We take from the art of the past what we need. The variable posthumous reputations of even the greatest artists and the unpredictable revivals of interest in even the most obscure ones tend to reveal more about those who make revisionist assessments than about those who are being reassessed. This is especially true in the building art, which, with its large social and political content, is subject to rapidly changing fashions seemingly at odds with the slow execution of architecture, the immobility of its artifacts, and the long duration of its presence on the landscape.
In the thirty-five years since the death of Frank Lloyd Wright, however, regard for him and his immense contribution to architecture has only risen and broadened. One reason for this seems clear. The present chaotic state of architecture—now as factional, contentious, beset by economic problems, and lacking in a sense of, higher purpose as American society generally—makes Wright appear in hindsight to have been above all a force for unity.
If Ludwig Mies van der Rohe refined architecture to what he took to be its essentials, if Le Corbusier reconceived it more thoroughly than anyone since Palladio, if Louis Kahn elevated architecture to a plane of timeless aspiration that had almost been lost in contemporary construction, Wright insisted that his buildings be organic—that is, unified in conception from the largest construction to the smallest detail. He rejected the celebration of discontinuity that has been a main characteristic of twentieth-century art from Cubism and Dada onward. In architecture that discontinuity has been expressed in the jagged, faceted shapes of Expressionist schemes early in the century, in the pastiches of historical motifs in Postmodernism in the 1980s, and in the fragmented, seemingly collapsing forms of Deconstructivist architecture today.
Philip Johnson’s wicked jibe that Frank Lloyd Wright was the greatest architect of the nineteenth century comes close to the mark, for Wright was indeed the last major exponent of ideas fostered by the design reform groups of the decades before and after his birth in 1867—in particular the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Aesthetic Movement, and the various schools of Art Nouveau. Those ideas included a belief in design as an agent for social improvement; the related conviction that good design should be available to all people; the repudiation of ornament if not conceived as an inseparable element of design; the quest for the fully integrated work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk; and the need for men to master the machine in service of those goals.
Moreover, as the cultural historian and geographer William Cronon points out in his brilliant essay written for the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s forthcoming Wright retrospective, the architect’s huge debt to Emerson—particularly Emerson’s view of nature as the countenance of the divine—puts Wright firmly among the Transcendentalists, no matter how forward-looking so much of his thinking appears. When Wright used natural motifs in his work—such as sumac at the Dana house of 1902–1904 in Springfield, Illinois, hollyhocks at the Barnsdall house of 1916–1921 in Los Angeles, and Spanish moss at Auldbrass Plantation of 1938–1942 in Yemassee, South Carolina—it was not just to connect his buildings with nature in a metaphorical sense, but in a spiritual one as well. And the architect’s preference for using local materials when possible gives many of his buildings the feeling of having grown from their sites fully imbued with the spirit of the place.
No other American architect is as well-known to the public as Wright. It is a rare year without a half dozen or more new books on him. His buildings are the most frequently visited works of modern architecture in the country, and threats to the preservation of his landmarks provoke passionate debate of a sort otherwise unheard of. The strong identification that Americans still have with Wright derives largely from his continuing appeal to our romantic self-image as a nation of individualists—like him nature-loving, distrustful of entrenched authority, healthily rebellious, suspicious of foreign influences, and proudly self-reliant.
More accurately reflecting our national character, however, Wright was also outspokenly anti-urban, a stubborn upholder of the impractical Jeffersonian ideal of the free-standing house on its individual plot of land, and an enthusiastic promoter of the automobile culture. In fact, Wright’s most lasting influence has been not in high-style architecture at all, but in the suburban houses that have become part of the American vernacular. During the 1950s, the British early modern architect David Pleydell-Bouverie visited Wright at Taliesin West, his “desert encampment” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Pleydell-Bouverie asked his host what would become of the complex after he died, whereupon Wright replied, “It will go back to the desert to which it belongs, but by that time I will have saved the American housewife from the Cape Cod box.”
