness in the air? A waft of wild sage? Lemon balm mixed with lentisk or mastic bush?

Fragrance swells as free-form plume, carried on updraft, as if I could reach out and touch it. Later, in Göreme, I learn about pungent centaury that grows in small pink posies with yellow stamen, supposed to settle stomach and purify blood: “supports the development of courage and self-determination,” according to Dr. Bach homeopathy. I feel courage and self-determination being so elevated on a tether of hemp and drifting over a cenotaph on one of the higher mounds that’s said to conceal burial chamber of Tarhunza, Hittite king of the plaited beard.

In all there are twelve new ruins, or unruins, whatever you want to call them. Some are complete in their desuetude; others are still works in progress, not finished. One is made from stacked stones to depict a symbolic palm tree found inscribed in the tomb of an Anatolian princess. Another shows a grindstone. Another shows a mythological figure with human head and the body of a bird. We see this empty cage now corrode, where her cape of the stage once had flowed..Visions of Johanna must have played at airport (or taxi?) because it’s lodged in my head all day. The balloon catches a draft and drifts further down the valley until we’re hanging directly above an allée of fifty-foot basalt columns sprouting form a dun-colored mound, with Dylan’s persistent whine in weird desert air with shadows and fairy towers in far distance. Nothing subtle, beaten field, dirt road, rifts and clusters of greenish rock rising in hazy blue horizon. Not much left to the imagination. I take photographs with my mini Canon Elph SD770 but they come out in same banal shades of liver brown and sepia with no sense of depth, only the shadow of the balloon dragging along ground to signify scale.

The artist in this case is an Australian entrepreneur turned earth-worker who leaves his imprint, writ large, and one day hopes to girdle entire globe as singular gesture. “What I’ve tried to do is make a connected series of drawings around the earth,” he says, sounding grand but is, in person, curiously shy, reticent, enigmatic but also determined to complete his stated goal. He travels everywhere–Africa, South America, Asia, Middle East–organizing local governments and armies of helpers to build his upside-down ruins.  He’s squeezed himself into a corner of the wicker gondola pointing video camera down at an amphitheater excavated out of dark basalt outcropping. It seems to me like a “loaded” sacred landscape to be messing with but he appears pretty nonchalant with no moral qualms about leaving his mark. If stretched out, the ruins measure more that four miles in length and are comprised of 10,500 tons of stone. Tourists sometimes hike all the way up to see the “ancient ruins,” he says, only to find them new, freshly excavated works.
“How do you feel about that?” I ask.
“Fine,” he says. “It’s all a learning experience.”

I enjoy the air and views of Mount Erciyes, Kayseri hills, old goat paths, olive groves, but feel ambivalent about earth art in general. Maybe it seemed radical, a significant fuck you to museum culture when Heizer and Smithson first tramped outside and made their marks in Moapa Valley and Great Salt Lake, but that was more than forty years ago. Smithson was the reason I started writing human topography in the first place, not because of Spiral Jetty, but because of the effervescent essays he published in Artforum. “When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel.” (“Monuments of Passaic,” December 1967.) That seemed significant at the time, the idea of a bridge becoming a photograph that could be walked across in blazing midday light. He also wrote about “ruins in reverse,” which I must have appropriated and used myself, repeatedly, without being conscious of origin.

I too wanted to get lost in ex-urban amnesia where meanings unraveled. When still in high school I stalked hinterlands closer to Trenton than Passaic, past the abandoned hulks of the Roebling factory, silted river, concrete swales and rusting machinery, self-consciously quoting Eliot from memory: What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? I was also reading 30s crime novels where the shamus gets whacked or slipped a mickey and loses identity until the blonde’s face looms into view like an underwater apparition.  She was the kind of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (Raymond Chandler.)  I fantasized about being a private eye or CIA assassin. When in graduate school, I set up parameters, made mappings and wandered through library stacks. I “backward followed” strangers into blighted neighborhoods around New Haven, positioned convex mirrors along the banks of the Connecticut River, walked with blindfold into a field of corn until I’d lost all sense of direction, rowed a boat out into the Sound during a terrible thunderstorm because I’d read how Shelley or Coleridge had done same in Derwent Water.

Later, mid-divorce, I drove back and forth on Expressway making random exits and “explorations” into the lost steppes of Lake Ronkonkoma, Commack, East Yaphank, Mastic Shirley. I liked anything that had an allegorical buzz to it, especially Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond,” Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths or any narrative in which metaphor became operative.

In Smithson’s suburban Odyssey, he saw “monuments” where there were only pumping derricks, concrete abutments and an artificial crater that contained a “pale limpid pond of water.” What he didn’t mention was how he grew up in Jersey, how his family doctor was William Carlos Williams, or how his dystopian inflections derived in part from Williams’ epic Patterson “…no idea but in things–nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident.” I grew up in Jersey too but in leafy Princeton with neo-gothic spires and anxious students.

The campus was pure allegory, more Fitzgerald than Williams, wrapped in a golden cloud of entitlement. At 21 I transferred “back” just to study with Smithson but he’d died in a plane crash that summer while surveying sites for a new earthwork. The travelogue that began in Passaic ended in a sandy waste outside of Amarillo, a landscape much the same as this, the ochre Anatolian steppe that I’m drifting over now in benumbed silence: quilt patterns of paddocks, melon patches, prehistoric mounds and ghostly lines of Hittite fortifications that look like scratches on a glass negative.

Drive through “biscuit-colored” villages of Gulsehir, Salusaray, Nar, as landscape changes from sepia folds to brighter terraces and volcanic deposits with soft tufa yielding to erosion, past larger town of Nevşehir, ancient city of Nyssa, pastUçhisar Hill, highest point in Cappadocia, through Uçhisar to Göreme.

Leigh Fermor walked into this burning wilderness in the mid-1950s on his quest for the roots of monastic asceticism, came south through Urgüb and Göreme. “The lion-coloured uplands of Anatolia looked Biblical and gaunt,” wrote Fermor. “The road wound into a stony cordillera then sank through a tormented ravine to the little derelict town of Urgüb.” Harder basalt deposits within this tormented ravine rested on top and determined Surrealist shapes that drape below, known as peribacalari, a kind of reverse Pea-and-the-Princess action over thousands of years, from top to bottom.  Some of the mounds are conical or mushroom shaped. Some, like the ones in “Love Valley”, are giant penises. “Every second cone is chambered and honeycombed till it is as hollow from peak to base as a rotten tooth,” noted Fermor.

I have lunch in darkened restaurant with stone oven, sitting on floor eating manti dumplings, kashkak, spinach gözleme and a dozen other dishes passed along by two old women serving creamy yoghurt, eggplant, lentils, chickpeas, pistachios, pine nuts, ground lamb and God knows what else I don’t know the names for.

Wander back streets of Göreme after lunch, Konak Cadde, wall of rugs, mustard-colored fountain, broken azure wagon, men selling melons and figs, skinny cow standing in shade of plum tree, corner of dovecotes chiseled out by hand, darkened by smoke, a window with twisted vines for mullions, a deep blue doorway with floral surround, hardwood panels worn by centuries of hands touching, pushing, knocking. All the doorways along Içeridere Sokak seem loaded with import, each a different story to tell, true thresholds to the domestic gods, draped with vines, stepped and arched with dentils, twisting ribs of stone, leaf or animal imprints and other threshold guardians on surrounding lintels.

A vermillion-stained door is carved with pinwheels and infinity stars, lion-shaped pendants, rosettes, zigzag molding. Some have ancient hand-shaped knockers, massive iron hinges and locks made from beaten metal, rusting and spiked. Some of the doors are faded and have been boarded shut, others open and welcoming: a woman works a rug sitting in cool interior courtyard, shady garden. I poke my head inside and say selam. Twittering giggles from a young girl with red scarf fetching water. Her grandmother sorts through mound of dried beans as rivulet gurgles into stone basin.

Walk out of Göreme into desert valley towards Urgüb down dirt path that follows a stream where terrain goes from smooth and pastoral, terraced farmland to jagged mesas rising precipitously as path weaves between cliffs through deep, shattered chasms. It is another planet, lunatic and petrified for eternity. Lunar mounds in pale volcanic rock carved with ledges, windows, deep apertures and thousands of beehive perforations for the doves that monks used to keep. Some entryways are irregular as if gouged out by a giant claw. Others have elaborate ornamentation carved around arched apertures, regal, almost Summerian in style with red markings, circles and dots, fishnet patterns, and they look prehistoric but are more recent.

Seductively worn steps cut by tenth-century monks using adze and chisel climb embankment to arched opening and church carved directly from soft tufa, painted with murals to resemble Byzantine narthex, a kind of trompe l’oeil architecture with pillars, apses and cupola that appear to be constructed from red block but  just ox-blood pigment and yellow tempera skillfully scribed onto the stone.

St. Paul passed through here after his expulsion from Jerusalem, on his way to Ancyra, present-day Ankara. Early Anchorites settled as hermits in these same riotous hills and their hardships brought them closer to God. They carved out little cells and churches, painted frescoes and carried water up from the sacred streams. They grew grapes and kept doves and were brought together as a monastic community in the 4th Century when St. Basil arrived, followed by Gregory of Nazianzus and others who sought desert silence and the simplicity of cave life. Simple patterns of stylized grapes, birds, crosses, circles and checkerboards painted on ceilings and walls. Faces and eyes of saints and Christ have been scratched off in most places, an act of vandalism supposedly carried out by strict Muslims who abhorred any representation of human form, but a more compelling myth is that local maidens believed the blue eyes of these figures to contain secret aphrodisiacal powers so they scratched them out and mixed the ancient pigment into a love potion that was then slipped into the boyfriend’s wine. A secret and costly blend of ingredients went into the making of this monastic blue: badakshan or lapis lazuli, potash and indigo, perhaps a drop of tribulus thrown in.

“The air was vitreous, intractable, crystalline,” wrote Fermor, after two weeks of wandering through this labyrinth of stone. “The whole world seemed inside-out.”


Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken  trees.                                –  Peter Matthiesen

Could it be those fingers of swampy wildness that reach into the Metroplex with Saw Grass and Coontie? The whorl-shaped sloughs that surround Ft. Lauderdale airport? The drainage ditches along Route 75 or the mysterious savannah I first glimpsed through a chain-link fence on the way to Key West? Where do the Everglades begin?  Sometimes, strolling through Bal Harbour, I catch a whiff of jungle funk wafting on the breeze from an outlying swale and I think of Ponce de León, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and others who came here for conquest and glory, but only found mosquitoes, disease, and sodden camp sites. The Spanish were perplexed by the place and so were the English. It was a problem of entry, perception, discovery, mapping, claiming territory and finding familiar points of reference. Journalists and poets didn’t know how to write about it. Artists didn’t know how to paint it. There was no real center, no overarching theme or landmark, no mountain, canyon or picturesque waterfall. The Glades splayed and sprawled and seeped restlessly southwards from Lake Okeechobee in the river of grass that conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about. But the river metaphor was misleading to many because one imagined a river as a meandering channel between two banks while this was more like a hundred-mile swathe of water without sides, only a few inches deep, continually moving southwards in a steady flow, what modern hydrographers call sheetflow or what the Seminoles called Pa-Hay-Okee, meaning grassy water.

Explorers, missionaries, surveyors, botanists and plume hunters used less dignified adjectives like dismal, barren, hideous, desolate, monotonous, lonely, lost, impenetrable, impossible, inundated, unnavigable to describe the “God-abandoned hellscape” that was the Everglades. “No obstruction offered itself to the eye as it wandered o’er the interminable, dreary waste of waters, except the tops of tall rank grass, about five feet or upwards in height, and which harmonized well with the desolate aspect of the surrounding regions, exhibiting a picture of universal desolation,” wrote army surgeon Jacob Motte who passed through during the Seminole Wars of 1836-1838. [*Journey into Wilderness: An Army Surgeons’s Account of Life in Camp and Field During the Creek and Seminole Wars, 1836-1838, via Michael Grunwald’s meticulously researched The Swamp, Simon & Schuster, 2006, p. 42.]

 Today there are numerous points of penetration, gateways of a sort to the placeless place: one to the west in Chokoloskee, another to the south in a ghost town called Flamingo. A raised wooden walkway leads through a flooded cypress landscape near Monroe Station or you can paddle your kayak through the mangrove tunnels of Nine-Mile Pond. There’s also a limited access through Lake Chekika and Grossman’s Hammock although they’re often flooded during the wet season.

Of course, the real obstacle is psychological, not physical. It’s a matter of adjusting one’s expectations and learning to paint oneself into the picture, so to speak, slowing down, catching the translucent layers and hidden hues. My son and I set out on Thursday morning with bug spray, sun block, and a copy of Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country as our guide, a novel infested with outlaws, drifters, ragged desperados, and the man at the center, Edgar J. Watson, also known as “Bloody Watson,” who’s more complex than Hamlet. What may have once felt like a mental barrier, an impossible transition from Bling City to Pa-Hay-Okee, now proves to be quite effortless.

You simply retrieve the rented car from valet parking and drive west along SW 8th Street until it turns into Route 41, continue in a straight line past Krome Avenue and the pastel-pink-and-blue blob of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino, last vestige of civilization before the horizontal sweep of the Everglades unfolds with only an occasional airboat ride and alligator wrestling joint, passing over weirs, sluices and drainage canals designed to control the uncontrollable. It’s flat and repetitive, reminiscent of the polders of Holland with the same translucent, water-saturated light that Jacob van Ruisdael painted. The sky seems vast, overbearing.


You continue west on the Tamiami Trail through Water Conservation Area #3B where the natural flow of the Glades has been interrupted by canals, levees and roadways so that water has to be transferred from the north to south by a complex system of pumps and sluice gates, a kind of artificial life-support system devised by the Army Corps of Engineers.

About thirty-five miles west of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino there’s a turn off for the Shark River Slough. You can walk or take a trolley out to the observation tower, and it’s really quite a beautiful, if absurd, monument standing out there in the middle of Motte’s universal desolation, a kind of deconstructed Guggenheim Museum built during the spacy 1960s (originally a fire lookout) with a ramp and two-tiered tower rising sixty feet above the marshy expanse. Here, in this place where there’s no there, as Gertrude Stein put it, the tower provides a kind of metaphysical thereness, a 360-degree frame of reference.


