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August 22, 2003

Frank Lloyd Wright Isn't God

Friedrich --

robie02.jpg
Live here? Thanks but ...

I know I'm committing art-fan-heresy if not actual art-fan-treason by admitting this, but I'm not a Frank Lloyd Wright fan. Yesyesyes, he was a giant and a mega-talent, and his buildings are often beautiful. (I'm not blind.) But while they're beautiful as structures, they're often absurd as buildings.

Happy to admit that I'm semi-qualifed at best to make pronouncements about FLW; I've toured maybe a half-dozen of the houses, visited Taliesin East and West, have strolled through a few of the public buildings, and have read only a few books about him and his work. (I'm proud, on the other hand, to have had a few actual conversations with people who live and work in his buildings.) But what the hell: I'm not playing critic and 2Blowhards isn't The New Yorker. So why not be frank and honest, eh?

An aside I can't resist: Why don't more opinions like "I don't like FLW" come along in the mainstream press? Do you think it's entirely because everyone, just everyone, loves FLW's work? Or might it also have to do with career and social anxieties -- ie., with people in the culture-opinion-and-ideas class being terrified of making fools of themselves and thereby losing social and career credibility? A question for a good sociologist to look into: What exactly are the outlines of the opinions-and-ideas mindset that you must, you absolutely must, subscribe to in order to find a comfy place within the culture-opinions-and-ideas world?

But back to FLW. I do get fascinated by the way so many people worship him, as well as by the existence of the thriving FLW industry. He's become a kind of pop icon -- he and his work mean something to a lot of people that goes beyond mere architecture. What is it? I'm guessing it's something like: he's the real-American modern architect (an eccentric individualist, using natural materials, making forms well-suited to our landscape) you root for against all those geometric, rationalistic, borderline-totalitarian Eurojerks. He may be modern, grumble grumble, but he's still our guy -- cussed, down-home, rough-hewn. A poster boy for values we real people cheer, in other words.

All of which is sweet and amusing. But how does his work actually measure up? The more I see of it (and the more I read about him), the less deserving of worship do I think he is. Granted that some of his creations are lovely things of one sort or another, most of the buildings I've visited have struck me as stiff, badly made, and close to unusable.

Simple question: Would you want to live in one of his houses? I wouldn't, for two main reasons. Most important is the way a Frank Lloyd Wright house never becomes your home; instead, you move in and become the curator of one branch of the Frank Lloyd Wright museum. You're just the custodian in a monument to his genius. For the other, I wouldn't want to be in charge of (let alone pay for) the upkeep. Wright couldn't resist trying out innovative building techniques -- which has meant in practice that many of his houses are in semi-constant need of expensive repair.

As for the art and moral values his work is celebrated for -- openness, naturalness, a casual, flowing informality -- well, let's see. His ceilings are often very low -- uncomfortably low. Why? Because he was a vindictive short man who was resentful of taller people, and he liked ceiling heights that make tall people feel uneasy. Flowing and open? Sure: his use of space is often fascinating in an aesthetic sense. But in a human sense, it works only if you subscribe to the whole package -- if you don't mess with how and where he wants the furniture placed and the light to fall. It all works together or it doesn't work at all -- which is impressive but a pain. (There's nothing quite like being locked into someone else's concept, particularly when what you want to do is kick back in the comfort of your own home.) As far as I can tell, and from what the owners of one house told me, his buildings are about as unadaptable as buildings can be. And those long horizontal lines which we're told are such eloquent reflections of the American landscape and psyche? Well, they collect water and leak, and the water drips down into the walls, and ....

The buildings work as they're supposed to only if you first submit to FLW -- and submit totally. Give over to his genius, and then you'll have earned the right to experience the full, transcendent FLW experience. What if, on the other hand, you prefer to live by your own rules and you expect your house to play along? You may find yourself wrestling with a nightmare as well as courting bankruptcy.

A couple of other quick notes: as you know, it's the "naturalness" and "Americanness" of FLW's work that's often cited as what makes his buildings great. They're plausible words to use if you're discussing the usual, iconic Prairie House, I guess. But how about some of the other periods Wright went through? Were they just oddball deviations, hiccups we can forgive? I've never run across a convincing justification of the Mayan period, for example, or for what I think of as his Ming-the-Merciless period -- the sheer goofiness of both of which I rather enjoy, but which read (to my mind) as undisguised expressions of nothing so much as megalomania run amok. ("Architecture for democracy," my ass.)


Calling Flash Gordon

All of these reflections are prompted by a good short piece in Wednesday's WSJ by Lee Rosenbaum about the campaign to repair one of Wright's most famous buildings, Fallingwater. That's the house in the Pennsylvania woods that seems to be all cantilevers and horizontals dangling out over a stream. (Here's a useful Fallingwater fan site; here's the official site.) It was completed in 1939 and is often cited as one of the great houses of the 20th century; some call it Wright's greatest work. Rosenbaum, who seems happy to accept the greatness of FLW, is nonetheless unsparing in his descriptions of how temperamental a house (or "house," given that it has so seldom managed to function as one) Fallingwater is. The bill for the repair work? $11.5 million.

A few excerpts from Rosenbaum's article:

Perilously perched over a western Pennsylvania waterfall, Fallingwater has been in constant danger of falling into water and has been persistently penetrated by falling water -- some 60 chronic leaks ...

Structural engineer Robert Silman slammed Wright's stone-and-concrete masterpiece as "not safe from the day it was built ... One side of the living room had sagged almost seven inches ... "

"Wright saw the exterior and interior as the same, flowing together. This makes a great aesthetic impression, but it's terrible for waterproofing," commented Ms. Jerome [of the company overseeing some of the work] ...

