Getting it Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright - The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
January 10, 1997

The fairy godmother of modern architecture had, I think, two interdependent concerns: first that it should not be swayed by the dead hand of the past, as in revivalism, and second that the spiritual freedom of the individual should be its aim. Frank Lloyd Wright sired such an ethos in America and publication of his early work by Wasmuth in Berlin (in 1910, one year after the first Futurist manifesto) later led Mies van der Rohe to state that this had "invigorated a whole generation of young Europeans". And yet, after his fallow decade from 1922 (for building, not projects, as we shall see), Wright was elbowed back onto the prairie by the leaders of the European International Style. Despite his several major displays of sheer brilliance in terms of those original concerns and a plethora of Usonian houses, each one different, for middle-class Americans from the early 1930s to his death, aged 91, in 1959, for a long time now reference to Wright in most schools of architecture, almost anywhere, has been met with provincial nihilism.

Strange, for since the watershed of 30 years ago when what had been termed the "rational modern movement", itself arising from the International Style of the 1930s, dissipated largely into science-fictional materialism, or worse, fashionable games of inversion, we have had few examples of architecture that relate to the human soul as it happens to be. Stranger still is this predicament when we know that older architects of real worth - Aldo van Eyck, Giancarlo De Carlo, Jorn Utzon, Avaro Siza - all owe allegiance to Wright. Younger generations may have wrongly believed Wright to be a suburbanist, or been unfairly represented by writers who took advantage of his arrogance and "colourful" personal life but, if so, it only points to petty-mindedness obscuring underlying philosophy.

The most lamentable factor in all this is that so many architects, young and old, retain an interest in a master they can copy, as Le Corbusier was eminently copiable in his machine aesthetic phase (for example, Richard Meier's work). While Wright was influenced by many sources, some apparently curious, he was in no sense a revivalist but rather an original thinker. He could therefore not be copied slavishly, but for those with their own original streak, his use of reason in searching out truth might well be a guide.

Henry Russell Hitchcock's In the Nature of Materials (1942) was for 50 years the most authoritative work on Wright though it pleased neither its author nor its subject. Neil Levine's The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright is an important and eminently readable attempt to redress former imbalances with the advantage of reflection and the now well-organised Wright Archive. Not only did this master of modern architecture build far more than any of the other leaders - some 438 buildings (not to mention more than twice as many unbuilt projects and the writing of twenty books) - he belonged to the same generation as Lutyens, Behrens, Loos, Hoffman and Perret. Yet at 65 he was well able to compete with Gropius, Mies and Le Corbusier, all twenty years younger but now starting their maturity, to show how his ideas of "natural" and "organic" architecture could apply to the most up-to-date methods of construction and space formation, and to carry on for another quarter century producing winners.

While Levine takes us through the early period and prairie houses, the voluntary exile in Fiesole, the three Taliesins (East), the Imperial Hotel and the Pacific Rim buildings that followed, he is rightly more interested in the later period and Wright's arguments against the narrowness of the International Style. We are therefore taken in considerable detail through Fallingwater, Johnson Wax and Taliesin West before concentrating at length on the protracted design of the Guggenheim Museum, surely Wright's ultimate masterpiece. Fair explanations are also given of the final major projects, Bagdad and Marin County Civic Centre.

A useful aspect of Levine's method for the later period is his illustration of key projects contemporary with Wright's designs by other leaders such as Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier and Aalto. They serve as reminders of the differences but also orientate the less knowledgeable reader. While Wright was an essentially first-hand designer, he did not eschew the use of arches, domes or ziggurats from the classical world. His argument that the Italian Renaissance was a golden sunset rather than a new dawn was really a hit at slavish revivalism.

But Levine devotes too much of his introduction and conclusion to details of in-fighting and underplays Wright's early, and continuing intoxication by Japan, whose culture, building and drawing methods influenced his thinking about a New American Architecture at that moment when Japan opened herself to the West and he was fighting the revivalists. Wright never let on to Hitchcock, it seems, that the Ho-O-Den Japanese pavilion in the World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago (1893), which first sparked his interest in Japan and gives a possible clue to his play at symmetry in the early houses, remained behind hoardings until it was demolished some forty years later.

At the same time, although streamlining is mentioned, its full and interesting story is not told. We know that the idea of streamlining arose from Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower (Potsdam, 1921), and that on his way to meet Wright in 1924, Mendelsohn gave a signed copy of his sketch for the tower to Raymond Loewy who, with Norman Bel Gueddes, developed the streamlining idea for the American industrial design market over the next decade. Mendelsohn himself went on to Taliesin for discussions with Wright using Richard Neutra, previously in his Berlin office, as interpreter. Mendelsohn continued to streamline his building forms throughout the 1920s; the subsequent use of streamlining for trains, cars, aeroplanes, and then for telephones, lingerie and even prose, show that it caught the public imagination.

Wright was not slow to adopt it, but because of his fallow decade streamlining did not emerge fully in his buildings until Falling-water, and then, more inventively, in the Johnson Wax building and the Guggenheim. What is important here is that while the notion came first from an architect, streamlining was not simply an imposed art aesthetic but answered a real human need - as real, in Wright's terms, as truth to materials or organic forms of shelter in the widest landscapes. Apart from Mendelsohn, however, none of the other leading European architects apparently played with aerofoil shapes, save Le Corbusier, who took them second-hand from liners and automobiles.

Designs for an American Landscape 1922-1932 singles out five unbuilt projects from Wright's fallow period which together explain his advanced thought about the city and how life with automobiles might be sustained in seemingly endless landscapes. It deals largely with previously unpublished material and will therefore excite the initiated. Like the first book, it is beautifully produced with many fine illustrations.

The most pertinent project here in terms of Levine's thorough description of the Guggenheim is the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective (Maryland, 1925), for here the idea of an inwards-spiralling object, this time over a dome and built entirely of concrete, was taken to its logical conclusion. All five projects, however, show that the fallow decade for built projects was certainly not fallow of ideas; indeed, had these designs been published at the time a quite different idea of Wright's attitude to the land could have prevailed.

We are wrong to put the term "suburbia" into Wright's mouth. Rather, he needs understanding as the farmer's boy he formatively was whose feet were implanted in life-giving soil, unlike the average city-dweller, who regards such land as scenery. Peter Pringle, writing of the giant Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at Moma in New York in 1994, remarked how inhuman that city is and how, when he needs release, he just travels the ramp of the Guggenheim, cocking its snook at the cages around it. Both these books do much, at long last, to open our narrow eyes to the vision of an American Michelangelo.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor of architecture and urbanism, University of Bristol.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape 1922-1932

Editor - David E. De Long
ISBN - 0 500 34146 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £36.00
Pages - 207

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