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« How To Refer to "It"? | Main | The Culture of Books »

June 11, 2004

More on FLW

Dear Vanessa --

In a posting a while ago (here), I wondered out loud about Frank Lloyd Wright. Sure, many of his buildings are show-stoppingly beautiful, and that's something that needs to be acknowledged. But why shouldn't some of their other qualities and characteristics also be acknowledged? Many of them leak; some have had terrible construction problems; some are absurdly unfunctional. And it isn't uncommon for inhabitants of a FLW house to feel like it never really belongs to them. Instead of feeling like they live in their own home, they wind up feeling like the curators of a FLW monument to himself.

Comments continue to appear on this posting occasionally, nearly all of them outraged. I enjoy checking them out, though few people seem to come up with anything but a variation on the old "it's not that you disagree with me, it's that you really don't get it" argument.

And quel shockeroo to learn (for about the zillionth time, sigh) that those in the architectural know consider "architecture" something apart from such values as usefulness, soundness, and a willingness to serve rather than dominate. No, "architecture" -- for those in the know, bien sur -- is something else entirely. Something along the lines of "design completely divorced from all other considerations."

I dunno, I guess that's just too durned sophisticated a thought for a rube like me. No matter how hard I try, I just cain't figure out why I should think of a building as being all that much different from a car. And when I think about what makes a "good car," such questions as price, utility, comfort, safety, and durability count as high in my mind as "brilliance of design" does. I'm sorry, I just cain't help it.

So imagine my feelings when I read a NYTimes article this morning by Carol Vogel about Wright's Guggenheim Museum, here. Trustees are getting ready to give the building a $25 million restoration. Ever-popular the Guggenheim may be, but it's never been the greatest place to display art. It has also looked suspiciously ratty for many years now. I've taken photos of its peeling exterior and cracked sidewalks, planning to put them up on the blog. Too late, though: I've been scooped by the Times. Dang!

A fun passage from Vogel's article:

Neither the building's design, which was commissioned by the Guggenheim in 1943, nor its construction, which was completed in 1959, went smoothly. The only builder Wright could find to execute his drawings economically was a man whose expertise was in constructing parking garages and freeways. The building's outer wall was made by spraying layers of gunite (a mixture of sand and cement commonly used to line swimming pools) from within the building, through steel reinforcements, against pieces of plywood that were molded into the building's shape. Every few years the exterior is patched and painted, but the cosmetic touches camouflage far deeper problems.

In extremely cold weather, moisture from the skylights and windows that have not been sufficiently insulated drips down on some interior walls. Long, stuffed tubes of absorbent material, giant sponges that resemble blue sausages (the museum calls them socks), are placed along perimeter floors to absorb condensation. In the rotunda, some socks have been discreetly tucked behind paintings hung on brackets away from the walls. The museum has also had to deal with leaking pipes.

But I guess the real architecture buffs wouldn't want these blue sausages talked about.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at June 11, 2004




Comments

Interesting post. And, I reviewed the earlier post you linked--I notice a comment attached as recently as June 1st of this year, so this topic has LEGS!!

A couple notes from the memory bin. I was stationed at Fort Slocum (a Civil War vintage army post on David's Island in Long Island Sound that closed in the mid-60s) during the spring of 1962. I was able to get passes every weekend and went into the city, which was pretty neat because New York was IT back in those days and I was a rube from far-off Seattle.

During that time I saw a display of FLW renderings at the MoMA. Not all of it--perhaps the minority--was in the maestro's hand. Still, the drawings were gorgeous: the compositions, the line work, the coloring. I have the book covering this exhibit but, sadly, it was done on the cheap: the illustrations are all black-and-white. I'm inclined to think that Wright's architectural renderings and plans are often works of art more worthy than the buildings themselves. What do y'all think?

At some point in the early sixties I visited the Guggenheim when it was nearly new. The art I saw was mediocre and indeed the building was a case of theory overpowering functionality. I was supposed to like it because it was by FLW (who I had enjoyed watching show off on TV on occasion in the last years of his life). Nevertheless, I could not warm to the building. Ditto the Marin County building and most of his work from the Broadacre City concept onwards. Given the length of his career, there are almost as many FLWs as there are FLW design periods.

It was interesting to learn what a shambles the Guggenheim has become. I'll be in New York briefly in September and will try to squeeze in a visit after taking in the Met and the Frick. (And unless someone quickly convinces me otherwise, I'll bypass the Whitney entirely--once was plenty.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 12, 2004 12:35 AM



What always comes to mind when I look at a FLW building (well, at most of his buildings) are the chairs of Charles Renee Mackintosh, the Scottish architect and designer. You know, those tall rigid looking ladder back things.
Rigidity: that's the feeling conveyed by a Wright building. Even though many of the private homes he built were in the horizontal Prairie Style, they don't convey expansiveness.
On the other hand, giving credit where credit is due, Falling Water is a masterpiece. Makes the mouth drop.
Obviously The Guggenheim breaks the rigid mold. In fact, it looks like a mold; a bigger top than bottom mold.
In terms of the materials and methods used to construct the Guggenheim, and the lack of proper insulation: isn't it part of an architect's job to make as certain as possible that the building he has been hired to put up won't start falling apart right away?

Posted by: ricpic on June 12, 2004 07:12 AM



Re: what is signature architecture anyway?

I wonder if you've read Design by Competition, by Jack L. Nasar? It's a really good account of the architecture and construction of the Wexner Center at Ohio State. Peter Eisenman's approach--decontruction of architecture as statement as dominant over mere function and use--is given a good once over. Ohio State had to advertise for a major re-do in 2001 given all the building's problems. At that time, Eisenman commented on the need to do major tinkering with his art as follows: "I have a belief that when you give buildings to clients, they belong to the clients and they can do with them what they please."

It's nice he makes a concession that his work can be altered if it leaks; it's equally revealing that he views his arrangement with a client as that of "giving" a building.

Posted by: fenster moop on June 12, 2004 07:32 AM



Yes, Stoppard has long been derided for placing brittleness, wit and erudition over human sympathy. I saw Jumpers in London long ago and was suitably dazzled but had the same questions you had.