Taliesin West still stands, but the second part of Wright’s prediction did come true. In place of the Cape Cod box he gave the American housewife and her husband the ranch-style house. Though his own efforts at devising an inexpensive, mass-produced Usonian house (as he called his smaller residential designs from the mid-1930s onward) met with only limited success, the many elements he popularized through them—long, low construction; overhanging roofs; stained wood siding; high, narrow strip windows; open-plan interiors; small kitchens; dining spaces rather than separate dining rooms; concrete slab foundations instead of full basements; carports in place of full garages—affected decades of houses built by developers throughout the United States. Alfred Levitt, the architect for Levitt and Sons, the most famous of the suburban contracting firms after World War II, said that some of his best ideas came from Frank Lloyd Wright. According to one historian of suburbia, Barbara M. Kelly, “Although Wright disdained the Levitt houses as trash, Levitt was fond of pointing out that he had been able to produce the low-cost houses that Wright had only theorized.”1
Wright’s feel for what the postwar American public would want was anticipated in Broadacre City, a visionary scheme he began to work on in 1932 but never realized. This low-rise, low-density plan for land development, knit together by roads and punctuated by the odd tall building, was as predictive in its general outlines as his Usonian houses were. In her thoughtful essay for the MOMA catalog, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Domestic Landscape,” Gwendolyn Wright observes:
This vast terrain captured the rhythms and forms that revolutionized the country after World War II: suburban expansion, landscaped highways, shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and national recreation areas. It cannot be said to have caused these phenomena or even to have directly validated them. Rather, it shows the extent to which Wright felt the pulse of American life and looked across the full extent of the national landscape.
Unlike the lives of most architects, that of Frank Lloyd Wright was not only dramatic, it was operatic. (This was suggested recently by a well-received opera, Shining Brow, composed by Daron Aric Hagen to a libretto by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, performed for the first time in April 1993 by the Madison Opera in Wisconsin.) The same theatrical quality is present in the highly readable new biography of Wright by Meryle Secrest, who has also written books on Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark. This is the first biographical study of the architect to make use of the newly available microfiche transcription of the complete Wright archives—100,000 pieces of correspondence and 21,000 drawings—sponsored by the Getty Foundation. (The drawings are now also being placed on CD-ROM.) There are no startling revelations or major departures from the general outlines of Wright’s career in Secrest’s book, but it is likely to remain the most satisfactory treatment of Wright’s life until a definitive multi-volume study appears.
Secrest’s Frank Lloyd Wright is highly preferable to Brendan Gill’s debunking 1987 biography Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright.2 Gill’s book, spottily researched (as evidenced by the few primary sources cited in its footnotes), exasperated in tone, and grudging in its judgments, portrays Wright as a rogue and a charlatan. No doubt there were aspects of chicanery in Wright’s evasive character, but one gets little sense of his authentic genius from Gill’s book. Gill knew Wright personally and seems oddly determined to settle scores with him. In a single sentence Lewis Mumford expressed a truth about Wright that Gill does not recognize: “He lived from first to last like a God, one who acts but is not acted upon.”
Robert Twombly’s 1979 study Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture3 pays greater attention to Wright’s professional activities than Secrest’s book does, though Twombly shifts back and forth between biography and architectural work, making it difficult to grasp how one might have affected the other. Secrest does not claim to be an architectural critic, and she touches on Wright’s work mainly as part of her fast-moving narrative. She bogs down only in her excessive discussion of Wright’s maternal ancestors in Wales, who are covered in detail more suitable to a biography on the vast scale of, say, Henry-Louis de La Grange’s monumental study of Gustav Mahler.
That is not to say that Secrest is mistaken in exploring Wright’s ancestry in order to understand Wright. His vast unassimilated Welsh family inhabited Wisconsin’s Helena Valley much as they had lived close to one another in Wales. Indeed, the influence of Wright’s mother’s Welsh clan, “the God Almighty Lloyd Joneses,” encapsulated in their family motto, “Truth Against the World,” seems to have prefigured the architect’s own dual sense of himself as both divinely right and humanly embattled. (In fact, Wright’s genius was recognized early and widely, and many of the obstacles he encountered later on were of his own creation.) Seeing Wright in the Welsh setting of nonconformist religion, nature worship, and tribal myth helps us to understand him better, as when he designed the astonishingly unconventional Unity Temple for a Unitarian congregation as adventurous as his own family’s unorthodox Unitarian sect, or even when as a boy he helped decorate his family’s country chapel with leaves, weeds, and wildflowers. Secrest’s account of his natural gifts for music and language suggests more of Wright’s Welshness. Still, in a book of this length covering ninety-one years that were crowded with incident, one longs for Secrest to get on with the story.
