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The Dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright

1.

The news in early June came on what would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 138th birthday. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, had been issued a warning by the Higher Learning Commission—its accreditation endangered, its student body now down to ten pupils, its finances in shambles. But this was less surprising than the fact that the school still exists at all.

Wright founded what he called the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, when his own financial prospects were dismal, as they had been throughout much of the 1920s. Having seen the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, his former boss, die in poverty not many years earlier, Wright was forestalling his own prospective oblivion. Considered a virtual has-been (“as an architect he has little to contribute,” concluded John Cushman Fistere in Vanity Fair in 1931, and Fistere was not the first to say so), Wright created the fellowship—tuition $675, raised to $1,100 in 1933, more than at Yale or Harvard—to indoctrinate aspiring architects in his gospel of organic architecture, for which they would do hours of daily chores, plant crops, wash Wright’s laundry, and entertain him and his guests as well as one another in the evenings with musicals and amateur theatricals. “Music is architecture at Taliesin,” Wright wrote in the school brochure for 1934, “just as architecture is a kind of music.”

The brochure is a typical Wright document, exasperating, egocentric, rambling, poetic, weirdly humane—like everything he did, an inspired advertisement for himself, with its list of “Friends of the Fellowship” at the back (Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, Walter Gropius, Carl Sandburg, Leopold Stokowski, among others), and with its pitch for Taliesin as a utopian retreat from “white-collar” America, which, Wright declares, had sold its soul to “the machine,” turned soft, become “unfit”—which had produced a generation of young people who were “over-educated and under-cultured.” Taliesin would set them straight, he pro-phesied (his language leans noticeably on words like “manhood” and “impotence”), just as he himself had been set straight by some back-breaking summers of labor as a boy on his uncle James’s farm. More than a throwback to his upbringing, Wright’s vision was carefully constructed to appeal to progressive political fashions, but on Wright’s terms, proposing a kind of five-year plan at Taliesin for the creation of a small, independent society made better through his architecture.

Whatever Wright’s financial motives may have been, for a time, until his death and for some period afterward, the fellowship became a fascinating experiment in agrarian, communal habitation—self-reliant, empha-sizing crafts, with a moral stress on good works and production that was “organic,” a vague concept indicating harmony with nature. Cynics may have deemed it a money-making scheme by Wright but many young people, including Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the MoMA curator and department store heir whose family commissioned Fallingwater from Wright, saw it as a saving grace and guide to their lives. Taliesin reflected Wright’s view of himself against the world. (“Truth against the World” was his Welsh family motto.) It harked back to the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement, to which Wright remained deeply indebted (man over machine, as he said), and also to the notion of design, integrated throughout all aspects of life, as an agent of social change. For all that, not a single enduring work ever came out of Taliesin that wasn’t conceived by Wright.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Black Mountain College was founded at nearly the same moment, in 1933, also to champion artistic iconoclasm and reflect the virtues of the rural, with its own farm and with a work program; there were informal classes and no grades. Black Mountain was not a one-man operation, however. By the 1940s, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence and Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Alfred Kazin, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Goodman were on the faculty. And of course out of Black Mountain came much work (Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, Charles Olson’s verse, Robert Rauschen-berg’s paintings) that tangibly altered progressive culture in mid-century America. Like all creative experiments, the college was fragile and anti-institutional; many of its strongest teachers left and it shut down in 1956. Wright died not long after that, in 1959, but his school persisted, in-creasingly as a sinecure for acolytes who have perpetuated the master-apprentice system without the master.1

Did Wright ever really imagine that any of the fellows might evolve into a plausible peer? He was the greatest living architect, he liked to say. Better honest arrogance than hypocritical humility, he would add. People either found his arrogance exasperating or they wrote books about their encounters with the great man. His paradoxical nature inspired as much love as contempt and made him an easy target. The outsized persona also served him, as he had calculated, to become the first modern celebrity architect. Wright cultivated the press, which in turn kept his name, for better and worse, before the public for more than half a century, from the era of the telegraph all the way into the era of television. With his white mane, his porkpie hat, his cape, and his Malacca cane, he looked like a cross between a snake oil salesman and a prophet, the image readymade for magazine and newspaper illustrations. He was eminently quotable: in his deep, fine voice he knew just how to insult colleagues and everybody else.