On the other hand, while plays like Travesties are not, strictly speaking, about human interaction, they do seem to work for me as plays about ideas. I don't have a problem with that personally--theater ought to be big enough to house a number of different things that take place on a stage in real time.

Then there's The Real Thing, in which Stoppard keeps the wit up full time but deals with real human emotions--the real thing.

There's even a classic Stoppardian scene in this play that addresses the very "it" thing you write about. Can't cut and paste and it's too long to retype but if you are interested:

http://members.lycos.co.uk/webweaving/hugo_weaving_real_294.html

Posted by: fenster moop on June 12, 2004 08:19 AM



oops sorry m and v: this should have been posted to stoppard below.

Posted by: fenster moop on June 12, 2004 08:20 AM



But I guess the real architecture buffs wouldn't want these blue sausages talked about.
---------------------

Talk about them all you want. We "architecture buffs" do all the time. That those "blue sausages" exist, however, doesn't change the unquestionable and undeniable fact that Wright is, by whole orders of magnitude, the greatest architectural genius ever to practice his art in this country, and among the greatest of all time world-wide.

So his buildings sometimes leak, peel, need -- for the most experimental of them -- structural redoing in places. Big deal. All that is as nothing -- a mere inconvenience -- when set beside the supreme architectural achievements, big and small, of even his most modest buildings.

You want buildings that don't leak? Let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages under "Builders." I'm sure there are dozens of them who could satisfy your wants.

There's only one Frank Lloyd Wright.

Posted by: dzalman on June 12, 2004 04:14 PM



I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and I am an architectural historian. One might think I'd be in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. But while I do love several Wright buildings, I have come to the belief that the architect's highest calling is the making of cities. At that task, Wright was a dismal failure, like most modernist architects. Thus I would say that while he designed several of America's greatest buildings, he was far from our greatest architect, let alone by "orders of magnitude." Sheeesh! I'll take McKim, Mead & White any day.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 12, 2004 04:38 PM



A retort to Dzalman

I have commented in the (far distant) previous thread about FLW’s apparent philosophical disdain for the client’s pathetic and almost philistine insistence on liveability. In reading of your adoration of the master, I am once again reminded of FLW's seemingly but apparently unstated philosophy of "the client be damned"!

I am sure that, having moved into one of FLW's masterpieces, the naive owner suddenly finds himself wishing he had hired one of Dzalman’s Yellow Pages tradesman instead of one of the world’s and history’s leading architectural masters of all time and cultures. It would seem that at least with a grubby tradesman the chances the carpets weren’t soaked would be somewhat statistically higher.

I remember taking an architecture course that consistently made reference to the pantheon (Off Topic: a building that continues to work (admittedly with reduced effectiveness) after 2000 years) of a continuing series of masters of theoretical architecture. Beautiful drawings based on beautiful ideas, but unfortunately the architect was unable to find anyone stupid enough to actually fund construction. I would suggest that perhaps FLW was “orders of magnitude” better in finding suckers, ahem, architecture buffs, ahem, I mean clients willing to sponsor the conversion of said pretty drawings into actual brick and mortar.

To return to Dzalman’s premise, one would think that if a mere work-a-day tradesman can produce a technically sound structure, then a common Craftsman architect should be able to build (no pun intended) upon that to produce a technically sound structure that incorporates some elemental aesthetic architectural overtones that transcend the practical and (however tentatively) enters into the realm of beauty. Based upon this ascending definition of accomplishment, one would think that to be one of the greatest of all time (poll results not scientifically accurate) would at least be able to combine sublime concepts such as everlasting beauty with the mundane considerations such as impermeability.

Posted by: Biased Observer on June 12, 2004 05:19 PM



But while I do love several Wright buildings, I have come to the belief that the architect's highest calling is the making of cities. At that task, Wright was a dismal failure, like most modernist architects.
---------------------------

That you consider the "making of cities" to be "the architect's highest calling" is beside the point entirely. The making of cities was not Wright's concern (and the more power to him, for that!), and so judging him by that self-defined standard of yours is totally inappropriate.

And calling Wright a "modernist architect" is a gross calumny, as well as historically inaccurate. Wright was no "modernist architect" by any stretch. In those terms, inappropriate as they are, he was, if anything, a passionate anti-modernist. In any case, as an architect Wright was sui generis, as are all creative geniuses, and to lump him in with any movement whatsoever, even if only taxonomically, is misguided and twisted thinking, at very best.

Posted by: dzalman on June 12, 2004 06:16 PM



It may please dzalman (and indeed, much of the celebrity architectural scene) to thumb his nose at mundane functionality. However, certain commentators have, over the years, found Commodity and Firmness to have equal standing with Delight.

As long as the avant-gardistas are inflicting their works on rich fools who ask for it, there is no problem. It's when their laughably ugly, neurotically chaotic, aggressivly nonfunctional works are imposed on everyday life -- that's when the majority of people begin to revolt. Because the ripoff is obvious.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on June 12, 2004 10:12 PM



$25 million to restore the Guggenheim. There is a small industry in the United States of on-going restoration in Wright homes. However, to paraphrase the architectural critic Robert Campbell, is $25 million that much when someone pays over $100 million for a Picasso? Of course that brings us back to, "is it a building, or am I living in a leaky, drafty, work of art" question. That is ultimately up to the owners. I do think that Wright brought important ideas to people's homes that can still be used today. For example, I know a couple who were influenced by Wright's Usonian concept. Their home is beautiful and small (900 sq. feet). However, it has been designed in such a way that it doesn't feel small due to a set of floor to ceiling windows and a second floor that is a loft. If they had created a full second floor, they would have more square footage, but I think the house would feel smaller. Additionally, their home is energy efficient, easy to heat, and naturally cooled in the summer (who'd a thought it?). Or there's Sarah Susanka, and her _Not So Big House_ books. She takes some ideas from Wright. Using built-ins, the human scale (bigger than Wright's 5'8", of course), areas of compression that you move through, and expansion where you linger, working with a difficult building lot that costs less instead of a conventional lot, and so on.

