The Extra Mile

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in The Silicon Alley Reporter
March, 1999

In Praise of Simplicity "When I wrote the following pages, I lived alone, a mile from any neighbor, in a house that I had built myself, on the shores of Walden pond..." --Henry David Thoreau in Walden "I loved the prairie by instinct, as, itself, a great simplicity; the trees, the flowers and sky were thrilling by contrast. " --Frank Lloyd Wright, discussing his design for the Mile High Illinois building "The spiritual path, as Meister Eckhart observed, has more to do with subtraction than with addition. It is not so much a matter of adding all the active virtues to one's practice of living as of relinquishing everything that can possibly be abandoned. How much can you leave behind?" --Belden C. Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes _____________________________________________________________ In 1852, Henry David Thoreau walked into the woods outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts, looking for something he thought he had lost. Concord and the neighboring towns west of Boston in 1850 might appear to today's New Yorker like a pretty good example of simple life. But Thoreau saw in the people of the towns all the symptoms of civilization's enslaving of the mind and spirit. In the grind of salaried labor, the cycles of work and consumption, the inability to be happy with everyday gifts, Thoreau saw something to escape. He chose a site near Walden Pond to build the house where he would live for the next two years, on lake fish, the yield of his gardens and the growing exhileration he felt in inventing an alternative to the prison of "civilized life." Thoreau's breakthrough was simplicity--reducing the need to work, spend, and consume, and heightening the life of the senses, the body and the mind. Walden became the blueprint for an individualism and self-reliance which remains singularly American--the secular antidote to the numbess and alienation or commercial life. The critic Alfred Kazin once described Walden as "a kind of racial memory of the wilderness we have all lost." When I was a kid I found a large cloth-bound volume in a stack of art books and turned back the gatefold. As I unfolded it, page after page, my eyes widened and eventually focussed in stunned fascination. Spread horizontally across eight creased pages were the plans for Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile-High building. A century after Walden, a thousand miles to the west, Wright had produced the plans for this visionary building after a proposal crossed his desk for a mile-high TV tower. Just as Americans had, when Wright first published his unbuildable blueprint in the 1950s, I understood it immediately, with a shudder of frightened excitement. This unthinkably steep stone-and-steel pyramid--designed to house 45,000 people, 15,000 cars, 100 helicopters, and a system of glass enclosed nuclear-powered elevators--described a future in which mankind and technology were streamlined together into a fluid and supremely elegant destiny. It's structural simplicity was the most striking aspect of its power. Rising from the Illinois plains, "a rapier," wrote Wright, "with handle the breadth of the hand, set firmly into the ground, blade upright..." This imaginary building promised to each citizen--not just of Chicago, but of Wright's America--an elevated consciousness that would mirror the consolidation of industrial progress, and a simpler, clearer society based on the laws of nature. Wright's vision--in Mile High and the entire body of populist architeture which preceded it--expressed the project of modernism as the creation of a society guided by its artisans and planners into a kind of "progress" which would uplift and not drain the spirit. Thoreau's trek into the solitude beyond the city, and Wright's trip a mile up into the dream of a sweeter capitalism are now archival documents. In place of their All-American zen, the cities have sprawled outward into office parks and suburbs; and fissures have spread through the monolithic structures which had framed Cold War consciousness. The notion of Simplicity in its American form--the economy of spirit, of design, of daily life--is rapidly becoming a footnote in our overcrowded cultural history. So consider this column a challenge, O titans of industry, designers, petty capitalists, meme stylists, architects of the invisible empire. As you build the digital universe alongside our own, how much of the old world's clutter, waste and pollution do you dare to leave behind? Will you embrace simplicity and kiss it full on the lips? Think how much better you'll feel.