Conclusion to Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright by Maria Costantino was a fairly short read, having more full-page photos than text, and since many of the photos were independent of the text (i.e. photos of buildings not mentioned in the text and text describing buildings with no photos), I spent much more time scrolling through internet images of Wright’s works than I did reading the book.

It’s funny, in a way, how the two architects I’ve read about recently, Frank Lloyd Wright and Andrea Palladio, could have such vastly different interpretations of the same underlying belief: that architecture should follow nature’s inspiration.

When Frank Lloyd Wright described his buildings as “organic,” he meant he used the concrete cantilever in a manner similar to the way a tree supports its canopy of branches. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Administration Building for the Johnson Wax Co., Racine, Wisconsin.  Wright’s organic metaphor is displayed in the tall, slender lily-pad-capped columns that taper gently toward their bases and support the open-planned office.

Johnson Wax Company great workroom, Racine, WI – 1939

This view is in complete contrast to Palladio’s dictum that columns must be thicker at the bottom and taper towards the top, as a tree trunk, thus exemplifying strength and support.

Many of Wright’s designs would certainly be considered “abuses” by Palladio, demonstrated by the total absence of columns (in most cases), large, overhanging eaves, and lack of symmetry.  Palladio was committed to bringing back and preserving the traditions of the past; Wright was committed to breaking them all and starting over.

I was OK with that in Wright’s early work and his Prairie houses that I wrote about last week.  However, as Frank Lloyd Wright moved into the subsequent phases of his career, I became turned off.  His post-Prairie, concrete block projects, while innovative, were, to me, a bizarre Mayan/Egyptian/Asian fusion.

Charles Ennis House, Los Angeles, CA – 1923

He then moved on to his Usonian houses, of which Fallingwater is the most famous.

Fallingwater, Bear Run, PA – 1935

Also in his later years, he broke from his straight, rigid forms and created ramping, circular structures such as the V.C. Morris Gift Shop, son David Wright’s Pheonix, Arizona home, and the pinnacle of Wright’s career – the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

V.C. Morris Gift Shop, San Francisco, CA – 1948
David & Gladys Wright House, Pheonix, AZ – 1952
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY – 1959

However, he really went off the deep end (in my opinion) with buildings such as the Marin County Civic Center, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, and the Price Tower.  They remind me of what Glenn Murcutt said in “The Thinking Hand” regarding today’s loud, noisy architecture:

You go past it, you see it ten times, and you don’t want to see it again.  It’s very time defining.  It will speak of itself of a particular period.

Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael, CA – 1960
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wauwatosa, WI – 1961
Price Tower, Bartlesville, OK – 1956

I had assumed that a study of an architect as influential as Frank Lloyd Wright would take months (much like my time with Andrea Palladio’s first book of architecture this past summer into fall), but I have realized – surprisingly – I don’t find myself much interested in, or inspired by, Wright’s work or philosophies as I thought I would be, or that I should be, given his impact on American architecture.  So it’s probably a good thing that I started out with a nice, concise coffee-table book.  I’m sure I’ll study more about him as time goes on and I still want to visit his homes and buildings that are open to the public, but he’s no longer on a pedestal above all the other influential and talented architects out there at my disposal to study.

That said, there are elements of his career which I admire greatly.  He was still designing and working well into his 80’s, proving you’re never too old – a fact that gets me out of bed early every morning to pursue my dream of becoming an architect.  Also encouraging to me (in case my goal of going back to school doesn’t materialize), Wright had no formal training in architecture; what education he had was less than two years of engineering and drafting.  And most inspiring, when asked what his favorite building was, he would say, “the next one.”

While I no longer feel compelled to read every book ever written on Frank Lloyd Wright, I do have hope, like him, that my best years – and projects – will always be ahead of me and not in the rearview mirror.