The author makes it clear that her subject’s soaring self-confidence derived from the intense hopes for him and attention given by his mother, the ambitious, frustrated Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. (Her only son was originally called Frank Lincoln Wright after the recently martyred president, but he adopted his mother’s maiden name when he was a teen-ager, around the time his parents divorced.) In his exceptionally revealing autobiography—available again in its original 1932 version in the second volume of Rizzoli’s edition of Wright’s complete writings—the architect claims that even before he was born, his mother preordained his career by hanging his nursery with framed engravings of the English cathedrals to inspire him.
His shadowy, feckless father, William Cary Wright—a failed itinerant preacher and talented church musician—withdrew in the wake of Anna’s maternal possessiveness. As Frank Lloyd Wright observed in An Autobiography:
When her son was born something happened between the mother and father. Sister Anna’s extraordinary devotion to the child disconcerted the father.
The father never made much of the child, it seems.
No doubt the wife loved him no less but now loved something more, something created out of her own fervor of love and desire. A means to realize her vision.
Throughout his life Wright sought out strong women like his mother. He left his first wife, the sweet-tempered, long-suffering Catherine Tobin Wright, mother of six of his seven children, for the freethinking feminist Mamah Borthwick Cheney, wife of a client and neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. The flight of Wright and Mrs. Cheney from their respective spouses to Europe, their return to set up a convention-flouting rural retreat on his mother’s land in the Helena Valley at Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Mamah Cheney’s subsequent murder there (along with six others, including her two children) at the hands of a demented servant, who then burned down Taliesin, was the basis of the plot for the opera Shining Brow. (“Taliesin,” the name of the legendary Welsh bard, means Shining Brow.) The early history of the house, up to the massacre and fire, is the subject of Taliesin: 1911–1914, the first volume of Southern Illinois University Press’s new series, Frank Lloyd Wright Studies, edited by Narciso G. Menocal.
Still shaken by his loss, Wright became mesmerized by the fascinating but unstable Miriam Noel, a stranger who wrote him a condolence letter after the highly publicized tragedy (Wright’s conjugal scandals having become a staple of the popular press). They soon began an affair, and in 1915 Wright wrote a brief justificatory statement of his unorthodox living arrangements, “On Marriage,” that is published for the first time in the initial volume of his collected writings. Yet Wright gathered the courage to divorce his first wife only after his mother died in 1923, when he finally married Miriam. His new wife was addicted to morphine, and after six months they separated. For the next six years she waged a relentless harassment campaign against Wright and his new lover.
Olgivanna Ivanova Lazovich Hinzenberg, a Montenegrin dancer and disciple of Gurdjieff, began living with the architect in early 1925 and quickly became pregnant. The second Mrs. Wright stalked her estranged husband, launched legal actions against him, held press conferences denouncing him, had him thrown into jail for violating the Mann Act (Wright was accused of having taken Olgivanna across state lines for “immoral purposes”), and when Olgivanna gave birth to Wright’s seventh child, Miriam hounded mother and daughter out of the hospital. Even after Wright obtained a divorce and was able to marry Olgivanna in 1928, when their daughter was three, Miriam followed them to California and vandalized their house. This avenging Fury continued to bring legal charges against him until her death two years later.
Wright’s third and final wife, with whom he lived for the last three decades of his life, was as determined as Miriam, though her energies were directed toward her husband, not against him. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright (as she styled herself, adopting his matronymic as though it were part of a compound surname), according to the recent books on the architect, was possessive, grandiose, manipulative, paranoid, and vindictive. She seems admirable only in her extreme belief in and devotion to Wright, who depended on her utterly and received from her unconditional emotional support. Though to a degree the couple also fed each other’s least appealing characteristics—vanity, self-pity, and quickness to take offense—they were complementary personalities: he giving and she hoarding, he optimistic and she anxious, he gregarious and she conspiratorial.
