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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Home, sweet home. It can be even sweeter and neater when designed and built to fit female tastes and needs. Women and the Making of the Modern House documents six homes that were collaborations between some of this century's best-known architects and their female clients.

With poetic imagery, novelist Tony Ardizzone chronicles the lives of Sicilian immigrants in America. In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu is a lovely, earthy fable of one family's joy and sorrow in the New World.

If you missed Brazil's great actress Fernanda Montenegro, who was
Tony-nominated this year for her moving role in Central Station, you can now see her on video;  Claudia Dreifus is a veteran journalist, and a collection of her writings in Interview' shows what she does best.


A Home of Own's Own

Women and the Making of the Modern House
by Alice T. Friedman (Abrams; 240 pages; $39.95--Amazon: $27.97)

     Seventy years have gone by since Virginia Woolf's famous phrase "a room of one's own,'' and the words still evoke powerful feelings.  The idea of a woman having a room that is solely hers, a retreat from all the bustle and expectations of society and a haven for thought and contemplation is almost as revolutionary today as it was in 1929, and the notion of a woman having a house of her own is even more radical. Alice Friedman is a professor of art and the co-director of the architecture program at Wellesley College, and her book Women and the Making of the Modern House focuses on landmark houses designed by six of this century's most innovative architects. Each of the homes, in the U.S., The Netherlands and France, have one thing in common: they reflect the taste and living requirements of an independent and strong-willed woman who either headed the household or had an unconventional living arrangement either with friends, husband or lover. While several of the master builders--Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Robert Venturi --have stamped 20th Century architecture with their conceptions for grand public buildings, the domestic dwellings they made for a woman client, though widely different, as Friedman makes clear, document the shifting attitudes about privacy, family life and women's role in society.
    The book, which has 140 illustrations including 30 plates in full color, is a skillful blend of 20th century social history and architectural theory. It is enlivened by author Friedman's sharply drawn portraits of the six legendary architects and the now almost forgotten women whom they served. At times, they were true collaborators sharing a single vision of a domestic life. One pair were lovers; another are mother and son.  In two cases, architect and client were woefully mismatched. For Aline Barnsdall, an eccentric oil heiress with a flair for the dramatic, Frank LLoyd Wright planned a grandiose project on a hillside block of land she bought in Hollywood. It was to be a little artistic principality over which she would reside as queen, and Wright's design included a sumptuous home called Hollyhock House, terraced gardens and an open-air theater that was to be an artists' community. The two squabbled over money and remained at odds for 20 years, and in the end the theater was never built. Hollyhock House, with its pueblo-inspired design, spacious high-ceilinged rooms and splendid garden court,  is now the centerpiece of a public park. Barnsdall failed to create the almost Utopian artists' community that she believed would ennoble society, but it would have pleased her to know that her breathtakingly beautiful home serves such a useful purpose.
     If the relationship of Wright and Barnsdall was difficult, the one between Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth could be called impossible. At 42, single, and a nephrologist in Chicago, Farnsworth in 1945 had a small parcel of land by the Fox River, and engaged Mies to build her dream house. Instead, it became a minimalist nightmare. Now considered a masterpiece, Farnsworth's home was the first "glass box,'' essentially a flat-roofed, one-room house made with free-standing partitions and surrounded by see-through walls. The press mocked it, and crowds flocked on weekends to peer at the great man's folly and the woman inside it. For his part,  Mies deplored the heirlooms she put inside because they polluted the purity of his design. She complained when costs were too high, and when she refused to pay his fee, Mies sued.  Farnsworth countersued,  claiming he was a fraud and demanding the money  spent that exceeded his original estimate.
    Happier relationships resulted in two homes that perfectly suit the need of the women who live in them. Constance Perkins, an art professor at Occidental College, knew exactly what she wanted, and worked closely with Richard Neutra to achieve it. The house was to be both home and studio for a single woman, with walls to hang her paintings, shelves for books, doors and windows that let in plenty of light, and a small reflecting pool that meandered from outside to inside. All to be done on a tight budget. She got her wish, and as the photographs demonstrate, the home made for one woman's distinct needs, made "California Modern'' the future for modest, well-designed contemporary middle-class homes.
     For his mother, then in her 70s, Richard Venturi built a home in a Pennsylvania suburb that looked ahead to how she would have to live in advancing years. All the main rooms are on one floor. Venturi honored traditions of architectural history by including moldings, panel doors and a fireplace at the same time as he celebrated her way of life by planning antique and reproduction furniture that were reminders of their shared past as mother and son.

