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Wright in Love

1.

The most remarkable thing about the extensive literature on Frank Lloyd Wright—new additions to which flow forth season after season, even as the stream of other architecture books dwindles—is not its magnitude (871 titles, according to the Library of Congress catalog, twice the number of the building designs in his catalogue raisonné1). More striking is the extreme disproportion in the coverage of different aspects of Wright’s seven-decade career.

In addition to many lavish Wright picture albums, there is no end of publications on individual houses by America’s greatest architect. The finest of those studies are by the architectural historian and critic Donald Hoffmann, whose magisterial Wright series has been issued by Dover since 1978. In particular, Hoffmann’s penetrating analyses of the Robie house of 1906–1910 in Chicago and Fallingwater of 1934–1937 in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, are unrivaled and likely to remain so. Such classic monographs have been vastly outnumbered by the self-aggrandizing and similar memoirs written by many patrons who commissioned late-career Wright houses, whether or not the buildings they paid for were of any special quality.

Then there are the Wrightian subthemes discussed in books such as Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954–1959, by the architectural journalists Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel. When the critic Herbert Muschamp’s brief but nonetheless disorganized treatment of the same subject, Man About Town: Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City, appeared in 1983, its subtitle reminded me of the ethnic-stereotype jokes about books with only one page: Italian War Heroes or Irish Teetotalers. Although one of Manhattan’s glories is Wright’s last masterpiece, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of 1943–1959 (which recently emerged from a meticulous restoration, mainly by Wank Adams Slavin Associates, in time for the building’s fiftieth anniversary next fall), he built little else in the city and its environs, and never lost his country-boy misgivings about the corrupting metropolis.

Nonetheless, as an architect who had few peers as a self-promoter, Wright was inexorably drawn to New York and its influential opinionmakers in publishing, broadcasting, and the arts. With each well-publicized visit, the architect burnished his carefully crafted image of a curmudgeonly embattled genius, as he dependably supplied reporters and cameramen with pithy quotes, clever photo-ops, and droll newsreel turns, like another incorrigible press hound of the period, George Bernard Shaw.

Hession and Pickrel are especially good at demonstrating how quickly and adeptly Wright adapted to new forms of mass communication as they emerged. The authors have rediscovered kinescopes and tapes of his frequent appearances on such early TV programs as Conversations with Elder Wise Men (in dialogue with the young Hugh Downs), The Today Show (with its first anchorman, Dave Garroway), and What’s My Line? (where a blindfolded Dorothy Kilgallen correctly guessed the mystery guest’s identity). After deftly fielding several aggressive questions from the host of The Mike Wallace Interview in 1957, Wright twitted his chain-smoking interlocutor about “that thing you have in your mouth” and “doing commercials for the cigarette” made by the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris. Not until Philip Johnson managed to silence the interruptive Charlie Rose, four decades later, would an architect so dominate a talk-show personality.

Frank Lloyd Wright in New York is entertainingly illustrated and laid out rather like a Time-Life book of the 1960s, with magazine-style sidebars, boxes, full-page-bleed news photos, and tinted-background sections on individual Wright projects, several of which have nothing to do with the title city. At times, Hession and Pickrel’s text reads like a promotional brochure for the Plaza Hotel, where the architect first stayed in 1909, on his way to Europe with his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. In 1954 Wright leased a Plaza pied-à-terre, dubbed “Taliesin East,” for his use during the three-year construction of the Guggenheim, thirty blocks to the north.

A compulsive spendthrift who lived high on the hog even when flat broke, Wright redecorated the hotel’s Suite 223–225—overlooking Central Park and Fifth Avenue at the building’s northeast corner—with a mélange of Asian-inspired and modern furnishings (including chairs carved with a swan’s head motif, left behind by the previous tenant, the couturier Christian Dior), and obscured the rooms’ Beaux-Arts detailing with panels of gold-flecked Japanese rice paper. Although the Plaza’s beer-baron historicism exemplified the deracinated styles he rebelled against as a young firebrand, Wright the Olympian sage took a more benign view of the hotel’s forgettable architect than he did of more formidable competitors like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Good old Henry Hardenbergh,” Wright told one client. “Of course, I wouldn’t do anything like it, but it is an honest building.”

Redundant publications such as this one point up major lacunae in the imbalanced Wright bibliography. For example, there is still no adequate study of the architect’s love affair with the automobile, which shaped—in fact, distorted—his approach to regional development. No other master builder has maintained a more enduring hold on the American imagination than Wright—not even Thomas Jefferson (who is considered first and foremost an architect by neoclassical fanatics). Although Jefferson’s reverence for the Vitruvian tradition was the antithesis of Wright’s contempt for historical revivalism, they shared an anti-urban vision of the United States as a gridwork of small farms and single family houses, punctuated by modestly sized towns. Both men viewed big cities with instinctive suspicion.

