Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Architectureby Donald Hoffmann
Insightful study of principles of Wright's architecture. Over 120 photos, plans and illustrations of Robie House, Fallingwater, Taliesin, other masterworks. See more details below
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Insightful study of principles of Wright's architecture. Over 120 photos, plans and illustrations of Robie House, Fallingwater, Taliesin, other masterworks.
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Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Art
By Donald Hoffmann
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE ROMANCE OF THE HORIZONTAL
Surely it was from Louis H. Sullivan, the architect he most respected other than himself, that Frank Lloyd Wright gained for his art its purpose and its probity. Paradoxically, he needed nothing at all from Sullivan's architecture. Echoes of Sullivan's work in fact diminished Wright's early buildings, just as Wright's work later produced a backwash in Sullivan's. This complex relation between master and pupil Wright came to describe with great poignancy in the memoir he titled Genius and the Mobocracy. What had Sullivan, then, that proved of such consequence for Wright? Three things: an undiluted concept of the architect as an artist, a high intellectual regard for nature and a fervent desire to create for America an architecture of its own. Thus directed in his life's work, Wright could revere the master as a man of great principle and at the same time submit the master's architecture to the most unsparing of critiques. No one saw Sullivan's weaknesses so clearly as Wright. "The buildings he has left with us for a brief time, Wright said, "are the least of him."
Despite the abiding affection he professed for nature, Sullivan found the natural materials of building inert and inorganic. They had to be "organized and vitalized," he wrote, "in order that a real building may exist." Sullivan had little empathy for the inherent virtues of materials, their distinctive strengths and different voices. Wright saw that he treated brick, stone, wood, iron and plaster as if all were the same, and all destined to be impressed with the fluent and often florid ornamentation best left to baked clay, or terra-cotta. To regard architecture as a triumph of spirit over matter, Wright said, was to assume a false and fatal division of the house against itself: "A greater triumph will be man's when he triumphs through the nature of matter over the superstition that separates him from its spirit." An architect, said Wright, should train himself to see that every material possesses a poetry of its own, hence becomes its own ornamentation and even suggests the appropriate proportions for a building. Sullivan considered architecture a spiritualization of matter, but Wright saw it as the materialization of spirit. As early as 1900, the architect Robert C. Spencer, Jr., wrote that Wright's feeling for the sources of beauty in materials was extraordinary. And in 1924, at the very end of his life, Sullivan graciously conceded that Wright possessed "an apprehension of the material, so delicate as to border on the mystic, and yet remain coordinate with those facts we call real life. "
Nor did Sullivan give much attention to the other fundamental aspects of architecture: the structural system and the effects of space. The imaginative and eccentric R. M. Schindler, who for a few years worked for Wright, once described Sullivan as an architect "who has not yet understood completely the third dimension." Wright himself wondered about Sullivan's preoccupation with plasticity in ornament. "Why a principle working in the part," he asked, "if not living in the whole?" Moreover, the obvious naturalism of the make-believe plant forms in Sullivan's ornament betrayed a preliminary stage in the imitation of nature. Sullivan thus left himself vulnerable, Wright said, to an "insidious sentimentality. " An imagination that could stay within the realm of geometric invention was bound to be more architectonic. Wright also discerned that Sullivan lacked an awareness of the implications of the machine in architecture and failed to see in plate glass, steel and reinforced concrete the latent poetics of the modern. The ancient tradition of the masonry arch still seemed to Sullivan the most eligible and emotional of structural principles.
Undiminished by all those shortcomings, Sullivan's force of character gave Wright every encouragement to hold nature in the highest esteem. At his distant country retreat in Mississippi, for which Wright had designed the simple cottage and stables, Sullivan lived almost engulfed by plant life, and in Kindergarten Chats, his most important book, he continually preached a nature doctrine. Nature provided a metaphor "infinite of interpretation." Nature signified fertility, chastity, strength, generosity, beauty, mobility, subtlety and serenity. Nature's powers and deeds possessed "exquisite logic." And nature remained the "one unfailing source." To have removed man from nature, Sullivan said, was the great crime of education:
The great minds may go to the great cities but they are not (generally speaking) born and bred in the great cities. In the formation of a great mind, a simple mind, a master mind, solitude is prerequisite; for such a mind is nurtured in contemplation, and strengthened in it. In the quiet, in the silence, alone with itself and Nature.... All great thought, all great ideas, all great impulses, are born in the open air, close to Nature, and are nursed, all unknown, all unsuspected, upon Nature's bosom.
