Regarding verticals, I have a natural bent

Some clouds have silvery linings. If our new neighbor - truly a charming man - had not suddenly had a new telephone pole erected in the corner of his garden, I would never have discovered that there is a place called "Pole Objections, Communications House, Shrewsbury."

The pole in question was put up without the due process of consultation. Unfortunately, it seriously compromises our view, between trees, across the magnificent city of Glasgow. It also seems like a rude monolith against the open sky to our American neighbors further down. They object to the pole, too. Vigorously. We hope to have the pole moved.

If, however, the pole remains unmoved, I suppose we will learn to love it. I have to admit that it starts out with a certain advantage in terms of lovability. This advantage is that it hasn't completely forgotten it was once a tree trunk. It has a natural sort of curve to it. It appears to lean. The telephone man admits that it looks like a banana. But he explains: "The trouble is there are no quality checks on pole straightness these days." He would like to have erected a perfectly vertical pole, but there it is. He's sorry, but the matter is completely out of his hands.

Part of me likes a touch of warp and quirkiness. We live in such a relentlessly right-angled world! A slight deviation from precise rectilinearity at first strikes us as unacceptable. But it could make a welcome change now and then.

I must admit, though, that my role as a weekend do-it-yourself home handyman of apparently endless continuance means that I have developed (under the exigencies of this particular aspect of marital bliss) a keen sensitivity to exact verticality. A spirit level is among my closest friends. In fact, I have developed something of an obsession with perfect verticals and horizontals. In short, I may have turned into Mondrian.

Piet Mondrian, you will doubtless recall, was the Dutch artist who refined his paintings relentlessly until his visual vocabulary consisted of only absolute verticals and horizontals.

An English painter I knew named Winifred Nicholson, whose overriding interest was edgeless color and light, was a friend of Mondrian in Paris - though their art seemed poles apart. She described how they had escaped on the same train to England when the Nazi threat loomed. For a moment she'd thought his fascinated gaze out of the compartment was directed at the lush green of grass and tree. "How beautiful, how peaceful it is," she thought.

But then she noticed that Mondrian wasn't looking at the grass and trees at all. " 'Look ... how they pass, they pass, they pass' he said..... [A]nd I realized," Winifred wrote later, "that what delighted him were the telegraph poles - the verticals that cut the horizontal of the horizon."

Twentieth-century modern architects agreed with Mondrian that the world must be rectangular. But there were rare exceptions who didn't aspire toward verticality, but toward the natural. Gaudi, the Barcelona architect, is the supreme example of this, making columns that lean like trees bent by ocean gales. Trees were his inspiration rather than geometry.

Today some architects dream (often on computers) of a totally organic architecture utterly liberated from verticals and horizontals. Perhaps these could exist only in weightless space. But some earthbound buildings exist that, to outward appearance, seem to escape the tyranny of verticals and horizontals. Their exteriors look like exploded carapaces.

But are their interiors as destabilized as their exteriors suggest? Even Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York (an ancestor, perhaps, of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain), with its spiraling ramp, resolves itself inevitably into the stability and horizontality of its main floor. Perhaps Mondrian's vision is inescapable.

But then I only have to stroll down our local avenues to wonder if Mondrian's strict verticals aren't a fiction. The houses are little more than a century old, yet I am reliably informed that the living room floor in one is four inches lower at one end than at the other. Many of the bulky stone gateposts lean back, forward, or to the side. The red cast iron mailboxes angle charmingly up from the street. Several garages appear to have subsided. The reinforced-concrete lamp posts - probably half the age of the houses - in some cases tip quite radically one way or another.

At the foot of the avenue, the street sign is a fair imitation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I suspect it was hit by a truck some dark night. My point is that there is a lot of leaning around the place. It doesn't seem to trouble anyone, and I wouldn't have it otherwise.

There is a comfortableness about it all that suggests a century's reasonable settling and a gently cavalier defiance of the laws of gravity. What harm does a little leaning do?

An artist who admired and learned from Mondrian was Ben Nicholson. Winifred was Ben's first wife. Their daughter Kate, also a painter, once took me to see a private art collection. The only work in it I remember now - vividly - was by her father. It was an incisive, almost spare drawing called "A Concourse of Trees." The tree trunks follow a sort of line, but there is not one of them that doesn't lean. This leaning somehow leads the eye persuasively into the drawing's airy spaces.

Nicholson was a master of forms and shapes that lean into spaces. Quite unlike Mondrian, his particular subtlety was not in absolute uprights, but in the space-defining tensions described by leaning, angled lines and forms.

It should hardly be surprising that Nicholson was fascinated by the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He made a number of drawings of it. The tower is the campanile or bell tower for the cathedral close by, but separate from it. Visitors were still allowed to climb the tower's spiral staircase when I first saw it. I took the opportunity. It was a strangely unconventional experience. Different.

One of Nicholson's drawings of Pisa shows the leaning tower as a mere background outline, with the cathedral itself to one side of it more fully described. This elaborately decorative building is, in fact, perfectly upright. But Nicholson's telling mischief led him to a speculative question: What if the tower's lean were the norm? To test this notion he drew the cathedral as if it leans quite as much as its famous and wonderful tower. You can do this sort of thing in a drawing or painting. In practice, builders and architects can't usually exercise their imaginations quite so freely.

Unless, of course, they are simply erecting a pole in a garden. Why would that have to be absolutely straight? Who's objecting?

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