From afar, it has the presence of De Chirico’s Great Tower of 1913: lonely, spectral, melancholic, but as you get closer you can see that it splays out with a concrete pedestrian chute that makes a wide, cantilevered spiral over a boggy sump of sedges and spikerushes: needle spikerush, scallion grass, dwarf hairgrass, fewflower, false junco, umbrella hairgrass

And then there’s the humble but mysterious Periphyton, tubular, spongy algae that clusters in mats just below the surface of the water. It provides nutrients while filtering pollutants, retains water and helps to sustain the balance of moisture in the Everglades during the dry season.

It starts to rain again as soon as we reach the top of the tower and try to take in the panorama of flooded desert, sawgrass prairie with occasional pools, narrow canals, clumps of hardwood rising slightly higher but otherwise flat and featureless to the horizon in every direction. As a destination it remains unaccommodating, resists interpretation. On first glance it looks like nothing. Maybe it takes a day or more to get used to the ineffable scale and emptiness. Maybe then you finally catch the subtle gradations of sky and light across the broader expanses. In any case, it’s a long, slow read: muted strokes of pale ochre, viridian, with slightly denser patches of tea-green, pale sea green, asparagus green, dotted here and there by tiny flecks of berry, red, umber and yellow, and unusual plants that grow in moving water like bladderwort, spatterdock, maidencane, white water lily, and a few undernourished slash pines in the distance.

A group of geriatric Danes arrive by trolley and move up the ramp as if a single Viking organism. They take photographs and hurry back down. We stay a bit longer, gazing at the sub-wash of pink-tinged heliotrope that might be a result of watery light refracted through the shallows, somehow, I’m not sure, but maybe the matte grayness of the lowering sky acts as a sponge, a kind of optical Periphyton, pulling invasive hues up from the groundscape.

On my way back from the tower, a chatty Park Ranger offers me some type of edible brown berry. Will I hallucinate?  He laughs.  The Calusas used it in ceremonies.  It has the bittersweet tang of Scottish marmalade and leaves my mouth oddly dry with a zincish aftertaste. I jot down the name of the plant but lose the slip of paper.

We drive further west past Monroe Station and Ochopee, past America’s smallest post office, built circa 1916 for work crews on the Tamiami Trail , then left onto Route 29 and Everglades City, not a city at all but cheap motels and trailer parks with a current population of under 500. City founders like Barron Collier and the Storter family had high hopes, envisioning a marshy utopia laid out in a grid of streets and avenues–Storter, Copeland, Kumquat, Collier–with a traffic circle at the center and an imposing city hall, a bank, laundry, churches and a proper schoolhouse. They even built a trolley line through the middle of town anticipating the coming boom but no one came and most of the lots remain empty, awaiting urbanization.

Lunch of deep-fried gator tail and frog legs at creaky Rod and Gun Club–old homestead of George W. Storter, early settler and sugar planter. The lobby glows with an orange hue from a thousand coats of shellac over walls and stuffed tarpon, alligator heads and panthers, their jaws now slack and leaking dust.

Above the reception desk hang photographs of several U.S. Presidents, earnest-eyed hunters and fishermen from the 1920s when the place flourished as a sportsman’s retreat. Hemingway came here, so did Zane Grey. Now it’s sour with ammonia and a family of possum scatter when I step through the back door, and tell myself it’s good background material for something.

But I can never claim this as narrative space for myself because it’s already been irrevocably staked and claimed by Matthiesen and his great swamp epic Shadow Country, so much so that I feel like I’m literally sliding down one of his sinewy sentences as we cross the causeway onto Chokoloskee itself: “…a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering.” And he’s right. The sky is ghostly, witholding rain and wandering in a way that gives me a headache just squinting at the steamy light. Maybe it’s the vapor from so many shallow estuaries, too many ions, the swamp gas or miasma that was thought to cause Malaria. I don’t have a clue. There’s a shirtless man in the shallows near the bridge, fishing with a butterfly net. A dull, blue-gray line marks the horizon as if we’d finally reached the end of the world.

Nothing much to Chokoloskee itself, more cheap bungalows, trailer parks, shabby pre-fabs propped on concrete pylons. We turn past the Havana Café onto Mamie Street and find the pitted track that leads to Smallwood’s General Store, a wood-framed building, painted red and raised high on cedar posts to escape flood. Inside, there’s one long and poorly illuminated chamber with hardly any windows but an open door at the far end, filtering swamp-brewed light from the Gulf of Mexico. The barge-like structure was built in 1906 by Charles Sherod “Ted” Smallwood with low-pitched roof, vertical boards of termite-resistant slash pine, all of it propped high on locust posts like Noah’s Ark, ready to float away in the final Deluge. I have a sudden urge to buy something, but there’s nothing for sale other than a few old postcards.

It housed the original post office and Indian trading post and is now open as a museum of sorts, frozen in time somewhere about 1941, the year that Smallwood retired as postmaster, and a decade before the causeway to the mainland was finished. Shelves are stacked along side walls, original counters and glass vitrines in tact and stuffed with dusty relics. It also provides the opening scenography for Shadow Country: the hurricane of 1910 has just passed and the novel begins with a kind of Biblical inventory-taking of objects ravaged and rendered useless by the storm: “Pots, kettles, crockery, a butter churn, tin tubs, buckets, blackened vegetables, salt-slimed boots, soaked horsehair mattresses, a ravished doll are strewn across bare salt-killed ground...” The grounds around Smallwood’s store are still puddled with a putrefying stench of death and rank corruption. “Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken treesstove-in boats, uprooted shacks… odd pieces torn away from their old places hanging askew, strained from the flood by mangrove limbs twisted down into the tide.”

There’s a similar tidal wash of inventory inside Smallwood’s store today: pickle jars, animal skins, moldy books and magazines, tobacco tins, old-fashioned tinctures and ointments in their original boxes, hurricane lanterns, axe handles, 1923 typewriter, sacks of raw sugar (Pearl White, Fine Granulated,) Miccosukee weavings, turtle shell, dried sponge, sawfish rostrum, gator jaws, photo albums, candy jars, coffee grinder, old pop bottles, egret plumes, ancient cash register, faded signs and photographs of how the place once looked–much the same as now–and a scale model that someone made from toothpicks and popsicle sticks. In fact, there are two scale models, one being quite elaborate and lit from within, something like the miniature spirit shrines you see along the roadsides of Southeast Asia, but in this case honoring the myth of self-sufficiency and the lost ways of frontier living.

The postmaster’s window is still there and so is Ted Smallwood’s bedroom in a back corner, gloomy with creaky bedsprings and threadbare quilt, Victorian undergarments hanging from a line over his bed. There’s also a life-sized mannequin of Ted Smallwood himself sitting in a rocking chair with a milky, infinite look in his eyes, staring out towards the bay.

On the other side of the store, someone has put together a little display, almost an altar, dedicated to the Watson legacy with letters, photographs and drawings, a charcoal rendering of the man, an oil painting of his house at Chatham Bend, newspaper clippings, letters, old pamphlets and books that tell the story. There’s even a box of shells and a shotgun that was supposedly used in his execution, and a hand-drawn sign that proudly states: “KILLING MR. WATSON WAS A COMMUNITY PROJECT.”



The crudely marked map has circles and arrows that point to locations where Watson’s victims were said to be buried: Lostman’s Key, Storter Bay, Opossum Key, Deer Island and if you have a morbid curiosity you can paddle your kayak down the Wilderness Waterway and visit these sites or go to the Watson place on Chatham River, twenty miles south of Chockoloskee.  How many bodies did he bury in the inlets and shoals around his homestead?  How many did he really kill? There’s a sign and a little dock that the park service maintains. The house burned down a long time ago but  the foundation still exists as well as a cistern and some spooky remains of the Watson sugar works.

There’s a photograph of Watson himself set in a Victorian frame with a  floral pattern embossed around the olive-gray matting. He’s sitting upright, wearing a tightly fitted jacket, high lapels and short tie, but I find it hard to look at the face. A surprising face, not what I’d imagined, wide and urgent, clear brow, receding hairline; high, square forehead. Wary of ambush, Watson was said to never turn his back on anyone, even a child, and there’s a cant to the head, slightly to the left, as if the photographer caught him off guard, in motion, ready for a turn, retreat or drawing of his pistol.

“He was a Scotsman with red hair and fair skin and mild blue eyes,” wrote Marjorie Douglas in the 1940s, after interviewing people who were old enough to remember the man. “He was quiet spoken and pleasant to people. But people noticed one thing. When he stopped to talk on a Fort Myers street, he never turned his back to anyone.” Was he glaring at the nervous photographer? There’s  a resemblance, not unlike a certain paternal grandfather,  but it’s hard to look at the old tintype and not see a serial killer. Without such foreknowledge he might be mistaken for a mid-level banker, fish-oil salesman or prominent planter, which is what he was, but there’s something in the eyes that blows that illusion. The eyes are high and creepily close together, intense and penetrating, verging toward madness.

A 19th-century phrenologist would read Watson’s high, broad forehead as obdurate, stubborn, willful and prone to outbursts of violence. The pronounced ears were said to signify lude passions according to Owen Squire Fowler, phrenologist and octagon-house pioneer, but the mouth and jaw are impossible to read because Watson sported such a thick moustache and mutton-chop sideburns as if to conceal his true, ornery nature. Were his lips full and fleshy or were they thin and coldly pursed? Did they smirk with an ironic foreshadowing of his own demise or were they locked in a permanent frown? It’s hard to tell.

The waxy, end-blown light inside Smallwood’s makes me feel like I’m standing inside an overexposed sepia tintype myself. My stomach is rumbling. The fried gator from lunch is crawling back up my gullet in a bid for reptilian revenge. I’m relieved to walk onto the back porch that hangs over Chokoloskee Bay and look down to the very spot where Watson pushed his boat ashore onto a bed of broken shells, just before he met his violent end that day, October 24, 1910.

We climb down a rickety staircase and stand on the murder spot. The sun is setting over the Gulf and I peer into the subfusc crawl space (more like walk space) where Smallwood kept his chickens. They were all drowned in the hurricane and the postmaster was cleaning out the sorry mess when the shootout started. “Wincing, Smallwood arches his back, takes a dreadful breath, gags, hawks, expels the sweet taste of chicken rot in his mouth and nostrils.” No chickens now, only sand and the smell of salted pine down there along with a Miccosukee dugout, beautifully carved and propped on a wooden stand. This was where the neighborhood posse gathered in twilight and gunned down E.J. Watson in cold blood.

“He never crumpled but fell slow as a felled tree… You never seen a man so dead in all your life.” More than thirty-three bullets were pulled from the bloated corpse and plunked into a coffee can. After that they stopped counting.

                                            “If nobody is innocent, who can be guilty?”
                      [*Quotations from Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen, Random House, 2008.]

ANDREW GELLER: Architect of Happiness, 1924-2011

Andrew Geller, quixotic American architect and designer, passed away on Christmas Day, 2011. He was a good friend and inspiration to many. Beach Houses: Andrew Geller, the book I published about him in 2003 went out of print and became quite difficult to find. It is now being re-issued in paperback by Princeton Architectural Press (March 2014). The following is a memorial piece I wrote upon Geller’s death and some selected passages from the book.

Pearlroth House, Westhampton Beach

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw his houses on the beaches of Long Island, especially the Pearlroth House rising over the dunes of Westhampton Beach: twin boxes tilted on point with a candy-striped chimney in between–he called it the “square brassiere” or “double box kite.” Then there was the Hunt House in Fire Island, a single box on point, raised on locust posts.

Study for Hunt House

It was 1986, the peak of Post-Modernist delerium, and I was preparing a book and exhibition on the forgotten modernist architects of Long Island.  I despised the neo-shingle style with its faux Palladian windows and Victorian gazebos that was flooding the market at that point. Robert Motherwell’s house and studio in East Hampton, the only extant work in America by Pierre Chareau, had just been heinously demolished to make way for an “Adirondack-style” MacMansion. The idea was therefore to prove that Long Island, just as much as southern California, had been a crucial breeding ground for modern design by highlighting as many examples as I could find and show how these houses needed to be protected by preservationists and local legislators. I was hoping for maybe a dozen to twenty good examples but the more I dug the more I uncovered forgotten works by William Muschenheim, Marcel Breuer, Peter Blake, Philip Johnson, Alexander Knox, George Nelson, Gordon Bunshaft, Robert Rosenberg, Paul Lester Weiner, Julian and Barbara Neski, and others. It was one thing to discover houses by word of mouth or snooping down winter lanes hoping to catch a glimpse of a cantilevered porch, flat roof or floor-to-ceiling window peaking out behind a privet hedge, but it was even harder to find original archival material–drawings, photographs, scale models–that I would be able to use in an exhibition.

Someone had mentioned Geller’s name but I thought they meant Abe Geller, another architect who’d also designed houses on Long Island, so I was late in realizing the misunderstanding and finally drove out to Northport in October 1986 to meet Andrew for the first time. His wife Shirley greeted me at the door and said, “He’s been waiting for you,” with a twinkle in her eye and I found him sitting there in the living room of his Victorian house surrounded by hundreds of sketches, plans, perspective renderings and beautifully crafted models. He’d saved everything he’d ever done and it felt as if I’d finally hit the mother lode.

Frank House, Fire Island

When the Long Island Modern show opened in 1987, Robert Stern criticized me for including Geller’s work. It wasn’t part of the accepted canon. He was an outsider, wasn’t properly trained, was more of an industrial designer, illustrator, etc. Peter Blake accused him of stealing his idea for the Pinwheel House, which was nonsense, but a certain amount of resentment must have been stirred up by the fact that Geller’s work had been published in mainstream, high-circulation magazines like Life, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, the publication where Geller published his “Esquire Weekend House,” an ingenious little box on stilts that could be dismantled and towed behind a bachelor’s sports car. In fact, this had been the source of Blake’s feigned outrage. He even wrote a blistering letter to the editors who thought it amusing and pinned it to their bulletin board.