On the other hand, I own a house that is around 70 years old, younger than about 1/3 of all Wright buildings. One part of the floor sags, we've got a gap in the basement between the outer wall and the foundation, our bedroom has no air flow and is just stifling in the summer, and the bathroom and the entry way, the parts of the house that were added on about 15 years ago, are always really cold in the winter. So I don't think that buildings by artists are the only ones that have problems.

When I think of my favorite artists, oddly enough Wright does not come immediately to mind (even though I work at a Wright building). But there was this one time when I was listening to Beethoven, and I thought, "If the entire human race just disappeared, and nothing was left but this piece of music, beings from the future if they heard it would know that we were capable of amazing, beautiful things." I thought the same thing the last time I saw Fallingwater. They are complex buildings, to be sure, and a private owner has their work cut out for themselves if they buy a Wright home. Not only due to the time and care necessary to restore, or at least repair, the building, but upholding "the legacy." But I still think there are plenty of Wright buildings that are beautiful and functional and livable for the inhabitants. And whether we like them or not, I think that his structures did bring something important to home design that can still be used today.

Posted by: Keiran on June 13, 2004 10:44 AM



$25 million to restore the Guggenheim. There is a small industry in the United States of on-going restoration in Wright homes. However, to paraphrase the architectural critic Robert Campbell, is $25 million that much when someone pays over $100 million for a Picasso? Of course that brings us back to, "is it a building, or am I living in a leaky, drafty, work of art" question. That is ultimately up to the owners. I do think that Wright brought important ideas to people's homes that can still be used today. For example, I know a couple who were influenced by Wright's Usonian concept. Their home is beautiful and small (900 sq. feet). However, it has been designed in such a way that it doesn't feel small due to a set of floor to ceiling windows and a second floor that is a loft. If they had created a full second floor, they would have more square footage, but I think the house would feel smaller. Additionally, their home is energy efficient, easy to heat, and naturally cooled in the summer (who'd a thought it?). Or there's Sarah Susanka, and her _Not So Big House_ books. She takes some ideas from Wright. Using built-ins, the human scale (bigger than Wright's 5'8", of course), areas of compression that you move through, and expansion where you linger, working with a difficult building lot that costs less instead of a conventional lot, and so on.

On the other hand, I own a house that is around 70 years old, younger than about 1/3 of all Wright buildings. One part of the floor sags, we've got a gap in the basement between the outer wall and the foundation, our bedroom has no air flow and is just stifling in the summer, and the bathroom and the entry way, the parts of the house that were added on about 15 years ago, are always really cold in the winter. So I don't think that buildings by artists are the only ones that have problems.

When I think of my favorite artists, oddly enough Wright does not come immediately to mind (even though I work at a Wright building). But there was this one time when I was listening to Beethoven, and I thought, "If the entire human race just disappeared, and nothing was left but this piece of music, beings from the future if they heard it would know that we were capable of amazing, beautiful things." I thought the same thing the last time I saw Fallingwater. They are complex buildings, to be sure, and a private owner has their work cut out for themselves if they buy a Wright home. Not only due to the time and care necessary to restore, or at least repair, the building, but upholding "the legacy." But I still think there are plenty of Wright buildings that are beautiful and functional and livable for the inhabitants. And whether we like them or not, I think that his structures did bring something important to home design that can still be used today.

Posted by: Keiran on June 13, 2004 10:49 AM



"... the greatest architectural genius ever to practice his art in this country, and among the greatest of all time world-wide."

That must be a statement of an agent provacateur hired by Michael to keep this discussion going.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 13, 2004 12:05 PM



Calm down Dzalman. We agree that Wright was a wonderful genius. But that "orders of magnitude" business is just daffy.

Wright does have his passionate devotees, does he not? I myself was one once. After all, I grew up surrounded by Wright houses, and later worked for a former Wright apprentice. So I do know my Wright. (Indeed, I spent a portion of my career writing and lecturing about Wright.) And I think what I said was pretty unexceptionable: Yes, Wright was a great architect. No one would deny this, except maybe Henry Hope Reed. But Wright created beautiful lone monuments--and that, as Dzalman says, was what Wright set out to do. But, Mr. or Ms. Dzalman, please tell me: How is it that your standard is any less "self-defined" than mine? Indeed, how is it not *more* "self-defined"? Your standard is one that values romantic individuality, which is to say a standard that is by its very nature self-defined. My standard, which does not value romantic individuality in architecture, is that of a great many (granted, not all) of the best architects in the Western tradition, that architecture in its highest manifestation is a social art that contributes to the making of cities. (Not a "self-defined" standard but the standard of countless Renaissance architects, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, etc., etc., etc.) Some architects' egos cannot handle that. They are great romantic artists who design wonderful country houses, as Wright did. But for me, and for many others, that's a kind of architecture that loses its fascination over time. Quite frankly, I find far more to savor in several other American architects of Wright's generation.

As for Wright's being a modernist, it is so self-evidently true and so widely accepted a premise that to defend my saying it would be ridiculous. Is Wright a member of the "Modern Movement"? Perhaps not. Is he a modernist? Absolutely.

Yes, he loathed the Modern Movement. But he loathed many things. He was a modernist the best qualities of whose works often derived from pre-modernist sources that he also often professed to abhor.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 13, 2004 09:55 PM



But Wright created beautiful lone monuments--and that, as Dzalman says, was what Wright set out to do. But, Mr. or Ms. Dzalman, please tell me: How is it that your standard is any less "self-defined" than mine? Indeed, how is it not *more* "self-defined"? Your standard is one that values romantic individuality, which is to say a standard that is by its very nature self-defined.
-----------------------------

"Romantic individuality"? And "[my] standard self-defined"? Gimme a break. The sort of sui generis genius evinced by Wright is of the very same nature and order as that evinced by sui generis genius in all the arts from time immemorial. No-one in his right mind would consider that standard the least "Romantic," or "self-defined," or inappropriately applied to such sui generis genius as, say, Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Michelangelo, for pertinent instances. Why should it be so considered applied to Wright? In matters of architecture, Wright was every inch a sui generis genius, and it's well to remember in our out-of-control egalitarian era that it's solely by such sui generis genius that the depths, heights, profundities, and possibilities of an art are revealed. The rest is mere commentary.