A dandy, a scold of the nation, he was also a notorious liar (about nearly everything, starting with his own age and height—in fact, he hardly seemed to grasp the common concept of truth). He was twice jailed under the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. In neither art nor life did Wright ever play it safe, as Ada Louise Huxtable points out in her biography. He led what was, in his day, regarded as a thoroughly outlandish existence, Wright believing that love, not social convention, should govern marriage, which in retrospect is—like his architecture—less outlandish than modern.2

At the same time he was steeped in the American agrarian tradition of Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau—enraptured by the land, self-made, rebellious, and, at heart, optimistic. Posterity now excuses his lies, his grandstanding, even his leaky roofs, which were the byproduct of a radical architecture that tested the limits of design and engineering, because his work was, as it remains, exalting and thoroughly original. “Those who change the course of art use any means to convince the world that it needs something it neither anticipates nor understands and rarely wants,” Huxtable writes. “Artistic achievement is in large part a function of will; it is rarely a function of character.”

The combination of Wright’s achievement and his self-dramatizing personality have fed an insatiable appetite for books about him. Huxtable’s compact biography is easily one of the most enlightened, sane, and accessi-ble, packing a great many perceptive thoughts about both life and work into a little more than 250 short pages.

Wright, as Huxtable remarks at the start, was born just after Lincoln’s assassination, and died in the space age. He did not see an electric light until the 1880s, when he went to Chicago as a young man looking for a job. By the turn of the century, he had revolutionized American architecture and become world famous thanks to his Prairie houses, low-slung family homes inspired by the flat midwestern landscape. He left for Japan near the end of World War I to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, another low structure consisting of five interconnected buildings. He returned in 1922 to the US, already old enough, and having fallen far enough out of fashion in the meantime, to be deemed over the hill. The 1920s and early 1930s were wilderness years for Wright. He struggled to find sources of income.3

Then he remade himself—and American architecture (for the second time)—toward the end of the 1930s. Nearly seventy, he designed the Johnson Wax office building in Wisconsin and Fallingwater, a house over a waterfall in Pennsylvania, two masterpieces. Ten years later he began designing the Guggenheim Museum, which was finished shortly after his death. Nearly a third of his buildings were conceived during the last nine years of his life. He was, in Huxtable’s apt phrase, the ultimate survivor.

His birth date was 1867 (not 1869 as he lied). He was born in rural Wisconsin, into a vast, unassimilated Welsh Unitarian family, the coddled scion of a broken home. His father was William Russell Cary Wright, charming, well-read but feckless, a preacher who, during Frank’s early years, fell into increasing poverty and despair. He probably deserves more credit than he gets for instilling in his son a breadth of interests and an aesthetic sensitivity.

But Frank’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, from a clannish Welsh family in Wisconsin, was clearly his main parental influence. Huxtable cites family accounts of her as an abusive parent to her other children, possibly even a madwoman. When she married she was a schoolteacher and a near spinster by the social prejudices of the day. Wright was a widower and she ignored her stepchildren, and her hapless husband, to push her only son toward architecture, hanging engravings of English cathedrals in his nursery, steeping him in the methods of the German educator Friedrich Froebel, a crystallographer. Wright later liked to stress Froebel as the source for his geometries of form in part so as to deny that any architect had influenced him.

Those summers on his uncle’s farm connected him to the land and instilled in him sturdy work habits. Years later, his farm memories also inspired his dream for a home: memories of childhood pervade his description of the plan for Taliesin in his ripe, often fictive, but frequently eloquent autobiography:

I saw the hill-crown back of the house as one mass of apple trees in bloom, perfume drifting down the Valley, later the boughs bending to the ground with red and white and yellow spheres…. I saw the vineyard on the south slope of the hill, opulent vines loaded with purple, green and yellow grapes…. Swans floating upon the water in the shadow of the trees. I looked forward to peacocks Javanese and white on the low roofs of the buildings or calling from the walls of the courts…. I saw it all….

Maybe it was his upbringing among breakaway Welsh Unitarians that encouraged a nonconformist pride, but Wright had from the beginning a remarkably strong sense of righteous purpose, which over the course of years allowed him to rationalize everything he did, no matter how egregious or hurtful. In Chicago, in 1887, fresh out of school, he landed his first job, with the firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee (Silsbee had designed the family chapel of the Lloyd Joneses in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a year earlier, though Wright declines to mention this family connection when recounting in his autobiography how he was hired). He soon quit to work for Louis Sullivan, justifying his abrupt departure by asking whether it wasn’t Silsbee who was really at fault for not aspiring to produce better architecture.