Esquire Weekend House

As far as I know, Geller’s houses were never published in “professional” magazines like Architectural Record and certainly not Architectural Forum while Blake was Editor-in-Chief. Geller posed something of a threat to the status quo. He was incredibly prolific, experimental, friendly, never took himself too seriously, could be irreverent, and even had dared to live a normal family life in suburban Long Island. He was successful in his own right, well outside the inner sanctum of the design world. He wasn’t practiced in the priestly double-speak of the architectural establishment. He didn’t care. He had the nerve to be playful, make jokes, have fun, be funny, breezy, light, even joyful. He’d made up his own rules and didn’t care much what the mainstream thought of him. During the week he slaved away for Raymond Loewy who knew a good thing when he saw one and kept Geller cranking out shopping centers and department stores. But there were weekends and Geller, who never seemed to rest, found his own kind of clients and worked during his free time designing simple but experimental little houses that were low budget and low maintenance. Indeed, these works defined a transitional period of American domestic architecture that lay somewhere between the flat-roofed, glass pavilions of neo-Bauhaus (Bunshaft, early Johnson, Blake, et al) and a younger generation of sixties neo-Cubist, neo-Corb modernism as recycled by Gwathmey, Meier and the New York Five.

Sure, he was sometimes uneven, but so was Picasso. Geller could be an irritant, a speck of sand in the establishment’s eye. They were hoping he would just fly away, dissappear somehow, but he didn’t. His freshness and originality kept popping up again and again, being “rediscovered,” until he was able to claim his own level of noteriety and acclaim. In the end, America prefers the mythology of the outsider: Melville, Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac (who also lived in Northport,) Jackson Pollock, James Dean, etc. and I predict that as Geller’s work becomes better known it will find its place within the canon of American originals–architects such as Bruce Goff, John Lautner, Paolo Soleri, Mark Mills, Mickey Muennig, E. Fay Jones–all of them outsiders and in this regard it’s fortunate that grandson Jake Gorst has perpetuated Geller’s legacy through his tireless archiving, documentary film-making and preservation efforts.

Andy will be greatly missed by all of his family, friends and admirers. He was a sweet and loving man of many talents. May he rest in peace.

July 23, 2002, Amagansett, NY: It’s a hot Friday in July and we’ve been driving in circles through the sandy sprawl of Amagansett, somewhere between the primary ocean dunes and the Montauk Highway, where weekend houses are plunked on tiny lots cheek by jowl. Andrew Geller, quixotic designer/architect, is our guide as we go in search of the innovative beach houses he designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Geller, 80, is at the wheel of his vintage canary-yellow Mercedes, dressed elegant-shabby in a seersucker jacket and English sandals. His white beard and thick mustache are brushed neatly into place.

We are looking for one of his early creations; few survive in pristine condition. Most have either been torn down to make way for bigger houses, or remodeled beyond recognition. A few were washed away by hurricanes. It begins to seem like a lost cause. He designed five or six beach houses in this area but we can’t find any of them. There was the Eileen Hunt House, the Green House and the Strick House, but they seem to have vanished. We drive past many new houses, too big for their tiny lots, swollen with additions and odd assortments of neo-classical detailing.

Geller pauses and stares at one house with an eccentrically angled roof. Was it the De Monterice house that he designed in the early 1960s, the one with the “cow catcher elevation” and flaring walls? “No,” he says, “That must have been torn down too,” as we turn down another narrow lane. In a sense we are looking for a lost period of civilization, a period of innocent expectation, a time of family beach picnics, cole slaw, outdoor showers and bunk beds, before real estate prices skyrocketed, before the traffic was unbearable, and before the architecture became so predictably pretentious. It was also a time before strict zoning, set-backs, or the emergence of environmental consciousness—when houses could still be designed to burrow into the side of a dune or hover over wetlands.
Over the past twenty years, however, the fields and dunes of this area have filled up with so many trophy McMansions, intended to evoke status, arrival and gentility. They are designed in the same ham-fisted collusion of past and present: the historic pastiche of Palladian windows, dormers and gambrel roofs combined with high tech security cameras, and computerized irrigation systems, all of it high cost and high maintenance, in one of the oddest ironies of the age. Money acquired in nano-seconds of good fortune gets neatly aged through so many expressions of 19th century capitalism.

“Bigger,” says Geller, “is not always better. Most of these new houses are ridiculously oversized for their lots, too close together,” he says with conviction. “A thousand square foot house is what belongs on a 100-by-100 foot lot, but now they’re squeezing in three- and four-thousand-square-foot houses that have no relationship between the house and the property. What they’re creating is an instant slum.” He waved his hand at some of the oversized intruders and explained his theory of the minimal footprint: “You should only use 20 percent of the building lot,” he said, “but within that area be as unpredictable as possible.”

We have double backed, driven in a circle, gone down a series of roads with cute, beachy names like Dune Way and Treasure Island Drive. Geller is a bit confused. It’s been a while since his last visit here and there are so many new houses. Getting back to the recent past is never as easy as you think. “It’s here somewhere,” Geller reassures me, but we’ve driven down a cul-de-sac that was only finished a few years ago. As we double back again, Geller cranes his neck to see behind a promising clump of Russian Olive, but no, it’s another one of those mini Palladian manors.

Despite the development, these streets and dunes are filled with pleasant memories for Geller. He tells me about a house that he designed for a professor at Columbia University: Schlacter or was it Schacter? He’s positive the house is along here somewhere, not far from the Green House, with two monolithic pavilions connected by a second story bridge. The bridge supported a dining room that hovered high above the property to catch ocean views. It was in this setting that Geller met Benny Goodman. “Goodman was sitting quietly all though the lunch party,” recalled Geller. “After dessert he began to whistle a catchy tune. Everyone at the table stopped and stared at the famous band leader, who finished his tune and said ‘Now I’ve given you a Benny Goodman concert in return for being in your marvelous house.’”

Geller never quite fit in with the architectural mainstream. He followed his instincts—a “wild man with a T-square,” as one publication characterized him. His weekend houses had more to do with personal lifestyle than architectural theory. But even if some criticized them for being gimmicky, his best houses captured the exuberance of the period. They were little dream houses that inspired self expression and personal freedom. His clients loved them. Geller never belonged to any design clique, nor does he resort to the pedantic language that so many architects use. When he describes his work he tends to speak elliptically or in sweeping generalities. He has made a career rebelling against conventional house forms, attacking both the traditional pitched roof pile as well as the flat-roofed modernist box: “unsquaring the cube,” as one journalist wrote, subverting it in every imaginable way by tilting it on edge, skewing it, or crushing it altogether. Geller’s mission, as he saw it, was to liberate the American vacation house.

A certain mistrust and contempt for authority was bred in Geller during his earliest years. “The day I was born,” he said “my father was in jail doing time for his political activism. In those days, everyone who wasn’t Anglican was considered a bed-wetting Commie red.” The day of Geller’s birth was 17 April 1924. His parents had emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1905 and settled in Brooklyn. His father, Joseph Boris Geller, was from Odessa; his mother, Olga, from Kiev. Joseph was a socialist and an accomplished artist, who, during the depression years, painted large commercial signs on the sides of buildings. (Among other commissions, Joseph Geller designed the logo for the Boar’s Head company, still in use today.) “I was in awe of him,” said Geller. “I used to think he was God. He was huge, over six foot two with broad shoulders, red hair, and these big square hands that were twice the size of mine.” One early image left a particularly deep impression on the young boy. It was the sight of his father standing high on scaffolding, painting a sign on the wall of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. To this day it remains a vivid memory. “I wanted to be like him,” said Geller, “larger than life.” Joseph Geller owned a frame shop on Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn and Andrew learned to draw and paint while sitting at his feet. Every Sunday his father would take him on sketching trips out to the flatlands of Brooklyn. “He told me that you had to draw all the time—to study people, their movements, buildings, streets—and he repeatedly told me to ‘look and see,’ which meant to pay close attention to everything. This was the only way to understand it,” he said. “My father loved nature and felt that the only way to interpret it was honestly.”

Geller began to display talent in his early teens. He later attended art classes at the Brooklyn Museum and studied at the High School of Art and Music. He entered Cooper Union and studied architecture with Esmond Shaw and Samuel Paul. (Shaw was architect of the Central Park Zoo. Paul designed apartment buildings around New York City.) He also studied life drawing with Robert Gwathmey, the father of architect Charles Gwathmey.
Geller’s studies were soon interrupted by World War II, and while he volunteered at the first possible opportunity, his experiences in the Army further eroded his faith in the established order. During his basic training he was among a group of soldiers accidentally exposed to a toxic chemical agent while on maneuvers in Louisiana. The recruits were ordered to don gas masks and move through a contaminated house. Geller wore a faulty mask, and as a result, suffered life-long medical consequences. To this day he can’t expose his body to direct sunlight, a cruel irony for a man who designs beach houses.
In 1943, while still recuperating at an Army hospital in Texas, Geller read an article in Life magazine that profiled the work of Raymond Loewy, the famous industrial designer. The article explained how Loewy had streamlined American product design, and showed illustrations of some of his projects. Loewy excelled at a new kind of commercial packaging and his best known designs were exercises in the synthesis of form, starting with his first big commission, the redesign of the Gestetner duplicating machine in 1929. This was followed by a series of streamlined successes that included a pencil sharpener in the shape of a rocket ship, the S1 locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a newly styled Greyhound bus, a bullet-shaped car for Studebaker, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, as well as the logo and packaging for Shell Oil and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Geller was fascinated by the way Loewy combined so many different disciplines: “He designed everything from toothpicks to shopping centers,” said Geller who decided that this was the kind of work he wanted to do. One day in 1946, he went over to Loewy’s offices at Five Hundred Fifth Avenue, across from the Public Library, and applied for a job. He was hired and then mysteriously fired that same day. (Later he would learn that a disgruntled supervisor had done it as a cruel joke.) But he was called back a few weeks later, and was given a full-time position. He stayed with the company until 1974. At first he was put on product design and worked on smaller products like the housing for a 35mm camera called the Anscoflex (1954). Geller also developed the prototype for a new kind of photo enlarging system. There was something in this photographic interest that would carry through his architectural work, and, for that matter, the work of his contemporaries. Photography and modernist architecture were parallel themes in the postwar world of American leisure. As one architecture journal reported in 1955: “Most vacation houses are designed to work, roughly, like a camera: a box, glazed on one side, with the glass wall pointed at the view.” With its squarish lens and sliding aluminum shield, the Anscoflex bore an uncanny resemblance to many of the beach houses that Geller would design later in his career. One can’t help but see traces of such a camera in his original plan for the de Monterice House, for example, in which a lens-like window directs the boxy house toward the ocean view.

Later in his tenure at Loewy, Geller graduated to architectural projects and specialized in designing department stores. These buildings, which were often located in suburban shopping centers, tended to take the form of overblown modernist boxes with eye-catching logos emblazoned across sleek facades. Geller’s job was to make the buildings stand out amid the sprawl of parking lots. At the Lord & Taylor store in Garden City, Long Island (1956) a broad set of travertine steps lead beneath a canvas awning and pointed like a directional sign towards the main entry. The name of the store was written boldly across the white brick facade in a hand-scripted style. For Hengerer’s department store in Amherst, Long Island (1957) Geller used a similar combination of materials and graphics: a scripted logo above a wall of glass and ceramic tiles.
The goal of the modern industrial designer was to contain a variety of different parts within a single envelope, to create a product that was instantly recognizable and desirable to the consumer. The idea of the container was the guiding principle in all of Loewy’s work. The goal was to create the sleekest impression and the most memorable visual impact. This was accomplished through streamlining, a smooth and shiny overdressing derived from airplane design, that made use of sweeping, aerodynamic lines, tapered edges and teardrop forms. He reworked and repackaged old fashioned looking brands by paring down and consolidating divergent elements, giving shape to a new world of product development, marketing, logo-making and advertising. This was the mind-set within which Andrew Geller worked for twenty-eight years as a chief designer and vice president in the Loewy Corporation. Within that period, he would apply those principles on everything large and small, from camera bodies to shopping centers.

Study for Lynn House

During the 1950s, Geller began to strike out on his own and take commissions outside of the Loewy office. It was a break from the corporate pressures of his day job and a way to make extra income. “Designing homes like this offers a release for me from my everyday work,” he said at the time. In 1955 he began to produce a series of eccentrically free-form and eye-grabbing vacation houses that were fun, structurally daring, and challenged the status quo. These “summer-use playhouses,” as he liked to call them, provided the opportunity to express himself and try out his own ideas. While Geller had designed a few earlier residendial projects, his 1957 beach house for Elizabeth Reese was the first real breakthrough and marked the beginning of this new career. The design concept was determined by a combination of forces: limited funds, weather conditions, and the owner’s unpredictable lifestyle. Beginning with the impossibly small budget of $5,000, Geller used every trick and technique available to bring the house in for roughly $7,000, only $2,000 over the original budget. He was particularly concerned about the risks of building a house right on a stretch of beach that was known to flood. Geller perched the house on the highest part of the dune above a foundation of locust posts that had been driven 10 feet into the sand. His theory was that the sloping walls of the A-frame would be “storm proof”– less resistant to hurricane winds. That was the idea anyway; it also happened to be the cheapest way to build a roof. Complaints from the local building department were countered with the explanation that the unusual shape of the house was derived from local potato barns.

Reese House

The strongest influence on the design was the personality of Reese herself, a strong willed, independent career woman who knew exactly what she wanted—intimate contact with the sea and sand and instant release from her busy schedule in the city. Reese was the director of public relations at the Loewy office and knew Geller from work. She went about inventing her own style of life at the beach. The sleek and simple lines of the house captured something of her independent spirit and dynamic lifestyle.