The major difference was that Wright’s idea for modern exurbia—his unrealized Broadacre City scheme of 1932–1934, a low-rise, low-density Nowhere Land he hoped would encourage “lives lived in greater independence and seclusion”—depended on the private automobile as virtually the sole means of transportation. Broadacre’s formula for communal dispersal and social isolation presaged the rampant sprawl that has become the ruination of our national landscape, a consequence very much at odds with the environmentalism imputed to Wright’s earthy organic architecture. This conjunction in Wright’s work of two quintessential American manifestations—the destructive effects of the car culture and the unchecked individualism fetishized as “freedom”—remains unexplored, but it could yield a critique of far-reaching significance.

2.

The biggest gap on the Wright bookshelf remains a biography that begins to approach John Richardson’s multivolume masterpiece A Life of Picasso. Retellings of Wright’s life story continue to appear and just as predictably vanish. None thus far has been wholly satisfactory, although the most useful collection of facts is to be found in the uneven Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture of 1979 by Robert Twombly (editor of a new compilation, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts.)

One can understand why any historian would shrink from the all-consuming effort needed to realize a comprehensive life-and-works of this prolific figure, who died when he was ninety-one. However, such an achievement would guarantee its author a place in the Boswellian pantheon along with Richardson, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, and other masters of the genre.

In the absence of such a biographer, Wright’s personal history lends itself all too readily to the salacious scandalmongering that makes for nonfiction best-sellers. Academic scholars are not immune to this cheapening tendency, as shown by Franklin Toker, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the inexplicably well-received Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House.2

In Toker’s book, Fallingwater’s enlightened patrons seem cartoonish—the handsome, overbearing, and womanizing department store tycoon E.J. Kaufmann is seen in contrast to his homely, oversensitive, homosexual son, the architectural historian Edgar Kaufmann Jr. A miraculous commission is reduced to a dynastic psychodrama. At a 1986 Columbia University conference in celebration of Kaufmann Jr., three years before his death, Toker launched an ominous trial balloon for Fallingwater Rising in a lecture that turned the tribute into a roast. With apparent satisfaction, Toker unloaded a barrage of gratuitous revelations in front of the mortified honoree, including the closely guarded secret that his adored mother, Liliane Kaufmann, had committed suicide at their legendary country house (and is entombed there, in a burial vault with a bronze sculptural relief by Alberto Giacometti).

The same unsavory and insinuating air hovers over the pages of The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, by Roger Friedland, a sociologist described on the jacket flap as “a student of the intersections among culture, religion, and eroticism,” and Harold Zellman, a Los Angeles architect. They concentrate on the architecture school-cum-professional practice that Wright set up in 1932 at his estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin—less out of love for pedagogy than as a survival strategy when the Great Depression exacerbated his desperation after a fallow decade that made even erstwhile devotees see him as an irrelevant anachronism. (That protracted eclipse is the subject of the forthcoming Frank Lloyd Wright: The Heroic Years, 1920–1932, by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, the longtime Taliesin archivist.)

The fellowship turned out to be Wright’s salvation—financially, spiritually, and creatively (until advanced old age began to sap his powers). He based his putatively democratic—though in fact rigidly hierarchical—brotherhood on English Arts and Crafts antecedents like the Guild of Handicraft, established in 1888 by his architect friend C.R. Ashbee. The American’s enormous debt to the design theorists and social activists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, above all its presiding spirit, William Morris, is abundantly evident throughout Modern Architecture: Being the Kahn Lectures for 1930, the texts of six talks Wright gave at Princeton during the lowest ebb of his fortunes.

The endpapers of Modern Architecture— which Princeton University Press has reissued in a facsimile of its original 1931 edition are embellished with Wright aphorisms that recall the improving mottoes typically displayed in Arts and Crafts interiors: “Principle is the safe precedent,” “A matter of taste is usually a matter of ignorance,” “Great art is great life,” and, most inarguably, “Death is a crisis of growth.” (Wright incorporated such uplifting slogans in the cathedral-like main workroom of his Larkin Company Administration Building of 1902–1906 in Buffalo, headquarters of a mail-order business co-founded by Elbert Hubbard, America’s foremost Arts and Crafts popularizer and creator of the communal Roycrofters workshop.)

The Princeton reprint has an authoritative introduction by the architectural historian Neil Levine, whose ambitious 1996 survey, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, was marred by his insistence on the primacy of French (rather than more plausible German) influences in Wright’s development, particularly the supposed effect of the “Romantic Rationalism” expounded by the architect and theorist Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle of 1856 Wright praised as “the only really sensible book on architecture in the world.” Levine paid much less attention to the arguably greater impact on Wright of the theories of Viollet’s German contemporary and counterpart Gottfried Semper, or the uncharacteristically open admiration Wright showed for a member of his own generation, the Austrian architect and designer Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Here Levine starts off with the rave review Modern Architecture received in The New Republic from the housing specialist Catherine Bauer in 1931 (during her affair with Lewis Mumford, one of the few critics whose support of Wright never wavered). Bauer rightly praised the book as “so rich in sound observation, trenchant comment and philosophic purity that architecture itself takes on a new dignity, a fresh social importance,” foretelling the consensus that it is the most eloquent summation of Wright’s artistic credo.

  1. 1

    William Allin Storrer, The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, Revised Edition (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

  2. 2

    Knopf, 2003.

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