Yet it is unlikely that without Olgivanna at his side Wright could have made his astonishing creative comeback of the mid-1930s, well after he had been written off by most people as a historical relic. Wright’s hugely successful Prairie House period of 1900–1909, when he devised the first American architecture that was to influence new developments in Europe, was brought to an end by the Cheney scandal. Though his patrons in and around Chicago were by and large self-made and independent businessmen, they still expected a certain responsibility and discretion in an architect: a house builder should not be a home wrecker.
Wright’s sojourns in Japan to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he mostly lived between 1917 and 1922 (subject of Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan, an exhibition scheduled to open at the Phoenix Art Museum in 1995), removed him from the changing American scene at a crucial time. The renewed interest in classicism made the work of Wright and his lieber Meister, Louis Sullivan, seem dated to potential clients. Anthony Alofsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright, The Lost Years, 1910–1922 concentrates on the new repertory of architectural forms and motifs—especially Central American and “primitive”—Wright drew on for the declining number of commissions he received between his departure from Oak Park and his five Mayan-inspired Los Angeles houses of the early 1920s.
Even during the boom years of the 1920s Wright’s career did not revive. In fact, the decade between 1924 and 1934 encompassed Wright’s truly lost years, during which he executed only five commissions. Were it not for Olgivanna’s encouragement, the Great Depression might have finished him off altogether. Wright had seen Sullivan die in penury in 1924. Frank Furness, the maverick master with whom Sullivan apprenticed, was reduced late in life to ghosting a building for the classical revival firm of McKim, Mead and White, whose work was antithetical to his. In 1931, two decades after Furness died, the architectural firm that took over his business went under and his archives were thrown out with the trash.
During the Depression, still faced with chronic financial problems, Wright retreated once again to Taliesin and “the Valley of the God Almighty Lloyd Joneses,” there to live off the land and start an architectural school. Though Wright began the enterprise to raise cash, the likelihood that few prospective students would have the money to pay for tuition led to his conception of the Taliesin Fellowship as an experiment in communal, agrarian living: he saw it as a combination of kibbutz and medieval brotherhood of craft apprentices. Taliesin also became Wright’s architectural firm, the fellows who worked in it “learning by doing,” as if they were applying John Dewey’s instrumentalism.
Several Wright biographers, including Gill, have characterized the Taliesin Fellowship as an exploitative feudal system mainly devoted to providing the great man and his consort with a supply of unpaid servants to support a sybaritic way of life that the luxury-loving Wrights could otherwise ill afford. But that view disregards the heroic aspect of his strategy for creative and spiritual survival. Though the Taliesin Fellowship was strictly hierarchical and far from democratic, it nonetheless created an atmosphere that kept its members going through hard times, with a strong emphasis on cooperation, self-respect, and anti-materialistic values. Wright may have been a great example, but he was not a great teacher—or perhaps what he knew could not be taught. Though some of his most important work was done at the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s, his later career was less distinguished, and Taliesin Associated Architects, as his successor firm is known, has produced nothing approaching the quality of Wright’s design at its best.
The positive aspects of life at Taliesin are made quite clear by the architect Edgar Tafel, who joined the fellowship soon after its inception in 1932, in About Wright, a collection of reminiscences by him and a number of others who worked for Wright or for whom Wright worked. The most amusing recollection is Arthur Miller’s account of a trip he made with his then wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Wright to inspect the site for a house they wanted the architect to build in Connecticut in 1957. During the visit Wright urinated on the property and proudly announced that he had thereby claimed it. His design turned out to be so much more imposing than the clients wished that it was never executed. Though the quality of the contributions to Tafel’s collection is highly uneven (including an overheated introduction by Tom Wolfe), these witnesses to Wright’s buoyant spirit and energy give the cumulative impression that to spend some time with him—even in his advanced old age—could be the encounter of a lifetime.
Since the death, in 1985, of Olgivanna Wright (who survived her much older husband by more than twenty-five years) no one has been more responsible for the revival of Wright studies than Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, who joined the Taliesin Fellowship as an apprentice in 1949 and is now the director of archives for the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation at Taliesin West. Like many other artists’ widows, Olgivanna Wright did her husband the posthumous disservice of overprotecting his memory, in this case causing Wright scholarship to come to a virtual halt during the last years of her life. Graduate students and academics were required to pay exorbitant research fees, and permission to reproduce Wright drawings and photographs (also accompanied by steep charges) was granted only if texts were first submitted to the Wright Foundation for approval.
