Paul Greenberg

Somebody ought to put in a good word for prejudice.

Somebody has.

Among the many wise things in Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" is a subtle and insightful defense of prejudice in human affairs. By prejudice, he didn't mean what the word has come to mean - a stupid bigotry. He was referring to the customs, traditions and feelings that we acquire almost instinctively.

No wonder Burke foresaw early on what a bloody experiment the French Revolution would prove, for it was not moored in the natural affections and experiences, but in abstract theories about society - theories that inevitably prove tyrannical when humans set out to remake the species according to some revolutionary's plan.

Burke saw that we don't reason our way to our best and deepest beliefs any more than we talk ourselves into love or patriotism. We don't love a country or a painting on the basis of some theory. We just do. Call it a prejudice.

I love Arkansas and I love Chicago.

Of course I would love Arkansas. This place took me in when I needed somewhere to light. I've lived and worked and raised a family here. Gratitude is a kind of prejudice, too. And a powerful one.

Why Chicago? It's still the center of my by now far-extended family, where my grandfather settled when he came from the old country. I still go back there for weddings and, God forbid, funerals. (I'm just back from the bar mitzvah of a first cousin twice removed.)

I saw my first Major League ballgame at Comiskey Park on the South Side, the old Comiskey Park, so long ago that the original Connie Mack was managing the visiting team - the old Philadelphia Athletics. He was wearing his powder-blue suit, which set off his white hair, and still using his scorecard to signal plays from the dugout. Go, White Sox!

All of which may explain why, when either Arkansas or Chicago triumphs, I bask in undeserved pride. And when either disappoints, I'm saddened.

I thought about all that when I read that Fay Jones' masterwork, Thorncrown Chapel at Eureka Springs, Ark., had received this year's 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects. The award recognizes a design that after 25 years still inspires.

And Thorncrown certainly does. It's a prayer itself in glass and wood and leafy green. It's less a building than an aspiration.

In 2000, the nation's architects designated Thorncrown, which cost $200,000 to build in 1980, as the fourth-best building of the 20th century. Not bad for a modest investment.

Chosen the best building of the 20th century was Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, of course.

No. 2 was the Chrysler Building in New York, whose Art Deco flair makes even the Empire State Building look pedestrian, and made the late World Trade Center seem just a couple of huge, misaligned impediments on the horizon.

The architects' pick for No. 3, mysteriously, was that bourbon-brown, out-of-context slab called the Seagram Building in Manhattan. (There's no accounting for tastes, as the old lady said when she kissed the pig.)

No doubt it's my prejudices talking again, but Chicago's architecture appeals in a way New York's no longer can - the way beauty outshines mere size, and grace shames flamboyance.

Whether we're talking deep-dish pizzas, corned-beef sandwiches, Polish sausages or architecture, Chicago makes New York look like Second City.

Chicago's architecture always seemed more human and humane, for man should be the measure of all things architectural. Chicago is Midwestern-open, New York the imposing East.

Chicago was destined to be the home of the Prairie School of (very) American architecture that produced Frank Lloyd Wright, who in turn taught and inspired a gifted young Arkansan named Euine Fay Jones.

Like his mentor, Fay Jones would make tradition and modernity, decoration and function, outdoor and indoor, one. Fay Jones' creations, like Frank Lloyd Wright's, grew out of the land rather than being imposed on it.

And now, once again, the work of Arkansas' own Frank Lloyd Wright has not escaped his profession's notice. How could it? Thorncrown's place in the history and, one hopes, the future of American architecture is assured. What it has, and what cannot be reproduced by today's globalized architectural firms/factories, is a distinct sense of place. When it comes to reflecting that quality, no assembly line can match the lone craftsman with a sense of place.

Fay Jones had the sense and sensibility to stay in Arkansas. Even when he designed buildings elsewhere, he brought to them an understanding rooted in his native state. He understood there is a great future in the past, and chose to stay close to his. His decision, his prejudice in favor of his own if you will, would be validated again and again by the recognition his work continues to receive.

There's a lesson in all this for young talents everywhere: True greatness does not require leaving. It may require staying. For there's no place like home. Call that another prejudice of mine.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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