Finding Frank Lloyd Wright

Finding Frank Lloyd Wright

Throughout history it is easy to understand specific moments through various lenses.  While one lives in the present, one day it will be history and it will be reflected upon in hindsight.  At the moment, however, it is experienced in a different way than it will be through analysis.  In 1961, the British historian E.H. Carr presented an address called “What is History?” where he argued that each age speaks for itself.  Therefore, each age writes its own history, notating what is the most important at the time with what will be most important to recognize for the future.  In regard to architecture, there have been many architects who have completed structures of prominence during their time that may not have resonated with future generations, or who completed structures that were only acknowledged for their longevity and style in later years.  An architect who has broken this barrier is Frank Lloyd Wright, whose works have been immediately considered thought-provoking in their modern day as well as in ours.  Therefore, the historical documentation of Wright throughout the years has resonated with his supporters in a variety of ways depending upon the time period through which construction occurred.  Figures such as H.R. Hitchcock, G.C. Manson, John Sergeant and Kevin Nute have created distinct literature exploring the efforts of Wright that establish specific pictures that combine together to create one comprehensive representation of the architect.

To understand the various accounts, one must first understand Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had a turbulent home life and was exposed to architecture at an early age, through which he expressed much interest.  For example, his family commissioned the building of a church in his neighborhood with Joseph Silsbee, a man who would give Wright his first start as a young adult as a draftsman in his architecture firm, drawing out plans and mapping out projects for construction[1].  Wright sought higher pay and a more integral part of the architecture process, so he left Silsbee and went off to be a building designer at a different firm, however, he soon realized that he was jumping into the professional pool too quickly, and thus, returned to Silsbee.  Through Silsbee he learned how to incorporate Victorian elements into design and construction, so when he transferred to Adler and Sullivan, he utilized his background in the Victorian to create a more progressive style[2].  From 1893-1900 Wright utilized the skills he learned at his firms to create solo projects, for example, the Winslow House, which boasted simple geography, horizontal lines, and subtle ornamentation that would become customary to Wright designs. By 1900 Wright began his foray into the “Prairie House” style of architecture and by 1911 after a pattern of successful developments in this realm, he travelled to Europe to expand his designs and create a published portfolio, the Wasmuth Portfolio, that is still explored today[3].

One of those architects who became familiar with the Wasmuth Portfolio would be H.R. Hitchcock who would go on to publish In the Nature of Materials in 1941, exploring the foundations of American architecture, focusing on the developments of Wright.  At the time In The Nature of Materials was published, Wright had already been prominent in the architectural world and on the geographic landscape for years, but Hitchcock chose to reconfirm Wright’s prominence as a necessity in the development and progress of the manmade landscape[4].  Hitchcock’s respect for Wrights efforts is obvious in the mixed biographical information and architectural detail he presents over Wrights near fifty year career (which would expand to seventy come his death in 1959).  As an architectural expert, Hitchcock expressed how Wright’s approach was distinctive to homes, public centers, offices, and more, emphasizing Wright’s ability to utilize materials that made sense with not only the structure completed, but also the environment[5].  Hitchcock focused on Wright’s ability to create harmony between structure and environment, whether the environment be within a city or within a natural secluded setting.  This harkens back to Wright’s own disdain for the layout of Chicago which he saw as a child, whereby both buildings and city streets lacked any dynamic; Wright’s own efforts would seek to change the dynamic of any environment he built within[6].

Hitchcock links Wright’s buildings to both the eras in which Wright developed the skills for creation, as well as the eras in which Wright was involved in completion.  For example, the skills he learned with Silsbee would translate into his Depression year projects of strict planning and organization.  Therefore, Hitchcock’s 1941 writing of a man who was operating in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries creates an historically accurate love letter to a man who was still in his prime from a man who studied architecture for a living; Hitchcock’s account is so detailed and connected to Wright’s own life as seen through his buildings, that it almost feels like Hitchcock not only revered Wright, but knew him.  He explores the relationship between the buildings and how emotions and reactions can be evoked and understood through Wright’s efforts to establish a comprehensive living environment.