Pfeiffer has changed all that. He encouraged the arrangement with the Getty Foundation whereby the complete Wright archive is available to researchers not only at Taliesin West but also at the Getty Center in California. Under Pfeiffer’s intelligent supervision, the Wright Foundation has sold off duplicate and lesser versions of Wright’s huge Nachlass of drawings, raising money for the preservation of the two Taliesins and improving the archival facilities there. And Pfeiffer has also overseen an extensive project with Rizzoli to eventually publish Wright’s complete writings in six volumes.
Pfeiffer has also assembled several handsome collections of Wright drawings and photographs for the general reader, including Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks, a portfolio of thirty-eight of the architect’s executed schemes (three of which were subsequently demolished). Superb new color photographs, most of them taken by Paul Rocheleau and Michael Freeman, demonstrate how gracefully most of Wright’s buildings have aged. Despite the serious conservation problems noted by William Cronon in his essay in the MOMA catalog, Wright’s architecture has continued to become a part of its landscape settings—and they seemingly part of the architecture—in an unparalleled integration of the natural and the man-made. (Wright’s responsiveness to the environmental conditions of his commissions is discussed with sensitivity by Terence Riley in his essay for the MOMA catalog. That ecological interest will also be the subject of Frank Lloyd Wright: Shaping the Landscape, 1920–1929, an exhibition planned by the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal for 1996.) The current exterior condition of most of Wright’s structures is all the more impressive when they are compared with other surviving works of the modern movement, especially those with smooth white stucco surfaces, which in many cases have been in terrible shape. For example, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye of 1928–1930 in Poissy, France, has greatly deteriorated between restorations of varying thoroughness, as has Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat house of 1928–1930 in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
The main problem with Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks is its subtitle, for only the most assiduous Wright loyalist would make the claim for many of the lesser buildings added to fill out the relatively small number of indisputably great Wright works. That short list includes Unity Temple of 1905–1908 in Oak Park; the Robie house of 1906–1910 in Chicago; Taliesin of 1911–1959; Fallingwater of 1934–1937 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania; the Johnson Wax buildings of 1936–1951 in Racine, Wisconsin; Taliesin West of 1937–1959; and the Guggenheim Museum of 1943–1959 in New York. In each of them, Wright freed himself completely from routine architectural responses to house, church, office building, or museum. But it is not novelty that distinguishes the best works of Wright’s large output. Rather, they have the quality of all great art—to seem perpetually new, not so much ahead of their time as out of all time. That is the secret to their continuing fascination for a wide public.
Some of the other buildings chosen for this book have always had their partisans. The Imperial Hotel of 1912–1923, an odd hybrid of Pacific Rim styles, is perhaps more beloved by those who had never seen it before it was torn down in 1968 than it was by those who had actually visited its claustrophobic interiors. Recently, new arguments have been advanced for Wright’s other eccentric largescale schemes from the mid-1910s to the early 1920s, especially Midway Gardens of 1913–1914 in Chicago (destroyed in 1929) and the Hollyhock House, the subject of Kathryn Smith’s exhaustively researched new study, which is a monument of forensic architectural scholarship on a tangled history of idealistic patronage.
Built by the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, who was interested in the arts, the Hollyhock House is also the subject of a monograph in Phaidon’s new “Architecture in Detail” series, which includes photographs, plans, elevation drawings and sectional details, and a brief introductory essay by James Steele. Handsome but extremely schematic, this portfolio of images will be most useful to professionals or others who already know something of the building. Less detailed than Smith’s book but more substantial than Steele’s is Donald Hoffmann’s reflective and beautifully written Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, a continuation of his monograph series published by Dover, which includes excellent studies of the Robie house, Fallingwater, and Wright’s relation to nature. As in his other books, Hoffmann writes with admirable directness and attentiveness both to social setting and to Wright’s relations with his clients.
