Meeting Mr. Kaufmann


Meeting Mr. Kaufmann

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We had planned an itinerary along a line that had nothing to do with historical chronology, nor with the greater or lesser importance of the buildings that we were about to visit. Wright, like Picasso, had had several periods of creativity quite different from one another: over five hundred works built along seventy years. They included the Prairie Houses in the Midwest, built between the end of 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century; the concrete-block houses of Los Angeles, from the 1920s; the Johnson’s and the Kaufmann’s masterpieces of the 1930s in Wisconsin and in Western Pennsylvania; the Usonian Houses of the 1950s, conceived for the needs of America’s middle class, spread all over the country; and the unique public buildings, such as the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the Florida Southern College in Lakeland, the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. We needed advise to distinguish between those works which were essential to understand each period, and the ones that were less relevant. Prestigious as Mr. Kaufmann’s background was(1), the main reason why we wanted to meet with him was because, as the author of a book titled “Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings,” which included a detailed index of Wright’s addresses of buildings, he knew better than anyone else the reality on the ground.

While walking towards the Ford Foundation, we stopped at a public phone on 42nd Street to call Mr. Kaufmann. Using the number that Zevi had given us, I dialed. It was noisy on the street and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear the person on the other end. The stet rang.

“Edward Kaufmann speaking, hello?” Hearing the soft voice of a man caught me by surprise. I was prepared to convince some front desk receptionist to let me speak to him, but there was Mr. Kaufmann, picking up the phone.

“Mr., Kauffman? I asked rhetorically.

“Yes, who is this?” he answered.

“Aeh… good afternoon, Mr. Kaufmann. I’ve been addressed to you by Professor Zevi. My name is Rick Meghiddo. I am in New York, together with my wife, for just a few days. We are both architects graduated in Rome. Professor Zevi was our mentor. We have planned a trip around the United States to see and photograph many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. Professor Zevi gave us your number and urged us to contact you when we get to New York, to get some advice.”

“How interesting,” Mr. Kaufmann said. I could barely hear what he was saying.

“How is Professor Zevi doing?” Mr. Kaufmann continued, “I haven’t been in touch with him for quite a while. He is such a great historian, a passionate advocate of Wright and the Organic Architecture philosophy. He also is one of the best critics of architecture that I know, probably the best. Have you seen him recently?”

“No,” I answered, “I am actually coming from Israel. I last talked to Professor Zevi over the phone two weeks ago, before we left Tel Aviv. He gave me your number. I didn’t know that I was calling to your home. I apologize. Would you prefer me to call you at a more convenient time?

“No, no, that’s fine. I needed a brake anyhow. Now, let me understand better. You said that you are coming from Israel but your accent sounds Latin, are you Italian?”

“No, I was born and raised in Argentina. I emigrated to Israel when I was seventeen, entered the Technion to study architecture and there I met my wife, in the classroom. She came to Israel from Romania. After we married, we moved to Rome, to continue our studies there. Shortly after we started to study History of Architecture with Professor Zevi. He adopted us, if I may say, as disciples. He was also the tutor of our graduating theses,” I added.

Ruth made signs that I should inform him that we were three, not two. Viviana smiled

in silence. I was so concentrated in my conversation with mister Kaufmann that I didn’t get what Ruth was trying to tell me.

“To answer your question,” I continued, “when I last talked to Professor Zevi, he was very busy writing a new book.”

“Do you know what the book is about?” he asked, curious.

“I am not one hundred percent sure. If I understood him well, it is about the code of modern architecture’s language,” I said, pressing hard the canal of my left ear with my forefinger’s knuckle, to muffle the street’s noise from passing trucks and sirens, claxons and a taxi driver shouting “mother fucker” to a man crossing jaywalking. I hoped he didn’t hear it.

“He has such a complex mind,” commented Mr. Kaufmann, “now, tell me Ricardo, how can I help you?”

“Well, the thing is that, regarding our trip, we have been using your book as our main source of reference. It is great, and your list of addresses makes it unique. We would like to get some specific feedback from you, if possible, to make sure that we are on the right track.”

“In what sense?” Mr. Kauffmann asked.

“Our trip’s itinerary crosses at least twenty five states in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Southeast and the Southwest. Because we plan to drive along a sequence of buildings that do not relate to one another chronologically, nor in order of importance, we would like to have your input in establishing some sort of hierarchy in our itinerary,” I said.

“I see. Well, that sounds quite challenging. I’ll be glad to help you in what I can. By the way, are you also including Fallingwater on your way?”

