Tom Strini

Hello, Frank Lloyd Wright

By - Feb 11th, 2011 04:00 am
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A Usonian home, exploded and suspended to show its parts and systems. TCD photo by Nickolas Nikolic.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century opens Saturday (Feb. 12) at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

At the press preview Wednesday, I recalled visiting Wright’s Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania, a few years ago, just before the trust that owns it spent millions rebuilding the massive, failing concrete cantilever that stops the building from tumbling over the waterfall beneath it. I’ve been to Taliesen a couple of times and noted gaps between glass and stone, among other maintenance and weather-seal issues that have plagued Wright’s sprawling Spring Green compound over the decades. In these buildings, as a six-footer I’ve had to duck under low ceilings, in a nod to Wright’s eccentric notion of a 5’8″ human height limitation. And we all know that just a fraction of Wright’s projects were actually built.

I’ve always admired Wright as a visionary, an idealist, and an aesthetic and humanistic thinker. And I find his buildings beautiful. But I’m not the only one who thought that maybe he wasn’t so grounded in the real world, and that his philosophy and influence have been more enduring that his bricks, mortar, stone, glass and steel.

This show changed my mind about that, starting with one humble detail drawing showing how to bolt an insulated plywood wall to a foundation sill. The method is simple, ingenious and economical. Wright dreamed up the idea for one of his Usonian homes, as he called his ongoing efforts to create inexpensive, modest, yet elegant houses for the masses.

The panoramic Organic Architecture makes plenty of room for the often overlooked Usonians. An exploded-view model, hung like a mobile and showing the structure and systems, might be the most impressive single piece in the show. The Usonians reveal a mind very much attuned to technological advances and budget limitations of average Americans. Some of the earliest radiant floor heating, for example, went into the Usonians. No ductwork, no drafts, high efficiency. The early Usonians, designed amid the Depression when skilled labor was cheap, had supporting walls of bricks and mortar. By 1949, when the economy boomed and skilled labor costs climbed, he switched to a concrete block design to bring down costs, and he worked on component designs that allowed big pieces of the homes to be manufactured cheaply off-site.

It’s true that the Usonians did not catch on as Wright had hoped, for reasons ranging from inflexible building codes to complexities of finance to price competition from America’s Levittown-style builder/contractors. But these were not pie-in-the-sky houses. They worked.

Arizona State Capitol, “Oasis,” Phoenix, AZ, 1957 (project), Air View, © 2010 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ.

They also stand in sharp contrast to the European Modernist solution to worker housing: The tower block. Some towers are thrilling places to live; rich people live in them. Millions more live unhappily in Soviet-style warrens in the sky.

As chief curator Brady Roberts noted during the walk-through, Wright had grown up a farm boy and believed that Americans needed space around them. Wright found city life dirty and crowded. The true home for his Usonian ideals would have been in designed communities, such as his proposed, unbuilt 4-by-4-mile Broadacre. A vast model of it is a star of the MAM show. Wright imagined 1,400 households on an acre each, with industry near rail and water transport around the perimeter. The model suggests an idealized and largely self-contained suburbia, complete with fields and groves to make it partly-self sustainable. Broadacre looks a little preposterous and never proved practical, but today’s sustainable planned community movement began with Wright. These new communities don’t look like Broadacre, but they are being built, in some cases on his principles and sometimes go even further than Wright.

To some extent, Wright created such a community at Taliesen, perched on a hill above farm fields that Wright inherited. He and his apprentices and employees and their families were not only architects, draftsmen and designers, they built the structures and worked the farm. Looped home movies of Wright and his proteges picnicking and swimming at Taliesen add charm and warmth to MAM’s show. (Those films, by the way, were tucked away in MAM’s basement for many years; education director Barbara Brown Lee unearthed them for this show.)

Wright believed that beautiful, humane surroundings improve people as workers, as friends, as family members. That radical idea has advanced lately in the spread of design thinking, the notion that everything from the pots we cook with to the chairs we sit in to the feel of the TV remote changes us for better or worse. Certain enlightened employers, such as Johnson Wax (Racine) and the Marin County (Calif.) government saw it that way, too. The spacious, graceful, site-specific buildings Wright designed for them are not only still in use, but cherished by workers and management alike. For homes and businesses, Wright designed everything from desks to furniture to light fixtures to built-in cabinets. He sought to create not only houses, but total, integrated environments.

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives and a 10-year associate of the architect, guided us through part of the exhibit. Among other items, Pfeiffer oversees more than 22,000 sketches and architectural drawings. Thirty of them, never shown before, are on display here. Most are from projects never completed. They are beautiful drawings.

“Every time I look at them, I get excited,” Pfeiffer said. He is deeply immersed in Wright culture. In 1971, he built a previously unrealized Wright house, designed in 1938, as his own home. His desk, in Scottsdale, Arizona, is a workstation of the sort Wright designed for Johnson Wax.

“The lower shelf is perfect for a computer keyboard,” Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer was pleased with the exhibition, and I think Wright would have approved of the environment MAM created. Free-standing walls at right angles mark exhibition regions devoted to commercial buildings, planned communities, commissioned homes, affordable homes. Pleasing, unexpected vistas open as you turn corners. As my TCD colleague, Michael Barndt, observed, the layout resembles that of a Japanese garden. Wright, of course, worked extensively in Japan early in his career and absorbed Japanese traditional architecture. As Brady Roberts noted, Wright’s admitted influences were Japan, the architect Louis Sullivan, and Nature.

Raúl Bailleres House (unbuilt project), 1952, Acapulco, Mexico © 2011 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona

Nature figures explicitly in most of Wright’s work. His planned communities flow with the landforms. His commissioned houses incorporate the landscapes beneath and around them. The Taliesen buildings step down the hills they rest on. Fallingwater clings to the bank and perches above a stream and waterfall. And the Raul Bailleres home, planned for Acapulco in 1952, steps down to to the sea in a series of ramps to the bottom of a ravine. The domes, bulbous rooms and overall circular design mimic the boulders strewn about the site.

“The first thing most architects or builders would have done was get rid of all those rocks and fill in the ravine,” Pfeiffer said. “Wright incorporates them.”

That fits his aesthetic and philosophical ideals. A building should be part of the specific landscape, not at war with it. It should promote a sense of place, not abolish it. A McMansion is a McMansion, whether it’s by the sea in California, on a mountainside in Colorado or in the Milwaukee suburbs. A Wright is where it is, with a purpose. Wherever he built, he created a there there.

Also, it costs a lot of money to move boulders. Frank Lloyd Wright was a practical man.

MAM, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, organized this exhibition. It runs through May 15 and is open to the public with normal museum admission.

For a slideshow preview of the Milwaukee Art Museum, please see below or view the set on our page here.

Categories: Art, Urban Ideas

0 thoughts on “Hello, Frank Lloyd Wright”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very enjoyable review. Now I must go see the exhibit. I have recently toured the Johnson Wax building, and have mystical images of a childhood visit to Taliesen. Both of these places are a little scary due to the mix of their being venerated, structurally compromised, and, most of all, tinged with associations that come from creepy, spiky, evil-looking forms and shapes derived from the old Orient.

    Not to mention the arm’s length touch-me-not ghost of “l’Artiste”
    on every object. There’s something pregnantly violent and mean about the look of Wright’s work, but after seeing it one can not go back, and the influence is very welcome indeed. Just a casual visit to the lobby area of Thermo-Fisher Scientific in Brookfield makes all other office environments seem not Wright.

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