But the excessive representation of the architect’s late work in Frank Lloyd Wright: The Masterworks—from the dull Mossberg house of 1948 in South Bend, Indiana, and the stiff Zimmerman house of 1950 in Manchester, New Hampshire, to the garish Beth Sholom Synagogue of 1953–1959 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and the bizarre Marin County Civic Center of 1957–1962 in San Rafael, California—does nothing to enhance Wright’s stature. Notwithstanding Pfeiffer’s sentimental desire to see the final efforts of this great artist as transcendent, Wright’s late works, with the exception of the Guggenheim Museum, were not. Ironically, architectural photography of the high order displayed here serves only to expose the late buildings’ aesthetic weaknesses.
Wright’s interior designs are given similarly handsome treatment in Carla Lind’s The Wright Style, which also vividly suggests what it is like to be in side Wright’s houses. His extraordinary control in furnishing his buildings is evident in the color photographs of interiors from all phases of his seventy-year career, from the highly formal house he began to build for his family in Oak Park in 1889 to his more casual, but still exactingly arranged, houses of the 1950s. That owners of Wright buildings would have great difficulty in using any furniture other than the master’s own designs was of course his intention. Comfort was not, and Wright himself often joked about his notoriously torturous chairs.
Wright’s furniture was often conceived for a specific architectural space within a building, the dimensions of both making it unlikely that one could readily find another table for a particular alcove or another place for the original table if it were removed from its assigned spot. Nevertheless, the skyrocketing prices of original Wright pieces during the 1980s has led to the increasing availability of reproductions (discussed in a regrettable catalog section at the end of this book).
Wright’s own taste in decorative objects—Japanese prints, Near Eastern carpets, even plaster casts of classical statuary—implied a cultural eclecticism, but it did not extend to antique furniture that might distract attention from his carefully calibrated spatial compositions. In that respect Wright remained a true product of the Art Nouveau period until the end of his life. Though the specific attributes of his interiors changed a great deal over the years—from earth tones to brighter colors, from dark woods to light, and from stylized patterns inspired by nature to abstract motifs of an Arabian Nights exoticism—his Arts and Crafts Movement belief in the architect as the supreme arbiter of all aspects of design remained intact.
Certainly the most welcome new publication on the architect is The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion by William Allin Storrer, a much expanded version of his useful but rudimentary 1974 handbook The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog. In an impressive act of devotion to his subject, Storrer visited every surviving Wright work at least twice. Most of the photographs were taken by him, and he drew or redrew the plans for many of the buildings, a number of which are published here for the first time.
Like so many other books on Wright, this one employs the rather cumbersome square page format that the architect himself favored. Here, however, the equilateral layout works well in accommodating illustrations, plans, and brief texts on individual pages or spreads for each of Wright’s 433 extant structures. (Pfeiffer puts the architect’s career total at 484 completed works in the introduction to his collection.) Throughout the book, helpful graphics explain the development of Wright’s compositional ideas with unusual clarity. This essential catalogue raisonné is a model that ought to be followed for the works of other modern architects.
The rate of Wright publications has increased this season in anticipation of Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, the long-awaited survey that this spring will fill two floors of the Museum of Modern Art, the only possible architectural answer to the monumental Matisse show held there in 1992–1993. Surprisingly, though Wright’s exhibition history at MOMA has been extensive, it has never before included a full-scale retrospective. The closest thing was Arthur Drexler’s 1962 show of Wright’s drawings, many of them borrowed from the Wright organization, which gave permission no doubt more easily at that time, shortly after the architect’s death, than it would have done earlier or later.
Wright never forgave MOMA for the marginal place it had consigned him in its immensely influential Modern Architecture: International Exhibition—the so-called International Style show—in 1932, organized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. Wright had already been angered by Hitchcock’s including him among the “New Traditionalists” rather than the “New Pioneers” in his defining 1929 book Modern Architecture. And Johnson’s dismissive attitude was conveyed at the time of the exhibition in a letter to J.J.P. Oud, another of the architects in it, claiming that “Frank Lloyd Wright was included only from courtesy and in recognition of his past contributions.” Who knew, as Johnson has subsequently admitted, that Wright was on the brink of making a grand comeback? Within the next five years the seventy-year-old master would design Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax building, and Taliesin West.