And just what is "social art" supposed to mean? It's a flat-out contradiction in terms. Pure populist gibberish and meaningless, as is your attempting to judge Wright by his contribution to that "art." That's like attempting to judge, say, Bach by his contribution to opera (he wrote none). The very idea is nuts.

And your,

As for Wright's being a modernist, it is so self-evidently true and so widely accepted a premise that to defend my saying it would be ridiculous. Is Wright a member of the "Modern Movement"? Perhaps not. Is he a modernist? Absolutely,

is totally baffling within an architectural context. The Modernist (not "Modern") movement, and the term modernist have specific meaning in architecture. Both refer to a specific historical architectural period, and a specific architectural ideology. As I said, Wright could by no stretch be considered any part of that movement; was in fact passionately opposed to the principles and quasi-religious tenets of that movement, and therefore impossible to characterize as a modernist. You're not permitted to, like Humpty Dumpty, make words mean anything you want them to mean.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 10:30 AM



Dzalman, please try to read my actual words, then discuss rather than vituperate.

Yes, Wright is a romantic and a modernist. Dzalman may disagree with those statements. But they are conventional notions. Conventional notions are often wrong. But the fruitful way to make a rejoinder to a conventional notion is to say something like: "I know that's the conventional notion, but here's why I think it's probably wrong...."

Interesting, in light of the Shakespeare comparison, to note what Wright's distant cousin, Robert Moses, said: Shakespeare (about whom Moses was extremely knowledgeable) was 80% genius, 20% hokum; Wright was 20% genius, 80% hokum. Moses then added that 20% genius places you at an extraordinarily high level. Indeed, Moses loved Wright, if not quite as much as Wright loved Moses.

Also, Dzalman, the oldest discussion in architectural aesthetics revolves around the degree to which and manner in which architecture differs from other "fine arts" because of the social role architecture plays. Thus such standards as "commodity, firmness, and delight," and so on. A building is not like a picture hanging on a wall. (Though, as modernists like Wright and Mies showed, country houses might successfully be approached in such a manner.)

I am inclined to think that the world divides between those who understand that, and those who don't. Thus there are some among us who find as much to appreciate in a fine terrace of Georgian houses as in a Frank Lloyd Wright country house. As for judging Wright by an inappropriate standard, I don't think so. What I said was that I believe the architect's highest calling is to design in cities. One may argue with that. I can take it. But that Wright did not accept that challenge, his works, however undeniably great they are, thereby fall below the highest level. The standard may be *wrong*. But to call it *inappropriate* mystifies me.

As for my grasp on what modernism is and is not (and, by the way, we do say "Modern Movement," my friend), I'll admit I may be mentally impaired, and the fact that the roots of modernism has been my field of scholarly inquiry for 28 years may well mean nothing.

Finally, I have *never* been accused of "populism" in my life! It is a delicious moment for me to savor.

Francis Morrone

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 11:31 AM



"I do think that Wright brought important ideas to people's homes that can still be used today. For example, I know a couple who were influenced by Wright's Usonian concept."

I have mixed feelings for Wright's work, and would rate the Guggenheim as my least favorite of his major buildings (altho it would be perfect for Gatlinburg: there's someplace for everything). But I agree with Keiran on the usefulness of some of his Usonian concepts. Usonian homes are pretty thin on the ground in the South (as are Wright's buildings generally), so when I heard that a recently restored Usonian home was being opened to the public in Alabama, I resolved to check it out the next time I was in the neighborhood.
The Rosenbaum House (circa 1939), was purchased by the city of Florence (I think) in 1999, and my teenaged son and I visited it in either the summer of '01 or '02. A brochure that I had obtained at our motel the night before gave the impression that the house had been open for some time, but when we arrived the next day, we discovered that it wasn't officially open for another week; restoration had taken much longer and far more money than anticipated. Fortunately, we got our tour anyway (Southern hospitality, 'n all), and at an exhibit on the restoration, I suddenly saw why it took so long: a huge portion of the house had consisted of termites holding hands. If they had all coughed at the same time, the house would have fallen into a pile of dust. I don't know how many of you have been house-owners down here, but it's a bit like having a house in Africa. We take termites very seriously. Until techniques (and poisons) were sufficiently developed during the 50's, houses were built on piers. Even tract houses. Even shotgun houses. Even your garden shed, if you were particularly proud of it. And here Wright had a built a wooden house on the ground, in Alabama, in 1939! From my perspective, that was breathtakingly more hubristic than building over a waterfall. I'm amazed it lasted for 60 years, and it just did.
That said, this Usonian house is an amazing space. When one approaches the front door, the overhang becomes progressively lower... at 6'1" I had to stoop (or felt I had to)... Wright said that this was to psychologically "compress" anyone entering the house. I can't remember why he thought this was necessary, but I couldn't help thinking that the Napoleon character in "Time Bandits" was channeling Wright. Mostly, however, the close quarters found everywhere in the house worked, as in a well-designed ship. Usonian houses were supposed to be houses for Everyman, which meant cheap, which meant small. Of course, I was taking a tour, not living there, but the spatial dimensions and arrangements were quite evocative of livability. I don't know if this was just an illusion, but it seems to me to be characteristic of Wright at his best. His modular approach to cost-cutting through design also seemed to work, but without the reductionist nuttiness of Corbu's Modulus. All in all, it was a remarkable essay in devising an industrial alternative to vernacular architecture, where plywood sheets and concrete castings replaced logs and field stones. I just wish he had brought in a good ol' boy as consultant.

Posted by: bald cypress on June 14, 2004 11:53 AM



Mr. or Ms. Francis Morrone:

You might, sir or madame, do well to take your own advice and "please try to read my actual words." In context this time.

I never declared Wright to not be a Romantic (he was). What I declared was that your use of the term to characterize the concept of sui generis genius was in error. My point -- my only point in regard to that term -- was that there's nothing the least bit "Romantic" about that concept, notwithstanding that the concept found its fullest expression in the Romantic era.

As to your use of "modernist," if you continue to insist on declaring Wright a modernist then you need to give your definition of just what it is you mean by that term. As it stands, in the domain of architecture your usage is at best misleading, and at worst entirely in error historically, and when used to characterize Wright.