When The Wife and I made our own pilgrimage to Fallingwater some years ago, we were amazed; we came to worship and went away snickering. (The crowds we were among probably hated us.) And for more than a few reasons. There's the celebrated approach to the house. You walk to the house through the woods. At a certain point on the path, you turn a corner and see the house, perhaps an eighth of a mile away, from just the perfect perspective. It's a beautiful moment and a beautiful sight. It's also a wildly over-art-directed one -- even as you gasp in admiration it dawns on you that the master whose hands you're in is quite the domineering control freak.


Of nature, or above it?

How about that "nature" thing people go on about? "He understood that people were creatures of nature," goes a typical appreciation, "hence an architecture which conformed to nature would conform to what was basic in people." But what struck us most vividly wasn't that the house was OF nature, it was that the house was ATOP the stream. Atop nature. How to read this? Our take finally was that the last thing the house was saying was "I am an outgrowth and expression of the American land and spirit"; instead, what it said to us was, "Frank Lloyd Wright is bigger than nature, and maybe even God."

Inside? Sadistically low ceilings (my six-foot-tall Wife explored the house in constant fear of bumping her head); sleep-inducing and inescapable white noise from the never-ending rushing water; a chilly damp rising up from the stream below no matter which room you were in; a fanatical overemphasis on horizontals that makes you feel like you're gotten lost in a stack of pancakes; and the hard-to-avoid psychological fear that the entire precarious structure was on the verge of dissolving back into the wet sand from which it had been formed. Which fear, as Rosenbaum's article illustrates, wasn't entirely irrational.

Typing these words, I find myself picturing someone saying, "OK, wiseass, so which all-American architect of that era do you suggest we root for instead? Huh?" Hey, I'm ready for it: the Pasadena firm of Greene and Greene, which designed and constructed a series of exquisite but robust west coast houses that bring together mid-west Victorianism, western Arts and Crafts bungalow informality, Asian space, natural materials and gorgeous handcrafting. These buildings strike me as being as beautiful as anything FLW ever did, and infinitely less ego-burdened. (They convey nothing of the be-awed-or-begone quality that so many of Wright's do.) They're solid, comfy and adaptable to boot, and are wonderfully suited to their Pasadena surroundings. Greene and Greene built beautiful houses that want to become homes. They're happy to fade into the background, but are there with tons of beauty when you want them to be. Touring them, your first instinct is to start making plans to move in.


A house that can be a home

Here's the official website of their best-known work, the 1908 Gamble House. Here's an impressive Flash presentation fom USC. Here's Randell Makinson's first-rate book on the firm.

Have you had a chance to do the tour of Greene and Greene houses in Pasadena? That's where the greatest concentration of them is. I'd love to know your reaction to their work.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at August 22, 2003




Comments

It's funny that all of the architectural press on FLW never mentions how odd a choice it was to site a house on top of a waterfall, rather than nearby with a nice view of a waterfall! I mean, think of the idiocy of building a version of "Falling Water" over Niagara Falls as opposed to along the banks of the Niagara River!

Sorry to report for purposes of your posting, I've actually not spent all that much time in Pasadena. I did go through an Arts & Crafts home in that fair city that was for sale. It was, exactly as you describe, a highly functional real world house with a lot of distinctive design. The only downside was that, despite the somewhat modest dimensions and not-entirely-modern accoutrements (the bathrooms definitely needed work)the seller clearly felt we would be buying an art-historical masterpiece and should be willing to shell out a sum equal to the GNP of Belgium for the privilege of assuming stewardship. (Also, face facts, Pasadena is pretty darn pricey to begin with.) So, the house was a richly aesthetic experience, but practically off the table for my family.

But as to your main point...assuming that the financial issues could be resolved, I'd move into the Arts and Crafts house over any of the Wright structures I've seen with my own eyes in a New York minute.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 22, 2003 03:53 PM



Regarding California Arts and Crafts bungalows, and Greene and Greene in particular, I agree with you completely. My wife's a member of the Pasadena Heritage Society, mostly so she can go on the bungalow tour they do every October. There are usually about eight Arts and Crafts homes that are opened to the public, some really fancy, some quite simple, and most of them lovely and welcoming.

About the Gamble House in particular I have mixed feelings. It's a gorgeous house. The wood work and the architectural details are stunning. It's one of G&G's masterpieces. But for me, it has some of the same problems as as the FLW houses you describe--it was designed around the final decor, with carvings here and there and pictures on the walls here and here, and so forth. As a result, it isn't nearly as adaptable as it could be (and as most bungalows actually are). The big sticking point for me? There's really nowhere to put bookcases--at least not in the public spaces--and I need a lot of bookcases.

So the Gamble House is a gem, but not one I'd ever want to live in.

Posted by: Will Duquette on August 22, 2003 04:28 PM



I started singing the first line of the song below after I read this post! "So long, Frank Lloyd Wright. So long, Frank..." Then I wanted to know the rest of the lyrics. It sounds like a tribute now that I read the whole thing. Hmm...

My current architecture professor flame has promised to take me to Fallingwater in the future. We two, both WELL under 6 feet (HA!), will be on different pages during the visit I'm sure. He will be in awe...I will be trying to find my way out of the pancake house. Maybe there's a happy medium we can strike!


So long, frank lloyd wright.
I can1t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune
So soon So soon.

I1ll remember frank lloyd wright.
All of the nights we1d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long
So long So long.

Chorus
Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile and think of you

So long, frank lloyd wright
All of the nights we1d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long
So long So long.

Simon & Garfunkel
 

Posted by: laurel on August 22, 2003 05:00 PM



I do agree!! :)

Every now and then I say something similar (to what you just said) and I get these weird looks from people...so I have learned to bite my tongue about FLW.

Thank god yoy haven't. :)

His reputation needs to be debunked.

