Selected Articles

Prophet with Honor: Frank Lloyd Wright

June 7, 1993

Tags: architecture

In the parlor game of classifying art as elitist or populist, Frank Lloyd Wright qualifies as a geniune populist. A son of the Midwestern heartland who was brought up by farmers and preachers. Wright conquered twentieth-century architecture in the name of a particularly American kind of genius. His were the virtues of frontier individualism: stamina, practical ingenuity, a cranky independence of mind, a boundless belief in his own destiny. In an architectural career that extended from 1893 to 1959, Wright produced a thousand designs (half of them were built) for every region of the country. Although he attempted every type of building, including the skyscraper, Wright earned his fame as a designer of houses. He claimed that "the small house" was the architect's greatest challenge, and he applied a dazzling inventiveness not only to homes for the wealthy, but custom houses for school teachers and newspaper reporters, prototype homes for women's magazines, prefabricated houses and suburban plans that integrated his residences into a total community.

In the American suburban house, Wright gave the world an imperishable symbol of Modernity. As an icon of progressive living, it was not only efficient and affordable, it partook of the exhilaration of the frontier landscape. It was Wright's accomplishment, unique among modern architecture's first generation, to marry the urban glamour of the modern with the romance of the wide open spaces. The address of his dream house could be a flat city lot in Oak Park, Illinois, or a creekside hill at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, but the implied setting is always the sweeping reaches of the West.

The public was captivated by Wright's domestic imagery. From 1930, when the writer Alexander Wollcott pronounced him "the only living American" who deserved "the word genius," to his death in 1959, at 91, Wright was America's most popular architect. And so he remains thirty-four years later, as witnessed by the events celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth this past year. These include the triumphant opening of the restored interior of his Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, the premiere in Madison, Wisconsin, of Shining Bow, an opera based on his life, and a flood of anniversary books.

Wright's status as an American folk hero is largely his own creation, the fruit of a lifetime of bold self-promotion. A prolific and provocative writer and speaker, Wright was our first media-star architect. We observe him creating this role in the first volumes of the Collected Writings, which rover the period from 1894 to 1932, as he courts the public from the pages of The Ladies' Home Journal and from the podium of Jane Addams' Hull House. The persona that he developed, a Perot-like man of the people, is marked by a zestful, can-do style of problem-solving, a scorn for experts and a lawlessness justified by appeals to public opinion. In the great marital and financial battles of his life, Wright fought his case in the press, and he was usually vindicated, though the proceedings could be undignified.

In 1911, having left his wife and six children and installed himself with a mistress at his rural retreat Taliesin East, Wright called a press conference on Christmas Day to explain his philosophy of free love to the farm community of Spring Green, Wisconsin. When the combination of debt, adultery and an FBI investigation threatened Wright with ruin in 1927, an editorial in the Twin City Register, followed by a letter from Carl Sandburg and THE NEW REPUBLIC editor Robert M. Lovett to the district attorney, prompted Wollcott and other intellectuals to restructure Wright's debt and save Taliesin from the bailiff.

In our own decade Wright's name has again figured in the annals of sensational journalism, in connection with the troubled fortunes of baseball and pizza tycoon Thomas Monaghan. At the height of the '80s art boom, Monaghan amassed an ambitious collection of Wright furniture and artifacts that he displayed at the Michigan headquarters of Domino's Pizza; but the Domino's museum is now closed, with the collection reportedly being claimed by Monaghan's creditors. Wright himself was often in trouble with the Wisconsin banks for borrowing against his collection of Japanese prints, which his creditors finally sold at auction in 1927.

It was Wright's rapport with his public that makes him seem most our contemporary. Reflecting on this today, one is struck by the split between his popular following, which supports a veritable industry in publications and home furnishings, and his status among the architectural intelligentsia, where he is the object of respectful neglect, an acknowledged genius not much discussed.

