“Why?!” Cruz Garcia just about screamed from the back of our car after only a few hours of our three-day drive from Wisconsin to Arizona. “Why, when you have a landscape like this, do you make buildings like that!?”
This became a refrain as the Puerto Rican-born architect and his French wife, Nathalie Frankowski, stared out the window at a landscape they had never seen and that filled them with wonder and frustration in equal parts. Their perspective on both the natural and the human-made landscapes of this great country, though familiar in parts, helped my husband, Peter, and myself look at our country in new ways.
We were “migrating” on our semi-annual trek between the original Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and our winter home at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., and had taken Cruz and Nathalie—co-partners in WAI Architecture Think Tank and Garcia Frankowski, who are teaching as our Visiting Fellows—with us. We drove from the almost absurdly picturesque valleys of Wisconsin through stretches of less drama in Minnesota and South Dakota, onto the badlands and the rising prairie of Wyoming, down through Jackson Hole, into the sprawl and the long undulations of the Great Basin and, with a brief detour to Bryce Canyon, into the high desert of Arizona. We weren’t there to see sites, instead motoring through at just above the speed limit for days on end, but the near incessant clicking of twin cameras in the back seats made it clear our (semi-) foreign guests considered everything you could see from the highway as a scene worth recording.
Like so many visitors who had crossed the continent for the first time before them (Cruz, though an American, had not been outside of his native Puerto Rico, the East Coast, Chicago, and San Francisco; and Nathalie had seen even less of the country), they were enamored of the most simple and utilitarian structures. Their Facebook album presents an unending stream of silos, barns, storage sheds, and power plants. The clarity of the forms, their reduced palette of materials, and the way these structures stood both in and against the landscape seemed right to them.
What they did not deem proper was “all those gables and sheds and all that decoration and all that stuff everywhere.” In other words, they cared neither for the embellishments we so falsely call vernacular, nor the oozing of forms into malformed miasmas of commercial and residential constructions. They admitted that you might need to keep the rain and the snow off, but “even then, as Nathalie said, “it could just be so much simpler.”
It was not until we came to the Tetons that they finally succumbed to wonder pure and simple. Marveling at the pinnacles rising out of the forests, all Cruz could say was: “Crazy.” He repeated that phrase four times during a half-hour walk through Bryce Canyon the next day.
Even then, he looked at architecture with a modernist designer’s eye: “You see," Cruz argued in the Tetons, “When you look at those ridges, they seem to be concrete. Nature knows.” They loved the most abstract, empty landscapes. But they were not looking for forms to imitate them: “This just shows that nature will always win. She is always better. So you should not even try. You should do something different.”
The sentiments were not exactly new. The photographs they took and the views they expressed reminded me of nothing so much as Erich Mendelsohn’s Amerika (Dover Publications, 1926), a collection of almost a hundred photographs that German architect took while traveling across the country. Like Garcia and Frankowski, he was enamored by the geometry and the confidence of American architecture at its most utilitarian, and, like them he liked best when it stood in clear opposition to the magnificence of our landscape.
By the second day and for hours on end, the usually motor-mouthed Garcia sat silently, staring out at the landscape, clicking away, absorbed by what this country is. On the third day he pronounced, I think without realizing the political nature of his statement: “America really is great.”
Then we sped into the sprawl of Phoenix, all of us tensing up as the subdivisions and malls closed in around the freeway. Or so I thought: “I recognize this,” Cruz said, spinning his head around to look at the panorama of beige and red tile roofs and then relaxing into his seat; “This feels like Puerto Rico.” Leave the greatness of America’s landscape and enter into its human terrain anywhere, and you are, however strange and sad that might seem, at home.