BUT...just to be fair, his houses in Oak Park, Illinois (they have a worthwhile walking Tour) are pretty nice, seemed livable except for some weird window configurations (I think)...He designed them at the start of his career and they are quite conventional or so I remember from my visit ten years ago.

Also, the bill of $11.5 million dollars to repair Fallingwater is astonishing...I just don't get it. You could demolish it and rebuild it exactly to FLW'soriginal plan (with needed structural improvements) for a fraction...This could be a fine "Do the Math Post."

Posted by: David Sucher on August 22, 2003 05:57 PM



I've never toured one of the FLW homes, but the pictures I've seen of them, I love. I didn't know about the cramped ceilings, and that well and truly sucks. However, the houses I would call FLW-inspired are houses I crave and one day want to build...again, based on what I know and have seen and read. I'm speaking as a dumbass, of course, but the long horizontal Prairie scheme really blows my skirt up.

Which is not to say that I would buy a real, live FLW house -- who wants hobos like the Blowhards tramping through my home and snickering disapprovingly? I can get my mom to do that. :-)

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on August 22, 2003 06:51 PM



Wow...I sure hate to disagree with the learned David Sucher...but I lived in Chicago for eight years, and if FLW is worshipped anywhere, it's there, as a native son. And I hated his Oak Park houses!! I had the same experience, going on the tour expecting wonders, walking away scratching my head. There's an FLW house in Dallas, too, that one of my clients owned. No right angles anywhere. It was awful. Those clients are also two of the most pretentious people on the planet. (I don't live in Dallas anymore so I can say that!). They'd want an FLW home just to say they had one.

Actually, I think it was knowing how famous he was, and not getting it at all, that stopped me from learning anything more about architecture. I figured it was like Picasso---I'm just not connecting.

And...I never understood that Simon & Garfunkel tune either, now that you mention it. What do they mean "I can't believe your tune is gone so soon..."? It's not gone. (Re-reading this post, it seems to me that I don't "get" much that is elite in the second half of the 20th century. Sigh.)

Posted by: annette on August 22, 2003 06:51 PM



Regarding "So long, Frank Lloyd Wright", it was Paul Simon's goodbye to working with Art Garfunkel (Garfunkel apparently studied architecture at one point). Ironically, Garfunkel didn't know that that was the point of the song when he recorded it.

Or so I read once, long ago.

Posted by: Will Duquette on August 22, 2003 07:03 PM



I also live in FLW land--western Wisconsin. I've been in a Usonian house--no way would I buy a building block, cramped, no closet space house like he designed. He designed them for the common man and, boy, are they ugly and uncomfortable.

The Monona Terrace convention center he designed and that was just built to overlook the lake in Madison WI is THE ugliest building I have ever seen. And his reputation with the locals in Spring Green, home of Taliesen East, still suffers from his chronic unwillingness to pay the bills for his buildings and supplies. Not to mention the fact that his roofs are notorious for leaking.

Posted by: Deb on August 22, 2003 07:08 PM



FLW doesn't do much for me. The buildings I've toured were scaled to my size, although a bit dark. My main objection is the sloppy workmanship.

Arts and crafts is too fussy - all the dusting.

As a childless person, though, my ideas about houses are.... not mainstream.

I just wish I could live my life without seeing another grand entryway. God, what a waste of space.

Posted by: j.c. on August 22, 2003 08:51 PM



Thanks, Will...NOW the song makes sense. One fewer 20th century mystery. It also makes clear that Simon & Garfunkel had some, uh, communication problems. Isn't it amazing how much good music they made anyway?

Posted by: annette on August 22, 2003 10:13 PM



I can't source this story offhand, but the secretaries at the Johnson Wax building — you know, the one with the giant golf tees — used to complain that the chairs Wright designed for them would tip. Wright is supposed to have answered that it would teach them better posture.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on August 23, 2003 11:01 AM



I love this item and have, I hope you don't mind, linked to it over at:

http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/000443.html

Posted by: van der leun on August 23, 2003 02:31 PM



"An aside I can't resist: Why don't more opinions like 'I don't like FLW' come along in the mainstream press? Do you think it's entirely because everyone, just everyone, loves FLW's work? Or might it also have to do with career and social anxieties -- i.e., with people in the culture-opinion-and-ideas class being terrified of making fools of themselves and thereby losing social and career credibility?"

More likely you don't hear dissent on Wright in the mainstream press because the mainstream press devotes infinitesimal coverage to dead architects. With such a small amount of coverage, you're less likely to the full range of opinion. As far as people being afraid to dissent--quite the contrary: one reliable way to attract attention among the chattering classes is to be an iconoclast, a bad boy. I don't think anyone would get expelled for not liking Wright. That his buildings--especially the residences--are impractical is a commonplace.

"He may be modern, grumble grumble, but he's still our guy -- cussed, down-home, rough-hewn. A poster boy for values we real people cheer, in other words. All of which is sweet and amusing."

A touch condescending? Can't people, the vast majority of whom don't have to deal with the day-to-day impracticalities of Wright's work, enjoy it for aesthetic reasons? It seems more likely that people might simply find Wright's designs appealing than that they endorse Wright out of some kind of lumpen nativism.

Provoking article and comments, as always!

Posted by: Peter Riis on August 23, 2003 02:47 PM



Peter, "Can't people, the vast majority of whom don't have to deal with the day-to-day impracticalities of Wright's work, enjoy it for aesthetic reasons?" Perhaps the vast majority of people are no more likely to admire Wright's work for aesthetic reasons than I am to admire an incompetent surgeon who works with flair.

Buildings are not merely visual art works.

Posted by: jc on August 23, 2003 04:15 PM



Aaron, I also cant recall my source but the Johnson Wax building's roof leaked so badly when it was first built that the secretaries had to have pails all over the place to catch the drips.