There is a particular irony about the silence surrounding Weight's name now, since the most intense debate in architecture in the past two decades amounted to a vindication of most of what Wright stood for: as the tenets of the International Style were being challenged by the postmodern intelligentsia in those years, Wright's reputation should have risen. For Wright had been the voice of the opposition during the fifty-year reign of the International Style in this country. He resented the tastemakers of the '30s, in particular Philip Johnson, for passing over his "organic" architecture, with its backward-looking associations with the Arts and Crafts tradition, in their rush to promote a new generation of European innovators. In a famous quip, Johnson dismissed Wright as the "greatest American architect of the nineteenth century," Wright retaliated by asserting his superior "Americanness" in contrast to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and their following, which he vilified as "the evil crusade," Legend has it that in the 1950s Wright never walked down Park Avenue without cursing those International Style monuments, the Seagram and Lever towers, as "Whiskey" and "Soap." When their legacy was discredited in the 1970s, Wright's ghost was waiting to say, "I told you so."

For all who in those years came to agree with Robert Venturi's anti-Miesian jest that "less is a bore," Wright's intricate and expressive architecture offered what had been lost in the Modernist drive toward purity. If the postmodernists' nightmare was the "glass box" standing awkwardly in a desolate urban plaza, their ideal should have been the "Frank Lloyd Wright house"; a low, gracefully ground-hugging structure, with individualized rooms both intimate and exciting, the interiors warmed by wood, brick and stone, and the whole harmoniously integrated into a breathtaking natural setting (yet located in a safe and convenient suburb).

At times, Wright's own words seemed to be echoed in the backlash against Modernism by figures at both the academic and journalistic ends of the intellectual spectrum. In 1981, when Tom Wolfe popularized the criticism of the International Style in From Bauhaus to Our House, he exhorted architects to "break out of the box" of the Modernist high-rise. As every architecture student should know, it was Wright who boasted that he "broke the box" of the Victorian house with his open plan. In his writings Wright rarely went beyond superficial bluster in his criticism of the International Style. He was too divided in his own mind, too vain about his own powers of technical innovation, too torn between desires to damn his young rivals and to claim that they had learned everything from his own work before 1910 (which in part they had). But behind Wright's self-promoting chauvinism and envious sniping was a reluctance to take first principles from the machine, and a fear for the "soul" of an architecture that did so. His warnings have gained resonance, as we witnessed the rise of a shallow corporate appropriation of the International Style.

The book that launched the post-modern counterrevolution, Ventures Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), affirms Wright in its language and its concepts. Venturi used a vocabulary adopted from literary criticism, which included the central terms "complexity," "ambiguity" and a "hybrid style," to defend a Wrightian preference for fertile paradox over reductive logic. This was precisely the attitude that Wright was struggling to express when he called himself "a radical … dedicated to a cause conservative" fifty years before. The correctives that Venturi proposed to the reductive excesses of Modernism — designing with an eye to context, the eclectic mingling of styles and genres — are so fundamental to Wright's thinking that it is possible to read Venturi's book as a call for a Wright revival. But none was to follow. Instead, the architectural intelligentsia found its heroes in such lesser-known eclecticists from the past as Edwin Lutyens, an English contemporary of Wright's. The reason, as we shall see, is that Wright was useful only in the polemical stage of the postmodern enterprise, as a stick with which to beat the dying horse of the International Style. In the next stage, when the postmodernist thinkers became builders, Wright became an embarrassment.

So today what we have is the Wright legend, along with a commercial industry in Wrightian artifacts, outstripping interest in how his buildings work. This trend may well have reached its apogee in two of the anniversary books. Carla Lind, director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, concludes The Wright Style with a list of manufacturers of replicas and products "in the spirit" of Wright. And in her biography, Meryle Secrest, an art journalist and previously the biographer of Bernard Berenson and Salvador Dali, has chosen to concentrate on the life at the expense of his architecture, announcing that it is not within her "scope … to chart the evolution of every great house."

Perhaps because she was an outsider to Wright circles, Secrest was drawn to the literary potential in the life story. She seizes the themes most evocative of certain of our cultural myths, forging them into a coherent and emotionally plausible narrative. The young Wright, as his earlier biographer Robert Twombly noted, is a Horatio Alger hero, enjoying a spectacular rise, then suffering an equally spectacular fall, owing to his weakness for women and elegant living. In midlife a second reversal of fortune occurred, with Wright, now in the guise of the risen phoenix, achieving a creative renaissance that culminated in his 70s and 80s. The narrative concludes with Wright the redeemed sinner living long enough to be forgiven by the enemies he made in the pursuit of his artistic vision. This story may not be wholly true, but it is less untrue than the version Wright promoted in An Autobiography in 1932, and like the autobiography it achieves moments of poetic aptness.