“Of course, that is one of our trip’s highest points.”

“Good. I can facilitate your visit there,” he said.

I mimicked my enthusiasm to Ruth and Viviana, but they couldn’t understand why. “My goodness, a red carpet to Fallingwater,” I thought, “what a privilege!”

“Let me check my calendar. This weekend I am out of town, and you said you came for just a few days…how about coming to my home tomorrow, with your wife, what’s her name?” he asked.

“Ruth,” I said.

“With Ruth,” he continued, “at eleven? We can discuss your trip first, and from here I’ll take you out for lunch and you’ll tell me more about Zevi, and maybe also about Israel. We’ll have a couple of hours to talk. Is tomorrow fine with you?”

“That’s very kind of you,” I answered, “but we are three people at this moment. An Italian friend of ours, architect Viviana Campajola, who worked for Zevi several years, is joining us for a few days. We don’t want to impose any burden on you, so we’ll be happy to come, not necessarily for lunch” I said, while Ruth gestured approval.

“It’s not a problem. I’ll be glad to take all three of you for lunch,” he said.

I made high brows to Ruth and Viviana.

“Thank you. Sure, tomorrow is fine. We’ll be at your place at eleven.” He gave me his address, on East 53rd Street, which I wrote down on a bag of souvenirs bought at the UN gift shop, using one of the booth’s sides for support.

“Please send my best regards to Zevi, if you talk to him,” he then added.

“Our friend Viviana will actually see him when she’s back to Rome, in about ten days.”

“Great. In the meantime, I’ll see you tomorrow. Do you have a phone number where I can reach you, just in case?” I gave it to him, hoping that he wouldn’t realize the kind of hotel we were at. He didn’t ask and I didn’t volunteer it. He then sent regards to Ruth and Viviana, and hanged up.

“Tell us word-by-word what he said,” asked Ruth, impatiently. I was exhausted by the tension. It was like lifting weights beyond the limit that I was used to.

“I need a coffee,” I said, and then I told them.

 

The next morning Ruth and Viviana wanted to buy a Clinique moisturizing lotion before our meeting with Mr. Kaufmann, so we took a cab from our hotel directly to Saks Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 49th street. The traffic was not too bad, and we got there in ten minutes. Since I didn’t have patience to be around when Ruth was trying eyeliners, cheek colors and perfumes, we agreed to meet in half hour at a spot next to a ground floor escalator. I left the store and went for a stroll around Rockefeller Plaza. I found a card with a sleek modern design and I bought it, to send a thank you note to Mr. Kaufmann after our meeting. I returned at precisely 10:30 AM. The girls were not there. After five minutes, I started to get edgy. At 10:40 AM they showed up.

“I know, I know, let’s go,” said Ruth, preventing my reaction.

We reached 53rd street and from there we headed east. Mr. Kaufmann’s residence was located at the end of the street, so we had to walk briskly, to get there on time. The area was new to me. I was surprised to discover a calm, tree-lined street, with small-town low buildings, in mid-town Manhattan. When we crossed Lexington Avenue, I noticed a Flax art supply store and thought that it would be nice to wander around there, but that was not the moment.

We reached Mr. Kaufmann’s residence at eleven sharp. I didn’t find a bell, so I pushed the gate. To my surprise, it was unlocked. We walked directly into an entry hall. Next to an old elevator was a bronze plate on which “KAUFMANN-ROTHCHILD, Second Floor Down” was engraved. Down? We were puzzled.

“Strange,” said Ruth, while Viviana made a typical Italian gesture of “who knows?”

We followed directions. The elevator had a wooden door that swung outside, and two doors that swung inside. The elevator’s walls were made out of wood and had moldings. A small mirror with polished edges was attached to a side wall. It reminded me the elevators of apartment buildings in Paris, but this one was larger. While Ruth and Viviana checked their makeup on the mirror, I pushed the lowest bronze button sticking out from a bronze plate. The elevator moved slowly. When it stopped, I backed up to open the interior doors. We exited onto a small landing and had to move to the side to close the exterior elevator’s door. There was a single old-looking wooden door and a window that opened onto a garden with a Henry Moore sculpture in it. In the background I saw the East River, with a passing ship and the skyline of Long Island beyond Roosevelt Island. Ruth combed my hair with her fingers and straightened my tie. I was concerned that it didn’t match my shirt, but I had taken only one tie for the trip, so that was it. Viviana raised her eyebrows and took a deep breath. I rang the bell.