Betty Reese Fishing

The house was a wood-frame construction with cedar shingles on the roof and board-and-batten-siding on the walls. A 5-foot-wide “widow’s walk” was cantilevered precariously along the ocean side. Cross-bracing for this deck was painted white to distinguish it within the overall composition, like the cross stroke in the letter A. The upper deck provided a place for naked sunbathing and quiet meditation. It also helped to break the intensity of the afternoon sun, acting as a visor over the southern wall of glass. Inside, the timber framing was left exposed. There was no central heating or insulation. In winter, the house was boarded over with plywood.

The living room measured only 13 by 22 feet but it felt much bigger, as it opened out onto the deck and dunes. A free-standing fireplace had windows on either side for watching the sunset. Upstairs was Reese’s own bedroom, reachable only by a ladder that could be retracted with a system of pulleys and counterweights. This private little perch provided escape from weekend guests while maximizing space. Larry Vita, Reese’s contractor, came up with some of his own ideas during the building process. At the time, Vita was marketing his own concept in leisure living, the “Surfside 6 Floating Home,” which came with a hole in the living room floor so that tenants could fish while watching television. Novelty in domestic architecture was the prevailing spirit of the day.

Interior Reese House

When it was all finished, Reese made sure to call on her editor friends to see that the house and its architect got the recognition they deserved. John Callahan, a reporter for the New York Times visited and wrote a story, “Summertime Living Becomes even Easier at New Long Island Beach Cottage,” about the house in the Times’s real estate section. This, and future articles, would bring a level of recognition that Geller had never known while working anonymously at the Loewy office. A week after Callahan’s article appeared, a stream of cars drove down Daniels Lane hoping to get a closer look at the unique beach house. Leonard Frisbie, a Wall Street broker read the story and immediately commissioned Geller to design a similar house in Amagansett. Soon Geller found himself with a new career.

In less than three years, between 1958 and 1961, Geller completed more than fifteen new houses, all in his spare time. It was a break-through period and his head never stopped spinning as he rushed from one project to the next, still managing to keep regular hours at his day job in Manhattan. “In those days I only required five hours of sleep,” said Geller. “Three A.M. was the best time to be at the drafting table and the music was always good on WQXR. I remember starting out east in Montauk at 5 AM, working on one house, then driving all the way into the city to work at Lowey’s studio, then, after five, I would drive down to the Jersey shore where I was designing another beach house. I didn’t know if I was coming or going.”
On first impression, Geller’s little beach houses of the 1950s and 60s may seem like caricatures, but they represented a kind of everyman modernism that was accessible to people with lower incomes. “Most of [Geller’s] clients live in the cube of a Manhattan apartment, work in the cube of a Manhattan office and feel liberated in the new definitions of space around them,” wrote Fred Smith in Sports Illustrated. “All of them want a maximum square footage for a minimum investment.”[11] Geller understood his clients. In many ways their needs were the same as his own. They were not rich but had ambition. They were often as not veterans of World War II, had children, and considered themselves politically progressive with a modern sensibility, an interest in art, and a willingness to explore new lifestyles.

This was a time when thousands of Americans were enjoying the prosperity of the postwar economy and finding that, even with modest incomes, they could afford a vacation house of their own. Geller’s little escape pods offered release from city pressures. They also helped to take the mind off the H-Bomb and the looming prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Geller became passionately involved in the design/build process and often remained in contact with his clients long after construction was completed. Many came back for bigger houses as their families expanded and they needed more space. A good number became life-long friends. One was so pleased that she wrote a concrete poem of thanks that took the form of her boxlike house, with a stack of repeated words: “I love my house, I love my house…”

Each of Geller’s houses was like a portrait, a custom-made tribute to its owners’ personalities. This could sometimes take an absurdly literal form: Irwin Hunt, the manufacturer of cardboard boxes, got a box turned on edge. Victor Lynn, an executive at Kodak, got a box with lenslike windows. In some cases, the metaphors could be more lurid, as with the Pearlroth house in West Hampton Beach (1959). In lieu of a precise methodology, Geller relied on instinct, something closer to surfing—a sport gaining popularity at the time—rather than formal analysis. A good surfer caught a wave and improvised his movements according to the set and curl of each break. Geller drew his inspiration from the site and the personality of each client—making up the next move as he went along. Intuition played a key role in the process. He listened carefully and tried to remain open to new possibilities—always willing to change directions in mid-stream, never stuck within a single mindset.

He would usually work out the rough form of a new house in a series of fast sketches. This was similar to the process he followed in the Loewy office, where a signature gesture was employed to embody the spirit of each new product. Cumulatively, these sketches chart an explosion of ideas, a new vocabulary generated by the special conditions of beachfront living. It was during this period of frenetic output that he designed some of his most inventive houses. In early studies for Elizabeth Reese’s beach house in Sagaponack, NY (1955), Geller had drawn a conventional modernist pavilion with a flat roof and glass walls. Reese wasn’t thrilled by it and told him as much. (Perhaps it looked a bit too much like one of the shopping centers he was designing for Raymond Loewy.) So, right there in front of her, he conjured up an A-frame structure, drawn roughly on a scrap of paper, that would be cheaper to build than a glass pavilion. Reese approved and they went ahead with the project.

Once Geller had achieved a desired logo-like shape (A-frame, box-kite, whatever) he would tinker with it, tilting or rotating, bending or possibly even splitting it, as he did with the Levinson House (Surf City, New Jersey, 1958). This action created two separate shed-roofed structures that were attached at the hip. With the Lynn House (Westhampton Beach, 1961), Geller subverted the generic modernist box by squashing it and breaking it open at the four corners.

Lynn House

Geller did his best work within a narrow set of budgetary and material restrictions. His houses were built simply and economically using the least expensive materials available—materials that could be found at any local lumber yard. Most cost less than $10,000, or under $12 per square foot. He figured out ways to keep the structures small, inexpensive and low maintenance. They had single-layer skins, no insulation, and exposed structures. There were no frills, but Geller made up for this with ingenuity. “These houses are for play,” he said at the time, “so you can do fun things with them.”  When Geller broke away from the spartan formula the results weren’t always so convincing. A case in point, was the Levinson House, built for the relatively extravagant sum of $20,000. It was designed with all the ingredients necessary for year-round use, hence its comparatively high price. But hindrances such as insulation, furnaces and ductwork only seemed to cramp Geller’s style. Compared to his other beach follies, the Levinson house appeared somewhat heavy-handed and suburban. With a full masonry foundation, it was anchored to the ground rather than hovering above it.

Lynn House Interior

There was, in fact, considerable method to his madness. Focus on water views determined how the houses were sited and where windows were placed. Prevailing wind directions and the angle of the sun were important considerations in siting and determining placement of decks and windows. Freestanding fireplaces with centrally placed smokestacks were used for chilly nights but also for compositional harmony as vertical counterpoints to horizontal rooflines. Each house, no matter how small or inexpensive, was given its own signature components: catwalks, cantilevered platforms, lookout towers, oddly shaped doors and windows, spiral staircases, Rube Goldberg contraptions for lowering ladders or raising counters. Houses were connected to their natural setting through floor-to-ceiling glass walls as well as walkways and sun decks that straddled the dunes. A master of organizational detail, Geller knew how to take advantage of every square inch of space. Furnishings were kept as minimal as possible. Often he designed simple built-in pieces—couches, beds, shelving systems—made from plumbing pipes and plywood. Within the limited format of the small, inexpensive beach house, Geller was able to find himself as an architect. He employed space saving devices such as multi-level bunk beds, fold-up staircases, built-in couches and showers that could do double service from both inside and outside. He also mastered the art of finding extra storage and sleeping areas in leftover nooks and crannies. He thought of different ways to accommodate short-term, seasonal use with hatches and barn-like doors to protect houses during storms and winter months. These were attached by hinges, sliding tracks or other devices for easy opening and closing. Houses had the most minimal plumbing so that water pipes could be easily drained come fall.
As soon as they were finished, each house was christened with a pet name like the “Box Kite,” “Milk Carton,” or “Grasshopper.” It should be remembered that Geller was working during a period when modern American architecture was playing an increasingly metaphoric role, selling itself as something other than just building. This was true with Eero Saarinen’s birdlike TWA terminal at Idelwild Airport of 1961, (a building that Geller admired) and Wallace Harrison’s fish-shaped church (the “Holy Mackeral”) in Stamford, Connecticut . Both were popular examples of contemporary American architecture. Anthropomorphic and zoomorphhic allusion helped to soften the perceived coldness of modernism, making it more accessible to an otherwise hesitant public. Attaching a pet name, whether for an air terminal or a beach house, took away some of the jitters.

Meanwhile, as Geller found himself receiving more commissions, his free-form houses were getting more attention in the press. They made photogenic subjects and were the caption writer’s delight: “Far-Out Buildings in the Sun,” “Zigzag by the Sea,” “In Shape for Summer,” etc. During this period, Geller houses appeared frequently in popular publications like Life, Holiday, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. Two years after he had published the Reese house in the Times, John Callahan published another article in the New York Times that described Geller’s latest batch of inventive beach houses, including the Pearlroth, Hunt, and Langman houses. Geller was on a roll.

Langman House, (Reese House in Background)

Doctor and Beverly Langman were among those who had seen Calahan’s first article in the Times. They bought a lot just to the east of Reese’s and asked Geller to design something similar. Langman was a prominent physician who had served as Joseph Kennedy’s family doctor. (He delivered several Kennedys including baby John Fitzerald, the future president.) The Langman’s had no children themselves but wanted something whimsical for their summer getaway. As he always did, Geller made a little scale model out of cardboard and balsa wood. It had an eccentric tower in the spirit of a lighthouse and a wrap-around deck. The Langmans were delighted and agreed to go ahead with construction of the house, which ended up costing $11,500.

Langman House

Geller’s first response was to provide privacy between the Reese and Langman houses as they were only 400 feet apart. “I wanted Betty Reese to look at something nice,” said Geller who left the west side of the Langman’s tower blank. Four shuttered hatches were used to break up the monotony of that side and further emphasize the quirky nautical theme. The 20-foot high octagonal tower had inwards sloping walls and contained five rooms. A crow’s nest on the roof that could be reached by an external ladder. The ground floor contained a living room with a rustic stone fireplace. Large glass panels were strategically placed to provide the best ocean views. An adjoining, single-story wing had a kitchen and bathroom. This section had four oddly pointed windows, sort of modern gothic, on the ocean side with canted walls to the north and south. The Langmans fell in love with their house. It was a quirky, light-hearted place to enjoy their weekends. As one magazine put it: “The whole world assumes an exciting perspective when viewed from an octagonal tower mounted on a deck in a sea of sand.” But the gods of weather would conspire against such summer bliss. In March 1962, a violent storm blew out of the northeast and washed away both the Langman and the Reese houses.
In 1958 Geller made his biggest splash of all. This time however, it was not in the Hamptons but on Fire Island, the long narrow sandbar that skirts Long Island’s southern shore. If he had been flirting in the stratosphere of architectural convention with the Reese and Langman houses, Geller went into orbit with the house he designed for Irwin and Joyce Hunt, by far his boldest creation to date. A strict set of setback regulations had limited the area that Geller was allowed to work with, but with a bit of cunning, he turned this restriction into an advantage. He learned that he was only required to submit a first floor plan, without elevations, to get a building permit. He presented what looked like a conventional plan, a long narrow rectangle, and the building department gave its approval. But in three dimensions, the house was a wild concoction that appeared to be an elongated box turned on edge. (In time it would be dubbed the Box-Kite or Milk Carton house) The building authorities had no idea that it would end up being such a controversial structure. The unusual shape of the house was also a response to the region’s history of hurricanes. Geller had a theory that you could protect the house by turning it into an aerodynamic object with its leading edge pointed toward the ocean so that gail force winds would blow under and over its sloping walls.

Hunt House, Fire Island

Geller managed to fit enough sleeping area into the Hunt’s house for eight people, including two built-in sofa beds in the living room. A single bathroom served the entire household, crammed in beside the tiny kitchen, though the shower could also be reached from the outside deck. People coming up from the beach were able to rinse off sand and salt without tramping through the house. The ground floor had an open living/dining area. A master bedroom on the second floor was reached by a collapsible staircase that could be folded into the ceiling when not in use, another space-saving device. The upper level opened onto two different balconies, one overlooking the ocean, the other the bay. Metal rods held lidlike awnings in place. These could be lowered at the end of the season or in the event of a storm.
Two tiny bunkrooms were ingeniously squeezed into either end of the house. While the main reason for these diamond-shaped spaces was effect—to maintain the “Box kite” illusion—the practical purpose for the ends being tipped was to provide as much headroom as possible for the cramped quarters. Each contained a complex arrangement with two bunk beds, one on the lower level running east to west, the other on an upper level that ran north to south. Shelves and closet spaces were ingeniously concealed in the remaining recesses. Triangular portholes provided ventilation.

Hunt House Interior

The completion of the Hunt House marked a significant moment of emergence—a moment when Geller discovered a signature style. He had succeeded in transforming a domestic space into an abstract sculptural object, almost as if it were one of the commercial containers he had packaged for the Loewy studio. While it may have appeared completely detached from earthly necessity, the house never failed to carry out its role as a family retreat. Whoever lived in this container would find happiness. The Hunt House made a significant impression in the press. It was featured in Life magazine on 3 August 1958 as part of a special, eight-page spread on the boom in American vacation homes, alongside a “cigar box” house in Water Mill, NY and a hexagonal house in the Catskills. “In the expanding U.S. economy owning a second home may become almost as common as the second car,” read the article. “One distinguishing feature of these houses is their uninhibited design. When it is a holiday house, even conservative families accept unusual forms—and they are pleased if their house has a playful air like….the odd looking milk carton house on the page following.” And there was a photograph of Irwin and Joyce Hunt playing with their baby in front of the topsy-turvy house. The same issue of Life contained Cold War updates on Cuba and the famous “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow between Nikon and Khrushchev.

Kitchen Debate, Moscow

The success of the Hunt house brought Geller even more commissions. It also raised the level of performance anxiety as he felt pressure to be more inventive with every new commission. How could he possibly top his last effort? The designs became more and more extreme as he pushed the limits of what one could do with limited means and an excess of imagination, or as one writer put it: “how far a little plywood and a lot of guts will take you.” This was certainly the case with his next project, the Pearlroth House, built in Westhampton Beach in 1959.