When Wright found out that his work was going to be displayed at the museum alongside that of Raymond Hood (whom he despised) and Richard Neutra (whom he disparaged), he threatened to withdraw. It was only the canny diplomacy of Wright’s great advocate Lewis Mumford (who wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog’s section on housing) that kept the offended egotist in the show. As the critic shrewdly cabled to the architect, appealing to Wright’s messianic vision of himself: “There is no more honorable position than to be crucified between two thieves.”
Wright was no happier at being part of the now little-remembered 1940 MOMA exhibition Two Great Americans, in which he was paired, improbably but imaginatively, with D. W. Griffith, another innovative genius who had suffered decades of neglect and was considered a past master at a time when he would rather have been working on new projects. Individual buildings by Wright were the subject of five small MOMA presentations between 1938 and 1952, but Wright’s last, great retrospective, Sixty Years of Living Architecture, was put on by the rival Guggenheim Museum in 1953, complete with a full-scale model house, then a favorite MOMA demonstration technique. The house also harked back to the Ho-o-den, the model Japanese temple that Wright saw at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. William Cronon is correct to stress the impact of that and other exhibition designs on the architect, but he neglects to cite the strong impression that Joseph Maria Olbrich’s work for the German Pavilion at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis had on Wright (who sent his assistants there to see it, too), nor does he mention Wright’s fury at being left out of the 1933 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. Wright’s diatribes against the 1932 MOMA show and the later Chicago fair are published in the third volume of his collected writings.
That the Museum of Modern Art has given two large retrospectives to Mies van der Rohe (in 1947 and 1986) and is only now giving one to Wright is an indication of its historical preference for architecture that fits into the narrow definition of modernism promulgated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their International Style show over sixty years ago. Great credit thus must go to Stuart Wrede, the former MOMA director of architecture and design who conceived the forthcoming Wright show before his departure from the museum two years ago, and his successor, Terence Riley, who put it on. Thanks to Riley and his advisers, Wright is finally getting the extensive—and exclusive—attention he craved from the country’s leading exponent of modernism.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect promises to be an important event for several reasons. The richly illustrated catalog, which includes a number of drawings never reproduced before, in itself is a major achievement. It was an inspired choice to commission an essay from a nonarchitectural historian of the caliber of William Cronon, whose convincing exploration of the links between Wright’s life and his architecture shows more insight than many of the full-length works on the subject. Observing that Wright throughout his life needed “to confirm that he still deserved the love [of Anna Lloyd Jones Wright] his father had so pathetically lost,” Cronon draws a parallel to the architect’s career, in which “he could not resist repeatedly testing the limits of those around him as a way of proving his own worthiness.”
Kenneth Frampton’s informative account of Wright’s consistent interest throughout his career in new materials and advanced technology (which is at odds with the popular misconception of Wright as solely preoccupied with natural materials and traditional methods) draws on Frampton’s own experience as an architect. That Wright was quick to experiment with untested ways of building certainly resulted in some of the problems his structures have had over the years. But Frampton notes that Wright had his own distinctive conception of architecture and the machine. He writes, “By the turn of the century, Wright had already posited the idea of the building as a machine, most notably in the Larkin Company Administration Building” of 1902–1906 in Buffalo. However, with Wright, the machine always took on a human aspect. As Frampton says of the Larkin interior, which was emblazoned with improving mottoes, “This conscious evocation of an Emersonian aura was greatly enhanced by the installation of an organ…for the occasional concert at lunchtime or in the evening.” And Anthony Alofsin’s assessment in his MOMA catalog essay of Wright’s anomalous place in the history of modernism—being at once central to and yet estranged from it—rounds out the well-selected themes of this excellent addition to the vast literature on Wright.
