Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Frank Lloyd Wright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Lloyd Wright. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Regular readers will remember the entry a few weeks back about HG Wells saying, “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere and I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.”

Well, life being like that, I just came across an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright, which suggests he took a very different view. That’s a picture of him below, with his wife Oglivanna, walking along the esplanade at Florida Southern College.

The anecdote is as follows: Wright was nine years old, there was snow on the ground, and he went walking with a no-nonsense uncle.  After they’d crossed a snow-covered field the uncle stopped and looked back at their footsteps.  Then the uncle said, "Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again.  And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that."

Wright reckoned there was a quite different lesson from the one his uncle intended, one that changed his outlook on life. "I determined right then, not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had."

I think Wright never walked around the finished Ennis House – he fell out with his clients and his son took over.  There’s evidence however of some quite spectacular walking around the place, organized by Helmut Newton.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


On Sunday afternoon the Loved One and I walked over to stare at the outside of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, the one that used to be know as the Ennis-Brown House, the one that looks like a Mayan temple, or (depending on its state or repair, which fluctuates alarmingly) like Mayan ruins.  Lord knows how many millions of dollars have been spent on restoring it, and it still looks a bit crumbly at the edges, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it's certainly been much, much worse.

To get there we walked along Los Feliz Boulevard, and boy, the street was full of Sunday afternoon walkers, couples, singles families, some with dogs, some with strollers, various ages and ethnicities.  Heck, it felt like a real boulevard, a real promenade, although of course it lacked the charming cafes and bars that would have been on a French boulevard, and it lacked the fish and chips and “kiss me quick” hats there’d have been on an English promenade, but for supposedly pedestrian-hostile Los Angeles, it looked pretty friendly.

I’d printed off a yahoo map showing me the route to the Ennis House, but I got confused and I misread it.  We should have walked up the Berendo Street Stairs, but like a fool I missed them, and I took us up the steep curves of Glendower Avenue instead.  It was no problem but I’d have preferred to use the stairs.

There is something great about LA’s flights of stairs, they’re not like stairs anywhere else.  And when I first moved here I bought the book Stairway Walks in Los Angeles  by Adah Bakalinsky and Larry Gordon, not least because I lived at the top of a flight of stairs in Silver Lake.  I used the book to do a few of the walks in that neighborhood, including the Vendome Steps, which are the ones Laurel and Hardy have such trouble with in the movie The Music Box.   

And I did the stairs of Whitley Heights and some in Castlemmarre (below), which were fictionalized by Raymond Chandler in Farewell My Lovely.

In the introduction to the book the authors say, “Los Angeles has more than 200 stairways; they qualify Los Angeles as a walking city.”  Well, as Ernst Hemingway might say, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  The authors also describe the Ennis Brown house as being made of “cinder blocks of grayish color.” Frank Lloyd Wright, and his fans (and I’m one of them) would much prefer the term “textile block,” and I think in general they're more sand-colored, though admittedly some of the more beat-up ones do have a grubby tinge.

One of the great features of the walk is that right before you get to the Ennis you pass a fairy tale house, complete with a witch for a weather vane. 

You walk a little further and you see the Ennis House rising above and behind the curvy, gingerbread tile roof: a couple of competing Hollywood fairy tales.

So we went and looked at the house, walked around it, took a few photographs, wondered if the restoration would ever be finished and what “finished” even meant in this context.  There were some lights on inside, but the place didn’t look inhabited and we wondered if it was even habitable, and it certainly it was hard to imagine how anyone ever would or could ever live comfortably there.

As is the way of these things, the incidentals were at least as enjoyable as journey's end.  We came across an extraordinary tree, much of it leaning out across the sidewalk, evidently leaning too far, and so somebody had put a metal strut under the main bough to keep it up, but then the weight of the tree had bent the strut and so they’d added another. 

But then the struts had penetrated the branch itself, which had continued to grow around them, so that the ends were now incorporated into the wood.  The Loved One, who has a mind like a sewer, decided to call it “the DP tree.”

There was also this plane-shaped weather vane which made a nice contrast with the witch version. Small pleasures to be sure, but any pleasure is worth holding on to.