The story begins with the hero's birth in Richland Center, Wisconsin, in 1867, the son of a Welsh-born schoolteacher mother and a New England-educated father who was a lawyer, Baptist preacher, composer and builder of musical instruments. As a boy, Wright was not literally the poor farm lad of myth, but he was poor. In a famous passage in his memoir, Wright recalled the "nursery," where his mother hung woodcuts of English cathedrals, which along with blocks invented by the German educator Froebel were to inspire her first-born "to build beautiful buildings." But a photograph of the modest bungalow where Wright was born, which he would have shared with the three children of his father's first marriage, suggest, that the nursery, if not the blocks and cathedrals, was a fantasy. The alternative to his parents' itinerant life was the farm community founded by his mother's Welsh pioneer family near Spring Green, Wisconsin. In 1909, in the great upheaval of his divorce and exile from Chicago, Wright would return to his ancestral valley to build Taliesin, his showplace farm and studio.

At 19, Wright set out for Chicago to make his fortune, his devoted mother in tow. Already adept at winning useful friends, he was taken on as an apprentice in the office of Adler and Sullivan, It was with the brilliant and iconoclastic Louis Sullivan, who despised the rising City Beautiful neoclassicism and was a master of organic ornament, that Wright was formed as an architect, a debt he was to acknowledge later in An Autobiography and other memoirs included in the Collected Writings, Still, Wright's behavior at the time can be taken as early evidence of a tendency to exploit, his patrons. The brash Wright insisted that Sullivan raise his salary and lend him money, then in 1893 he left before his contract was up.

In his first years on his own in Chicago, Wright pioneered the low horizontal house in the so-called Prairie style. The forerunner of the American suburban ranch house, it immediately influenced Europeans such as Walter Gropius and Richard Neutra. Scholars are fond of noting that not all the innovations of Wright's proto-Modern houses are original to him. Yet the cumulative effect of his work before 1910, in the quantity (thirty-three) and the quality of houses produced, cannot be called anything but revolutionary. Wright took the multistoried Victorian revival-style house, brought it down to the ground, knocked out its interior walls, purified its furnishings and its decoration and — most radically of all — opened it up to nature.

Wright built on the Arts and Crafts taste for asymmetry and intimacy, and its use of untreated natural materials, organic ornament and built-in furniture. Designing from the inside out, Wright created interiors that were warm and unpretentious in feeling, but more austere in their detail and vastly more bold and theatrical in their manipulation of space, with exaggerated horizontal lines and surprising variations in ceiling heights, enhanced by indirect lighting. His inventions in these and slightly later houses — open floor plans, indoor-outdoor patios, built-ins, horizontal bands of casement windows, disappearing corner windows, radiant heating, carports and flat roofs — were so widely adopted in the postwar suburban housing boom, notably by merchant builders such as Joseph Eichler in California, that we no longer associate them with Wright. They became the vernacular American ranch house.

On the basis of such achievements, Wright would have a place in the history of architecture if his career had ended in 1910, when his works were published by Wasmuth in Berlin. And end it nearly did. At 21, Wright had thrown himself into establishing the comfortable bourgeois existence that he lacked as a child. At 42, he was bored with his creation. In 1909 he ran off with an Oak Park client, first to Europe and then to Taliesin. Wright professed to be happy with the accomplished Mamah Cheney, but their idyll ended in catastrophe in 1914. While Wright was away from home working on Chicago's Midway Gardens, his mistress and six other members of the household were killed by a deranged kitchen employee, who attacked them with a hatchet and set Taliesin on fire. It was the beginning of a period of diminishing work, exile in Europe and Japan and domestic and financial chaos that went on for Wright, compounded by the Great Depression, for twenty-five years.

In the late 1930s Wright executed two bravura designs that launched his second career: the Johnson's Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and Fallingwater, the country house For Philadelphia department store owner Edgar Kauffmann at Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Having found obliging clients at last, Wright, who was nearing 70, set out to prove he was no has-been, but capable of more daring experiments in technique than his European rivals. Fallingwater is an engineering tour de force, cantilevering huge concrete trays out over a running waterfall, Resembling an explosion of forms in space, it shows Wright using modern technology for maximum theatrical effect. Gone is any sense of architecture in serene harmony with nature; instead there is a dynamic opposition that only an artist with Wright's understanding of his setting could have achieved. At the flat industrial site of Johnson's Wax. Wright exercised his imagination on the inside, inventing the "lily pad" — a concrete column of improbable thinness — and a translucent roof of Pyrex glass tubing. (The roof leaked and had to be replaced eventually, but the client was satisfied.) In these tours de force of technical innovation and symbol creation, Wright surpassed Eric Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier in their own modes, moving toward the sensuous rounded forms and grand lyrical abstractions of his final period, which culminated in the Guggenheim Museum.