I agree with j.c.--it's nice if it's pretty but at some point it has to be functional also.

Posted by: Deb on August 23, 2003 05:58 PM



I don't even think they ARE visual art works!

Posted by: annette on August 23, 2003 07:37 PM



While I agree with some of the criticism of Wright with respect to the practicality of his buildings, he was more of an artist than anything else, his claim to greatness I think relies on a couple of factors.

One, timing, he came on the scene when houses in the US were victorian neo-gothic looking things and really broke open the thinking about designing houses with his prarie style. The idea of making a house fit into the landscape, while probably not unique to him, was nevertheless an important contribution to architectual thinking. Also, his innovations, with respect to the Imperial Hotel surviving the Great Earthquake in Tokyo and as an early user of reinforced concrete, make him a pioneer of some sort.

Secondly, longevity. He lived a long time and designed lots of buildings, some good, some not so good, some bad. Where some architects are judged on a few large, important buildings Wright lived a long time and designed a lot of buildings.
This in itself doesn't make him great, but it helps.

Harry


Posted by: Harry Phillips on August 24, 2003 03:11 PM



It sounds like it's time for another plug for Stewart Brand's wonderful book, How Buildings Learn, which among other things is about what makes some buildings infinitely adaptable and long-lived and loved by their tenants, and what makes other buildings loathed.

Posted by: Will Duquette on August 24, 2003 03:31 PM



I find it interesting that despite the well-known problems that Wright's houses caused for those who lived in them, a very large percentage of his clients stayed in their houses for the rest of their lives (or until they became infirm), and not a few of his clients--when their families grew and needed a larger house, for instance--returned to Wright to have him design another for them (this despite the fact that Wright was often a world-class pain in the ass to work with). And several children who grew up in or nearby one of his houses as a result became an architect or even a Taliesin fellow.

I've been in a fairly large number of Wright's buildings, and I know that if I were to live in one of them, it would require a very major change in my life--I'm attached to things (more books, for instance, than I could reasonably be expected to complete in a lifetime) and there'd be no way all those things could fit in many if any of Wright's Usonian houses (the works of Wright that I respond most to). But it's far from clear to me that the trade off wouldn't be worth it. The Rosenbaum house in Florence, AL, the two Jacobs houses in or near Madison, WI, Cedar Rock in Quasqueton, IA, are houses that, to me, interact with their environment so well, that control light and shadow and views so beautifully, that one truly does live with a work of art.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on August 24, 2003 11:41 PM



Thanks to all for observations, thoughts, lyrics, jokes, etc.

Will -- Interesting point about the Gamble House, which certainly may be too much of a showpiece for its own good as a house. I still find it more welcoming than any FLW house I've been in. Do you? Like you, I love that Stewart Brand book, thanks for the reminder of it.

David -- $11.5 mill does seem like an awful lot, doesn't it? Maybe lugging all that equipment deep into the woods helps explain a bit of the expense?

Scott -- I've been in some FLW-inspired houses that were really nice. There seem to be some builders and architects around who've taken what's handsome about his design sense, adapted them to livable spaces, and made them behave in terms of leaks and upkeep. Although, come to think of it, the houses like this that I've been in are still a bit more like handsome small corporate-park clubhouses than they are like homes ...

Peter -- We might disagree a bit. In my experience, there really are artists and reputations you simply don't speak ill of if you want to be accepted into the professional opinion-making club. I've also found that even so far as the making-your-reputation-by - showily-disagreeing-with -the-conventional- wisdom tactic goes, the wise careerist picks his/her targets carefully. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that even if I'd peddled this posting (or something like it) around to editors for years, I'd never have gotten it published. Which, by the way, is an example of the kind of thing about the conventional publishing-and-opinion world that has me blogging instead ...

Harry -- Good points, thanks. I do think we credit FLW with a little too much, though. He wasn't the only builder or architect who was interested in cleaning up Victorian clutter, for instance. I wonder sometimes if his larger-than-life rep comes partly from the fact that most people simply don't know much about architectural history -- ie., he's become so much of a good-guy, all-American symbol of something that people are reluctant to wrestle with what's actually there.

Mike -- You point out something that's key to the Wright mystique, which is his success at making people feel privileged and lucky to have anything to do with him, let alone own one of his houses. Given how much you seem to like his work, we may disagree about this, but I do tend to explain his rep at least partly by thinking of him as a salesman and guru/cult-leader as much as an architect.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2003 07:06 PM



Michael,

I don't disagree with you at all that Wright was a salesman and a guru/cult-leader. And I don't disagree that the people who live in his houses feel privileged to do so. But I do disagree with what you seem to be saying about why these people feel privileged--or more to the point that I want to make, why his original clients felt privileged--to live in one of his houses. You seem to be suggesting that they were all hoodwinked because of his charm or his reputation as a real-American eccentric individualist. But there was a long period in the '20s and '30s when Wright had the reputation of a has-been architect and living in one of his houses carried no cachet. I suppose this point that I've made doesn't undercut the argument that the few clients that he got back then were swayed by his charm, but I don't think the charm that sold them on a project would hold them captive to a house that they ended up hating. Furthermore, many of his clients were hardnosed businessmen and independent thinkers who were not easily swayed by charm or received reputation.

To put a little more personal spin on the issue, I have to say that I find Wright the person a pretty reprehensible and sometimes laughable character, as does Peter Blake, who actually met him. But I, like Peter Blake, have to begrudgingly ackowledge that this megalomaniacal dandy was truly great.

There may be some truth in what you say about some of Wright's houses having to be accepted as a package--it all works together or it doesn't work at all; some of his clients have said as much. Yet as I think of the Wright houses I've been in, I can picture all sorts of different ways that one could place furniture in them and live in them and I think they'd still work--maybe not quite as beautifully, but they'd still work (in fact Wingspread, the house Wright designed for Herbert Johnson in Racine, WI, has been adapted well to serve as a conference center).