On your other point, I never suggested "a building is...like a picture hanging on a wall." That's your pejorative invention, not mine. And you're quite wrong in declaring that "the oldest discussion in architectural aesthetics revolves around the degree to which and manner in which architecture differs from other 'fine arts' because of the social role architecture plays." The oldest discussion in architectural aesthetics -- vis-a-vis the other fine arts, and within architecture itself -- revolves around the inseparable functional role played by architecture (i.e., its necessary attention to, and consideration of, the building's program, and of the building itself within its environmental context), not the "social role." The latter can be inferred from the former, but it's the former that needs dealing with, not the latter which proceeds naturally, automatically, and secondarily from considerations of the former. The latter is primary only for city planners, or architects acting in that capacity (something that ought to be prohibited by law).

As to architecture conforming to the tripartite principle, "commodity, firmness, and delight," no architect formulated such a principle. If you imagine Vitruvius did, imagine again. He declared no such principle.

And as to my accusing you of being a populist, I made no such accusation. What I said was that your term "social art" was populist gibberish, and a contradiction in terms, as indeed it is. Your judging Wright's standing as an architect by his lack of contribution to that "art" -- an "art" you hold to be primary -- is inappropriate because such a measure of architectural worth is your own personal measure, not the measure imposed by architectural aesthetics historically (and quite rightly, too).

Finally, as to Robert Moses's comments on aesthetics, if you're talking about New York's Robert Moses, well, pardon me if I don't take that businessman-mover-and-shaker's comments to heart on matters aesthetic, or consider them worthy of serious consideration. That you seem to says more about you than anything it says about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 01:27 PM



Correction

Missing words in my, "What I declared was that your use of the term to characterize the concept of sui generis genius was in error."

That should have read: "What I declared was that your use of the term to characterize the concept of individualism and sui generis genius was in error."

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 01:32 PM



Dzalman: "Francis" is ALWAYS male.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 04:55 PM



Dzalman: "Francis" is ALWAYS male.

Sorry, Francis. Didn't know that, actually.

BTW, I just caught another sentence of mine with a couple words missing. My (fairly nasty) description of Robert Moses should have read: "...that civil engineer cum businessman-mover-and-shaker...."

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 05:23 PM



That's OK, Dzalman. I accept your apology, and trust you weren't impugning my masculinity.

BTW, while one can't describe Moses too nastily, I should point out that he was neither a civil engineer nor a businessman, but a political scientist (of high academic achievement) turned civil reformer turned public administrator turned megalomaniacal city-rebuilder. As for his aesthetic sense, I agree with you that it's neither here nor there, other than that he wrote beautifully and knew more about Shakespeare than most Shakespeare experts. FLlW, FWIW, revered "Cousin Bob" (and I do forget exactly how they were related, but they *were* related, which is a wonderful little historical oddity) and dreamt aloud of Moses's being the man who would build the roadway infrastructure that could make Broadacre City a practical reality.

Also neither here nor there, but, Dzalman, what to you constitutes "formulating a principle"? I do not ask this argumentatively. I just wonder at your comments on C, F, and D, and know that you know that Vitruvius used all three words (or their rough Latin equivalents) over and over again in De Architectura. I grant that they came to English in the work of a non-architect (Sir H.W.), but then again don't see how their subsequent enunciation by hundreds if not thousands of architects avoided the formulation of a (more or less loose) principle.

At any rate, perhaps we can agree, to get back to Michael's original point, that "firmness" was perhaps not FLlW's strong suit.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 06:15 PM



DZalman,

Don't know where you're getting the idea that FLW wasn't a modernist. He and the International Style protagonists had a lot of differences by the 1930's. However, that doesn't mean that FLW wasn't some variety of modernist. In fact, FLW generally claimed to be THE modern architect, as opposed to the claims of the International School. FLW was a romantic, as well - the two terms aren't in as much conflict as some would like to believe (or perhaps they're not in any conflict at all).

Probably most great architects of FLW's generation could be described as both modernists and romantics at the same time.

Otherwise, you're correct. I don't know where Francis is grabbing his "social art" from. Just practically, it doesn't make sense to apply such a standard to any American architect who is primarily doing residential work (the description of the vast majority of FLW's buildings)after 1880/1890 or so. If you have that sort of practice, you don't have much choice - you're going to be building houses in suburbia on large lots for upper-middle class clients. There's no social or urban fabric to react to, and pretending there is, isn't going to do very much good for anybody. (FLW wasn't a high-society architect who could get the commissions to build the gigantic Fifth Avenue/Gold Coast urban mansions for the wealthiest clients, either - he catered to the upper-middle class for the vast majority of his commissions). It isn't FLW's fault that the types of Americans who can afford custom houses prefer (and prefered) to live in suburbs with big lots.

Posted by: burritoboy on June 14, 2004 06:19 PM



Gosh, I think Morrone is entirely sensible to state that, at least at present, "architect's highest calling is the making of cities." We have enough

I imagine, however, that this is where the whole issue shakes out very neatly: if you care more for cities than for discrete architectural objects, then Wright must be found flawed.

Conversely, if one doesn't care about cities, then a fellow like Wright or Koolhaas or Gehry is just the cat's meow.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 14, 2004 07:11 PM



Architecture is not art. It is a craft or discipline for the production of things to be used. No one ever _used_ anything made by Rembrandt, or Bach, or Dickens. So Picasso, and Schoenberg, and Joyce could repudiate all the craft of their predecessors, and still produce valid art. They could also repudiate all the established ways of valuing art and create new values for the use of self-appointed elites, providing them with superiority to the lumpish bourgeois.

Architects want to be artists, to enjoy the greater prestige, and to join in the avant-garde fun. The fog of archibabble is part of the striving for prestige. Like W. S. Gilbert's Bunthorne, who "expresses himself in terms too deep for [the public]", they want to be considered "very singularly deep".

But architecture is used. Architecture also has to be looked at. When fashionable millionaires fill museums with weird junk (like the recently immolated Saatchi collection) it harms no one except themselves. No one has to go and look at it.

"Artistic", dysfunctional architecture, however, has real costs. It may fall down or rot, it may demoralize those who have to look at it, and it may interfere with the activity it is supposed to house.