It has been suggested by Brendan Gill, in his biography of Wright some years ago,4 that Wright’s relationship with Sullivan had an unacknowledged homoerotic component. Wright certainly became Sullivan’s favorite (how could he not be, in view of Wright’s talent?), that is, until he betrayed Sullivan, as he had Silsbee, in this case by soliciting commissions on the sly. Before then, thanks to Sullivan, he gained design and office experience, learned Sullivan’s elaborate system of ornament, and gathered the confidence to experiment with materials and techniques. A famous story describes a violent row he had with an associate in the firm who was jealous of Wright’s standing with Sullivan. When the associate nicked him in the neck with a drafting knife, Wright (diminutive but toughened on the farm) responded by bludgeoning his attacker with a T-square. Or so Wright claimed. Huxtable wonders about the veracity of this story, as she does about so much else that Wright promulgated to promote the myth of his maverick independence.

In 1889, he married Catherine Lee Tobin, a gentle woman, the daughter of an uncle’s well-to-do parishioner, and they settled in Oak Park in a house Sullivan had inspected and approved. The house was soon filled with six children, Wright devising ever more additions to accommodate them, buying a horse and expensive tweeds for himself, spiraling into debts that would include a $900 unpaid bill for groceries—which he left behind, along with his family, when he took up with a freethinking and theatricalizing wife of a client and mother of two children, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. They fled to Europe in 1909.

Returning a year later, Wright conceived the house he called Taliesin—“shining brow” in his ancestral Welsh—on a ridge, atop property his mother owned, overlooking the Wisconsin River. There on August 15, 1914, Mamah, her own two children, and three others were murdered by a deranged servant with an ax who set the house on fire. Inconsolable, already a scandal for having abandoned his family and now the object of horrific tabloid headlines, Wright fell into a relationship with Maud Miriam Noel, a divorcée, who had written him a condolence letter, and they married after several years, when Catherine finally agreed to divorce him, which occurred only a few months before his ailing, domineering mother died.

It couldn’t have been a worse marriage. A woman of what used quaintly to be called an artistic temperament, given to exotic scarves, beads, turbans, and a monocle and skimpy robes, Miriam turned out to be a violent schizophrenic and made Wright’s life hell. After their separation, she stalked him, tattled about him to the press, and had him arrested when he took up in 1925 with Olgivanna Ivanova Lazovich Hinzenberg, a Montenegrin disciple of Gurdjieff, who already had a daughter from a previous marriage and who quickly became pregnant, producing Wright’s seventh child. Fortunately for him, Olgivanna, as vain and paranoid as he was, was wholly devoted to his success and organized the daily life at Taliesin as a tightly controlled system of deference to Wright and herself. Together they weathered the decades that he spent in the wilderness and saw him rise to glory.5

2.

Huxtable usefully links Wright’s life with his work. He left for Europe, she points out, not just because he wished to escape his family, but also because (in desperation and with cunning) he sensed he had reached a dead end with domestic architecture. The Prairie house was already becoming a thing of the past, widely copied. Wright wished to remake himself, to stay ahead of convention. So while he oversaw the publication of two books in Germany that disseminated his work and made the case for him as the representative of progressive American architecture, he absorbed a great deal in Europe. He visited Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank and the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, admired Klimt’s work (he obtained a painting by Klimt later), toured Tuscan villas (which clearly influenced his concept for Taliesin) and German beer halls (which became the precedents for his Midway Gardens in Chicago). “Everything new propelled him from naturalism to abstraction, a dichotomy he would resolve in his own way,” Huxtable writes, in particular about the effects of Wagner, Klimt, and Viennese modernism, adding that whatever Wright saw “would be incorporated into the creative process, moving the art of building forward, advancing and changing the way architecture is experienced as a defining factor of life and place. This transformation is the indisputable basis of his genius….”

Transformation” is the apt word. Wright is an archetypal American of the era in his magpie ability to assimilate old and new, high and low, to reject traditional standards of taste. “He credited nothing, of course, except his God-given creativity,” Huxtable remarks, and instead “would expound his romantic, Emersonian philosophy for the rest of his life, in an increasingly didactic, pseudo-Whitmanesque prose that would have made the Emersonian eyeball glaze over.” Nevertheless a work like the great Johnson Wax Building of the 1930s would mix Egyptian architecture in its eccentric columns with Art Deco, antiquity with modern kitsch, redefining the notion of an open office; it succeeded in making the American industrial workplace seem like a mythic space. In California, he would blend Mayan motifs with Beaux-Arts formality to concoct palatial Hollywood houses whose style was, like Hollywood of the 1920s, a romantic fantasy, a pure invention, grandly sporting the illusion of history.