I don't think it's just because I've bought the reputation that I think Wright was great. After all, it's heresy these days not to think that Rem Koohaas is brilliant, but I think he's a joke. Now if you want me to agree that Wright was a lousy builder, I'll buy that. Those damn leaky roofs! But not a great architect? I've been in many great buildings in Florence, Italy, but none has moved me like being inside the Rosenbaum house in Florence, Alabama.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on August 25, 2003 11:04 PM



I came to this website and read the article and appreciated the opinion expressed and the comments of others. I am near 60 now and have travelled the world ... I have seen the architectural marvels of man that have been assembled for millenia ..... I am not American ..... but were I one I would be proud of the wonderful dimensions of idea that are the forte of Frank Lloyd Wright ..... he is a Picasso and a Modigliani a Reubens and a Jackson Pollock .... it is a shame how prophets are unsung in their own land after the strike of those espousing 'practical' revisionism.

Frank Lloyd Wright made my eyes twinkle when I was 6 years old ... I don't care if everything he designed fell or falls to dust .... it is his idea of architecture that prevails .... the idea of individual and different .... the idea that these buildings and their furnishings could be attempted!

Posted by: Mr. B Ward on August 29, 2003 01:36 AM



I came to this website and read the article and appreciated the opinion expressed and the comments of others. I am near 60 now and have travelled the world ... I have seen the architectural marvels of man that have been assembled for millenia ..... I am not American ..... but were I one I would be proud of the wonderful dimensions of idea that are the forte of Frank Lloyd Wright ..... he is a Picasso and a Modigliani a Reubens and a Jackson Pollock .... it is a shame how prophets are unsung in their own land after the strike of those espousing 'practical' revisionism.

Frank Lloyd Wright made my eyes twinkle when I was 6 years old ... I don't care if everything he designed fell or falls to dust .... it is his idea of architecture that prevails .... the idea of individual and different .... the idea that these buildings and their furnishings could be attempted!

Posted by: Mr. B Ward on August 29, 2003 01:37 AM



I already put up a bunch of comments on the threads inspired by this over at City Comforts, but now I'll respond to the original.

It's worth noting that Wright's reputation had a couple "fallow" periods - in addition to the inter-War period, he was anathema from the mid-50s to the mid-80s (in the 60s they tried to sell his chairs from the Dana house in Springfield, Ill. for $.50 each, and no one bit). So I'm not entirely convinced by the claim that deriding Wright is some career-risking move; much of today's architectural firmament (as it were) were entirely educated in anti-Wright circumstances. Goodness knows some of my classmates in architecture school 10 years ago would fearlessly snicker at him (and his acolytes).

Anyway, the original post is very long, so I'll skip over some points. But _everyone_ knows that placing Fallingwater atop the falls was counterintuitive - it's part of the story. Those falls aren't even named - they're just one of hundreds of pretty, anonymous waterfalls in the area. And if FLW had put the house where the brilliant iconoclasts on this thread would, the falls would remain anonymous, instead of iconic. Indeed, the Kaufmanns loved to sun themselves on the rocks where they fancied their house might be. Thanks to Wright, they were still able to.

Oh, and the engineer was being alarmist - apparently he understands just as well as Wright did the value of a bold quote. The sag is due primarily to what's known as "elastic creep", and is universal to any cantilevered concrete. The terraces were, in fact, in danger due to FLW pushing too far, but this quote (wrongly) implies that a well-designed cantilever doesn't sag.

As I just posted at City Comforts, the ceiling height thing is, IMHO, a myth (I'm 6'1). The claim that it was nothing but a fit of pique is beneath argument. Edgar Kaufmann, I'll add, was no taller than Wright.

Does anyone describing Japanese gardens and garden architecture use the phrase "domineering control freak"? It seems to me that most people are quite taken by designers who consider a building's place in the landscape, and how a person will experience it.

How often do most people, in their perfectly bland little tract homes, rearrange the furniture? If they get a configuration that works well, pretty much never. So Wright gives you a configuration that works perfectly, and you bitch that you can't fiddle around looking for a worse, but different, one.

G&G/Wright is a false dichotomy. Many similar influences, many similar results, and, as Will points out, Gamble suffers from most of the (concrete) faults you ascribe to FLW (his Prairie Houses rarely leaked, or had other technological problems). It's hard not to chalk this up to a matter of taste.

As built, Monona Terrace and Marin County Civic Center are much more the products of Taliesin Assocs than of FLW. Which isn't to claim he could do no wrong. But those 2 buildings (of some 700 built works) are essentially irrelevant to assessing the man's work or legacy.

I find claims of shoddy workmanship puzzling. Say what you will about his envelope pushing (tearing) designs, the workmanship on his houses is generally impeccable. As an architect and carpenter who has toured many Wright buildings, I have never seen evidence of poor construction (or careless detailing).

Mike Allen nailed what I think is the key rebuttal to claims that FLW is nothing more than a marketing scheme - people who lived in his houses wanted to continue to live in his houses, and told their friends they should too. I suppose if you claim that FLW is the David Koresh of the architecture world, then you can run away from that inconvenient fact. But the reality seems to be that people - literally hundreds of them - loved living in the spaces you find so intolerable.

You have every right to say that you don't like Wright's work, and that you think he's overrated. But of course this post goes far beyond that, to insisting that it's all a sham. I suppose that's what being a Blowhard is all about.