Fortunately, the vast majority of architecture is bought by end users who won't tolerate 'art'.

Unfortunately, some aspects of function can't easily be judged in advance, and where it ties into esthetics, may be overridden by fashion.

Architects need to learn again that they are designers, not artists; that their real peers are not painters or sculptors, but designers of cars, clothes, and furniture.

As for Wright: he was "modern" in wanting to be an artist, and one might say lower-case-m "modern" in discarding old esthetic methods and creating new ones. But he was not "Modern", because he rejected the "Modern" architectural fetishes of machine-like design and deliberate ugliness.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 14, 2004 07:25 PM



Further on Wright: if I was rich enough to own a Wright home, I would record every detail of it in photographs and measurements. Then I would tear it down and rebuild it. I'd follow Wright's esthetic design, but leave out all the functional mistakes he insisted on.

dzalman would have apoplexy. I'd have a leak-proof roof, ceilings and doors of adequate height, _and_ Wright's design.

Posted by: Richard Rostrom on June 14, 2004 07:33 PM



Francis (if I may so address you. My name is David):

I could have sworn Moses was a civil engineer, what with his burning passion for, and fevered building of, roadways and bridges. Thanks for the correction. I called him "businessman" as a sort of slur, actually, because of his manipulative and underhanded way of making certain that all contracts for any building in NYC whatsoever had to pass through his office, and receive his approval. I hesitate to suggest that graft was involved, but it wouldn't surprise me even though never shown to be the case.

Wright had good reason to "rever[e] 'Cousin Bob'" (and you're right; that's a "wonderful little historical oddity"). If not for Cousin Bob the Guggenheim would never have been built. Wright had run out of options with the city, and the project looked doomed until Cousin Bob stepped in, and declared, It Will Be Built!

On Vitruvius, contrary to what you say, and believe it or not, the terms utilitas, firmitas, and venustas (commodity, firmness, and delight) appear nowhere in all the Ten Books. V never mentioned them. Not once. It was all an invention of Wotton the poet.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that Wright played fast and loose with engineering niceties in his buildings. After establishing that a design he envisioned could be built without subsequently falling down or otherwise causing harm to his client, he considered attention to that sort of nuts-and-bolts engineering detail to be a mere nuisance, most especially if it meant that he might have to alter a design detail in consequence. Wright's attitude on such matters is best summed up in his (in)famous retort to a client (name escapes me for the moment, but I think it was Johnson of J&J) who complained about the leaks in the roof of his building. Said Wright, "That's what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain."

Only an architect of Wright's prodigious genius could (should) get away with saying -- brag about saying -- such a thing.

And mean it.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 07:52 PM



David,

Glad to provide info on Moses, about whom I lecture every year.

As for Vitruvius, please pick up your Latin copy: Liber Primus, Caput Tertium, and I quote:
" Haec autem ita fieri debent, ut habeatur ratio firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis."

And again, and again, and again, and again, constantly, constantly throughout the book do the terms appear.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 08:04 PM



To David Sucher:

Thank you for saying I am sensible.

I was beginning to doubt it.

And you're right: We are a bifurcated architectural culture.

And the reason I can think Wright is a great architect (and I keep saying I think this) is that he never truly sought (talk of mile-highs aside) to impose his vision on cities. In that sense, he was far less egotistical than Corbu, or Koolhaas.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 08:13 PM



Francis:

But didn't FLW try? i.e Broadacres.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 14, 2004 08:16 PM



"Broadacre City" was a *rural* project, not an urban one.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 08:36 PM



To David Sucher:

Broadacres was conceived as an alternative to big-city living, and, like the English garden cities, as a necessary alternative--lest the "Moloch that knows no god but more" devour our very souls.

What Wright did not do was suggest that old neighborhoods be torn down and replaced with Broadacre City.

For that, he's preferable to some other 20th-century geniuses.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 08:42 PM



Francis:

I don't have a print copy of Vitruvius in the Latin. I did a search on the on-line Latin original at the Latin Library Classics site. Link for Book I is:

http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/vitruvius1.html

and the other books follow (simply follow the links).

Nary a single mention of those three words in all the Ten Books.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 08:45 PM



Francis:

Aarrrggghh! No wonder I didn't find those three words. I was spelling them incorrectly (firmitas, utilitas, venustas rather than firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis)!

Damn! What a dummy!

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 08:54 PM



Dzalman wrote:

>>>Damn! What a dummy!

Welcome to the fraternity!

It's a side issue here, anyway.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 14, 2004 09:01 PM



Francis:

BTW, how does your English translation render those words. I have two translations, and they render them differently. One renders them as "strength, utility, and beauty"; the other as, "durability, convenience, and beauty."

Not quite the same as "commodity, firmness, and delight," is it, nor not quite the same compared with each other except for 'beauty' (of course).

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 09:17 PM



What I think is most amusing here is how Mr. Zalman seems to think he's defending FLlW when his effect has been more of a one-man defamation squad.

If it's so terribly easy to construct buildings that don't leak, why is it FLlW couldn't be bothered to do this "easy" task?

If one takes as given that FLlW's draftsmanship was of a very high order, what does it say that he was never able to translate his dreamworld into reality? To what degree does his extant buildings reflect in any way his actual abilities? Isn't saying that draftsmanship is the whole of what an architect does not unlike saying the true measure of an author is their typing speed, and any knowledge of spelling, grammar, syntax, characterization, and plot just a matter for the Yellow Pages? (Hm. Actually, that's not a bad one-line critique of Joyce, come to think of it.)

Yet, at the same time, doesn't raising FLlW's draftsmanship so high above his actually executed buildings only lower him to being... well, not an architect, but a draftsman?

With friends like Mr. Zalman, FLlW hardly needs... people who disagree with him, let alone enemies.

(And that's even before we touch such painful subjects such as the what the journo boys call a Gross Factual Error re Vitruvius, or that both Wright and Gropius considered Wright a "Modernist", or... Well. Yes. Why muddy the field with facts, when the theory is such a splendid, shiny thing?)