Wright’s embrace of romance and historical fantasy, as Huxtable smartly points out, put him at odds with Le Corbusier and the European modernists. And unlike them, he had no single style identifiably his own. The great buildings he conceived over the years—from the Larkin building in Buffalo, the Robie house in Chicago, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and Taliesin in Wisconsin, through Fallingwater, Johnson Wax, Taliesin West, and the Guggenheim—speak both to Wright’s vast sculptural imagination and also to a philosophy that was recognized early by Europeans as distinctly American in its eclecticism and openness. If some of his lesser buildings now look bizarre and garish, they are products of a creative mind that became, if anything, only more restless with age.

His abiding subject was America’s middle class. Wright’s architecture anticipated and, in its way, even hastened the evolution of the nation from an agrarian to an urban to a suburban society. Wright flouted middle-class morality and taste in his private affairs, but his architecture made the middle class the centerpiece of a new concept of American democracy. It is difficult now to recognize just how radical were the Prairie houses he conceived at the turn of the last century. They revamped vernacular architecture, starting with his own house in Oak Park, whose barrel-vaulted playroom (an idea perhaps adopted from Sullivan) established a mode of theatricality, with its controlled sequencing of space and light, that became a leitmotif throughout his work.

Prairie houses were horizontal structures with bands of casement windows under hovering eaves, and open interiors around a central fireplace. What now may seem earthy-colored buildings steeped in nineteenth-century sentimentality looked bizarre by the dark, cluttered Victorian housing standards of the time. Neighbors called Wright’s Prairie houses harems. He combined influences from Japan and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, among other sources, to devise a new concept of domesticity. Gone were the attic and the little rooms behind the dormers for servants; everything was made to human scale, with low ceilings and doorways. Wright simplified the house plan, but not in the stripped-down way that industrial-inspired European modernists like Corbusier or Gropius would do. He rejected the machine aesthetic. Ornament, as symbol and decoration, remained an integral part of his vocabulary. In the process, he treated the middle-class house with a seriousness of purpose that had previously been devoted by European architects in earlier centuries to cathedrals and palaces. American democracy, linked as it was to nature and the land, called for its own architectural order, Wright believed.

This would lead him in the early 1930s to dream up Broadacre City, his utopian plan for a landscape crisscrossed by highways—a low-rise and low-density community, with a few odd high-rise apartment towers for unreconstructed urbanites, a formula, some complained, for suburban sprawl, and Wright’s response to Corbusier’s city plans. Misplaced in its practical concept of urbanism or not, this same socializing spirit inspired his L-shaped Usonian house for less affluent suburbanites (Wright made up the word, deriving it from the “United States of North America”; he claimed the houses could be built for $5,000 to $10,000), a humane vision that became popular.

Hundreds of these houses were built and they made an impact on progressive American modernist architects while also anticipating the ranch house developments of postwar America, with their cookie-cutter planned communities. Wright’s houses called for connected dining and living quarters, a workspace instead of a conventional kitchen, overhanging roofs, wood siding, strip windows, concrete foundations, and a modern carport. They were efficient, spare, and light. They recognized an increasing informality in society and a desire for homes that were easy to use. Wright hated the banality of Levittowns, but Levitt himself rightly credited Wright for having set a standard for what low-cost housing might be.

3.

It has never been possible to deny the power and originality of Wright’s architectural imagination, no matter what form it assumed, but much of his late work has remained a subject of controversy,” Huxtable writes. After Broadacre, the Usonian house, and Fallingwater, Wright’s work became increasingly exotic, florid, and fanciful. Hexagonal plans, filled with matching furniture that tipped over, circular designs, prisms, crescent arches, teepees, and rainbow fountains seemed to architects during the 1960s and 1970s an overwrought “mélange of Buck Rogers, the Arabian Nights and Native American sources.” But the late work actually represents a conservatism on Wright’s part, which is to say a traditional, sentimental attachment to narrative and nature.

No matter how radical as feats of engineering his buildings became, Wright maintained an almost pre-industrial idea about architecture. He had a Ruskinian sense of landscape. In his autobiography, whose prose is itself a throwback to the rich style of writers like Ruskin, Wright recalled being a boy on the farm and learning “that the secret of all the human styles in architecture was the same that gave character to trees.” Wright’s musings on organic architecture are often fuzzy, but nature, particularly the American pastoral, was unquestionably to him an expression of the divine, and it was translated into architecture through an embrace of local materials and the use of motifs like the sumac and the hollyhock. (There’s something fitting about his favorite color being Cherokee red.)

