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Bonfire of the Memory

May 19, 2018


Tom Wolfe had the name of an 18th century author and the absurd affect of a dandy.

But his presence, and now death, are catalysts of memory.

The Wolfe Era is most often a chuckling embarrassment of shoulder pads, suspenders, outsized eyeglasses, cocaine and Merit cigarettes. Boomers were in budding bloom and New York City seemed to be their Happy Place. Design had opened up beyond white abstraction, women were in ascending power, and it seemed that the fax machine, Sony Walkman and 8 Show VCR recordings off cable TV promised a new wave of technology.
Kids were sometime later. AIDS was not raging yet. We were happily deluded in wine and cigars, MBA’s, and Nouvelle Cuisine.

Into that came the Dandy, fully 25 years older than me, spewing venom on the mid-century “Whites” (yes, males, but actually their buildings, too). The snark was dripping from his book about architecture “From Bauhaus to Our House”
It was sassy FU to an entrenched elite that had had a strangle hold on everything architectural since World War 2. But it was as brief and deep as a 1978 one night stand or a coke high.

Just like my generation rejected the counterculture and hippie revolutions of fighting the Vietnam War and not shaving, many saw the hip righteousness of Wolfe’s bitchy send up of the comical architectural fashion mobs that are always there. These mockable posers were just this century’s mass pandering behind defendable images and words. He created a new alternative: those architects who saw and used the intended irony of history, humor and human idiosyncrasy to make some interesting buildings. And many bad ones.

But the glib basis of rejection was unsustainable.

The emperor may have no clothes, but unless you have a suit that fits, he is still naked when outed. PoMo’s clothing was as arch and costume deep as Wolfe’s suit. But the humor, history and humanity were joyous to embrace in making things.

It meant imitation of correct Modernism was simply an excuse because there were huge new (and yet ancient) areas of aesthetic manipulation that made for richness, fit and subtleties few abstractions can realize.

But polished bright brass was not a precious metal. Al Sharpton stretching out his cheeks and jogging sweats in bloviation was a cartoon character amid deep and disturbing cultural warps of centuries’ generation. Wolfe’s Post Modernism was a one liner of mockery to a real problem of deep absence from popular culture that mid-century Modernist Canon desperately sought to reject.

Well, people like Vincent Scully, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Charlie Moore had the Ivy chops, intellectual depth and writing skills to call out the absurdities of pretension in a bloated hierarchy of the defendable in fine arts architecture. Modernism was pretty easy to draw compared to its predecessors, and its aesthetic was also easy to apply and no existing anything around it needed any attention.

If everything is abstraction, and history is dead, and we are called, in fact morally required, to reinvent the human condition, it meant that architects were key to our future, the culture’s ultimate progress. Wolfe cat-called that affect, but revealed more in stilted silliness than offering thoughtful alternatives.

So the brief, loud veneers of a couple of decades of Not Modern was soon crib killed by its own cliches and shallow mimicry. That baby of invigorating design of the Post Modern Burp was short lived when it was thrown out with the bath water of delighted irreverence marked by Wolfe in his book.

But Wolfe’s death is now largely cast in remembrance of his book “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. It perfectly captured the pivot between the “Captains of the Universe” where “Greed (and those shoulder pads and suspenders) is good” and the grimey brittleness of the Greatest Generation’s world coming to an end.

The ironies of the era are not lost on me. I lived them. In fact, I and my intimates lived “Bonfire” a decade before it happened in print. The moment was made clearer and more absurd by Wolfe’s novel 10 years later.

It was 1975, Christmas break. I was briefly home from college with my parents in the suburbs of New York. The love of my middle college years joined us. She, 20, was a perfect young lady – congressman’s daughter, a College Scholar at Cornell with me, with a fully formed and loving family of a century or two of upstate New York provenance, and pretty as a button. My parents loved her, and wanted to fete her, with me, with their friends, who, having gone to Princeton, had access to the Club on 44th Street (43rd?).

After the meal, at the classic, Modern dining hall, we toddled to our family 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser Station Wagon and ascended up the highway through the Bronx for the 30 minute ride to Dobbs Ferry. All good. My father had behaved in the presence of my visitor, and we would soon be in each other’s young arms.

Then the car stopped Cruising.

The pleasant Ivy Midtown Buzz was instantly replaced with the fears of an alternative universe that was crashing into our 65mph portal.

The lack of power meant my father quickly exited off the elevated highway. He rolled, powerlessly down the ramp to a lit gas station at about 10pm. The station sat at the bottom of the off ramp, and it was in the 180’s of Bronx Streets in 1975. For my parents, it might as well have been the the battlefields of Cambodia, filled with Khmer Rouge.

The Hispanic owner was of the gas station could not have been more welcoming. He immediately got on the phone as the four of us, insanely Caucasian, huddled in the early winter chill.

A cab was called and he promised to “fix the car.” (It seemed there were blown rings and roached cylinders.)
The cab came, whisked us away to the suburbs, and within a week my parents had a “new” (from somewhere) engine in our car – for the absurdly low cost of $400 – cash. Reality was both polite and effective, versus the grinding fear of the unknown.

In our Bonfire there was no explosion of cultures, values, egos, and drama. There were humans who were vulnerable, those who were honest, help was given, gratitude and cash was exchanged. It was, in reality, no Bonfire.

It was before AIDS, the S&L Crisis, even Law & Order.

It was life. No snark despite the complexities and ignorance of everyone involved, my relationship ended, the car finally died, as did my parents. As did Tom Wolfe. But my life has had a 43 year continuance, so far.

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