I find myself with Mr. Sucher (As I usually do): It's hard to find credible that Mr. Zalman believes what he's saying, more that he's saying it to cause a fuss.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on June 14, 2004 09:20 PM



Yet, at the same time, doesn't raising FLlW's draftsmanship so high above his actually executed buildings only lower him to being... well, not an architect, but a draftsman? With friends like Mr. Zalman, FLlW hardly needs... people who disagree with him, let alone enemies."

Mr. Zalman wrote not a single word about Wright's draftsmanship.

Posted by: dzalman on June 14, 2004 09:29 PM



But Francis, and thanks for the clarification, even so doesn't FLW's sugestion of Broadacres City show us his own sensibility about urban life all too clearly?

Posted by: David Sucher on June 14, 2004 10:58 PM



To David Sucher:

Yes, David, absolutely. He placed himself squarely in the Jeffersonian tradition of distrust of and disdain for large cities. Paradoxically, he did love to live the high life in New York. He stayed at the Plaza (his suite became known as Taliesin III) and once even said it was the one building in New York he wished he had designed!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on June 15, 2004 12:07 AM



"Mr. Zalman wrote not a single word about Wright's draftsmanship."

Yes, you did, although it appears you're not aware of it.

Look. You've said that the quality of the construction of Wright's buildings is, basically, irrelevant to judging Wright. Even though Wright was well known for overseeing most aspects of the construction of his buildings.

If the buildings themselves aren't relevant, what is left? Wright's plans, Wright's renderings, and Wright's writings.

Now, presumably when you refer to Wright's "genius", you're not referring to Wright's writings, because that would make him an author, not an architect.

At which point, you're left with the renderings and plans.

Draftsmanship.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on June 15, 2004 02:08 AM



Architecture is the mother of all arts. That includes the art of keeping the rain out.

Nice post Michael.

Posted by: Rob Annable on June 15, 2004 04:20 AM



Fun converation to observe. FWIW, and not that anyone needs to know, I was hoping to make two points with the posting.

* How bizarre that the general public conversation about architecture so seldom includes much about what it's like to live in and around buildings and neighborhoods. The critical-historical gab is 99% about style, look, and influence. All of which is important, but 99% important? I flipped thru some of the books I own that include lengthy discussions of FLW's work, for instance. And aside from a casual mention or two of the difficulties with Fallingwater, there wasn't a single acknowledgment of any of the basic facts of how people have found the experience of living in and around a Wright building. Given that, however you want to label it, architecture is (except where follies are concerned) used and experienced, that's a big gap. It's also a destructive one for the profession, given that one of the main ways fields are able to advance is by learning from experience. In my ideal world, not that anyone should care, the discussion would center on how people experience the building or neighborhood at least as much as on "appreciating" the look or style. The Gugg, for instance: groovy style (I guess, though it always struck me as looking amazingly like a giant toilet); very successful as an icon and a tourist attraction; not such a good place to see art; and a foolhardy use of building techniques and materials. It could use a lot more bathrooms, too.

* Point two was, of course, to do a little something in the way of undermining the idea that the art of architecture is something apart from the more practical end of building, living, experiencing, etc. All due respect to those who enjoy and/or get off on the notion, it's a romantic-modernist view of art that, IMHO, can use a little commonsense ribbing...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 15, 2004 10:41 AM



Michael:

And those are two great points. I agree wholeheartedly.

I've seen a goodly chunk of Wright's houses in the LA area, and Monona Terrace, the conference center in Madison, WI, where the exterior was Wright-derived, and the interior is typical contemporary.

And I'd have to agree. The houses seem to make good movie sets (cf. The Rocketeer, The Thirteenth Floor, Laurel Canyon, others), and so-so places to live. Certainly, if you gave me a choice between the Ennis-Brown house, and, say, Greene & Greene's Gamble house in Pasadena, I know which one I'd leap for in a heartbeat.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on June 15, 2004 03:34 PM



In my ideal world...the [architectural] discussion would center on how people experience the building or neighborhood at least as much as on "appreciating" the look or style.
-----------------------------

Part of the problem with the above is that its very language ("look or style") betrays a view that considers a work of architecture in the same terms as a product produced by some haute couture dress designer, instead of the substantial and serious thing it is.

Another problem is that it fails to recognize that "how people experience the building" is of no importance, and is a measure of nothing. What's of importance in that regard is the architect's client, exclusively, and it's how he experiences the building that's of importance. How other people experience the building is of no importance whatsoever. In Wright's case, I know of no client who was unhappy with what Wright gave him; was less than thrilled by it, leaky roofs and all.

A lesson for armchair critics.

Posted by: dzalman on June 15, 2004 04:30 PM



I believe Wright's best works were from his earliest period and most of the later work is unimpressive to me. These early houses leak, but you have to remember that they are in some cases over 100 years old - what can you expect from wood houses of this age?

Regardless of what anyone thinks about Wright, he had at least three major contributions to architecture that I can think of off hand

1. I believe that he was one of the first architects in America to design a building constructed out of reinforced concrete or at least one of the first that wasn't a factory (unity temple).

2. He designed the first building who's essential form derived from specific environmental control requirements and strategies(larkin building).

3. He was probably the first to explore the spatial implications of wood house construction systems which lead to free flowing and more organic plans. This breakthrough is evident in basically every house built in America since WWII.

I think that these three things on their own are enough to put Wright into the top levels of the history of american architecture.

Bashing Wright is fun because the true believers are just silly most of the time. There is a cult of personality aspect that jumps out right away when you go to visit any of the houses or buildings that have tours. The later buildings are also not very good in my opinion, and there are obviously major technical problems with many of them. I am no Wright lover, but it is hard for me though to deny the quality and importance of buildings like the Unity Temple and Robie House.

Anyways, if Wright is not one of the greatest American architects, who is better? Who is on the list?


Posted by: Tom on June 15, 2004 05:22 PM



Mr. Zalman.

Are you serious? Surely you jest and for the sake of promoting a stimulating discussion.

Can you claim that "[h]ow other people experience the building is of no importance whatsoever" without violating "the smile test?" Your statement certainly brought a smile to my face. And how do you handle the identity of "the client" in the case of a tax-financed structure? It is the public which is in every sense the client and so some attention needs be paid to "public opinion." No?

