• Mid-century modernism has become so retro-chic that it’s easy to forget how many Americans still find it offputting. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of people I know who loathe modern domestic architecture. Me, I love it, though I freely admit that any number of well-known modern houses are far better looked at than lived in. I recently returned from Chicago, where I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse (1953). Mies’ “glass house,” one of the most famous and frequently written-about homes of the 20th century, is the subject of an exceedingly intelligent illustrated monograph by Franz Schulze, author of the standard biography of Mies. The Farnsworth House is out of print, alas, but Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography is still to be had and very much worth reading, not least for its detailed account of the making of this icon of architectural modernism, which is a good deal more candid about the house’s self-evident defects as a “machine for living” (in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted phrase) than one might expect from an admiring biographer: “Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”
The Muirhead Farmhouse, by contrast, is one of Wright’s lesser-known projects and has yet to be written about in detail. Fortunately, several good books have been published about the ranch-style “Usonian houses” of Wright’s later years, the most accessible of which is Carla Lind’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, one of twelve titles in a series of miniature monographs called “Wright at a Glance.” In addition, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal, has written a superb brief life of Wright that is among the strongest entries in the Penguin Lives series. Frank Lloyd Wright is a masterpiece of thoughtful compression, never more so than in this passage about the Usonian houses:
Usonian houses were, and are, inviting and livable . . . . Wright’s houses never insisted that their occupants reshape themselves to conform to an abstract architectural ideal. Although he was relentlessly dictatorial about building in furniture of his own design and including his own accessories—he was known to go into his houses during the owners’ absence and rearrange everything to his taste—and some of that furniture was notoriously uncomfortable, he never adopted the functional minimalism promoted for low-cost dwellings by the International style. His houses are positively gemütlich compared with the enforced antisepsis that has reached a challenging astringency as the architectural avant-garde strives for a reductive perfection.
• I only just got around to reading the extensively revised second edition of Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. I wrote about the first edition in “The Problem of Shostakovich,” my 1995 COMMENTARY essay about the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century:
Wilson’s book, initially planned as a short volume in Faber & Faber’s “Composers Remembered” series, soon grew beyond its intended scope to become a full-scale documentary biography based not only on pre- and post-glasnost reminiscences of Shostakovich, some already published and some newly commissioned, but on interviews with about two dozen of the composer’s friends, colleagues, and family members. The result is without question the most important English-language book about Dmitri Shostakovich to date.
This new edition is 80 pages longer than its predecessor, and the additional material, all drawn from primary sources not available to Wilson in the 90’s, will be of great interest to anyone more than casually interested in Shostakovich. If you have the original edition, you should replace it with this one. If not, what I said in 1995 still goes. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is every bit as readable as a well-written biography, and since no such book exists, it remains the indispensable starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, times, and troubles.