During the last decade of his life, between the ages of 82 and 91, Wright completed designs for 300 commissions, nearly a third of his lifetime output. His comeback fascinates the myth maker in Secrest, so much so that she begins to weigh the scales in her hero's behalf. In her eagerness to redeem Wright, Secrest concludes the book with the story that his first wife, Catherine, then in her 80s, came to her ex-husband's retrospective exhibition on the site of the Guggenheim in 1953, and that they shared a forgiving embrace. The evidence that any of this happened is shaky; but Secrest has been so skillful in her storytelling that the reader exults, for the moment, in the happy ending.

The biography's generosity toward its subject is refreshing on the whole. It has been a long while since Wollcott, Lewis Mumford and Henry-Russell Hitchcock trumpeted Wright's genius to the world. Since the '30s, writers have found it more to their advantage to debunk the great man, exploiting the comedies of the leaking roofs, crumbling concrete blocks and deck railings that had to be raised because the clients were taller than their Five-foot-eight-inch architect — not to mention the embarrassments of his marital and financial misadventures. Wolfe argued that Wright invited ridicule because he was "too American" and "too productive." But it is also true that Wright demanded correction with his exaggerations and his outright lies. In this and other ways Wright was an impossible man.

After so many years, however, it is a relief to have the subject freed from a stale atmosphere of moral recrimination and professional rivalry. Generosity is even more appropriate in considering Wright's architecture, which carries valuable, though unfashionable, lessons. It is common to fault Wright for failing to leave a legacy of lasting usefulness, but when architects object that his plans based on the hexagon or spiral are too complicated, or that his materials are now expensive, they are simply admitting that building as interestingly as Wright built is not easy. For a tough-minded younger generation it is a more serious matter that Wright's entire vision is out of date. For those who believe that only a stark, unrefined, industrial-looking architecture is appropriate now, Wright's lyricism and utopianism belong to a lost paradise, a prosperous and expanding postwar America as remote as the nineteenth century to which Philip Johnson consigned him. Judged by the fashionable standard of "toughness," Wright's eloquence is bombast, his delight in comfort is decadence and his heroic aspirations sentimental and self-deluding.

Even for those who share Wright's ambitions, and they include many successful architects who came to prominence in the postmodern years. Wright is a problematic figure. Twenty years ago, his example provided ammunition for their revolt against their Modernist teachers. As builders today, however, how can they face such a daunting standard of comparison? It was Wright's genius (there is no other word for it) to have already conquered the territory where many of the anti-Modernist rebels of the 1970s planted their flags.

Eclecticism and ornamentation, so breezily recommended in their polemics, are not easy to practice. They require not only commitment but talent: an unwelcome truth proved by Weight's virtuosity. His finest eclectic exercises, such as the Francis Little House interior at the Metropolitan Museum, give a meaning to eclecticism that few contemporary designs can match. Here is no pastiche of Japanese and Arts and Crafts features; here is a total aesthetic synthesis, which only a true form-giver could achieve. Similarly, it is difficult to think of any of the touted postmodern boutiques, showrooms and country houses that equal the drama and the luxury of Wright's jewel-like eclectic exercises in small, such as San Francisco's Morris Shop or La Miniatura in Los Angeles.

Wright achieved the richness of reference dear to the postmodernists without relying on the built-in associations of historical styles. The ambitiously self-educated Wright was steeped in tradition and far-reaching in his sympathies. What could seem more socially correct today than his interests in Mayan, Native American and Asian architecture? Yet he could not abide mimetic historicism. His example should be felt as a rebuke to the many contemporary designers who borrow literally from past styles, from Robert Venturi to Charles Moore to Thomas Beeby.