The exhibition itself for the first time establishes the authorship of Wright’s workshop drawings that heretofore had been attributed (unconvincingly, though with the tacit encouragement of the Wright organization) to the hand of the master. The young Wright had used draftsmen (and women, including the talented Marion Mahony Griffin) in his office well before the turn of the century, and it is a significant step toward sounder Wright studies that we will at last be able to discern the contributions of others. That Wright himself had first come to the attention of Louis Sullivan for his drawing skills makes the issue of authorship and the diffusion of the Wright style among his early assistants (several of whom went on to become leaders in the so-called Prairie School) all the more important to sort out. And the attribution of many of Wright’s later schemes—some quite anomalous within his oeuvre—will now be easier to assign to others in his office.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect is likely to be the most popular MOMA architecture show ever. It is also certain to dramatize the inherent flaw of all exhibitions on architecture, but particularly pronounced in the case of Wright. Whereas in a display of painting or sculpture one sees the real thing (albeit sometimes divorced from the all-important setting for which a work was created), in architecture shows one can view only representations of the actual buildings. As beautiful as the drawings, photographs, models, mock-ups, decorative details, or furnishings might be, they are not the structures themselves.
Wright presents even greater difficulties in that his exceptional emphasis on the organic unity of everything from the landscape to tableware makes the separation of any part of his wholly integrated ensembles a contradiction of his most basic intention. For example, the table lamp made for the Robie house and echoing the great cantilevered roof of that structure makes considerably less sense when shown in isolation. Still worse, the growing trade in Wright’s decorative designs has hastened the stripping of some of his most important houses of their leaded-glass windows, light fixtures, hardware, and other details. As the Wright scholar Donald Hoffmann recently wrote:
Architecture…can be distinguished from the other arts because it is essentially environmental, specific to a place and meant to stay put. In a Wright building, the details are conceived as minor parts or dependencies of the fabric itself; they also become its ornamental flowering, or full development as abstract pattern. Their character is thoroughly architectonic and usually expressive of basic motifs in the plan or elevations…. This means the idea of collecting Wright’s architecture in stray fragments represents nothing so much as a contradiction in terms, a violation of the whole spirit of his art, or its spirit as a whole.4
For all its value as a much-needed reminder of Wright’s comprehensive view of architecture as a vital force for social cohesion, the Museum of Modern Art retrospective must necessarily be seen as but a fragmentary expression of what can never be captured within the walls of any gallery.
For proof of why that is so, we must return to the most evocative book ever written about Wright, An Autobiography. First published in 1932, heavily revised and reissued in 1943, and republished posthumously with Wright’s further corrections in 1977, this great classic of American autobiography—comparable with those of Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Grant, and Henry Adams—has been shown by scholars over the years to be riddled with fabrications, prevarications, and distortions. (In his introduction to the reprint of the 1932 edition, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer defensively maintains that “Certain incontestable facts, on record as historic events, however, shape the general outline of Wright’s book.”) But it embodies a deeper truth about its author and his work.
Speaking in the third person of himself as a young boy in Wisconsin, Wright says, “His imagination made a world for himself pretty much as he would have it, except where rudely intruded upon by forces that would and could have it otherwise.” Elsewhere in An Autobiography he writes in a similar vein, “The art of being in the world is not the same thing as making shift to get about in it.” A world of his own, into which Wright could invite the rest of humanity, was what he was after.
Throughout An Autobiography, the author cites his father’s and his own abiding love of music. The architect was also an accomplished keyboard musician, and although Bach and Beethoven were his favorite composers, the best analogue to Wright’s personality and artistic ambitions can be found in Richard Wagner. Their life spans overlapped for almost fifteen years, and there are many points of biographical comparison between them: the adoring mother and distant father; the devoted but spurned first wife; the marital scandals and illegitimate children; the scrapes with the law; the constant financial crises and the thirst for luxury; the anachronistic dandyism; the withdrawal to a rural redoubt where the master could reign unchallenged; and the controlling, long-lived widow.
Above all, Wagner and Wright shared a belief in the supremacy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the complete work of art that was the dream of nineteenth-century visionaries who foresaw the disintegration of culture in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Only by changing the world—or, failing that, creating an alternative to it—could art be saved. “Selbst dann bin ich die Welt,” the solipsistic Wagner wrote in Tristan und Isolde—“I myself am the world”—and, like him, Wright saw his personal creations as the artistic genius’s equivalent of the universal. That is why the colossal achievement of Frank Lloyd Wright still communicates so directly to so wide an audience of admirers, who can find in him a separate, and pleasingly confident, world to inhabit.
January 13, 1994