Sicily, My Love

In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu by Tony Ardizzone
(Picador; 339 pages)

   To Papa Santuzzu, laboring in the unforgiving stony fields of Sicily, the far-off land of "La Merica'' beckons.  He has heard others whisper of its three villages where a man can grow rich: New York, Brazil and Argentina. The Land of Plenty is not for him, for he would never abandon his beloved island of Sicilia. But for his seven children, to leave is to succeed, and as the years pass he sends them all across the sea.  Their ignorance of La Merica matches his. So many of the street signs in New York City say Ave, notices one son, that it must be a holy place. Author Tony Ardizzone has a blazing imagination, and makes the everyday struggles and joys of the Santuzzu family into a magical, moving novel of Italian-American life in the early part of the century. Steeped in the history of the times, it's a book to be read slowly and savored.
     By turns, the Santuzzu brothers, sisters and spouses tell of theiradventures and confusions, as if following an old custom of  sitting at night before a roaring fire, passing stories one to another until the circle is complete. The living commune with the dead. They are irreverent: God is talked about as just another old man who wants "to sit back in his most comfortable chair and listen to Verdi on the radio.'' Nature is revealed in human terms, as old myths come alive to fit the present, and fables of people transformed into animals take a modern turn. Before departing for La America, son Luigi becomes  a bandit, howling and joining the wolf pack of men who live in the hills and rob the wealthy, callous landowners who make life miserable for the peasants. Catholic miracles occur in the new land, and to one granddaughter the Madonna shows her surprising feminist side. For most of the family, life is harsh. They left with hope only to find life equally hard in cities of their adopted homeland. Not only are the streets not paved with gold, they aren't even paved and it is the immigrant sons of Italy who are expected to pave them.
     Gaetanu, the eldest, discovers work in the dark satanic mills of Massachusetts to be more hurtful to the soul and body than tilling the barren soil at home. The youngest daughter, Assunta is condemned  by a university dean as coming from a race of criminals. This paragon of higher education claims that Italians as a race, "have weak chins, low foreheads, little or no intellect, are short in stature, volatile, unstable, and lacking in any morality.'' Hearing this, her rich suburban boyfriend abandons the pregnant Assunta, and she becomes a proud, ahead-of-her-time single Mom.
      At home, Papa Santuzzu rejoices that he has done the right thing by sending away his family. Alone, he is surrounded by memory, seeing in his barren field a garden where everyone from his past joins in a dance of joy with Sicilians of an older time who worshipped  ancient gods in temples long since destroyed. After all the years of difficulties and small triumphs, the scattered family of Papa Santuzzu reunites in New York City for  a funeral and pours out their grief. The oldest daughter reflects: "Now that we're put our own brother--our own flesh-- into the ground, now we truly belonged to this place.'' After his death, America is no longer a new place for them. The words "family values'' have become cheapened in past years; with this poetic book, Ardizzone gives them dignity and worth.

And Consider This:

Central Station directed by Walter Salles

     Brazil's most acclaimed actress is Fernanda Montenegro, and she has been a star on TV and in films since the '60s. Moviegoers in the U.S. hadn't known much about her until this year when she was nominated for an Academy Award for her brilliant portrayal of a bitter woman's trip with a young boy to find his father. To earn a living, a former teacher (Montenegro) has set herself up in Rio's Central Station as a letter-writer. She takes the money of the illiterate people, but doesn't mail their correspondence. Life is hard, she seems to believe, and to survive, you have to be harder. Against her better judgment, she befriends a boy--after first selling him to a corrupt adoption arranger--and together they head out for the interior of the country. For her it is a journey into the mysterious places of the heart.
     Montenegro deserved her nomination--and some would say, ought to have won the award. Certainly it was the least glamorous role to be so honored in many years, and its greatness lies in its simplicity. On Monetenegro's plain, worn face and in her sad, brown eyes, we see the cynical, cold-hearted woman slowly being warmed and redeemed by love and goodness.


Interview by Claudia Dreifus
(Seven Stories: 337 pages)

Reporters ask  questions,  and people give  answers. It sounds so simple, but it isn't. Claudia Dreifus, who is a contributing writer at the New York Times, shows how it is done in this new paperback of her 1997 collection--which includes four more recent interviews--of some of her perceptive sessions with the famous and celebrated she has conducted over a period of years. The parade of names is striking. She has talked to the Dalai Lama and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Mel Brooks and Benazir Bhutto, to General John Shalikashvili and Toni Morrison. Dreifus is a veteran journalist and has an uncanny way of getting people to open up about themselves. The great interviewers are seducers, she asserts in the introduction to the book, and one of the great secrets of interviewing, is ''its unspoken sexual element.''


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