“Architects may come
Architects may go
and never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile
and think of you.”*
Once, back in the day, I came home from work on a Friday evening and put that Simon & Garfunkel song on. Then, I hit the repeat button. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” played all weekend, non-stop, until I had to go to work on Monday. Even while I slept.
Such was my life under the spell of Frank Lloyd Wright.I guess I hoped that playing this unique song from “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with it’s unusual marriage of Brazilian rhythm and a string quartet under the ethereal vocals, would lend a different perspective on Wright and his work.
In the years after my father passed, Wright, became an all encompassing figure to me, something I didn’t realize until a German Architect I was dating pointed it out to me. She might have been (W)right. Looking back, though, I think it was the discovery of, and the falling in to, the seemingly bottomless pit of creativity that was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the enigma and charisma of the man, his ideas and his accomplishments (including the countless buildings he designed that were never built, or that were built and since lost). This passion took many forms in my life at the time. Along the way, I learned that the man was a great Artist in other ways beyond Architecture- as a draughtsman and, in my opinion, as a writer. His writings often marry Art & Architecture and philosophy. He was, also, something of a “teacher,” or model, later in his life at his Taliesen Fellowship. His “teaching” seems to have greatly influenced some, and left others unhappy. Beyond all of this work, his personal life? Well…as I’ve said previously about others…is not for me to judge. My interest in is the Art, his creative ideas and the work.
MoMA’s show, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is a major event, honoring two major events. First, it opened on June 12th, four days after Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. Second, it marks the joint acquisition by MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library of Columbia University of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives. It’s a fascinating show, though, of course, it’s a mere sliver of the massive Archive that will keep scholars busy for decades Some of the early fruits of their labors were on view, particularly in short videos on display in each gallery where curators spoke of some of the highlights they’ve found so far. Parts of Wright’s Archives have been known to me through earlier shows at MoMA and the Guggenheim, and through books, most notably “In His Renderings,” the final volume of the landmark 12 volume box set published by A.D.A Edita Tokyo in 1984, right in the middle of my Wright obsession2. The 200 drawings “In His Renderings” included made the case for Wright’s drawings being works of Art in themselves, and a good many of them are in MoMA’s show, which totals about 450 items. Indeed, they are right at home on the walls of the great museum.
The show is made up of galleries devoted to individual projects and galleries devoted to aspects of his work. Of course, given his career lasted over 60 years, only selected Wright projects are here and they range from key buildings, like the “Imperial Hotel,” 1923, to some much less well known, like his design for the “Rosenwald School” “for Negro Children,” 1928, as it was labelled, as well as galleries devoted to Wright’s Ornamentation (an almost completely lost art in today’s Architecture), Urban projects, the role of landscaping in his projects, and built, and (mostly) unbuilt projects for NYC. There is also a gallery showing 2 rare videos of Frank Lloyd Wright- one an infamous interview with Mike Wallace in 1957, the other an appearance on the game show, “What’s My Line.” The long central, first gallery includes a range of Drawings, many masterpieces- both as Architecture and as Artworks, from a wide range of periods of Wright’s career, including the “Winslow House,” 1893, “Unity Temple,” 1908, “Fallingwater,”1935, and the “Marin County Civic Center,” which opened in 1962.
When Wright burst on the scene, after leaving his employer & mentor, the great Louis Sullivan3, the “Father of the Skyscraper,” (who he held in such high esteem, he referred to him as “Lieber Meister,” German for “Dear Master”), and began his own practice, there was no such thing as a truly “American” style of Architecture.
While Henry Hobson Richardson and Sullivan (both a bit under appreciated today), had taken steps towards creating an American style, Wright completed it with the introduction of his Prairie Style in the first decade of the 20th Century, like the “Unity Temple,” 1908, in Oak Park, IL, below.
Off the central gallery, the first side gallery is devoted to Wright’s “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Incredibly, it was dedicated on September 1, 1923, the very day of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 100,000 people and leveled almost every other structure in Tokyo, except for Wright’s Masterpiece, which he had designed to withstand such an event. Instant world-wide fame followed. The genius in it’s floating concrete foundation below was also abundant in the superhuman amount of creativity above it.
Wright designed the furniture, the windows, the lamps, the dishes- all of it. He created a massive building that was one unified composition from top to bottom, down to the smallest detail. I couldn’t get over it. Yet, the “Imperial Hotel,” was far from the only building he did this for. No other Wright structure has captured my fascination, and awe, more than the “Imperial Hotel” (which is saying something), perhaps because, though it was gigantic, so little of it remains- even in photographs, film or books (An amazing online collection of photos and relics of the “Imperial Hotel” I’ve seen is to be found here.). What is left teases the viewer to imagine the rest. I’ve tried to imagine walking around in it…what that must have looked like and felt like. It withstood what Nature (Wright capitalized it, since he said it was his “religion,” my inspiration for capitalizing “Art,” “Music,” “Painting,”etc.) threw at it, and World War II, but it couldn’t withstand the rising value of Tokyo real estate leading to it’s tragic demolition in 1958 after standing for a mere 45 years! The facade was saved and reconstructed at Japan’s Meiji Mura Outdoor Architectural Museum, a few pieces of furniture are in The Met (which also has one of the Urns that was out in front of the entrance), and other items are in collections elsewhere.