In most of what Wright read he found the master's thoughts confirmed, indeed prefigured. The outdoor spirit—particularly if opposed to the squalor of the modern industrial city—was very much in the air. For one, Ruskin wrote that "the Power of human mind had its growth in the Wilderness," and he recommended that an architect "live as little in cities as a painter." Nietzsche warned that in the mire of the city "great thoughts are boiled alive and cooked till they are small." Thoreau gave thanks for the "indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature. Whitman pronounced democracy the younger brother of nature:
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons, It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
The more that Wright read, the more he saw his adolescence in a new light; now he could look back to his long summers on the family farmlands of southern Wisconsin not simply as a time of hard work and moral growth but as an intimate introduction to the aesthetics of nature. Nature—whether in microcosm or in landscape—achieved the absolute repose of "destiny fulfilled." Creatures, trees, flowers and weeds, Wright said, flourished as glorious exemplars of organized form. If the organic approach to art was as old as Aristotle, it could nonetheless inspire every generation with fresh energies. Wright heard Sullivan talk of nature's eloquence of organization, and he already knew the words of Viollet-le-Duc:
Nature, in all her works, has style, because, however varied her productions may be, they are always submitted to laws and invariable principles. The lilies of the field, the leaves of the trees, the insects, have style, because they grow, develop, and exist according to essentially logical laws. We can spare nothing from a flower, because, in its organization, every part has its function and is formed to carry out that function in the most beautiful manner. Style resides in the true and well-understood expression of a principle, and not in an immutable form; therefore, as nothing exists in nature without a principle, everything in nature must have style.
Wright could see that nature had nothing to do with fashion but always attained style, or what he described as the poetic expression of intrinsic character—"the result of an organic working out of a project in character and in one state of feeling." Measured against such a standard, American architecture appeared incoherent. "The average desire," Wright said as early as 1894, "seems to be to build something which will rear on its hind legs and paw the air in order that you may seem more important than your neighbor." Most buildings of the Victorian era conspicuously insulted the land upon which they so awkwardly stood [Fig. 1]. Victorian architecture, Wright wrote later, was a failed architecture:
What was the matter with the house? Well, just for a beginning, it lied about everything. It had no sense of unity at all nor any such sense of space as should belong to a free people. It was stuck up in any fashion.... To take any one of those so-called homes away would have improved the landscape and cleared the atmosphere.
So far as the terms of art, the typical Victorian house looked hopeless; and yet its eruption of bays and turrets, the nooks and rooms that broke off rambunctiously from other rooms, at least defied the tradition of foursquare, genteel and boxy buildings. Wright faced the task of finding a potent source of aesthetic discipline for a better species of freedom. If the products of nature presented exemplars of form, what lessons might reside in the landscape itself? Wright discovered the catalyst to new principles of architectural expression only after he chose to invoke the lost prairies of the Middle West. This was his finest moment with nature.
The prairies had been a strangely open land, devoid of human settlement and altogether lacking in trees or any other features by which to measure distance, scale or direction. Impressed by such vast expanses of grasses and wildflowers, early travelers often recalled the grandest parks in England. Some worried, however, about a soil that seemed unable to produce trees; but the prairie earth soon proved exceedingly rich. Its tangles of grassy roots could shatter cast-iron implements. Settlers in Illinois used as many as eight oxen for a first plowing, and found that without sowing again they could harvest a second crop of wheat at forty bushels to the acre. Reports reached far abroad; no one wrote more profoundly of the prairies than a man who had never seen them, the philosopher Schopenhauer:
Let us imagine ourselves transported to a very lonely place, with unbroken horizon, under a cloudless sky.... Such surroundings are, as it were, a call to seriousness and contemplation, apart from all will and its cravings; but this is just what imparts to such a scene of desolate stillness a touch of the sublime. For, because it affords no object, either favorable or unfavorable, for the will, which is constantly in need of striving and attaining, there only remains the state of pure contemplation, and whoever is incapable of this, is ignominiously abandoned to the vacancy of unoccupied will, and the misery of ennui. So far it is a test of our intellectual worth, of which, generally speaking, the degree of our power of enduring solitude, or our love of it, is a good criterion.
The fate of the wild prairie landscape was unhappily forced by its very fertility; after the invention of the steel plow, what was once touched with the sublime gave way to the banal economics of agriculture. William Cullen Bryant traveled in Illinois in 1841, and wrote of a landscape "spreading away on every side until it met the horizon." Five years later, when he returned, he found "the road for long distances now passed between fences, the broad prairie, inclosed, was turned into immense fields of maize, oats and wheat." He also noted that settlers often fell prey to mysterious fevers from which they contracted powerful feelings of guilt:
It is a common remark in this country, that the first cultivation of the earth renders any neighborhood more or less unhealthy. "Nature," said a western man to me, some years since, "resents the violence done her, and punishes those who first break the surface of the earth with the plough."
