Uncle Tom's Crabbin'

Tom Wolfe's lackadaisical performance at Columbia was typical of celebrities recruited to add star power to academic events, and he showed up without seemingly having done a bit of preparation.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

It's been more than twenty-five years since Tom Wolfe became America's most widely read architecture critic with his 1981 best-seller, From Bauhaus to Our House, perhaps the most ill-informed book ever written about architecture. Time has dimmed neither its splenetic malice nor joyful ignorance, but what about the 75-year-old Wolfe himself? To find out, I went up to Columbia University recently to hear him participate in a symposium on New York City architecture.

The Virginia-born Wolfe, who lives on Manhattan's East 79th Street, caused a stir in November with his New York Times op-ed piece denouncing a 30-story glass condominium tower by Sir Norman Foster, proposed for a site atop a low-rise structure on Madison Ave. between 76th and 77th Streets.

Wolfe's op-ed stem-winder was widely seen as decisive in sending the Foster scheme to defeat last month, but the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has rejected so much new construction within the Upper East Side Historic District of late, the outcome of the hearing was already a foregone conclusion.

At Columbia, Wolfe slipped comfortably back into the rocking chair on the veranda of his mind. His lackadaisical performance was typical of celebrities recruited to add star power to academic events, and he showed up without seemingly having done a bit of preparation. His rambling anecdote about a 1968 lunch with Marshall McLuhan in the garden at Lutèce (baffled-looking students may have thought Lou-Tess was some Harlem chicken-and-waffles joint) revealed his deep anti-Modernist bias. "Marshall said that someday New York would no longer make anything, but that people would come here solely to be entertained. And he was right! People come here to see old things."

Sez who, as they say in Brooklyn? The last time I checked, people were drawn to the Big Apple because this is where everything new can be found: new fashions, new foods, new clubs, new plays, new art, new everything. Nothing can make a native New Yorker feel more provincial than to have friends arrive with a detailed agenda of all the new things they want to see, none of which you've gotten around to yet.

Most shocking was Wolfe's plan for future development of the Upper East Side neighborhood he'd just saved from destruction. As he said (and here I slightly paraphrase): "What I'd do is take that old World War I concrete gun emplacement with all those slits for artillery and snipers to shoot at the shoppers on Madison Avenue [he meant the Whitney], and move all its art over to the old Huntington Hartford gallery at 2 Columbus Circle. Now, of course the Huntington Hartford is only half as big as the Whitney, but given the art, that would be all to the good. Then the Whitney could be torn down, the land sold to some developer for a fortune, and a nice office building be built in its place." After which the white-suited savant leaned back and enjoyed a self-satisfied chuckle.

Popular in the Community