Wright’s other huge early masterpiece was Chicago’s “Midway Gardens,” 1914, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex in the Hyde Park section. Again, Wright designed all of it, and once again, almost nothing remains. Either one of these two buildings would have been enough to secure his name, and his legend. “Midway Gardens” stood for FIFTEEN years. The loss of both is a cultural tragedy that will echo on through centuries to come.
Gone forever was the chance for young Artists & Architects to experience and be directly influenced by them the way you only can from seeing Architecture, or Art, in person. Wright’s buildings require your presence in their space to fully appreciate them. He was fond of low corridors giving way to large open spaces, and this is just one of the experiences you can’t get from a book. Speaking of books, after one of my visits, I wandered into MoMA’s bookstore. A young couple next to me picked up a book on Wright and one said, “What did he build? Oh! He did the Guggenheim.” I thought everyone knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was. I don’t know if they went up to see the show or not, but I decided then and there to write this Post.
After these early masterpieces, Wright’s style evolved from the Prairie style, through the Mayan and Japanese influence seen in the “Imperial Hotel” and a number of houses he designed at the time, to his “Usonian”style of the mid-1930’s, to buildings beyond style, like the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” “Fallingwater,” and eventually, The “Guggenheim Museum.” They would all fall under the umbrella of “Organic Architecture.” The “Usonian” houses began around 1936, and have a style which brings these houses even closer to the land than the “Prairie Style” houses, being almost universally a single storey, while featuring simpler materials, which, Wright believed, would make them more affordable. Though more “popularly priced”, he still designed all the furniture for them as well, and the chair I once owned came from a “Usonain” house. These “Usonian” houses, along with his “Broadacre City,” were part of his vision for urban and suburban landscape design, called “Usonia,” as in “U.S.-onia.”
The later masterpieces while unique to themselves, still remain true to Wright’s core beliefs. Herbert F. Johnson, president of the S.C. Johnson Company hired Wright to build his company’s corporate headquarters in 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin. The resulting landmark, above, is a sheer wonder- a cathedral of capitalism. Though they encountered some problems, Mr. Johnson was so pleased with Wright that he contracted him to build a research tower on the property and then to design a large house for himself, known as “Wingspread.”
Within the year, he, also, created what may be the most famous private house ever built. “Fallingwater,” for Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann’s department store.
Perhaps nowhere in Art is there greater harmony of Art & Nature than there is in “Fallingwater,” which may make it Wright’s ultimate expression of his “Organic Architecture.” In it, the Artist strives to achieve the ultimate- create something worthy of a spectacular natural site, a work that seems to grow out of it, and be integral to it. Mr. Kaufmann was expecting the house to be sited across from the waterfall so he could enjoy looking at it. Instead, Wright put the house directly on top of it, centering the living room on a rock the family liked to picnic on.
As a result of all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that later in his career he spoke defiantly about the Architects of the new “International Style,” with their bland, impersonal boxes of steel and glass, that are about as far from “Nature” as anything could be. Here in NYC, as in many other places, a casual look around reveals they’re already dated, and many (most? All?) are plain eyesores. One thing MoMA’s show reinforces is that Wright’s work has a way of not going out of fashion. Perhaps it’s because it’s so tightly integrated with it’s surroundings- with nature. It also helps that most of what he built and remains is out in nature, i.e. not in a City. Then again, perhaps it’s because his endless, unique, creativity serves to constantly inspire. Like the song says. For myself, my now long-standing passion for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright leaves me wondering if he is not the greatest Architect who ever lived. I’m lucky. I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Art or Artists. But if I did? That’s one statement I might actually make. Now, I’m content wondering.
Speaking of “not being in the City,” though Wright has only one building in NYC, that’s not because he didn’t try. Though he loathed cities, particularly this one, he did. He designed many structures that he wanted to have built here but he was shot down by the powers that be every single time4! Only when he had a client powerful enough to push through his project did the Guggenheim get built. MoMA’s show serves as a reminder of this nightmare as it shows us some of the projects he envisioned for the City, along with an in-depth look at the Guggenheim’s coming to be. It, therefore, serves to remind us that the travails of that other brilliant Architect named “Frank,”…Gehry, has had getting projects built here are nothing new. To date. Mr. Gehry, who has tried to get countless plans built that would have transformed the City, to date has only two. Between Wright & Gehry? Ohhhh…the City we should have had.
As his only NYC building, the Guggenheim Museum it is still able to inspire with it’s incredibly bold vision almost 60 years on. It echoes the trees across 5th Avenue in Central Park as a way of bringing a hint of Nature across the street into the City. But, lesser known is the building as we see it now went through quite a metamorphosis on the way. Take a look at this-
The Guggenheim didn’t follow through on all of Wright’s ideas when completing the building (which may, or may not explain the current skylight). So, perhaps, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the Guggenheim was altered in the early 1990’s, terribly in my opinion. I was actively involved in trying to prevent it, and the modification of the Breuer Whitney Museum (now, unmodified, it’s The Met Breuer). To that end, in June, 1987, my letter was published in the New York Times-
“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long.