The next writer who would explore a crucial age of Wright’s work would be G.C. Manson, who’s work Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age was written in 1958, explored Wright’s architectural prominence during a particular time, in hindsight.  The title alone speaks volumes, for the modern sense of architecture, to Manson, begins with Wright and ends in 1910, around the same time Wright published the Wasmuth Portfolio[7].  At that time, Wright’s efforts had been more popularized and his own decisions had shifted from an American-centered operation to one that would include European findings.  For example, up until now, Wright had focused on his teachings from Silsbee and Adler and Sullivan; the travel into Europe in the early 1910s would suggest a shift in his architectural design, and hence, Manson ended his book there.  Manson was well-aware of the rest of Wright’s extensive career; published one year before Wright’s death, there was much ground he did not cover, however, he covered his early years in detail.  This suggests though, that Manson found Wright’s best work to be that of the Prairie Houses and earlier, even though the Prairie Houses may not have been well known to Wright’s contemporaries post-World War II[8].  Prairies Houses, however, are a distinct feature and a necessity to understanding Wright’s involvement in keeping his structures in line with the natural environment.  To be considered “prairie” style, a structure or home must be well-built, comprised of horizontal lines, have flat rooves and horizontal banded windows that suggest an element of ornamentation in their distinct features, yet to do not stray from nor take away from the natural, surrounding environment.

Therefore, as an architect who is well known for his horizontal lines and subtle, yet finely constructed buildings, Wright’s introduction of a number of Prairie Homes is one of his shining moments[9]. Though by 1958 he had been known for a variety of structures, sometimes it takes distance in order to understand the weight and importance of modern creations.  For example, had Manson written in 1980, he might have comprised his book of Prairie Homes as well as Wright’s textile block houses in California in order to manifest his development in different environments.  The Prairie Homes were characteristic of the mid-west and prairies with their plains and horizontal features[10].  The Californian textile block homes were constructed in the 1920s, specific to the environment, in order to blend organic materials with organic architecture, establishing a fluid work[11].  The textile block homes, however could not be built in the mid-west, for the materials would not be organic nor would the setting be conducive to a manmade landscape of connected concrete block structures.  Geographically, the two would not mix.

Although Manson was able to experience nearly all of Wright’s career, it seems that he was too involved in the process to understand the benefits of many of his later creations during his present day.  A combined effort between Manson and Hitchcock would create a comprehensive picture of Wright’s developments rather than singling out a specific element of his architectural style.  However, later writers, too, would focus in on elements that seemed most important or memorable, even though these writers would have witnessed all of Wright’s career and have historical distance through which to view the past.

John Sergeant published Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses in 1976, nearly twenty years after Manson’s prominent account.  Sergeant’s account may seem to only focus on one aspect of Wright’s career, however, it is an extensive approach to understanding Wright’s thought process and developmental abilities.  His Usonian Houses stem from his 1930s plan of Broadacre City, an urban development that Wright championed throughout much of his lifetime of which his interns helped devise a scale model; comprised of old and new designs, the idea was to give each member of the population an acre of land on which to live[12].  Rather than extend the trans-continental developments of Wrights’ 1930s, he sought to create a self-sufficient area with ornate and functional architecture on a gridded city plan through which pedestrians and automobile drivers could easily operate.  Usonian Houses were thus built on a gridded plan comprised of a heating system, insulated walls, and a flow of movement within the house centered around a fireplace[13].  Spatially, Usonian Houses were adapted for independent living.  The ease of living would increase the desire for clients to have Wright constructed houses; in addition, it would expand the client base due to the features that would be wanted by all.  For example, Wright desired a kitchen and dining area to be joined in a fluid motion which would both bring the family unit together as well as create an ease of work to create and enjoy meals.  This concept could be enjoyed by anyone.