This naturalism, for which he found his own abstract form, invested his version of modernist functionalism with both spirituality and a rather old-fashioned moral purpose. As a result, he was persistently out of sync with his times, perceived at one point or another as too forward-looking or too indebted to the past, never quite right. This was the essence of his “otherness,” which he cultivated. Wright was “a fascinating anachronism,” in Huxtable’s phrase, so that during the 1920s and 1930s, for example, his clientele dwindled because he was regarded as both too modern and not modern enough. A wave of architectural conservatism swept the country. Throwback designs like the Chicago Tribune Tower and the Supreme Court in Washington were favored (the Supreme Court was finished the same year as Fallingwater).

But that was also the era of Corbusier’s “machine for living”—of his Villa Savoye, lifted off the ground on piers, unlike Wright’s buildings, which hugged the ground, sticking to nature. The Chicago public embraced the conservatism of the Tribune Tower; architectural progressives endorsed “Corbu” and European modernism.6 The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the bastion of progressive taste, exhibited Wright but always kept him at arm’s length, praising his early work, which had influenced Europeans, presenting a Fallingwater show in 1938 (but with photographs that made the building look white and mechanistic, like an International Style design), and once even pairing him, eccentrically yet cleverly, with D.W. Griffith as an American innovator—nevertheless still treating him with reservations. Wright was never modern enough for the Modern, or at least not for Philip Johnson, who established and oversaw the Modern’s architecture department, until he became, with his Buck Rogers designs, too modern for it.

Now his eclecticism makes him seem visionary, a precursor for the current wave of computer-aided designers. I recently visited Oscar Niemeyer’s house in Rio, perched over a stream, the archetype of Brazilian domestic modernism, a tropical homage to Fallingwater, and I asked Niemeyer about Wright. Not one to praise Americans, he beamed at the memory of visiting Wright sixty years ago. In Bilbao, Spain, Frank Gehry’s confectionary, titanium-clad Guggenheim, with its soaring atrium, clearly aspires to the sculptural fancy and technological derring-do of Wright’s own Guggenheim. Hardly an art museum has been built during the last thirty years that does not in one way or another emulate the Guggenheim, from Atlanta’s High to the Tate Modern in London to the new MoMA. What they emulate is not just the audacious design, which flouts its own function, but also the conception of architecture as a spectacle that virtually displaces the art the museum is ostensibly built to house. Most visitors to the New York Guggenheim say they go just to see the building; it doesn’t matter what, if anything, is on view.

But more important, Wright’s museum, with its high-rise views across the ramps toward other people, was designed to suggest in an abstract way the modern city. As a place for showing paintings it is notoriously impractical but as a public space it is a great work of art. Wright wanted to devise a kind of sculpture of urban life, an insular microcosm of what ought to take place outside the walls of the Guggenheim, which conspicuously turns its back on New York.

Again, architecture is seen as a model society, a dream of America. “In the end,” writes Huxtable, after considering both Wright’s pettiness and his work, “art is truth, as sententious as that sounds, or as close to it as we get, and the truth of the man is in the work.”

  1. 1

    In response to the financial and administrative problems that led to the warning by the Higher Learning Commission, trustees of the Taliesin Fellowship in late June agreed to give up three of their seven seats on the twenty-member Wright Foundation board and to surrender veto power over many board decisions. The foundation controls the two Taliesin campuses, in Scottsdale and in Spring Green, Wisconsin, along with Wright’s archives and the architecture school. The fellowship’s insular culture and veto power had been seen as a major hindrance to fund-raising; immediately after the change was announced the foundation received a donation of $425,000 from a Scottsdale banker, T. Denny Sanford, toward repairing the campus in Spring Green, together with a matching grant from the National Park Service that meant $850,000 in new money for refurbishment. But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (June 24, 2005) has estimated that the six major Spring Green buildings that Wright built there between 1911 and his death alone will require $86 million to repair, while Taliesin West in Arizona will demand its own fortune.

  2. 2

    For Wright’s views on love and feminism see Anthony Alofsin’s excellent Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

  3. 3

    Wright had started collecting Japanese woodblock prints in Chicago, used them as collateral for loans (as when he went to Europe in 1909), and made money as an agent in the 1910s; but his role as a dealer ended when he inadvertently sold some fakes to the Met, and much of his print collection had to be sold in foreclosure proceedings during the mid-1920s.

  4. 4

    Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (Putnam, 1987).

  5. 5

    The architect Kamal Amin, in a recent memoir about Taliesin, Reflections from the Shining Brow: My Years with Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna Lazovich (Fithian Press, 2004), describes Olgivanna as quixotic and emitting the Gurdieffian life force while also imposing herself as “a third party to every relationship,” endeavoring “to disrupt the autonomy of a relationship that took place outside her sphere of control,” and generally employing “Gestapo-like tactics.”

  6. 6

    For this period see Franklin Toker’s very fine Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House (Knopf, 2003).

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