A thin man with a goatee greeted us with a smile. He spoke softly and his manners resembled that of a 17th Century aristocrat. The apartment was a private museum of modern art, with museum-quality paintings and sculptures. As I introduced Ruth and Viviana, my eyes went to a large Jackson Pollock drip painting in the entryway, a Picasso portrait of a woman to our left and a surrealist Miro filled with sexual symbols to the right. In the living room, I saw a shiny Duchamp-Villon bronze sculpture next to a large sofa and, beyond glass doors, the Henry Moore sculpture sat on a carpet of grass.

Mr. Kaufmann led us to the living room and we all sat on traditional chairs around a coffee table, in plain contrast with the modernism of the artworks on the walls. The effect was one of casual openness, yet the place was immaculately ordered. Every piece of furniture and every painting were exactly placed. I could swear that a child had never set foot there. Realizing that Mr. Kaufmann was gay and assuming that the “Rothschild” part of the bronze plate’s equation was that of his partner, I was itching to ask him which Rothschild this one was, but I didn’t. After a short exchange of pleasantries, Ruth handed him the folder containing our itinerary and also pointed at the markings that we had made on his book’s list of addresses.

“This is a very ambitious trip. It is spread all over the country. How long are you planning to travel?” Mr. Kaufmann asked.

“Three or four months,” Ruth responded.

“Before leaving New York we’ll buy a car,” I interrupted. Ruth gave me her typical look of getting upset when I interrupt, and continued.

“We’ll drive towards Montreal first, then we’ll cover the Midwest all the way to Wisconsin, and from there we’ll head south before the winter catches us up. We’ll spend a week in St. Louis, where Rick’s cousins live, and from there we’ll fly to Florida, continuing to move along the south, mixing flights with car rentals, all the way to California.”

“By when are you planning to reach Fallingwater?”

“In approximately one month from now,” I interjected.

“Mid-October. It starts getting cold. Be prepared for rain,” said Mr. Kaufmann.

While he carefully analyzed the material, making comments and adding notes by the margins with a pencil, my eyes whirled around. The apartment must have been a basement at one time, probably less than 2,000 square feet, but the garden seemed to be twice its size. It was hard to believe that a place like that could exist in New York. From where I was sitting, one could not see FDR Drive, and the river seemed to be touching the garden’s edge, similarly to the villas that we have seen facing the Bosporus’ European shore, when we visited Istanbul four years earlier. After a while, I asked for the restroom. He showed me the way through his bedroom, a minimalist cube framed by one painting on each wall and a king-size mattress lying directly on the floor. The art display extended further into the bathroom, where a delicate Ben Shahn drawing provided spiritual company to my peeing.

Our conversation remained centered on our trip’s goals. When it was time for lunch, Kaufmann lead us along 53rd Street for a couple of blocks, then we turned left on Second Avenue and right on 52nd Street, towards Fifth Avenue.

“I want to show you something before we reach the restaurant,” he said.

We continue to walk for another half block when suddenly, in-between traditional apartment buildings, stood a two-story steel and glass building.

“This is a guest house designed by Philip Johnson for Mrs. John Rockefeller,” said Mr. Kaufmann, “It used to be a carriage house. Inside, Philip created a continuous loft-like interior, with a combined living and dining room in the front and a bedroom in the back, each looking through fully glazed walls to a water-filled, landscaped garden that lay between. To go from the living to the bedroom, the guests have to cross the pool stepping on travertine pads. He considerably sacrificed interior space in favor of the court, but in doing so, he has created expansiveness, despite the severe limitations of the site.”

“I know the project,” I exclaimed, “but I didn’t know it was here!”

“How do you know about it?”

“When we were second-year students at the Technion, we were given as an assignment to design four single-family houses on a terraced area of Haifa. Ruth’s design was joyful, in the spirit of Hans Sharoun, with articulated walls and pitched roofs. I was then trying to explore something different than Le Corbusier’s language, which first influenced my design, so I went to the library and there I discovered a book on Philip Johnson. In it was the plan of this guest house! It inspired me to design a

T-shaped glass house, with a front pool reaching its exterior walls. That feature demanded to walk through pads in order to get to the main entrance, similarly to what Philip Johnson did here. But this happened during the early 1960’s, and Israel’s spirit was still very Spartan. My project was considered too minimalist, not functional enough; I was very criticized by both my teacher and my peers. I got a B-minus,” I laughed.

We continued to walk along 52nd Street until we reached Park Avenue.

