April 25, 2010


We recently went to Olana for the first time in eleven years. It’s a very strange place. In 1867, the hugely successful landscape painter Frederick Church bought the hill top site overlooking the property where he and his wife Isabel had built a cottage six years previously. Soon thereafter they traveled to the Levant, and Church decided to build their grand new house on the hill in what he surmised to be the Persian style. The result is an orientalist fantasy way above the Hudson valley, commanding amazing views of the river and the precipitous Catskills beyond.

Never have I had a stronger sense of a building as an imposition. The site itself and the landscaping are quite wonderful, but the house exemplifies a double appropriation—of the place from its earlier inhabitants (accomplished, of course, long before Church’s own acquisition of the land), and of the decorative vocabulary of the entire building. It would seem to be the architectural equivalent of Mark Twain’s bemused account of his travels to the Levant in 1867, The Innocents Abroad (1869). There is no immersion here, no grasp of the innards of a cultural manner, as Church’s contemporary, the British painter Frederic Leighton attempted in the extensions to his London house, notably the Arab Hall (1877-79).

Does Olana represent supreme cultural self-confidence on Church’s part, implying that he was free to imitate any style he fancied to produce the domestic stage set of his choice quite arbitrarily—French chateau (his first idea), superseded by Persian, and again (in his studio addition of 1888-91), Mexican? Or does it suggest inescapable cultural shallowness, in the sense of eclecticism betraying a lack of firm cultural identity? Why did Church buy cut-price Old Master paintings for his dining room, yet import white donkeys from Syria to take visitors up the switchback track to the house? Everything was for effect, it seems.

Olana is an appropriation of whatever happened to take Church’s fancy in the world of surfaces (Oscar Wilde’s phrase) he inhabited as a tourist. It may be the product of what we might term provincial cosmopolitanism—but the view can’t be beat.