Eastern Long Island had seen its share of shipwrecks, beached whales, smugglers and even a U-boat landing by Nazi Spies during World War II, but the area had never seen anything quite like the Pearlroth House. It is hard to measure the impression this structure made as it was being built during the winter of 1958. In part an elaboration and continuation of the Hunt geometries, it was even more audacious in conception and execution. This time, Geller began with two elongated box shapes and rotated them in tandem so they were perched on point, not unlike the diamond-shaped silhouette of Hunt, but in a more prominent way. He then filled the void between these two sections with a glassed-in living area.

Study for Pearlroth House Interior

Arthur Pearlroth was an executive for New York’s Port Authority, but had a reputation as a lady’s man. “He was a romantic macho guy who wore a bikini bathing suit where everything showed,” says Geller. Again, the architect supplied an ironic architectural pun, in this case a “square brassiere,” as he called it, for a man known to collect erotica. Once the initial shapes were established, the challenge was to fit the necessary functions into such a sculptural entity while providing a modicum of privacy for the clients. Long low benches were built along the side walls of the living area that could also be used as guest beds. Steps lead from the benches up into the diamond-shaped pods that contained the bedrooms—similar in arrangement to the double bunk system he used at the Hunt House. Geller was able to squeeze three bunkrooms and a bathroom on the upper level of each pod and provide an additional 75-square-feet of storage space within the angular recesses of the house. A space age staircase lead precariously from the dunes up to one of the pods and entered directly into the house’s only bathroom for showers after swimming.

Pearlroth Interior

Pearlroth’s diamond pods were frequently referred to in the press as giant spectacles or binoculars. In his own explanation, Geller spoke of these twin forms “telescoping out,” virtually leering at the object of desire, which, in this case, was the water view. The transparency of the house was a form of exhibitionism; activities inside could be seen from both the beach and the road, inviting the gaze of strangers and peeping toms. The libidinous reading could be pushed even further to include the phallic, candy-striped chimney stack rising from the center of the house with testicular pods bulging on either side. The Pearlroth House proved to be one of Geller’s most successful and published houses. A number of future clients requested exact copies, but Geller made a point not to repeat himself.

Rudolph “Rudy” Frank was a German émigré who managed an ice cream company in Astoria, Queens, and was the inventor of something called “Diced Cream.” His wife, Trudy, was a free-lance fashion illustrator and artist. They lived in New York and went out to Fire Island on the weekends. They had also had seen John Callahan’s article in the Times about the Reese House and asked Geller do design a house. They were not convinced by Geller’s first proposal, and asked him to rework it. The Frank’s had gone on vacation to Mexico and visited the Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza. They fell in love with the ancient stones and showed Geller their snapshots of the temples and the great stepped pyramid. “Andy looked and listened to all this—he’s a good listener,” recalled Rudy Frank. Inspired by the ruins, perhaps, Geller came up with something thoroughly modern but with ancient undertones in its battered, inward-sloping walls. “A month later he came back with this design,” said Frank. “We didn’t have to make a single change.” The seemingly incongruous link between Mayan temples and Twentieth Century beach houses may have seemed arbitrary, but both are dedicated to the worship of the sun in one form or another.

Frank House, Fire Island

The Frank House was built on top of one of the highest sand hills along the beach, floating amid the stunted pines and with panoramic views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Great South Bay. There were wide decks on three sides of the house; Geller included a catwalk that crossed the open living area and penetrated the all-glass facade. It then cantilevered 12 feet out from the front of the house like a pulpit. Trudy Frank would often lie there and take sun baths. The Franks rented their house out one summer and later learned that it had been used for the making of a gay porn film called Boys in the Sand, which apparently became a classic of the genre.

Frank House

Geller also designed most of the furnishings for the Frank House, including couches and beds that were made out of stock plumbing pipes and lumber. “Andy quoted me a price of $14,850 and when the house was finished it came in at exactly the amount he had quoted–To the dollar,” said Frank. The only problem was a spiral staircase that lead from the living room up to the master bedroom. There weren’t any prefabricated spiral staircases on the market yet and it proved to be something of a struggle to build the thing from scratch. The Frank House was featured in a full-page spread in the 7 July 1961 issue of Life magazine.

Frank House

In his next project, Geller made a significant daparture from the eccentric geometries of the Hunt and Pearlroth houses. He designed the Leonard Jossel house for an ocean front site in Davis Park, Fire Island. The house, which could be described as a large open studio loft, was built in 1960 on top of a primary dune. The client was a graphic designer and artist who wanted a place to paint ot the beach. He admired the simplicity of Shaker design and wanted his house to be as spare as possible. “The idea was to get every room facing the ocean,” said Geller, “So I came up with this elongated rectangular structure that rode the crest of the dune.” (Because of its low pitched roof and simple, boxy form, Geller referred to it as the “Monopoly House.”) The ocean facade was mostly glass. Infill walls were painted black. The end walls were white. The house could only be reached by a narrow, elevated boardwalk but it made a striking impression, drifting among the dunes of Davis Park. Interiors were spartan, with exposed studs and plywood walls. It couldn’t have been simpler. An open living/dining space filled one half the length of the house and rose its full height to the ceiling. A wood-burning stove sat in one corner and Jossel’s abstract canvases hung on the rudimentary walls. The other half of the house was reserved for Jossel’s studio upstairs, and two ground floor bedrooms. A small deck cantilevered off the second floor studio and a ladder staircase lead down to a more expansive deck. Barn-like doors could be closed to protect the house against storms and winter weather.

Jossel House

Sometime in 1963, about the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, Geller began to develop a new approach to design. While still exuberant, the architecture feels more anxious, more defensive. Basic forms become fractured, their surfaces multifaceted or incised with flaps, fins, and slits. If early successes like Hunt and Pearlroth were basic geometries that Geller toyed with like children’s blocks, then this next phase was characterized by how he treated, or acted upon those forms. No longer Euclidean acrobatics, the houses were now objects that the architect modified by a proscribed set of verbs: cut, fold, split, incise. Outer walls appeared to be folded back like flaps of skin, an action which was compared, by some, to the art of Japanese paper folding. “Call it an origami house, with its slashed openings and jutting fins,” wrote one magazine. Windows and doors were punched out, often in sharp, triangular incisions—what his friend and client Betty Reese, called “beer can openings.”

This angular kind of window treatment became part of Geller’s signature style during the 1960s. In 1969, the journalist Franklin Whitehouse wrote a feature story describing them in the New York Times: “As a means of checking the weather or saving on light bills, windows are fine, but they’re even better if they twist, protrude and look like sculpture fixed to the sides of houses,” he wrote.

Elkin House

Geller’s interest in slicing and dicing—what might be called his X-Acto period—began with a few tentative moves but evolved into a distinctive new style. Beginning with the George, Levitas, and second Reese houses, all built in 1963, it reaches full expression in the Elkin (1966) and Strick (1968) houses. There had been early hints of this new direction in earlier projects, such as the Lynn House fenestration. The openings in this case weren’t truly “cut,” however, but rather created when the walls of a cube were forced outward, as if compressed from above by a heavy hand. This implied action created diamond shaped lenses at all four corners.

The true surgical incision first appears in an unbuilt project for Paul and Merle de Monterice (1960). The 1,118 square foot house had a basic shoe-box shape that measured 22 by 30 feet. The linear progression began on a wooden ramp that led up from the sand and passed through a facade that looked like a giant keyhole with a flaring front door and a large Cyclops window staring out from the second floor. Triangular flaps of shingled wall protruded on either side of the main entrance in a gesture that Geller called a “cow catcher facade.”

After entering the house’s mysterious portal, one walked past two tiny bedrooms, the kitchen and a bathroom and into a two-story living area that rose up to a gently peaked roof. The focal point of this space was the fireplace, positioned centrally like a sacrificial altar. On either side were broad glass panels extending the full height of the house and looking out, beyond the fireplace, toward the ocean. (As at Betty Reese’s house in Sagaponack, the idea was to simultaneously catch ocean views while enjoying a fire.) In fact the glass panels on this end of the house were the only openings that offered full frontal scenery. The side windows were long triangular slits that angled off the body of the house. Since it was going to be built in an area of Amagansett that was beginning to suffer from overdevelopment, Geller devised these fin windows to provide light and selected scenery while retaining privacy; views were deflected and directed away from neighboring lots that might have future houses on them.
Renderings of the de Monterice house were published, but the house, as drawn, was never built. Local authorities felt the design was too radical and advised the clients and architect to conform more closely to local building traditions. Geller went back and drew up a second, more “traditionalized” set of plans that were eventually approved. The final version of the de Monterice house was built in 1964 although nothing like it was first envisioned. Geller would use many of its concepts however, in future projects.

George House

For the designer Phil George, Geller delivered a truncated version of the Reese A-frame. In this case, however, the side walls were gently curved around a bare bones frame. As with the de Monterice house, Geller used floor-to-ceiling triangular cuts on either side to give views toward the northeast overlooking a potato field. These openings were infilled with amber and mauve panels to filter bright morning sun. The horizontal line of an oversized gutter ran across the front of the house to keep rain from spilling down the expansive front window. This detail and the house’s shape gave it something of a Japanese profile. A miniature replica of the main house was built in the back of the property and served as a weekend guest house.

Strick House, Amagansett

The most extreme example of Geller’s can opener style was a new house for Elizabeth Reese, this one commissioned after the first was destroyed by the northeaster of 1962. This time, Reese chose a safer piece of property, on high ground, well back from the ocean. While it would begin with another variation on the A-frame theme, it would end up being very different. Where the first house had been open to the ocean views, this one was surrounded by oak trees. In response Geller gave it more a more protective feeling—riffing on the shack-in-the-woods aesthetic of Henry David Thoreau. A free-standing stone fireplace sat like a household god at its center point. A catwalk spanned the open rafters above and connected the client’s bedroom to a sleeping platform and sun deck.

Reese House #2

The shape of the structure was rudimentary and inexpensive to build: a flat roof, sloping side walls, a single layer of cedar shakes and exposed framing on the inside. In this case, all of the improvisation went into surface treatment, in particular the architect’s oddball fenestration. “I was trying to get her to love trees,” said Geller, who accentuated different perspectives of the surrounding woods by using eccentrically placed openings on either side of the house. Sharply angled flaps jutted out from the walls, supported by struts and infilled with glass to create prismatic shapes. “I decided to do triangular flaps so you could get views in two directions,” said Geller. From inside the barnlike interior one experienced a sequence of fractured views. Floor-to-ceiling cuts—a variation on the de Monterice windows—rose on either side of the house and illuminated the two-story living area. These vertical slits were also designed to frame the full length of the tallest trees on the outside of the house. Narrow at the bottom, they grew wider as they reached the roof to account for the bushy tree tops. For contrast, Geller inserted a fanlight window at one end of the house that shed light into Reese’s bedroom.

Levitas House

Mike Levitas was a reporter for Time magazine before becoming city editor of the New York Times. He had seen pictures of the Pearlroth house and asked Geller to design something similar for a windy site in GayHead, on the southern end of Martha’s Vineyard. Geller proceeded with preliminary sketches but plans were thwarted when the builder got cold feet. He warned Levitas that such a design would raise eyebrows: “I’m afraid the plan is too radical for me to try, especially so close to the main road,” wrote the contractor in a letter to Levitas. “There is too much feeling about these new houses on the Island, and I would just be asking for trouble, and I think you would too.” The builder didn’t even give a quote. Fearing that he might have trouble securing a mortgage from a local bank, Levitas took heed and asked Geller to retreat back to a more conventional sketch that he had shown Levitas a few months earlier. “It would have been a thrill a minute to live in the Pearlroth House, but I’m sure we’ll get our quiet kicks from living in a house without pointed ceilings,” wrote Levitas to Geller. The end result, which was built in 1963, may have been something of a compromise but it was one that pleased both client and architect.

Levitas House

The shingled surface and sloping lines of the roof planes echoed local building traditions—from a distance one might have even mistaken it for a barn—but up close, it was pure Geller. Oversized versions of his triangular beer can openings projected off the front and sloping sides of the house like seagull wings. The house’s shingle skirt was lifted discretely at either side to reveal horizontal bands of windows and a concrete block foundation. The flap-like windows framed water views and scooped up the breezes. The idea was to catch the prevailing winds. Indeed, the overall theme of the Levitas House was prescribed by the wild and windy conditions of a building site that lay in the middle of an open meadow and overlooked a salt pond and the sea beyond. The house was described as being either a seagull about to take flight, or, as one publication described it, “a kite that has come to rest on the dunes.” This particular reading was underscored by a photograph that showed the Levitas children flying a kite in front of their new house.

Geller was able to finally incorporate several ideas he had failed to achieve in the de Monterice house, in a five-bedroom house for Louis & Racile Strick (Amagansett, 1968). It’s not hard to see why it came to be known as the Cat House with two pointy skylights that rose on either side like ears and two square cat’s eyes gazing from the front facade. Whiskers were represented by flaring triangular panels that projected out on either side of the front door—the “cow-catcher facade” that Geller had originally drawn for de Monterice.

Levitas Interior

Prototypes for Mass Housing: While Geller continued to delight clients with his one-off experimental houses, he was also working on solutions for the mass housing market. Like other architects and developers of the period, he was eagerly in search of this, the Holy Grail of post-war building: the perfect prototype for an affordable, mass-produced house. Even in his most eccentric, one-off creations, Geller kept his eye on this goal. There was a second home boom going on in America at the time. Construction of vacation houses in the United States had increased dramatically since the 1940s when a second home was still considered the exclusive provenance of a wealthy elite. By the 1960s, however, marketing surveys put the second home inventory at three million plus. Many of the same individuals who had received mortgages on the GI housing bill, could now afford to build a second home far away from the noisy city. “Families have more real income,” explained one building journal, “consequently more discretionary income; financing is easier. There’s more leisure time and better highways to desirable locations.” Builders and developers recognized a lucrative new market among middle class families who might have saved a bit, but not enough to afford a custom-designed vacation home.