“Look at the contrasts between corporate buildings. To the right you can see an International Style classic, the purist Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in the spirit of “God-is-in-the-detail.” To the left, the Pan Am Building, arrogantly stacked in the middle of this colorful and sleek glass canyon, out of scale with Grand Central Station. How could Walter Gropius do that?”

“Did you know that Zevi and Philip Johnson studied together at Harvard under Gropius?” I asked, using the association with something more anecdotal.

“I know,” he said, isn’t that an amazing paradox? The founder of the Bauhaus, who influenced the passage from the Arts & Crafts Movement to industrial design, being the teacher of two influential future leaders of architecture’s Modernism becomes, late in his life, a servant to speculative real estate developers. His excuse was that of creating ‘a quiet, imposing building mass of a strong prismatic form.’ I don’t buy it! Anyhow, it’s time to eat. Let’s go.” He closed the argument and started to walk.

We continued to walk along Park Avenue, until we stopped again by an unmarked gate. Mr. Kaufmann knocked at a brass door knocker. A peephole opened showing someone’s eye peeping at us. After some perfunctory questions, the door opened and a man dressed in a black tailcoat, wearing white gloves and a white tie, showed us the way to a table in the middle of a sumptuous dining room filled with people. I realized that we had crossed the threshold of another world, all hidden from the public, a sophisticated place for the elite at the very heart of a city which is all about intensity of purpose and connections. I asked Mr. Kaufmann to lead us on the menu.

“Do you like soft-shell crab?” he asked.

“I never tried it, but I’m willing to learn something new,” said Ruth, hoping that dealing with the crab won’t turn into a messy affair.

“What about you, Viviana?”

“I think that I am going to have Lettuce-Wrapped Rock Cod with Carrot Sauce.”

“It has a delicate taste of tarragon, and the carrots give it a slightly sweet twist,” said the waiter.

“What about you, Rick?” asked Mr. Kaufmann.

I looked at the prices of the main courses, some of which were three times what we paid for our hotel’s room. I thought of keeping it low keyed.

“I am undecided between Gingered Garden Salad with Chicken, or Golden Chicken in Port Sauce with Prunes & Garlic.” Ruth made me a frowning sign at the garlic’s component.

“Do you like spicy food?” asked the waiter, and continued. “The Spicy Chicken with Cumin and Lime is very good.”

“That sounds excellent. I’ll go for it,” I said.

We switched our conversation to some of his personal experiences with Wright. We asked about the feeling of living in a place like Fallingwater.

“Although Wright designed for me a bedroom with a wall-to-wall window, I wanted to feel surrounded by the forest, so I put a bed on the highest landing of the stairway, where its all-glass walls allowed me to see the trees in their entirety, and that became my real bedroom, ” said Kaufmann.

“A Room with a View,” I thought, having in mind E. M. Foster’s one in Florence.

We also talked about Zevi, with whom he had co-authored the Italian book “La Casa sulla Cascata.” He considered him one of the great critics of our time, one of the very few that Wright had respect for.

“What is your connection to Zevi, Viviana?” asked Mr. Kaufmann.

“Besides being his student, I worked for him several years, mainly on research related to his rewriting of ‘History and Spaces of Modern Architecture,’ first written in 1950. The new edition will come in two volumes,” said Viviana.

“That sounds like a gigantic task,” said Mr. Kaufmann. Viviana smiled. “Well, as Zevi’s disciples, you have my full endorsement of trust. I’ll call the people at the Foundation to let them know that you are coming. You may spend as much time in and around the house as you may need.”

When we exited the restaurant, we walked together to the corner of Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Mr. Kaufmann kissed Ruth and Viviana on both cheeks, shook hands with me, wished us good luck, and turned right, back home.

Mr. Kaufmann’s trust left us with more than just his trust; it was a full load of responsibility to young architects on their way to becoming professionals.

 


 

 (1) Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. (1910–1989) was an American architect, lecturer, and author. He was Director of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art(MOMA) in New York City. From 1963 to 1986, Edgar Jr. was an Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University. Edgar Jr. strongly supported his father’s decision to commission Frank Lloyd Wright for the famous 1936 ‘Fallingwater‘ house. After his father’s death in 1955, Edgar Jr. inherited the ‘Fallingwater’ house, continuing to use and share it as a mountain retreat until 1963. Then he entrusted the Wright structures and several hundred acres of the surrounding pristine Laurel Highlands to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy as an architectural house museum and conservation open space preserve, in memory of his parents.

The meeting referred to in this story was conducted in 1971.

 

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