Posted by: JRoth on August 29, 2003 02:30 PM



Mike -- Apologies if I seemed to be trying to quarrel with (or question) your pleasure in Wright's work. People enjoy what they enjoy, and the last thing I'd want to do is undercut anyone's pleasure. Glad to hear you like Wright's buildings. Really, I had only a couple of points I wanted to make with the posting. One was simply to express a not-much-heard reaction to Wright's work and thereby open up a conversation. The other was to point out that the much-marketed myth does interfere more than a bit with any attempt to describe (or react to) the actual work. There are a ton of fab American architects who deserve attention -- it's fascinating (and a bit dismaying) that Wright, great or not, absorbs so much of it. IMHO, anyway. I'm with you on Rem Koolhaas, by the way.

B. Ward -- Glad to hear you enjoy Wright's work, too.

JRoth -- Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think you're taking my posting just a wee bit as something it isn't, though. I do, after all, call Wright a giant and a megatalent, and acknowledge that many of his buildings are beautiful. Clearing away some of the myth in order to see the work more directly isn't the same thing as an attack on the man's legacy of buildings. As I'm also careful to point out, I'm hardly writing criticism or architecture history; these are an amateur's personal reactions and reflections. Nothing wrong with that, I hope.

I'm not sure what to say about many of your points. You call the engineer an alarmist, but there is that little thing about the house needing an $11.5 million renovation. I'm glad the Kauffmans could go on sunbathing, but it might have been nice if the house functioned a little better as a home too. You weren't bothered by the height when you visited, but my 6 foot tall wife felt very uncomfortable. You talk about Wright's sensitivity to landscape, but give an everybody-knows-that-already shrug at the way he placed the house over the waterfall. (I'm puzzled, by the way, by all the people who seem to think that Wright was the first or only architect ever to advance the idea that a building might enhance or work with or complement its setting.) You object to my characterization of Wright as a control freak and then say, sure, you'd be happy to let him decide where to put your furniture. You dismiss concerns about the quality of construction in his buildings, yet the problems with Fallingwater, the accounts I've read in several (very sympathetic and admiring) books, the testimony of a couple I met who live in one of his houses, and the info supplied by previous commenters would suggest that construction quality was indeed a problem, at least a little more often than many would be patient with. For what it's worth, I'm not sure how anyone can visit Taliesen West and not come away struck by how much it resembles something nailed together by college students.

You find Wright's work beautiful and think that the beauty of it justifies the trouble of living with it. I find his work (sometimes) beautiful and don't think it's worth the trouble. That's not a huge disagreement. You may thrill to Wrightian beauty more than I do; I may prefer that a home be solid, and melt a bit more into the background. But why deny that Wright's buildings are demanding? From everything I've seen, read and heard, most of his buildings are like high-strung, highly-bred dogs -- there to be admired, but a little absurd, and harder than you expect (and than most people want) to live with. If someone really wants to go to all the trouble, I'd be the last person to get in his way. But I can't see any reason not to describe them accurately. A comparison: I certainly don't mind if someone says that an Afghan is a beautiful dog -- I think so too. But I don't see why it shouldn't also be pointed out that they aren't a low maintenance dog, or an especially good family dog either.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 29, 2003 04:51 PM



http://www.languish.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=3521

I created a poll at that discussion board, pitting the Gamble House vs. Fallingwater. May or may not be interesting.

Posted by: snore on September 2, 2003 09:39 PM



I'm not a clothes horse, but have you ever see any - and I mean ANY - closet
space in a FLW top hat like home. The tour guide indicated that FLW
disapproved to accumulating to many things. I guess that means anything
more than what's on your back. And he blew all his estimates by a factor of 4
and no one actually lives in them.

Posted by: tsavino on October 17, 2003 04:08 PM



Michael,
You mentioned that Taliesin West looked as if it were "nailed together by college students." Well, it should look that way because in fact it was built by Wright's student apprentices. Wright believed in a "hands on" learning approach and both architectural schools, Taliesin East and West were built mainly by students. Most of Wright's commissions have superb craftsmanship because his clients were generally wealthy.

Regarding Fallingwater. Client Edgar Kaufman was so worried about Wright's radical design, he hired numerous independent structural engineers to make recommendations for "improving" the structure. Some of the "improvements" were made when Wright was off-site which not only made him furious (Wright's ego was healthy) but ultimately added too much weight to the delicately balanced cantelevers. Eventually Wright threatened that he would quit the project unless Kaufman stopped consulting with outside engineers and modifying his structural design. Kaufman agreed and they both burried the engineering reports somewhere under the fireplace. Too many engineers spoil the structure I guess. Fallingwater is the most famous private residence in the world and has inspired millions of visitors. I'd say it's easily worth the 11.5 million renovation.
Pete

Posted by: Pete on November 22, 2003 01:51 PM



Freidrich von Blowhard,
It really wasn't a "poor" choice to build Fallingwater above the waterfall as you suggested. From an artistic standpoint Wright knew that the natural rock cantilevers could become integrated into the rhythm of the structurally designed cantilevers on the house. He also wanted the Kaufman's to feel like they were living "with" the waterfall and not just observing it from a distance. Besides, it's drama man. If that house had been built on another site, it wouldn't be nearly as famous.

Posted by: Pete on November 23, 2003 09:10 PM



The point about FLLW's work that I think you are all missing is that it was designed at the turn of the century... about 100 years ago! Looking at it now, they don't look like 100 year old houses you'd imagine. Wright's houses were modern in that they dealt with space in a way that most houses of the time did. The "opening of the box" is key. The spaces in Wright's work are what are praised. The flow of rooms into one another and the removal of solid walls with window and doors cut into them. Wrights spaces were very influenced by Japanese architecture in the idea of the wall being replaced by the screen and the doors being replaced by open space. Wright's houses may not be the ideal for living in, but they were a turning point in American architecture and should be recognised as such. There is a certain respect that should be shown for the influenced he's had on present day architecture. Most people just see the aesthetic properties of the house... the forms. Wright's architecture was about the spaces within the forms and the flow of movement throughout these spaces.