Wright's example is embarrassing, too, in that his is an eloquent architecture. Rejecting the referenceless "mute" walls of Modernism, the postmodernists called for a communicative architecture, with clear allusions and accessible meanings. Their own efforts have been characterized, however, by confused imagery and private symbolism that end up communicating nothing, a failure noted by the historian Jaquelin Robertson in 1983, when he referred to "the curious rich emptiness" of the new architecture. A straining after meaning is evidenced by the excessive use of historical ornament and traditional luxury materials in the '80s. Wright. on the other hand, is a communicative architect par excellence. Whether people think that his message concerns Welsh mysticism, American democracy or the order of nature, the force of his eloquence is felt, and it is the basis of his popularity.

Wright's accomplishment points up the failings of the architectural period that is now ending. This is why we need his example, not just his nostalgia value as a crank from American folklore. At a time when the housing crisis is a national scandal, Wright's career reminds us that housing the citizenry can be a glamorous enterprise. He is a welcome example of a virtuoso artist with a social conscience, a creator of individual masterpieces who also valued the public realm. However self-serving his motives, Wright used his podium to promote affordable housing, No fashionable architect of equal visibility does the same today.

Wright's access to the magazines made his custom houses available for imitation by merchant builders. But work intentionally designed in the public interest, such as the community plans and schemes for prefabricated building that he began in the 1910s and was still working on in the 1950s, never had sufficient backing from the government or sufficient success in the marketplace. When building resumed after World War II, Wright, who was the nation's most famous architect, failed to win the commissions that would have allowed him to implement what was by then a lifetime of thinking about low-cost housing and community planning. One wonders what Wright would have created for the Air Force Academy and the Oak Ridge nuclear installation, or at his massive Crystal Heights apartment complex in Washington, D.C. It is customary to blame Wright's prickly personality for his loss of such public projects. (The Marin County Civic Center was his single government job.) But the preponderance of private houses in Wright's oeuvre was, and still is, reflective of our national priorities. During those postwar boom years, prosperity showed itself in private building.

The public side of Wright's achievement is the least known to his popular following. Introducing it to a lay audience is one of the praiseworthy ambitions of the Wright retrospective that will be held at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1994, at which prominence will be given to plans for the Usonian houses, the Usonian Automatic self-built houses, the American Ready-Cut System and community plans, including the original Broadacre City model built by Taliesin Fellowship apprentices in 1934. The opportunity to revisit his community plans is timely. In recent decades Weight's reputation for inspiring the flight from the city was detrimental to his image. But given the doubtful financial viability of the residential ideal of the '80s, mixed-use urban development, it may be necessary to put our faith in intelligently planned suburbs.

Wright was a utopian thinker who practiced the frontier virtues of industry and grit. It would be a travesty to dismiss him as a creature of easier times, of an expanding America where every family could have a ranch house with a patio and a view. To the "whiners" of the '90s, Wright's recession-year anniversary should be a reminder that there have been other and harder times. Wright weathered the Great Depression. He turned to experiments with affordable housing and suburban planning to survive the 1930s, and in the 1990s it is worth noting that he did no damage to his image as an artist and a hero.
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DIANA KETCHAM, an architecture critic in San Francisco, is the author of the forthcoming & Désert de Retz: An Eighteenth-Century Folly Garden (MIT Press).

Title: Prophet with Honor. By: Ketcham, Diana, New Republic, 6/7/93, Vol. 208, Issue 23
Prophet with Honor
Section: BOOKS & The Arts
Collected Writings, Volumes 1 & 2 (1894-1931; 1931-1932) by Frank Lloyd Wright edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (Rizzoli, each volume 400 pp., $60, $40 paper) Frank Lloyd Wright by Meryle Secrest (Knopf, 634 pp., $30) The Wright Style: Recreating the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright by Carla Lind (Simon and Schuster, 224 pp., $50)

Selected Works

On Architecture
The design process of architects Herzog and de Meuron for their award winning de Young Museum. “A fine book about design” --Robert Campbell, Boston Globe
On Historic Gardens
“A richly illustrated history of the garden as shaped and experienced by artists.” --New York Times Book Review
On Writers
Articles on Henry Roth, Tom Stoppard, M. F. K. Fisher, E. M. Forster, Jessica Mitford, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Jefferson, and others.
At Arion Press
Introductory essays to work by Leonard Michaels, Tom Stoppard, Brillat Savarin, and Edith Wharton.