Posted by: David Sucher on June 15, 2004 06:05 PM



To David Sucher:

Yes, of course I'm serious, notwithstanding that my comment "violat[ed] [your] 'smile test.'" And in your proposed case of a tax-financed structure, the client is indeed the public, but the public, via "public opinion," should never in any circumstance be permitted to influence a building's design. Rather, architectural experts (i.e., those schooled in architectural aesthetics) should be hired (by vote, if necessary) to act as proxy for the public, and in the public's best interests.

Posted by: dzalman on June 15, 2004 07:22 PM



The "smile test"," btw, is an informal standard used by lawyers and judges to determine if an explanation, rationale, defense etc can be heard and taken seriously, or whether, it simply brings a smile to the face of the listener because -- amusing through the explanation may be -- no one can take it as anything but a last gasp attempt.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 15, 2004 07:35 PM



Yes, of course I'm serious, notwithstanding that my comment "violat[ed] [your] 'smile test.'" And in your proposed case of a tax-financed structure, the client is indeed the public, but the public, via "public opinion," should never in any circumstance be permitted to influence a building's design. Rather, architectural experts (i.e., those schooled in architectural aesthetics) should be hired (by vote, if necessary) to act as proxy for the public, and in the public's best interests.

Ugh. So, the public cannot be "trusted" to comment on architecture for public use? That means we, the public, are to be completely at the mercy of often self-appointed (or at least incestuously self-referential) "architectural experts" acting in "the public's best interests." That "architectural aesthetics" are so clearly definable that said experts will always be right, no matter the negative reactions of the great unwashed?

You can't really believe such arrogant nonsense, can you? No wonder most of us, including many who enjoy urbanism and, yes, architecture, despise the architectural profession and its crony-apologists.

Posted by: Brian Miller on June 15, 2004 08:48 PM



I don't follow this blog regularly (mea culpa), but it is amazing to me that those three little initials (FLW) manage to bring out such strongly held opinions.

No doubt the old man himself would be smiling to know that people would still feel compelled to make so much effort to read, think, and discuss what he did, not to mention visiting the buildings. No doubt he would see it as a vindication of what he did, leaky roofs and all.

Posted by: Harry on June 15, 2004 10:30 PM



Way up in the first comment, I stated that this topic had "legs". Little did I know....

While I agree with most commenters that living in a Wright house would not necessarily be fun, I have to say that I find his buildings built before the Thirties compelling both aesthetically and emotionally. (Recall I mentioned above that I thought the plans and renderings were aesthetically better than the buildings themselves.)

And I admit that I have similar reactions to the best of architecture, art, and design by Mackintosh, Otto Wagner, Klimt, Kolo Moser, and others active roughly from 1895 to 1915. There is something oddly compelling about works that were no longer quite classical yet that were not yet what we call "modern"--I'll toss Art Deco and Raymond Hood skyscrapers into that pot too.

So how does Wright stack up against his contemporaries of that era? I find this an apple-oranges thing. Both he and the Greens did what we call "arts and crafts" or "bungalow" houses, and others above have commented on their merits. But what about architects working in other styles? For example, Wallace Neff created buildings in Spanish Colonial or Spanish Revival style. His houses were highly regarded when new and they remain so today, judging by recent sale prices. Academic architects would blast Neff for being "derivative", yet his creations were successful both aesthetically and functionally. Was Wright greater than Neff? I rather like them both, for different reasons.

And is Wright greater than, say, Frank Gehry? I say yes, hands-down: leaky roofs, custom furniture, the whole shot notwithstanding. Wright's work fascinates. Gehry's work, from the outside anyway, is a mess.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 16, 2004 01:12 AM



So... Who wants to take up a collection to send Mr. Zalman the architectual writings of Bernard Rudofsky, Christopher Alexander, and Stewart Brand? (Modesty prevents me from recommending Mr. Sucher... oops, I just did. :)

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on June 16, 2004 10:36 PM



As I read over my last post, it's a bit clumsy... I don't mean to imply I personally had any contribution to Mr. Sucher's writing, rather that it seems a bit overly fanboy-ish to exhibit too much enthusiasm when the writer is present.

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on June 16, 2004 10:41 PM



Frank Lloyd Wright was a bold and brilliant innovator. His design features constantly pushed building techniques and materials to the limit. The important thing to remember about innovation is that it's not always neat; it can be sloppy and unappealing to the pragmatically minded (Michael seems to fit in that category). Remember the Tucker automobile? Some would consider the Tucker to be a failure because it wasn't reliable and was never profitable or mass produced. However, you can't deny the many innovations and influence the Tucker had on the auto industry. Same with Wright; he didn't always appeal to pragmatists but his influence on the world of architecture and design cannot be denied.

Posted by: Pete Boulé on June 21, 2004 12:58 AM



Wright's inventions sometimes leak because they pre-dated by decades the invention of acrylic-based caulk. So much for the "sponges" inside the Guggenheim, NY, a museum which is looking, actually, pretty sharp since both domes and many interiors are restored to their original designs (despite the toilet-like cube constructed behind them). Wright's over-the-top draughtsmanship and design is denigrated because of this?? Buildings are real objects which require upkeep, maintenance, and sometimes even structural repair, points which uniquely in the case of Wright are taken as Marxist-type cultural excrement that his work is somehow flawed, as opposed to other buildings that must withstand wind and rain, or even need repainting every so often.

Art and design are one and the same. Compare, whom, to Wright, do you? The Bauhaus? Mies? Corbu? Who, exactly?

All of these anti-Wright arguments were a cliche by 1940. His Gugg Museum and the thing in Marin County aren't as cozy as his houses, though they have new design ideas, but with what are they being compared? Oh, I know, ask Philip Johnson, a "genius" if there ever was one (OOPS!! Wrong subject to bring up!! Red alert!!....)

Was Wright a "great draughtsman"? You betcha. He got his start, in how own humble words, as "the pencil of Louis Sullivan." Philip Johnson went to school with a "gentleman draughtsman" who did all his homework for him, a direct precursor to his professional practice. Draughtsmanship is unimportant for not designing nor communicating ideas that are not your own.

If none of this is still understood, though I know it is by some people, then what's to say? Wright did what, exactly?

Posted by: James on June 23, 2004 04:09 AM






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