Therefore, Sergeant’s view of Wright’s work focuses on Wright’s early developments of the Usonian dream and how it came to fruition.  Only in hindsight can Sergeant truly understand how Wright’s work of the 1930s connects to his ultimate creations.   Sergeant, too, had the added benefit of understanding how other architects would build off of Wright’s designs and witness how his houses possess much longevity.  Sergeant’s book takes into account how Wright is fully American, meaning, he follows the American dream of thinking big and following through with his ideas.  Stemming from his meager beginnings, Wright overcomes difficult times and studies hard, constantly honing his skills to not only work excellently in architecture firms, but also, create his own footprint in the world of architecture.  Therefore, Sergeant’s focus on Usonian homes mirrors the American dream of easy-living after a hard-day’s work.  Wright’s structures enable the businessman to work all day and come home to a self-sufficient household, championed by Wright’s internal and external designs.  In addition, Sergeant is the first writer, chronologically, to really explore Wright’s interior design concepts, such as the fireplace as the center of living and the flow of energy throughout the home[14].  Thus, since time passed, Sergeant was able to view Wright’s structures as a beneficial element to society, not only architecture and the environment.

The true departure from what Wright is known for comes through in Kevin Nute’s Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan, published in 1994.  Wright had always been an avid dealer of Japanese art, purchasing and dealing prints since the early 1900s[15].  What Wright learned from the prints and the time he spent in Japan exposed him to Japanese characteristics that would influence his development of future creations in both Japan and America.  The inherent organic features and geographic confirmations present in Japanese wood block prints comes through in Wright’s work, however, controversy arises over whether or not Wright was influenced by or influenced Japan[16].  Though Japanese customs had been around for centuries prior to Wright’s architectural influence, Wright, himself, could not distinguish between his independently created efforts and those he found as inspiration through other sources.  A true personal affect comes through of Wright’s disdain for negativity surrounding his work, yet the controversy remains. For example, Nute explored a situation in which it was brought to Wright’s attention that the picturesque elements of his own creations mirror the elements of Japanese art and architecture.  Wright was slightly offended because he would draw the line at inspiration, but he adamantly denied taking any aspects directly from the Japanese form.

Especially in the years following his death when interpretation and hindsight was free to roam, many historians aside from Nute brought attention to the link between Wright’s structures beyond the organic material nature[17].  Until now, none of the other writers in chronological order, Hitchcock, Manson or Sergeant, had placed emphasis on the Japanese question, but rather, explored Wright’s desire to create organically.  Nute, however, linked the organic nature to the inherent qualities of Japanese art and architecture.  In the same way that Wright went to Europe and both was influenced and influenced creations simultaneously, his own love for Japanese aesthetics would shape his constructive planning.

Nute connects many of Wrights creations to Japanese concepts, and he is free to do so with the distinction of history during his modern day; since Wright’s structures had proven their longevity and prominence within the architectural world, and Wright’s contemporaries could neither defend nor oppose him any longer, the 1990s was an historically relevant time to undertake this new exploration into the interpretation of Wrights past work.  For example, the way that the Prairie Houses were constructed with a centralized area for living, flanking a chimney with dining and studying areas, mimics the typical Japanese set-up in a private home.  Manson, who focused much on Prairie Houses and Wright’s development up until this time strayed from any Japanese connections, possibly due to his own historical context, possibly because Wright could have technically challenged his writings.  Nute’s findings were safe to publish in the 1990s.