In 1958 Esquire magazine commissioned a beach house for swinging bachelors. Geller came up with the “Esquire Weekend House,” a small, portable unit that could be towed to any beach, and erected on stilts for only $3,000. “It does not have room for more than one guest,” read the accompanying text. “Its refrigerator will not hold more than a weekend supply of tonic and soda. However, the Esquire Weekend House has no lawns to mow, no sash to paint, and can be opened for the season in four minutes flat. A ship’s ladder can be drawn up through the house’s trap door in case of prowling wolves or unwanted guests.”

The Esquire unit was designed in a 6-foot square modular built on four concrete foundation points. The different sections were held together with wire bracing. It could be closed and opened like a box with sliding panels. Each panel was painted in a different primary color. The front panel could be folded down to become a small porch and “shade shelf.” It contained a tiny kitchen unit and a fold-away toilet. A bed roll could be pulled out for sleeping and canvas shades were designed to be pulled up instead of down. There was also a small storage compartment with enough room for “two changes of clothes, a portable typewriter, a hi-fi, and two sets of water skis or surf-casting gear.” The Esquire Weekend House was a reducto ad absurdum version of the post-war weekend aesthetic. But as cartoonish as it was, the proposal contained ideas that Geller would develop in future projects.
The Esquire Weekend House can be seen as an early, albeit tongue-in-cheek, attempt to investigate the possibilities of prefabricated construction. As a kit-of-parts, it was originally designed to be the prototype for an expandable housing system. In a series of unpublished drawings, Geller depicted how the basic Esquire unit could be expanded in the event that the Esquire bachelor suddenly settled down and found himself with a growing family: “If the marital status of the owner changes and more room is required in the house, similar cubicles can be attached to the nucleus of the basic unit, either at ground or crow’s-nest level.” The fully expanded version would have a broad glass facade, its interior divided by a sequence of square panels finished in a variety of different textures and colors. The panels were suspended from a grid of slender steel support columns that resembled the Case Study structures of Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood that were being built during the same period in California. If family life began to cramp the Esquire man’s sense of style, there was yet another solution: “when the cluster of contiguous units becomes too populous, [he] can build himself still another unit, separated from the cluster, to recapture his bachelor hood solitude and quiet.” The publication of the Esquire Weekend House caused a minor flap in Esquire’s editorial offices. The architect and critic Peter Blake accused Geller of plagiarism, claiming that the Esquire House was a copy of his own Pin Wheel House, built in Water Mill, New York in 1954. “I am gratefully flattered to see from your May issue that Mr. Andrew Geller likes our house,” wrote Blake to the magazine. “Photographs of the house were in your offices for several weeks; if you later changed your minds in this matter, then it would have seemed only fair to go to the original source of the design-idea, rather than commission someone else to exploit it for you.” In his own defense, Geller scribbled off a humorous note to editor-in-chief Ralph Ginzburg: “I am shocked by Peter Blake’s reaction to our tiny beach capsule. Quite probably I have been affected by every example of architecture I have ever seen, from the Crystal Palace to the late lamented Third Avenue El. There is only so much one can do with $3,000…I can assure you that no plagiarism was intended nor can I honestly relate what I have designed to Mr. Blake’s very handsome and refined Water Mill House.”

Around the same period as the Esquire project, Geller did plans for another prefab beach house also built with a steel frame. He called it the “Minimum House” and it appears to have been intended as a buildable prototype, not just another humorous illustration. The Minimum House was similar to Esquire in plan, with sliding doors on a track frame, but it had a barrel-vaulted roof instead of a flat one.


The suffix “a-rama” was popular in the postwar years, adopted by advertising agencies to give common words an updated, space-age spin—evoking the image of round-the-clock, nonstop fun, as in “Bowl-a-Rama” or “Dance-a-rama.” This was the guiding spirit behind Leisurama, one of the first mass-produced vacation houses in America. As its name implied, it was intended for vacation living—for all out relaxation. It was a house that you didn’t have to sweat over, either in mortgage payments or upkeep—a house that was as comfy and user-friendly as a pair of bowling shoes.

The Leisurama house was the brainchild of Herbert Sadkin, president of All-State Properties, a development company based on Long Island, New York. Together with Macy’s department store and Raymond Loewy, Sadkin dreamed of making millions by building the next Levittown, a Levittown for leisure, a Levittown with sand. Macy’s would handle the furnishing and marketing and the prototype would be designed by Geller, who, by now, had been promioted to chief architect for Loewy’s housing and home components division. “Sadkin was a real operator,” recalled Geller. “He wanted to emulate the Levitt houses.” While there were a few different styles, the most popular was the simple “Convertible” model, a neat little design in the carefree spirit of America’s mid-century drive-in culture. There was nothing fancy, but the house was perfectly suited for weekends at the beach. It consisted of a simple one-story box built on concrete slab with a low-pitched roof and wide overhangs—something like a Japanese tea house. There were two bedrooms, (a three-bedroom version was also available), a kitchen and living room. Every living room came with a “picture window,” a de rigeur mark of status in mid-century suburbia. Geller designed several variations for the front facades, but the interior lay-our remained essentially the same. The most distinctive design feature was probably the open-air carport that extended from one side of the house. Its outer wall contained a storage unit with shelves and louvered folding doors. A finished house cost approximately $10,000. This included all furnishings and the “spacious” 7,500 square foot lot that it was built on. Payment arrangements couldn’t have been easier. A down payment of only $490 was required for the basic model, followed by monthly payments of $73. For an extra $7.45 per month, you could add an extra bedroom. Anyone with a steady job could contemplate such an investment. An “Expanded Convertible” version was available at a slightly higher price ($940 down and monthly payments of $87.90.)
While the architecture of Leisurama wasn’t particularly ground-breaking, the marketing was aggressive and imaginative, appealing to America’s love of instant gratification. Macy’s decided that the houses could be sold over the counter like laundry detergent or TV sets. In the fall of 1963, a full-page ad appeared in New York newspapers with the rendering of a Leisurama in a beach front setting—seagulls reeling overhead, a sailboat on the bay. The caption read: “If you’ve ever yearned for your own place-away-from-home, but thought it might cost too much or be a chore to find, furnish and buy…you must come to Macy’s. Come soon…and bring the family with you. They’ll be as excited as you are.” Anyone who visited the ninth floor of Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square that month was in for a big surprise. There, plopped among the patio furniture and barbecue equipment, was a full-scale Leisurama house—a vision of domestic ingenuity.
After conducting surveys, the merchandising brains at Macy’s understood that their target clientele might not dare to purchase a vacation home if they also had to buy a whole new set of furnishings. So, it was decided to include everything, and the houses came “ready for your leisure pleasure,” complete with beds, tables, chairs, sofas, rugs, a forty five-piece Melmac dinner service for eight, napkins, bath mats, curtains, towels, pillows, sheets, and blankets-all provided by Macy’s (“…and we don’t have to tell you what this means…”). There were even brightly colored toothbrushes supplied for each member of the family. (If you had five in your family, the house came with five toothbrushes.) All you had to do was pick a building site, order the house and move in a few months later. “No need to shop for furnishings. All you have to do is turn the key in the lock and start living,” read one advertisement.
A prototype version of Leisurama had first been displayed in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1959 when it became a player in Cold War diplomacy. The American National Exhibition was the first cultural exchange between the USA and the USSR since before the Bolshevik Revolution—the idea was to present the best of American culture and display all the rewards of free-market capitalism. All-State Properties were invited to design and construct what was billed as “the typical American house,” one that a middle income citizen could afford. “It was an eye-opener for the Russians who had never seen anything like it,” said architect Geller.
For hundreds of happy consumers back home, Leisurama would become the American dream incarnate. More Leisurama models would be built on Long Island—in the parking lot of Macy’s franchise store at Roosevelt Field and on a traffic circle in the village of Montauk. Hundreds of people waited patiently in line to get a glimpse of the all-inclusive wonders. In keeping with the Cold War mood of the day, tape recorders had been planted in each room of the model homes to secretly eavesdrop on what prospective buyers were saying—what they liked or didn’t like. According to Geller, the most positive remarks were generated by one of the master bedrooms that had been decorated in brothel red and had a mirror mounted on the ceiling above the bed. “The women were thrilled,” said Geller. “‘How marvelous we’ll look lying in that bed,’ they said.” So much for the marketing theories. “They weren’t interested in the kitchen at all,” said Geller.
In the following Summer of 1964, a Leisurama model was built on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, attracting more prospective buyers. Several hundred units were built and sold instantly in a Leisurama community built outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It was called Lauder Hill,” recalled Geller. “But I don’t remember seeing any hill. It was nothing but marshland as far as the eye could see.” But that didn’t seem to matter. “They weren’t very pretty to look at but people rushed out and bought them anyway,” recalled Geller, the architect. “The sales gimmick was the big appeal, I guess.”
“People loved them,” recalled Ed Pospisil a Montauk based contractor who worked for Leisurama. “You walked in, had your bacon and eggs and you were in business.” Two hundred units were built on 1/3-acre plots in the Culloden Point area of Montauk, on the north shore, overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. They cost between $11,000 and $17,000. “Now they’re reselling for more than $300,000,” said Pospisil. One of All-State’s representatives, Frank Tuma, helped to develop and sell Leisurama. “I didn’t have to do much,” he said. All two hundred units in Montauk sold within the first six weeks. “They went like hot cakes,” he said.

For many clients, Leisurama would be the first house they ever owned and were purchased for vacation use, as “getaway houses.” But since the houses came with full insulation and central heating they could be easily adapted for year-round use. (“You may choose to live in it year-round or retire to it.”) Dick Lewis, a photographer for the Daily News, lived in a Leisurama in Montauk for 24 years. He and his family first used it as a summer house, then expanded it and moved out full time when Lewis retired from the newspaper.
When you drive around the Culloden Point development today, there doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary about the mesh of suburban style streets that switch back and forth. It has been almost forty years and the trees and shrubs have grown up and filled in the landscape. Many of the original Leisurama houses have been altered beyond recognition. Doors and window trim have been painted in bright colors; “widow-walk” decks have been added onto roofs to get water views. Some of the little front yards have been personalized with gravel gardens, rope fencing and poodle-style topiary.
It is hard to tell at first, but if you keep looking, and drive a little deeper into the neighborhood, the eye begins to detect a rhythm to the low-pitched rooflines, the picture windows and then, a final giveaway, you notice the succession of carports with little storage units—an unmistakable mark of the Leisurama legacy. Many of the carports have been filled in to create extra room but they are still recognizable.
A handful of the houses are still in pristine condition. It is rumored that one old lady continues to live in the same Leisurama that she bought back in 1963. Supposedly—so goes the story—she has kept all the original furnishings in mint condition: the Leisurama towels, the Macy’s sheets, the forks and Melmac plates. Yes, even one of the original toothbrushes (still in its plastic wrapping.) But this may just be another Leisurama myth. No one seems to remember the old lady’s name, or exactly which house is hers.
Modular concepts that Geller first toyed with in the Esquire and Leisurama projects were developed further in housing schemes for companies like Huber, Kingsberry and Presidential Homes during the 1960s. The Huber Home was something of a continuation of the Leisurama concept, but intended for a year-round, suburban condition. Geller worked on it in collaboration with Donald Huber of the Concept Development Company in Dayton, Ohio and Better Homes & Gardens magazine. With its low-lying profile and broad, gently pitched roof, the Huber Home was modern but not as daring as most of Geller’s designs. The single-story house was divided into symmetrical sections similar to the “bi-polar” houses that Marcel Breuer had introduced to the American suburbs after World War II. It had 1,796 square feet of interior space, a relatively grand spread compared to Geller’s tiny beach houses. The kitchen, living room, dining room, and TV den were on one side of a central breezeway, while the bedrooms were on the other side. A car port and enclosed yard could be transformed into additional rooms as family needs dictated.

Around the same time, Geller was also collaborating with Bill Snaith on the development of something called the “Quiet House.” This model project was designed for a group of companies in Dallas, Texas and intended to demonstrate the significance and marketability of silence in home construction. There was also the all-aluminum “Easy Care Home” which Geller helped to develop for the Aluminum Association of America, but perhaps the most innovative of Geller’s housing schemes, was the “Vacation House System.” (1966–67) This system could be expanded in a kind of crystalline sequence of hexagonal sections sprouting from a core unit that contained living/bedroom, bath, and kitchen. All components would be manufactured in a factory. Wall sections were half glass wherever possible. When needed, additional sections could be delivered to the site by truck and connected with ease. The appeal of this multipart approach was flexibility and variation. Sections could be combined in different configurations. “Components may be assembled to produce any number of houses having distinctive characters. Thus an entire community of vacation houses could be built with no obvious ‘repeats.’” Principle clients for the Vacation House System were Kingsberry Homes of Chamblee, Georgia and Presidential Homes, a company best known for building prefab mobile homes. Despite the appealing logic, however, only one of the Vacation House units seems to have ever gone into production.

Funky Modernist: While the imprint of other architects can be detected in his work, Geller has never been forthcoming about his sources of inspiration. Somewhere between his father Joseph, a Socialist sign painter and Raymond Loewy, the genius of commercial packaging, a personal style emerged. It’s not easy to pin him down, and that’s what makes his work so compelling. One could go back to eighteenth century France and invoke the revolutionary structures of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux or Étienne-Louis Boullée, with their geometric simplicity and utopian idealism. Ledoux’s drawing for the “House of the Director of the Loue River” (c.1775) shows the river running straight through the center of a house shaped like a giant donut. One can imagine Geller proposing such a scheme.