Today, are there ANY Architects who are also designing the dishes, rugs, windows, lamps & furniture for their buildings on a regular basis? Having owned an original Frank Lloyd Wright chair I can attest to both the ingenuity of the design (though “impractical” most people who saw it said, it’s 3 legs required you to sit with both feet on the floor, or fall off. Wright teaching proper posture), and to the fact that it was in itself a miniature work of Architecture. When I thought of Wright, I thought of Brahms, Mahler or Anton Bruckner (all of whom were alive during Wright’s lifetime) or his beloved Bach & Beethoven. Wright was building symphonies in the physical world. The extraordinary attention to detail in his work- down to even designing the napkin rings at “Midway Gardens,” is something akin to the musical structure of any of those Composer’s compositions, where every note plays a role in the whole. Wright creates a unified physical structure that is hard to find in any other Architect’s work- before or after. Music was the only analogy I could think of for what he had done. At least for me. I think he may have agreed- music was always central to him, particularly chamber music, which he would have weekly performances of at his Taliesin homes. It was hard for me to understand my fascination & obsession with all things Frank Lloyd Wright until I realized what he was doing was creating buildings the way Bach, Mahler or Bruckner created “edifices in sound.” Wright loved music and the connection is something that needs closer study.
Like Picasso, or Miles Davis, he was not one to stay in the same place for long. They are the only two other 20th Century Masters who had multiple unique “periods.” Wright’s style continually evolved, but it were always true to his principles- using nature as the supreme guide, building in harmony with the site, and building “organically.”
Approaching age 90, Wright unveiled one of his most daring ideas yet- “The Illinois,” perhaps better known as the “Mile High Skyscraper,” because that’s what it was- a mile tall. A number of Drawings related to it were on view at MoMA, five about 8 feet high each.
Interestingly, in one Drawing, the “Mile High” shares the sheet with extensive text. The curator’s video in the gallery says this drawing is his second “Autobiography,” to the book of that title. On it, Wright pays tribute to his influences, and proceeds to list some of his accomplishments. As a result, it’s perhaps the most fascinating drawing in the show. It’s something of a testament. It’s hard for me to look at the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai and not think it’s Architect, Adrian Smith of S.O.M., owes a serious debt to “The Illinois.” It’s “only” 2,722 feet tall, though, half of the proposed height of “The Illinois.”
One striking thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is that at the time of his death on April 9, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was exactly half as old as his country. (He was 91, the country was 182 years old.) Remarkable. When Wright started in Architecture, working for Joseph Silsbee in 1872, he did so in a Chicago that was still digging out from the Great Fire the previous year. There were no skyscrapers until his “Lieber Meister” Sullivan began to create them 20 years later. When he passed away in 1959, one of his final masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum was about to open. Much had changed in the 87 years between. But, given that he stayed true to his core belief in “Organic Architecture,” (“building as nature builds,” he said), I’m not sure that Wright changed all that much as much as he evolved. As a result, in the final analysis, he showed us that his idea was infinitely pliable, and that creativity and imagination had a central role in it, something that seemed to go out of Architecture, increasingly, during that same period. While some of his greatest works are gone, his Archives contain an enormous wealth of materials that can bear witness to them, and the thousand or so projects he undertook (about 400 or so still stand). It was a lot for one life- even one that lasted 91 years.
“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon
I barely learned the tune
So soon, so soon”*
As I left this show, filled with that same, familiar, head-shaking amazement, I was reminded of a quote of Wright’s- “The scientist has marched in and taken the place of the poet. But one day somebody will find the solution to the problems of the world and remember, it will be a poet, not a scientist5.” Whether the world will listen to the next poet is a question that remains to be answered. In the meantime, with regard to this poet, there is much still to learn.
“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is my NoteWorthy Show for September.
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Paul Simon, which is, also, something of his farewell to Art Garfunkel as Garfunkel was about to leave to go to Mexico to shoot “Catch 22,” which marked the end of Simon & Garfunkel. Garfunkel majored in Architecture at Columbia, admired Wright, and suggested to Simon that he write a song about the Architect. Published by Universal Music Publishing Group.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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- Kliment Timiriazev ↩
- Eight of the other eleven volumes are monographs dedicated to period of Wright’s career, the remaining 3 volumes contain preliminary studies, which I assume are part of his Archives. These books were the only way most of us could see these pieces of the Archives, except for occasional shows, until now. ↩
- Controversy still surrounds whether he left or was fired by Sullivan for taking freelance commissions on the side. ↩
- To read this very sorry tale, in detail, I highly recommend the book “Man About Town,” by Herbert Muschamp, who details Wright’s plans for Manhattan and efforts to overcome the powers that be. i.e Robert Moses. ↩
- As quoted in “The Star,” 1959, and “Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations,” 1982, by Jonathon Green. ↩