Posted by: Jessie on November 27, 2003 04:01 PM



Greene and Greene were master craftsmen and designers but they weren't challenging the norms of architectural design as aggressively as Frank Lloyd Wright was. Wright was a creative genius who was pushing materials and design way behond the accepted practice of the day. If you wanted a tight roof you'd hire Greene and Greene but if you wanted to be "cutting edge" you'd hire Wright and keep the bucket under the drips.

Posted by: Pete on November 28, 2003 11:45 PM



I think that even though Wright was very caught up in himself and even though all his homes and buildings had to be everything he wanted, not really looking for the function of it very much, this guy was amazing. yeah lots of his homes had faults, leaking rooms, low ceilings, no closet space.... but look at them. The concepts he had were amazing, the art he used was so elaborate.. yeah he thought he was better than everyobdy else, but you gotta admit. his stuff is amazing. think of what a genius he must of been to think to build a house OVER water insted of ATOP of water. i think its brilliant. so he was personality was faggish. his work wasnt.

Posted by: Emily on December 13, 2003 04:40 PM



Wright was a master in compressing and expanding interior space for dramatic effect. Ceiling heights were inentionally low in halls, entry ways, and bedrooms in order to add contrast to the raised ceilings in his great rooms. Wright also said that "anyone over 5'8" was wasted material."

Posted by: Pete on December 19, 2003 02:39 AM



gay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: tertertesrtr on January 20, 2004 10:16 AM



gay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: tertertesrtr on January 20, 2004 10:16 AM



Re: how the song got written.

In 1969, Art Garfunkel said in an introduction, I said to Paul this summer, while we were living in California, "Why don't you write a song about Frank Lloyd Wright ?", simply because I was, once in my past, I was studying to be an architect, and I was always very fond of Frank Lloyd Wright, and to my surprise, he wrote the following song ...

They were still performing together the next year. So I don't think it was Simon's farewell.

Posted by: a fan on January 26, 2004 05:26 AM



Hi. Im a big fan of FLW. I am looking for plans and drawings of the Falling water (even if not so accurate, but scaled) since I am planning to build a scale model of it, for my own personal collection. If there is anybody out there who can help, I would greatly appreciate it. Rest assures that this endeavor if for my own personal interests only, as i hope to display the model along with my other FLW collections. Please email me. thank you all.

Posted by: Panfilo Castro on March 1, 2004 11:24 AM



i think its also important to note how small a role in the american conciousness architecture plays at all. very few americans could name more than two or three american architects. the fact that frank lloyd wright is so well known, or seems to occupy a place of glory in amrican architectural history, may be largely atributed to teh fact that we americans don't know any other architects.
most of our architecture is repetitive and unimaginative, so why not give what little appreciation we have to someone who was orignial and inspiring in his time?
what we really need is to expand upon the architectural awareness, not play down FLW importance.

Posted by: john waugh on March 23, 2004 01:54 AM



I am currently an architecture student and i happen to like some of the Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings. I think that some of the buildings that you have shown were not the best of his work. I do agree with everyone that he was built up by the people form his home town. Wright was ifluenced by Japan and never really worked all the bugs out of his designs. He was a person that took his own path and I don't think by making asinine songs about him are the most mature manner.

Posted by: Rob Fayas on March 31, 2004 10:12 PM



There is a Del Mar.CA architect who has captured the essence of the finest aspects of Wright's style and has been designing finely crafted Wrightian homes throughout San Diego County for approximately 30 years....timeless architecture which enhance these beautiful coastal areas

Posted by: Christine Sparks on April 7, 2004 01:27 AM



It amazes me that a man who seems to have such time on his hand to acctually right this crap, hasnt done somthing better with his time. You asked the question why is Falling "On Top" of the water fall which seems to show that it is above nature, well why dont you acctually do some reaserch on the house. Even if you acctually had eyes to see it you would look at the texture of the building the flow from the waterfall to the building. It is almost as if the building grew from the ground which "connects the building to nature." And the whole point was not to idolize the water fall but to become part of it by living there. The open in the house toward the stream was supose to let the sounds of the water come into the house. The waxed surface of the floor (were the stream accttually flowed underneath) was suppose to imatate the stream. The "open spaces" allowed for the fresh air to circulate throughout the building." Thats what they mean by "apart of nature" every detail of that house is designed to experence the nature of the water fall more completely. And yes I do admitt that there are flaws in the plan due to were it is located but really I dont care, it is still beautiful in every aspect.

And as for your "house" well one of the points of Wrights buildings was to create Americas "own archtictural style" not copy from others. If you dont know that you should just stop typing and get over yourself. As for the whole height thing well the building WAS SPECIFICLY designed for someone whats to make you think it wasnt designed that low for a reason. You know Edgar( the man the house was for) was only 5'5, why would he need such a large roof especiall sence the house was suppose to be for his family who all had similar hieghts.

Look before you get off on your power trip and try to tell everyone that Frank Llyod Wright wasnt a great architect why dont you look at yourself. Are you a great architect? Didnt think so. You maybe right FLR may not need to be idolized as much as he is, but he is surely better than you.

Not Your Friend,
Daniel A. Lamb

Posted by: Daniel A. Lamb on April 13, 2004 05:55 AM



I realize this is a slam-Wright fest, and I have to agree with some of the comments,and perhaps Wright is overly deified, but ---

I have never ceased to be awed by the power of his work. Even the Usonian homes (4) I've visited have combine spirituality and serenity. Yes, it would be nice for them to be more adaptable & practical (especially if one lived in them!), yet what modern architect with vision endeavors to build works of art for the masses?