Geller speaks of Frank Lloyd Wright with reverence and Buckminster Fuller seems to have been a touchstone. One also detects traces of Marcel Breuer and other Bauhaus architects, but the connections are fleeting. (He refers to Gropius with some disdain, but has respect for Mies.) Geller almost never repeated himself, except for in the housing work he did for the Loewy office, and in this way played something of the antimodernist, shunning the factory produced ideology of the Bauhaus. His houses were freeform expressions of individuality, not uniformity. That was the point: to celebrate the individual. While he may have borrowed a few basic moves from the European canon, he discarded the arcane language and the coolly detached presentation. A cutaway drawing of bunk beds and closets in the Hunt House of 1958 shows a striking similarity to Mondrian’s paintings of diamond forms intersected by vertical and horizontal elements. In Geller’s interpretation the non-objective geometries have been humanized with wet towels and bathing suits. He improvised and made up his own populist version of modernism, a kind of funky modernism. (One might include other self-motivated outsiders in this category such as Bruce Goff and John Lautner, architects who were neither émigrés from the European avant garde nor strict adherents, but preferred to blaze their own trails.
The truth is, Geller has probably always preferred to play the outsider, thumbing his nose at the high priests and hierarchies of establishment architecture. He never aligned himself with any single school, theory, or point of view. His works were rarely published in architectural journals but instead, found a place in mass market publications like Life, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire.
One might argue that his ideas were percolating from the same pool as Abstract Expressionism. It makes a certain amount of sense. Architects like Tony Smith and Peter Blake, working within a similar milieu, were associated with Jackson Pollock and the process of Action Painting. Geller’s method of working shared a similar sense of improvisation and spontaneity. But if the work of a single artist comes to mind it is not the accidental spills of Pollock or Robert Motherwell, but the death ships and quirky architecture of H. C. Westermann that combined surrealism and American pop iconography. Westermann’s manic imagery came from his experiences in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a background that he shared with Geller. Both expressed a kind of irreverent humor that was bred from the tedium and uniformity of military routine. With it came a contempt for authority and orders as in the “Kilroy Was Here” caricatures drawn by GI’s on latrine walls; the Sad Sack cartoons of George Baker; or Joseph Heller’s comic war novel, Catch 22. Geller’s designs were more in the spirit of pop culture than high culture—orbiting outside the refined aesthetic of Architecture with a capital A. His houses were designed for easy consumption and were accessible to anyone. There was nothing particularly subtle about them, no hidden agenda or subtext. It didn’t take an education in art history to understand their appeal. You either got them or you didn’t: box kites! square brassieres!! Each one told a story and sometimes, in his best work, this story took the form of a kind of comic strip imagery that recalled Krazy Kat, Rube Goldberg, Betty Boop and the bebop jazz that Geller loved. With its nautical tower, goofy smokestack, and rope railing, the Langman House in Sagaponack would have made a perfect stage set for a Broadway adaptation of Popeye. “Fort Fried,” the house he designed for Sy Fried in Fire Island in 1959, was a wood-framed medieval castle with poky little towers designed to entertain the client’s young daughter, who was dying from cancer. One writer of the period described it as “an authoritative merger of way-out Japanese and far-in King Arthur styles.”
Geller’s scrapbooks were filled with caricature sketches of friends and acquaintances. One of his favorite subjects was his own dog Sebastian who would be depicted in an assortment of absurd situations—gambling, sick in hospital, or inserted into architectural renderings as an indicator of scale. In the bottom corner of many drawings one also finds the image of a mermaid. Her spear is used to indicate the direction of north, but there was another purpose. “My wife Shirley and I used to bury secret treasures for our children in the dunes,” said Geller. “They would have to dig into the sand and find them. Shirley once made a little mermaid doll out of cloth with orange yarn for her hair and sea shell eyes and lips. It was my daughter’s favorite treasure of all so I incorporated it into my drawings.”
Meanwhile, back in Amagansett, we are still on our quest for that simpler, less complicated age, crawling along Marine Boulevard in Geller’s yellow Mercedes. The ocean dunes undulate to our right, still pristine and untouched in some stretches but rapidly filling in with a disarray of architectural statements. It seems unlikely that any of Geller’s early houses could have survived the latest building boom. Are we lost, searching in the wrong area? Is his memory confused? We are almost ready to give up and turn back when he slows down.
“It’s the Green House,” says Geller at the wheel. “It must be.” We are in luck. The house was built in 1968 for Carol Green, a block and a half back from Marine Boulevard and the ocean. It was once the only structure on this stretch but is now squeezed between several other larger houses. If Geller hadn’t noticed an angular edge sticking out from the bayberry, we would have missed it altogether. It has a long, overhanging spacecraft roof and sloping glass clerestory windows. As with so many other Geller houses, the word “hovering” comes first to mind.
We approach with caution. The house has the smell of a group rental—suntan oil, Tequila, shampoo. We call out, but get no response. An inflatable raft drifts across the pool. A surfboard is propped against a wall. Loud rap music is playing from somewhere inside the house. We knock but no one is at home. They must be out on the beach.
Geller retains a sense of authorship over every house he has designed. They are his creations, after all, his children. He doesn’t hesitate to walk in, unannounced. He has no fear. The house is a shambles with bathing suits and towels strewn across the floor. The kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes. Last night’s pizza lies half eaten in its box. I follow Geller up a cantilevered set of stairs and we peer into the tiny, dormitory-style bedrooms. They are jammed with all the accouterments of a furtive singles weekend: backpacks, earphones, running shoes, magazines, roller blades.

The Green and Schacter Houses, Amagansett

But even in this state of shambles, the Green House retains a certain purity, even serenity. Geller is pleased with himself. The house holds up remarkably well thirty-odd years after he designed it. The architecture is rudimentary but inventive and still manages to enchant as well as provoke. Structural bones are exposed and the wood has been left raw, in an untreated state. The overhanging windows capture light that has been reflected off the sand outside. The interior is, in turn, suffused with this sensual, indirect light. It casts a painterly glow over everything.
On our way back to the car, we peek inside the outdoor shower, a little shack that hangs off the north end of the house. Geller was a master of the art of the outdoor shower and notes with pride that this one is still in its original state. A creaky door opens into the wooden chamber. There is a rusty nozzle, a little bench and some pegs for hanging towels. An oddly shaped window looks out toward the ocean and frames a slice of sand and sky.
A few minutes later we are back in the car heading west when we find another Geller house: “There it is!” he cries. It is the small, oddly shaped house that he designed for Leonard and Helen Frisbie back in 1958. It sits in its own kind of time warp, perched at the very top of the dune, like some weather-beaten artifact washed ashore in a storm. Again, we walk in cold, but this time there are people in the house and we introduce ourselves to a slightly startled looking family who are sitting out on the deck. Our impromptu arrival is followed by blank stares, then a sudden smile of recognition on the woman’s face. Her name is Lenora Pearl and she is the daughter of the original owner. She recognizes the name and the warm smile of Geller’s bearded face and gives him a hug while the rest of us shake hands.
“I haven’t seen Lenora since about 1960,” says Geller, “You must have been only six or seven.” Her father had seen Betty Reese’s house when it was published in the Times and commissioned him to design a similar house for his family in Amagansett. This was the only time that Geller actually repeated himself—but a fortuitous duplication since the Reese house was destroyed. Like the first Reese House, the Frisbie House is a simple geometric shape: a sharply slanted roof with large windows overlooking the ocean and a small deck reaching over the ridge of the dune. It is the color of driftwood, with its cedar shakes curled back like fish scales. There is simple board and batten siding along the low-lying side walls. It is the most rudimentary sort of shelter, more like a camp site than a house—the beach house dream realized. The price, back in 1957, was less than $10,000. Frisbie was a stock broker and paid Geller’s design fee with shares of mutual funds.
Lenora Pearl explains to us how, after her parents died, she and her brother decided to keep the house in the family. They also agreed to keep the house just as it was without new additions or fancy kitchens. Then, in time, it would be passed on to their children. Lenora and her husband Terry now commute every summer from Seattle and spend the month of July living here in intimate relationship with the ocean, sand, and sky.
“It’s a real honest-to-God beach house,” says Terry Pearl leading us through the small living room with a broad window spilling out onto the dunes. Inside, the house is spartan and conspicuously low tech. No heating. No insulation. You can even see openings in the ceiling where daylight shines through cracks in the old shingles. Most of the living happen on the outside, out on the broad sun deck or on the beach itself. Upstairs there are a few tiny bedrooms with bunk beds. A single indoor/outdoor shower serves the whole family. There is a simple wood flap along the kitchen counter that can be raised to become a little table and then there is the ingenious system of ladders that lead to the loft spaces and can be pulled up or down by a rudimentary system of pulleys and lead counterweights. The house is completely closed up in October, the pipes are drained and the big windows are covered with plywood. (Geller originally designed special canvas covers for the windows but they rotted away a long time ago.)
“It’s the only house along this stretch of beach that wasn’t swept away by a hurricane or moved back from the dune,” says Geller, pointing west to the riotous looking dunescape. We are now sitting on the edge of the Frisbie’s deck, our feet dangling in the dune grass. Lenora Pearl comes over and sits down beside us. Her children run back inside the house.

• • •

MIDNIGHT EXPRESS: Istanbul Biennial

Overnight to Istanbul.

Leave Miami in morning, transfer through JFK to this sprawling city’s 12th Biennial, a glass bubble floating in a taffy blob.

Annoyed taxi driver leaves me off in empty lot where phalanx of police stand around concrete blockhouse. Paranoia Alert #1: no one in “real” Istanbul seems to know where this event is being held, much less cares about another gathering of global art junkies. An attendant with black boots tells me to go 500 meters back so I walk a narrow, ominous alleyway that feels like prison gauntlet in Midnight Express, then through maze of chain-link fencing to incongruous sight of a red carpet leading through metal detectors to a plaza and two orange warehouses on water’s edge–Antrepo 3 and Antrepo 5–site of this year’s Biennial. To shrink scale in such a metaphysical landscape, a giant white cruise ship looms up from its berth and blocks view of Bosphorus.

                                                                                            Smryn Gill

The title of the exposition understates it all. “Untitled, 2011.” That’s it. The five-part organization is based self-consciously on the work of Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. 1:“Untitled” (Abstraction,) 2: “Untitled” (Ross,) 3: “Untitled” (Passport,) 4:  “Untitled” (History,) 5: “Untitled” (Death by Gun.) All share the same zero-sum title with bare parenthetical addenda that suggest a kind of Facebook vagueness without being fully committed to a single overarching idea. (I guess you can go blame Gonzalez-Torres if you don’t like the results.) The curators explain that the exhibition is untitled because “‘meaning’ is always shifting in time and space,” which seems dangerously naïve–really?–and as with all contemporary art fairs, there’s a premium on overstating the obvious. But there are also many beautiful works.

A grandmother’s shredded fabrics are repurposed by Romanian artist Geta Bratescu; 35mm slides of unknown families are displayed as artifacts by Vesna Pavlovic; there’s a kind of crude needlepoint by mono-named Leonilson and highly neurotic internal mappings by Simon Evans. Marwa Arsanios is obsessed with a 60s modernist beach pavilion in Beirut shaped like a flying saucer. Carlos Herrera makes vulva shaped self-portraits of his own death from sneakers, baseballs, deflated footballs strapped together with fruit-packing tape, while Bisan Abu-Eisheh gathers detritus from demolished houses in Jerusalem–stained documents, old shoes, shards of masonry, toys, clothing, etc.–and displays them in glass cases, tragically, as if luxury goods.

Marwa Arsanios

“We’re not interested at all in the spectacular,” says Adriano Pedrosa, co-curator while sitting, chatting with me in a back corner of Antrepo 5, a place that has all the ambience of an interrogation cell–“antrepo” simply means warehouse in Turkish–but it’s in keeping with general mood. There are no celebrity moments, no Koons or Wei Wei ego ejaculations. Subtle, almost too restrained, many of the 500-plus works seem fractured and displaced, appropriated or recycled artifacts, “archive art,” multi-cultural mementos, ephemera, pre-digital printed matter displayed as fetishistic tableau, letters, magazines, old vinyl recordings of political figures, cuttings, clippings, tiny pencil and watercolor renderings on pulpy faded paper, as if the 20th century and it’s printed matter were already a lost civilization.

Søren Thilo Funder

Words have been stripped of meaning, isolated from the text or narrative stream, words as ethereal flecks and pricks, word-encrusted objects imbuing themselves with extraneous meaning, worry beads wrapped with words (Smryn Gill,) words on crossed-out, censored documents (Glenn Ligon,) cancelled passports, title pages of antique books altered with lyrical imagery (Adrian Villar Rojas,) identity papers of sadly forgotten souls (Baha Boukari.) Larger-scale billboards by Mark Bradford have shredded, layered lettering that refer to a serial killer in South Central L.A.  Partially erased texts by Søren Thilo Funder have selected words–gun, shotgun, pistol–drifting across the page like orphaned nouns and seem particularly poignant considering the censorship of the current regime. While this Biennial sets out to explore the “rich relationship between art and politics,” the unmentioned elephant in the room is the fact that Turkey has more journalists and writers in prison than any other country in the world–twice the number being held in China or Iran. (Both Bayram Namaz and Ibrahim Çiçek of the Atilim newspaper, for instance, face up to 3,000 years in prison.)  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to look at any more art after hearing this statistic.

Adrian Villar Rojas

“We wanted to slow the pace of the visit because people are used to rushing through,” says curator Pedrosa who explains that this is the first Biennale to be held in a single location and not scattered throughout the traffic-strangled city of 14 million. Installation design is by über-minimalist Ryue Nishizawa (architect of New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York) and plays a similarly parenthetical role by being there but not really there. Corrugated metal decking  creates a maze of scaled-down galleries in the same industrial feeling as the warehouses themselves. The corrugated sheds amplify tones of lost identity, missed connections, isolation and deportation that are woven throughout the exhibition. Walls appear to be self-supporting but are penetrated here and there by small entry points with ragged, unfinished edges. (At 6-foot-4, I barely fit through without scraping the top of my skull.) Nishizawa left interstitial voids between galleries as if wanting to deny or extract narrative from the convention of contiguous architectural volumes. The warren of passageways–shadowy, narrow and slightly intimidating–is more telling than the primary exhibition spaces. It’s what usually gets left out or forgotten within the memory of a place. It’s also what stays with you when you’re back on the polluted streets of the Karaköy district.