Just as Wright began to find his own voice, at the turn of the century, Hamlin Garland published his popular reminiscence titled Boy Life on the Prairie. Garland wrote that by 1884 the landscape of northern Iowa, a state once more occupied by prairies than any other, had become a different world. No open prairies could be found and the wildflowers were gone. Wright was born in 1867 and for the most part raised at the edge of the prairies. He witnessed the very years when the virgin landscape disappeared.
From that loss, came the birth of a prairie spirit: an afterglow of poetic nostalgia for such scenes of quiet beauty and broad significance as the image of freedom. Before he began to shape his buildings in full consciousness of the prairie spirit, Wright was a skilled and accomplished architect but hardly a great one. In his project to redeem the lost landscape through an architecture conceived as its abstract equivalent, or analogue, he discovered the principles that would inform his art for the rest of his life.
Wright's progress was slow and unsteady and often far from evident. His romance with the landscape began long before he took hold of the principles that became so formative. At first, he liked to say, he had only been feeling his way, knowing that some better relation between buildings and the land had to be possible. Emerson observed that in every landscape the point of astonishment occurred where earth met sky; but only on the prairie was that intersection so grand and uninterrupted . In 1833, a New England merchant journeyed to northern Illinois and noted in his diary what he saw:
The country about Chicago, for the distance of twelve miles from the lake, is mostly a low prairie covered with grass and beautiful flowers. Southwest from the town there is not one tree to be seen; the horizon rests upon the prairie.
Boy Life on the Prairie sounded the same theme. The prairies had been "wide, sunny, windy country," Garland wrote, where "the sky was so big and the horizon line so low and so far away."
Louis Sullivan spoke of "a dream born of the incomparable Lake and the strong, silent, lovely prairies." But it was a dream he never made clear, just as he never made the horizontal the leading motif of his architecture. To regard Sullivan as the founder of a "Prairie School" would be nothing less than grotesque, Wright wrote in 1915 to Wilhelm Miller, who in that year published a tract on the prairie spirit offered free to anyone in Illinois who promised to undertake some permanent ornamental planting. Miller lamented the loss of the wild prairies. "How can men restore flowers and poetic suggestion to a land nearly ninety percent of which is tilled?" he asked. His answers came mainly from the landscape architect Jens Jensen, whom Wright knew. In public parks and on private estates Jensen invoked the prairie spirit by planning broad meadows bordered by native trees, many of which responded to the prairie horizon in the stratified disposition of their limbs. "For years the message of our great prairies had appealed to me," Jensen once recalled. "Every leisure moment found me tramping through unspoiled bits of these vast areas. I wanted to understand their force, their enchantment that called on and on." The prairies had impressed Jensen as early as 1885, wrote Miller, but it was 1901 before he engaged in his first large prairie design.
Wright said he found Jensen to be a lovable soul and one possessed of a true grasp of the "peculiar charm of our prairie landscape." But he also thought that Jensen imitated nature much too literally, and told him so:
... I think you would be interested to see how a minority report, such as I might bring in with my experience in the study of structural Form as interpretation of nature, would compare with yours....
You are a realistic landscapist. I am an abstractionist seeking the pattern behind the realism—the interior structure instead of the comparatively superficial exterior effects you delight in. In other words I am a builder. You are an effectivist using nature's objects to make your effects.
Even at the turn of the century Wright had deplored naturalistic art and its "gasping poverty of imitative realism." Architecture was a more useful art and at the same time more abstract. It could easily outdistance what he later would call the "subgeometric." If the prairie horizon rarely appeared as a straight line, it nonetheless gave birth to the lengthened horizontal—an abstraction with the full potency of a generative architectural idea.
Any house, Wright said in 1894, should appear to be part of its site "and not a foreign element set up boxwise on edge to the utter humiliation of every natural thing in sight." His early work failed to emphasize the horizontal consistently, but only because he had not yet formed a clear idea of how the lost prairies might inspire a new aesthetic. But by 1900 Robert C. Spencer, Jr., could write of the "evident love for the horizontal dimension and the horizontal line" in Wright's buildings, and note that "long lines are obtained whenever possible." Early the next year, with the publication of his project for "A Home in a Prairie Town" in the Ladies' Home Journal, Wright acknowledged his source [3, 4]:
The exterior recognizes the influence of the prairie, is firmly and broadly associated with the site, and makes a feature of its quiet level. The low terraces and the broad eaves are designed to accentuate that quiet level and complete the harmonious relationship.
Excerpted from Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Art by Donald Hoffmann. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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