Posted by: Steve Doman on April 17, 2004 11:21 PM



I work at a Wright building, and have so for quite some time. Personally, simply working there has enriched my life untold times. But of course, I am under Wright's "human scale" (i.e., shorter than 5'8" tall) and do not _live_ there. I can say that I've visited the first Jacobs house in Madison and it is an incredible work. Small, sweet, simple, and overwhelming. If I could, I would choose one of his "Usonian" homes.

Having worked at a Wright building, I've heard all of the complaints. In fact, a former secretary of the Johnson Wax Building told me that she and her fellow co-workers used to take bets when a new secretary was hired: how long would it take until the new employee would fall out of one of the Wright-designed tripod chairs? She said you would see the new woman toppling over onto the floor in a day or two.

Questioning Wright's design and aesthetics is completely warrented (unless you're on a tour of mine!) His buildings could be too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The cantilevers have sagged (not only in Fallingwater, but in the Unitarian Meeting House and probably others). The roofs leak (too many buildings to fit in here). But there is something in a Wright home that is almost unique. It is more than the sum of its parts. He experimented in a way that others were able to take from and improve upon.

I could write more, but it would take up a book.

Posted by: Keiran on April 18, 2004 10:39 PM



ahhh fuck off... don't mess with the godfather of architecture!

Posted by: Paris on April 20, 2004 02:26 PM



I think FLW, as a person, was influential because he went against the mainstream (exactly what you are doing) and blended instead of clashed. He had a goal, an ambition, a yearning to turn the tree house into the home, probably a result of some early childhood experience. Have you ever seen his interview with Mike Wallace? You might want to watch some clips, I'm sure you'd be enlightened.

There's a certain type of person who finds FLW's architecture appealling - the person who wants to blend in with society rather than stand out from it. One thing you'll notice living in a beach community as I have in the past - you look out the window on one side and you see the harmony of nature where nothing stands still, constant motion and changing - like Falling Rock. You look out the other window and you see a community of pastel homes built on wood stilts, square, solid, motionless. The beauty of Wright's architecture is that it seems to move, to sway with the wind, to add to the environment in which it stands, instead of detaching from it. Out one window, everything looks different, the other everything is superficial, phony, fake, cut from the same mold. So, even the fact that you bring this up, in one instance you're rebelling against the status quo (which Wright could appreciate, as he was exactly the same way) and in another instant you're criticizing his well-thought-out work, which he probably wouldn't have cared, well, I know quite well he wouldn't have cared. To someone like Wright, you would have been viewed as a tad shallow, because you couldn't understand the beauty of his creative genius. Of course, he probably wouldn't have given much thought to you at all, because you don't understand the difference in what he created and what others created. Relax in your row home in the suburb that so much thought went into, then look at a FLW house again. Nothing in nature, nothing at all is built in a box, except for the minds of some people. Step outside and take a real look around, you'll see what he saw and it's just not pretty at all.

Posted by: Amoria on May 16, 2004 07:35 AM



what if...

the gamble house and fallingwater are...

both good houses.? who does one have to be better than the other.

and i approve of most anybody who does something to derail the boxitecture movement. FLW is an easy candidate to poke at, as is anybody who makes themselves vulnerable.

the AIA named fallingwater the most important buiding to be constructed in america.

Posted by: triplindner on May 17, 2004 07:39 PM



Moveable Type actually has some of the fastest comments around (I've used it for several blogs and never had a problem). I'm not really sure what's going on with the Prof's comments...very uncharacteristic for MT.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:09 PM



Whine, whine, whine...while there is plenty to criticize in terms of the practicalities of aspects of a Wright building (especially if one is so inclined anyway), it is simply unimportant when evaluating architecture as art. Is Michelangeloe's dome any less revered although a huge chain dishonestly holds it in place? Yeh, Gehry's and Koolhaus's abortions are real practical... billowing clouds of steel with no function, "art for art's sake" statement architecture-not because there are new IDEAS. What would they accomplish in seventy years of practice without modern material technologies and computers? Look at Wright's accomplishments! And dragging in Wright's personal shortcomings and pecadilloes surely has no relevance in an honest critique, either. I find it hysterical that almost all negativity about Wright reeks of simple ignorance of the context great art is taken- and so little of great art is architecture to this day. If Wright's genius is not apparent to those who so easily dismiss him (as they did in his own time)...well, so what? At least they were truly ignorant of his future genius when he started upsetting the architectural cart over 100 years ago. Wright's legacy is assured through almost 500 buildings, many revolutionary and seminal to all architecture existing today. I think it would be more productive to put the obviously experimental nature of Wrights work in perspective, particularly with regards to when these building were created. It is easy to use current standards as a barometer, but it denies the reality of the greatness of Wright's work when not put into proper context. Whine, whine, whine... stay in your tract houses, stuff your Colonial houses with phony antiques, build the 1,000,000th copy of the same house if that makes you feel better. The truth is, any house you enter today will exhibit kernals of the design genius of Wright. He was a great artist, and the USA should be proud it produced him, not petty about the vagaries of genius.

Posted by: Jim on June 1, 2004 06:05 PM



Wright was a brilliant designer, of course. His largest failing was in translating those designs to the world of humans, creatures who have to live and work in those pretty drawings.

Perhaps it's only the execution of those designs that falls short, like leaky roofs, cold floors, uncomfortable furniture or personal spaces. and the like. Perhaps it's the idea of 'design' instead of 'craft' in those drawings that made it more difficult to live with the results.

We, as an artistic culture, depend on the creativity of designers to move our minds forward, to spread different ideas of form and space throughout our group mind. Those things, though, must still be refined by use, by functionality, by the hands and feet and eyes of the people that either incorporate the ideas we find in 'designed' things into our lives, or reject them as impractical.

Wright is not holy, but he did have some very good ideas.

Old thread, but still interesting.

Posted by: Danny on June 16, 2004 10:21 AM






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