Wright’s first visit to Japan in 1905 introduced him to the gongen-style of architecture, which created public buildings comprised of a main sanctuary connected to a worship hall[18].  While in Japan, Wright was exposed to many famous Japanese structures of religious atmosphere completed in this style.  Coincidentally, when he returned to America and his town’s Unity Church was burned down, he offered up a plan for rebuilding that centered on this same layout[19].  No one would publically make the connection until years later; for decades, the Unity Church was one of Wright’s most well-known structures, totally unique. Therefore, the exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s subtle, environmentally friendly, yet prominent structures have been supported, challenged, but never ignored throughout the years.  Historically speaking, the further away researchers and scholars became from Wright’s own heyday, the easier it was to challenge his works and find flaws within his

Therefore, the exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s subtle, environmentally friendly, yet prominent structures have been supported, challenged, but never ignored throughout the years.  Historically speaking, the further away researchers and scholars became from Wright’s own heyday, the easier it was to challenge his works and find flaws within his decades long career.  All four authors presented appropriate overviews of Wright’s work, necessary for perspective and particular details, however, each author stressed certain aspects rather than others dependent upon the historical precedence of each.  Hitchcock, as someone who had experienced about three quarters of Wright’s career could write out of respect with no telling when Wright’s efforts in architecture would cease or whether or not controversy would arise.  Hitchcock was too early to experience Wright’s structures post World War II and too immediate to estimate any change of Wright’s Usonian houses due to their proximity in creation.  Manson, as a researcher who wrote almost at the end of Wright’s career, experienced more than Hitchcock and was able to pinpoint the “Golden” era, when, according to Manson, Wright was in his prime.  Both of these writers spoke incredibly highly of Wright, for they still anticipated Wright’s speeches, plans, and structures for years to come.The tone clearly shifts in historical record when reading through Sergeant and Nute’s writings.

The tone clearly shifts in historical record when reading through Sergeant and Nute’s writings.  Sergeant takes a more societal approach, to express how Wright has not only influenced the world of architecture, but the world in general.  He took Wright’s structures and referenced them to Americana; as someone writing in the 1970s, he had been far enough removed from the entire process to understand the cause from Wright’s point of view, as well as the effect, from his own experience.  Sergeant was the first writer of the four to explore Wright’s legacy post-mortem, able to explore the theories and ultimate creations of the architect in their relation to American progress.  Then, Nute’s writing still upholds Wright’s importance within the world of architecture, yet qualifies it with further historical findings.  The fact that Wright was a proponent of Japanese art had gone undiscovered for years, and possibly, only after this discovery, were his structures linked to Japanese works.  Possibly, there were other motives for this expression of similarity; whatever the case, though, Nute attempted to take both sides of the story to create a picture not necessarily in Wright’s favor, but one of honesty and historical truth.  Therefore, Wright’s structures were not negated, but a non-biased account of the architect and the real inspiration behind his work was investigated for both architectural and historical study.

Therefore, it is clear that throughout history, the influence of one person can change overtime.  Perspectives can be gained or lost and various connections can be made along the way.  Sometimes it is easier to view something in hindsight, with additional background knowledge and the ability to reflect after years gone by.  However, sometimes in the presence of the historical individual in question, it is easier to understand motives of the modern day and witness the influence first hand.  All four authors explored create valid depictions of a man who was both influential to his modern day as well as ours.  Any controversies arising tend to be natural with someone in such a prominent spot, however, it is easier to express these concerns when the person can no longer argue for themselves.  Thus, the historical documentation acts as argument for Wright, whereby, even if his connection to Japanese elements was unintentional, only historians of our modern day were able to decode it.  The distinct writer finds worth in a variety of architectural developments, each represented through a specific perspective, that, when read together, create a comprehensive picture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

 

References

[1] Hitchcock, H.R.  In the Nature of Materials. Da Capo Press. 1941.

[2] Hitchcock 1941, 64

[3] ibid

[4] Hitchcock, 1941

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Manson, C.G.  Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age. Wiley. 1958.

[8] Manson 1958

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] Hitchcock 1941

[12] Sergeant, J.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses. Whitney Library of Design. 1976.

[13] Sergeant 1976

[14] ibid

[15] Nute, K.  Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan . Routledge . 1993.

[16] Nute 1993

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

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