On the way back we walked past the top of St Michael’s Stairs (discussed elsewhere in this blog) and passed a young woman walking by herself, holding a copy of a guide book – not the same staircase book that I have, but the other one, Secret Stairs by Charles Fleming.  Who’d have thought there’d be two?  We exchanged a few words with the girl about the joy of staircases, L.A. and pedestrianism.  We Hollywood walkers like to do that kind of thing.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


In general I like to have a destination when I walk, even if it’s only the local book store or supermarket. But since I lead a sedentary life, working at home, once in a while I step outside my front door and simply walk around the neighborhood for half an hour or forty five minutes, for the sake of a break, and in the belief that walking is in itself an inherently good thing.

As I was growing up, whenever my dad or granddad or one of my uncles went out for no apparent reason, my mother or one of the other female relatives would always ask where they were going and why. More often than not, the reply was, “There and back to see how far it is.” This meant, essentially, “Mind your own business.” But it’s a phrase I often find myself using, and in my own case it means that I’m going out walking for the sake of walking.

To some limited extent this is what the psychogeographers mean when they speak of “locomotion without a goal.” I don’t have a route planned, and I don’t have a destination in mind, beyond the fact that sooner rather than later I want to end up back where I started.

I like to say I live on the “lower slopes” of the Hollywood Hills, hilly for sure but not those vertiginous crests and canyons you get up in the heights, and it’s undeniably pleasant, but I’m sure some of my higher altitude neighbors would think I lived in a slum. The houses tend to be quirky because they’ve been shoe-horned into quirky bits of land, and there are all the usual Hollywood Hills features, palm trees, banks of bougainvillea, the occasional and always empty swimming pool, the not quite convincing security signs that say “armed response,” though you wouldn’t want to put them to the test.

Having lived in the same house for seven years or so now, I’ve walked and continue to walk all the streets in the immediate vicinity, but I don’t walk them all “equally.” There are certain streets I walk all the time, certain streets I go along only once in a while. And there are certain streets I walk hardly at all, for perfectly good reasons, because they’re so steep, or because there’s a blind corner and no sidewalk and I don’t want to get run down by some twerp in a Range Rover who’s on his cell phone, wheeling and dealing while he drives. Or because the houses have vicious dogs in their yrads, and OK, the dogs are behind fences or railings but some of these beasts look like they could chew through chain mail. Who needs it? On the other hand, I don’t want to feel I have to avoid certain places in my own neighborhood, so I walk along these dodgy streets once in a while, climbing one in three gradients, risking vehicular death, with Hound of Baskerville-style howls echoing after me.

One of the pleasures of walking the same route regularly is that you observe how things change. You see trees and plants growing, coming into flower, fading, maybe dying. You notice that somebody’s got a new car, a new fence, a new spouse, a new baby. You see that a house is being refurbished, and then you see it go up for sale. And then somebody moves in, then a year later it all happens again.

Of course there are some spots that I always hit, view points, scenic overlooks. One of them looks west over the Hollywood Freeway, toward the ocean, though from that particular place there are mountains blocking the sightline. And sometimes the air itself is a blockage.

Another one looks east, through somebody’s euphorbia and cactus garden to give a hazy view of downtown. From there you also see Western Avenue, running due south, dead straight, as far as the eye can see, further than you’d ever want to walk.

And when I walk with other people, I always take them past the Samuels-Navarro house, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1928, and later owned by Diane Keaton and Christina Ricci, among others. I regard people’s reaction to the house as a kind of a Rorschach test. If they say, “What a great house,” I know they’re part of my tribe. If they say, “What’s that weird ugly monstrosity?” then I know they’re not.

This being the Hollywood Hills I only see a very few fellow, solitary walkers. It’s rare enough that we always nod a kind of greeting but I’ve never had a conversation with any of these people, whereas I chat all the time with people who are out walking their dogs. I learn the names, the ages, the personalities, the frailties, of the dogs, but never anything at all about the owners.

I don’t usually carry my camera with me, because it seems to get in the way, both of walking and observing, but as you see, once in a while I do take it, and sometimes I’m very glad of it, when I see that impossible to repeat moment: a blimp, a deer, an inflatable dinosaur, the smoke from a fire in Griffith Park.

Heraclitus says, and I believe him, that you can’t jump in the same river twice. By that token, I suppose you can’t walk in the same street twice. So I also wonder if you can ever go home twice. Or once. By the time you get home from a walk, home is no longer precisely what it was when you left. While you were out walking, the butterfly of chaos theory flapped its wings; the universe, and your home, will have changed forever. Of course this is no reason not to go walking: since all is flux, the butterfly would have flapped its wings in any case. And for that matter, the very act of going for a walk will (in however slight a way) have changed you too. That’s a very good reason to go walking.