Mark Bradford

Weary of contemporary, I cross Bosphorus to Hagia Sofia and to stare at the great dome and imagine purely Byzantium space before Muslim hybridization.

Great Dome, Hagia Sophia

Looking up, straining neck to make out 6th-century mosaics of Christ and Mary, only produces a kind of reverse vertigo. There’s no foreground reference to provide scale so perception swims in retinal flecks and dust particles. I feel flattened and pressed and have to gaze at cracked tiled floor to recalibrate optic nerves.

Yerebatan Sarayi: Basilica Cistern

Discover a different form of spatial flux, subterranean, in nearby Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern or Sunken Palace”) where slippery marble steps lead down to forest of columns and elevated walkways that cross vast but shallow waters–about two or three feet deep–built in 6th century during reign of Emperor Justinian. Reflections of columns in water reinforce illusion of infinite repetition in spectral orange glow while some hybridized genus of albino carp swim in confused circles and never see sunlight.

Back to my room for shower on top floor of hotel built for Orient Express passengers in 1889, final stop on direct line between Paris and Constantinople, by Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers and his Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. (The trip took 67 hours from Paris.) Hemingway stayed here, so did Pierre Lotte, Greta Garbo, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, who took corner room on second floor whenever he was in town. The hotel was a wreck for years but they finished restoration two years ago, including a ceiling with tulip-shaped skylights that bathe the big tea room with subaqueous glow.

 Kubbeli ceiling restored, Pera Palace

Ataturk room is now locked as a kind of museum but they let me in to see his toothbrush with blackened bristles, driving goggles, black shoes for his surprisingly tiny feet and rumpled linen suit in a vitrine, just like one of the ephemera cases at the Biennial.

Paranoia Alert #2: Istanbul is a modern city, but it’s also an ancient place of a million contradictions and a mob of young riot police–oddly attractive as if models for some J. Crew catalogue called “Rendition Fashion”–pour out of armored vans on Istiklal Street, near the foreign embassies, brandishing machine guns.  I take photo with my Blackberry and go to ask them questions but hesitate, remembering prison scene in Midnight Express, just as ocean swimming is forever ruined by Jaws. Later I learn that the police came to quell demonstrations against the visiting Israeli soccer team.

Kept awake till 3 AM by 1980s disco beat from across street then woken by 5AM call to prayers through crackling minaret loudspeakers.

Next morning at breakfast, a Turkish poet describes irony of Victoria’s Secret opening its first store in Istanbul while sixty-eight journalists sit in prison under bogus anti-terror laws. (Thirty-six more are being prosecuted.) You can now buy a “Sexy Things”® burka but you can’t criticize the government for fear of                                                      detention.

I dedicate this, my own  Biennial installation, to Turkish colleagues in prison:

1. Abdulcabbar Karadağ, Azadiya Welat Newspaper’s representative in Mers

2. Ahmet Akyol, DİHA, Reporter in Adana

3. Ahmet Birsin, Diyarbakır Gün TV, Chief Broadcast Coordinator

4. Ahmet Şık, freelance Journalist
5. Ali Buluş, DİHA, Reporter for Mersin
6. Ali Çat, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker in Mersin
7. Ali Konar, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Elazığ Representative
8. Baha Okar, Bilim ve Gelecek Magazine, Editor
9. Barış Açıkel, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Owner and Editor in Chief
10. Barış Pehlivan, Odatv, Execytive Editor
11. Barış Terkoğlu, Odatv, News Desk Manager
12. Bayram Namaz , Columnist of Atılım Newspaper
13. Bayram Parlak, Mersin representative of Gündem Newspaper
14. Bedri Adanır, Owner of Aram Print house and Chief Editor of Hawar Newspaper published in Kurdish
15. Behdin Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
16. Berna Yılmaz, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
17. Cihan Gün, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
18. Coşkun Musluk, Author
19. Deniz Yıldırım, Executive Editor of Aydınlık
20. Dılşa Ercan, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
21. Dilek Keskin, Atılım Newspaper Istanbul Reporter
22. Doğan Yurdakul, Odatv,
23. Emine Altınkaya, DİHA, Ankara Reporter
24. Ensar Tunca, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Iğdır Reporter
25. Erdal Süsem, Eylül Hapishane Kültür Sanat Magazine, Editor
26. Erdoğan Altan, DİHA, Reporter (Batman)
27. Erol Zavar, Owner and Chief Editor of Odak Magazine
28. Faysal Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
29. Fazıl Duygun, Yeni Nizam and Baran Magazines, Author/Columnist
30. Füsun Erdoğan, Özgür Radio Executive Editor of broadcast
31. Hakan Soytemiz, RED Magazine, Columnist
32. Halit Güdenoğlu, Owner and Chief editor of Yürüyüş Magazine
33. Hamdiye Çiftçi, DİHA, Hakkâri Reporter
34. Hasan Aksoy, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
35. Hasan Coşar, Atılım Newspaper, Columnist
36. Hatice Duman, Owner and chief Editor of Atılım Newspaper
37. Hayri Bal, Özgür Halk Magazine, Worker
38. Hıdır Gürz, Halkın Günlüğü Newspaper, Editor in Chief
39. Hikmet Çiçek, Aydınlık Magazine, Ankara Representative
40. İbrahim Çiçek, Executive editor of Atılım Newspaper
41. İhsan Silmiş, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
42. Kaan Ünsal, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
43. Kadri Kaya, DİHA, Diyarbakır region Office representative
44. Kenan Karavil, Radio Dünya (Adana) Chief Broadcast Editor
45. Mahmut Güleycan, Özgür Halk Magazine Worker
46. Mehmet Karaaslan, Dicle News Agency (DİHA), Mersin Reporter
47. Mehmet Yeşiltepe, Devrimci Hareket Magazine, Worker
48. Musa Kurt, Kamu Emekçileri Cephesi Magazine, Executive Editor
49. Mustafa Balbay, Cumhuriyet Newspaper, Ankara Representative, Author/Columnist
50. Mustafa Gök, Ekmek ve Adalet Magazine, Ankara Representative
51. Müyesser Yıldız, Odatv,
52. Nedim Şener, Millet Newspaper, Reporter
53. Nuri Yeşil, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker (Tunceli)
54. Ozan Kılınç, former Chief editor of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
55. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Haberal, Kanal B Television,Chairperson of Board of Directors/ Rector of Başkent University
56. Sait Çakır, Odatv, Columnist
57. Sedat Şenoğlu, Atılım Newspaper, Publication Coordinator
58. Seyithan Akyüz, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Adana Representative
59. Sinan Aygül, DİHA, Bitlis Reporter
60. Soner Yalçın, Odatv, Owner /Journalist
61. Suzan Zengin, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Worker (Kartal Office)
62. Şafak Gümüşsoy, former Editor in Chief of Mücadele Birliği Magazine
63. Şahin Baydağı, Azadiya Welat, Dealer
64. Şeyhmus Bilgin, Günlük ve Azadiya Welat, Worker
65. Tuncay Özkan, OPwner of Kanal Biz Television, Journalist
66. Vedat Kurşun, former Editor in chief of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
67. Yalçın Küçük, Author/Journaslit
68. Ziya Ulusoy, Atılım Newspaper, columnist

WET: Swimming the Pools of Miami

Back in Miami after floods up north. Have pool to self all morning. Reflections like pulled threads–depending on wind or angle of sun–webbing and filigree, torn or laddered silk, a grid of dancing ectoplasm when my hand breaks the surface. I took my time and swam a dozen smaller pools, building stamina, before crossing to Coral Gables.  There’s nothing graceful about my stroke so don’t get any ideas. Although I used to swim competitively (when I was 12,) I now thrash and jerk like an injured duck, corkscrewing my body this way and that, part crawl, part frog kick, exhaling when I should be inhaling and vice a versa.

I sit and write overlooking Indian Creek. I ride my bike up the undulating pink pathway that runs along the beach and plot a way to navigate the city and its riotous history by swimming all the significant pools from one end to the other, gazing through my “Aqua Sphere” goggles, intrigued by rippling reflections, lost toys, human hair, loose grouting of the tiles, day-dreaming like the character in my favorite Cheever story: He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.

Sometimes I get invited but usually I just walk in or sneak in from the boardwalk and act like I belong, casually pick up a towel with monogram logo and order a drink. I swam the infinity pool at the Shore Club, semi-naked and high, during a midnight party for my book on psychedelia. And yes, it’s almost impossible to do laps in the harp-shaped pool at the Raleigh Hotel with its Baroque curves and wading-pool borders that attract talent agents. (The  Paramount has a pink imitation that’s even more impossible.)

I swam the long narrow pool at the Gainsvoort, eighteen floors above the lobby with mauve-and-beige settees and looping shark tank, where a certain smoothly bronzed set hang out with perfect teeth. A dozen male models looked on with disinterest as I ploughed through the water above the giant “G” spelled out in blue-flecked tiles at the bottom of the pool. Some of the muscled men posed with their skateboards and shirts unbuttoned and I assumed they were waiting for some photo op/cattle call or maybe they were male prostitutes waiting for a trick, I wasn’t sure, but never found out because I was asked to leave the premises after a few laps. (I still have one of the towels.)

I swam the brand new W pool just before a swimwear show and another casting call because I found myself surrounded by half-naked go-see models (young women in this case) like an erotic dream turned nightmare because they were everywhere, tan, long legs, some overly muscled, some anorexic thin, others with full, old-fashioned centerfold figures and big hair, preening in the mirrored furniture, stretching over, brushing out their hair, licking lip gloss, padding out bikini tops, all completely oblivious to me and the short PR woman who was pushing a path through the forest of towering fleshapoids, her face about crotch high, showing me the finer points of the bark-encrusted lobby, designer ceilings, fluffy-white corporate suites, Zen relaxation fountain, a jungle garden with gnarly swamp trees and a shimmering discotheque, making a path for me to follow close behind, out to a sweeping terrace with cabanas and a handsome pool. “Do you mind if I have a swim?”  “What?”  “I would like to try out the pool.”  Someone from marketing came down with a thick purple towel, made arrangements and I had my turn, stroking strangely down one side as workmen finished the installation of a floating catwalk lined with tiki torches and plastic magnolias.

Thoughts while swimming the endless perimeter of the L-shaped pool at the Biltmore: how my father always turned his shoulder such a way, sucking breath, and kicking off in one fluid gesture when entering the water, even when the water was cold. He was a beautiful swimmer, right into his eighties, with an effortless stroke that he learned form Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built in 1909 on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal.  I still have the bronze medal he won in 1931 from the Royal Lifesaving Society. He was only 15 but made it all the way across the Clyde Estuary from Toward Point, where his father was lighthouse keeper, a five-mile swim, against crosscurrents. Swimming was almost like breathing for him. When we went to the River Kwai in 2000 for the filming of a movie and to see the places he’d survived as a POW, we swam in the pool at the eco resort and there was an ornamental waterfall, with volcanic rocks and exotic flowers, that poured into the pool and down to the river, past Chinese gnomes and miniature temples.

One day I dared myself to jump into the muddy waters of the Kwai itself–the river having been such a presence, distant and brooding, throughout my childhood–and I struggled against its current, a little worried I would drown, as my father sat on the pier, drinking Coke and remembering that particular place as Tarsau Winter Camp–something familiar about the curve of the river and the shape of limestone hills across the way, he said–not far from where he’d fallen ill, close to death, and watched a fellow officer beheaded in 1943. (This was just a small opening in his occluded memory. The floodgates opened after that.)

I’d heard that the Biltmore had the biggest pool in the world and while it does seem vast, it’s no longer number one--San Alfonso del Mar in Chile, a chlorinated ocean of 20-acres, is the biggest–but it used to be true in 1926 when Johnny Weissmuller, pre-Tarzan, was swimming instructor and little Jackie Ott dove like an Osprey from the eighty-five-foot-high tower. There were tea dances and aquatic ballets every Sunday afternoon and people crowded around the Pompei-style arcade, hanging from ledges to watch Esther Williams, her synchronized aquanettes and alligator wrestling.

The arcade is still in tact as are the faux Roman statues and a Venetian palazzo at the lower end.  I swam very slowly around the perimeter, pacing myself, watching the worried tourists chatting on cell phones, eating lobster salads, recovering from hangover. Even if the rest of the day had been awash in digital clutter, the swim felt like something accomplished, 20 laps maybe 30.  “My dripping limbs I faintly stretch, And think I’ve done a feat today,” wrote Lord Byron after swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos, only about a mile across but symbolically loaded, from Europe to Asia, in honor of Leander who swam it every night to be with his lover.

Most people don’t swim any more. They lie in the sun and wade or stand up to their knees with an exotic drink, or walk through the shallows to cool off. It’s still in the Olympics as a sport but the lure of swimming as romance–as with Byron and Weissmuller–seems long gone. It’s just not jolting enough. The big Miami Beach hotels of the 1950s and 1960s rose up against the ocean like great white modernist bergs, their pools glinting in the winter sun like infinite sisters,  reflecting cumuli over Biscayne Bay. Here was a new kind of imaginary landscape and the aquamarine pool was the  central attraction. Goldfinger opened with a high sweeping helicopter shot of the Fountainbleau’s white facade, domed ballroom where Sinatra sang, Petit Versailles gardens, a perfect swan dive into the Olympic pool, and James Bond getting a massage by a poolside cabana. The pool itself has been rebuilt twice since then. In fact there are six pools and I’ve traversed them all, even the kiddy hourglass and of course the enormous free-form basin while observing a muscled man wading through the shallow end with a great white shark tattooed across his back. The lattice framework of the Eden Roc was offset by its square and oval pool, the latter over a bar with portholes so that drunken patrons could leer at mermaids cavorting underwater.

Melvin Grossman’s stacked-slab construction for the 14-story Deauville seemed like a mere garden shack compared to the 500-foot-long lagoon that stretched the length of the property. I wasted an entire afternoon during Art Basel drifting in that same Deauville  pool, in that same quasi-subterranean stream, that curves across this city where the Beatles swam when they came in 1964 and played Ed Sullivan from the Napolean Ballroom.