Saturday, January 28, 2012

Field Trip: New York City (Again)

Last weekend we took a 4-day trip to New York City to visit my sister and N.'s sister, each of whom moved there in late 2011.  This was N.'s second visit to the city (I wrote about the first here).  It was cold and snowy and fun!

Although we arrived in the city by plane instead of by train as we did last time, there was still a significant train theme to our visit.  We went to Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens, which is beautifully redesigned public space dominated by old gantries that once moved freight between trains and barges on the East River. 

Of course we rode the subway all over and N. tracked our routes carefully. 

And we went to the New York Transit Museum!  N. loved all the old elevated and subway cars, especially the wooden ones.
Another theme of the weekend was, of course, architecture and old buildings.  We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where N. wanted to see the Egyptian mummies and the Temple of Dendur, which we'd examined carefully last trip as well.  He also wanted to see the Greek and Roman galleries this visit, and he was especially taken with this monumental column from the Temple of Artemis.  He also spent some time viewing a Roman bedroom with architectural frescoes, the painted amphorae and bowls, and the marble sculptures of men and women from 100 B.C-100 A.D.  At one point N. glimpsed the old arches from the original Victorian Gothic building that is at the core of the museum (though mostly obscured by the neoclassical facade and various additions) and was immensely excited.  He vastly prefers the Victorian Gothic style (despite the fact that the original building was almost immediately out of style after it was built)!

[Photo by Graham Haber]
We visited the The Morgan Library, designed by Charles McKim in 1906 in the gilded robber-baron style N. admires.  He loved the library's multi-tiered bookshelves and balconies (a guard showed N. where to peek through a crack in a pivoting shelf to see the hidden spiral staircases leading to the balconies) and he was interested in the books and manuscripts on display.  He also really loved the new Renzo Piano-designed addition to the Morgan complex, and spent a lot of time looking at the model of the complex and the photos showing Piano's design process and the construction of the addition.

We took an exhilarating walk on the High Line in the snow and enjoyed the elevated perspective it offers on an array of interesting buildings. 
 And we rode the A train north and took a lovely snowy walk through Fort Tryon Park to The Cloisters.  N. enjoyed seeing all the fragments of 12th-century buildings on display, especially all the plant motifs as in this column, which are much less common in the later Gothic buildings he's familiar with.  We all swooned over the unicorn tapestries.

It was a rich trip! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Careful. We don't want to learn from this."

Someone has discovered Calvin & Hobbes! (And has been devouring the books non-stop.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright

In December, Tim started reading An Autobiography (1943) by Frank Lloyd Wright to N. as the next text in the improvised biography/autobiography curriculum they've been pursuing together.  This choice made a lot of sense since N. loves buildings and drawing and has long been a fan of some of Wright's most famous structures, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum.  But the book is challenging listening for him, not only because of Wright's nontraditional narrative style, which N. has been able to follow well enough.  As much as N. admires some of his buildings, Wright's aesthetic was formed in vigorous opposition to the style N. absolutely loves: the Queen Anne house.  So he has had to wrestle with the intellectual challenge of appreciating some but not all of the views of an inspiring man.

In his account of his childhood, Wright dismisses most of his formal education as having little impact on his learning or development:
But -- of the schooling itself? Not a thing he can remember!  
A blank!  Except colorful experiences that had nothing academic about them.  Like dipping the gold braid hanging down the back of the pretty girl sitting in front into the ink-well of his school desk and drawing with it.  Getting sent home in consequence (p. 36).
Instead, he credits Froebel's Gifts in his very young childhood, raucous play with friends (including running a printing press and lots of drawing), and summers of hard labor on his uncle's Wisconsin farm with truly forming him. 
But the schooling!  Trying to find traces of it in that growing experience ends in finding none.  What became of it?  Why did it contribute so little to this consciousness-of-existence that is "the boy"?  It seems purely negative, and for that reason it may not have been positively harmful.  Difficult for one to say.  You can't let boys run wild while they are growing.  They have to be roped and tied to something so that their parents can go about their business.  What not a subbing post or -- school then?  A youth must be slowed-up, held in hand.  Caged -- yes -- mortified too.  Broken to harness as colts are broken, or their would be nothing left but to make an "artist" of him.  Send him to an Art Institute.
But certain episodes were harmful and remain so to this day (p. 37).
So, Wright doesn't denounce school, but he repeatedly describes his real learning taking place elsewhere.  He matriculated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study engineering because he couldn't afford architectural school, thus escaping what he calls "the curse of 'architectural' education of that day in the United States with its false direction in culture and wrong emphasis on sentiment" (p. 52).  He attended classes in the mornings and worked in the afternoons at the private engineering firm of the Dean of Engineering at the University; "it was with Professor Conover, in that practice of his, that the youth really learned the most" (p. 53).

His university classes frustrated him: "Mathematics excepted, there seemed little meaning in the studies" (p. 52).  Wright criticizes his math professor for having "no feeling for the romance in his subject.  A subject when rightly apprehended most romantic.... Is it unreasonable to suppose that a professor of mathematics should be a poet?  Or a civil engineer be a creative composer of symphonies?" (p. 52). Similarly, he "yearned to read and write his own language -- yearned to speak it -- supremely well" but found his pompous English professor's minimal marks on his compositions worthless.  Instead, on his own he read Carlyle, Plutarch, Ruskin, Morris, Shelley, Goethe, Blake, and Viollet-le-Duc.  "But he doesn't know in the least what he read in the school course" (p. 53).

When he was eighteen, though he only had one semester remaining to complete his degree, Wright left the University and absconded to Chicago to seek a job in architecture.  He repeatedly contrasted the "Doctrine" at the University with the "active contact with the soil" he'd had laboring on the farm (p. 57).  His family strenuously objected, but he yearned to act, do, make -- now. 
He now put "University" behind him; a boundless faith grown strong in him.  A faith in what? He could not have told you.  He got on the Northwestern train for Chicago -- the Eternal City of the West.
Here is the bravery of all life, in this tragic break with background, in this stand against the clear sky -- whatever fear, superfluous: This is my own earth!  A song in the heart (p. 60).
Wright calls this sentimental even as he writes it, and almost sheepishly blames the Goethe he'd been reading for his romantic sense of purpose and urge for "action, again action and more action" (p. 58).  But origin stories are always romances, and isn't that what we read autobiographies for?

When they see N.'s drawings and hear about his passion for old buildings, people often say to us, "Oh, he'll be an architect when he grows up."  But unlike Wright's mother (who intended him for architecture from the cradle), we have no specific plans or expectations for N.'s career choices.  Wright's story is valuable for N. because, like all the others Tim has read to him so far, it details the courage, hard work, passion, and contrariness required to live an inspired, true life, no matter what one's profession.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Game Time!

We were fortunate enough to be able to avoid traveling for the holidays, which meant lots of time to play games old and new. N. doesn't initiate playing a lot of board and card games during our regular life, but the holidays have become associated with games, in part since he receives new games as gifts. So the past couple weeks we've been playing epic, multi-day bouts of Monopoly, as well as Yahtzee, Uno, Rush Hour, Battleship, and Parcheesi. I enjoy seeing how much better he is at the math and logic required for some of these games than he was a year ago. And N. had a great time playing games with his grandparents. It's fun to have moved beyond Candyland into the realm of games we can all enjoy.