The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright

A graduate of Princeton, where he earned his master and his doctor degrees, ALBERT BUSH-BROWN taught at Western Reserve Unirersity before he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is presently associate professor of architecture, He has been collaborating with Dean John E. Burchard in the writing of ARCHITECTURE IN AMERICA: A SOCIAL INTERPRETATION,commissioned by the American Institute of Architects,

MULL it over as you will, the American penchant for fouling the land has no acceptable counterbalance save the hope that lies in education. As long as we refuse to arrange space so it sustains the good life, we force our best architects to become crusaders — willing, even anxious, to affront society. In his assaults upon taste, Frank Lloyd Wright, the man of the magnificently delayed entrance, the blackthorn cane, the riverboat hat, the white suit, the black cape closed by a gold chain, was an arresting public accusation. He was an imperious showman whose words came gently from a desert face puckered and creased like an apple left on a February branch. His were seldom gentle words; they were cutting images of Welsh forensic. And only his hands — with the ceaselessly interweaving fingers, pushing tips, hooking and pulling and bending, the knuckles flexing to form roofs and columns and walls — told of the passion that shifted malice and hurt into architectural wisdom. For men inured to committees, afraid to risk an autocratic decision, Frank Lloyd Wright’s display of jaunty arrogance, of beguiling self-certainty, of cavalier disrespect, of unshakable determination was the top showmanship of an idea in an age when publicity agents manufacture stars overnight. If an architect is to be measured as a persuasive entrepreneur, then in his final hour Wright had no peer.

Inevitably the measure of his talent became snarled in his stature as a man. Faced with requests to alter a design for reasons of economy, he treated compromise as an insult and stormed off the job broadcasting accolades to an artist’s integrity while forgetting that a client too has his right. Such legitimate criticisms of his reliability and adaptability soon gathered illicit accomplices in a picture of unbridled sin, including a stormy knife fight, marital and extramarital escapades, berserk servants, financial insolvencies, legal battles, indentured apprentices, and other overly rehearsed biographical irrelevancies.

It became easy to dismiss Wright as a notorious eccentric, to regale any group with the latest mischievous episode or biting retort, to regard him as a paragon of Bohemian license. The non sequitur came in believing that a culprit could create nothing save an immoral architecture, as though a bandit might not also be a great poet. The irrelevancy stood precisely in the fact that architectural beauty owes nothing to economy, truth, and goodness. The Parthenon drained the Athcnian treasury and did so in a time of war; Hagia Sophia deified a barbarian turned lawyer and the crafty actress he married; Gizeh immortalized a deplorable Egyptian morality—yet they are nonetheless esteemed as art. That was the measure Wright wanted, not the naive approbations of those who allay their suspicions of beauty by grasping spurious economic and moral justifications for their taste or a public which makes pilgrimages to a vapid Statue of Liberty shining her vacuous benignity at the gateway to social convention.

Nor, dismissing personal biography, shall we find an adequate measure of Wright’s talent in his relations with his profession. Refusing to the last to join the American Institute of Architects, he attacked their integrity, antagonized their officers, and defied their right to set fees, write codes of ethics, and influence the centers of finance, government, and education. Perhaps one does not expect the finest judge or the finest surgeon to lead his professional association, but the manysided aspects of architecture have meant almost inevitably that the architect who is a businessman and promoter, not an artist and certainly never a pioneer artist, would dominate the professional society and, unable to set a standard for quality, would aim the society at becoming a lobby for conservatism. As long as classicists were entrenched, Wright attacked such banalities as the rotunda on the Potomac which John Russell Pope erected as an “arrogant insult” to the memory of Thomas Jefferson; and his attacks were met blow for blow by those who heaped a final indignity upon him in 1957 when they withheld from Wright the Centennial Medal he alone deserved. Perhaps no one in America had done more for architecture, but his contribution was a personal one, an art that could not be wrenched from his personality, and in the balance the gentlemen of the AIA failed to see that the art was more important.

There was, of course, an always incipient abuse of power. His long-standing fury against the glassboxed steel cages of Mies van der Rohe led him to cut even a modern architect of uncommon elegance, as Philip Johnson learned when his house at New Canaan was said to have been built “by a monkey for a monkey.” Johnson might chip a piece from the Matterhorn by omitting Wright from a long list of great modern architects, only to drag him in parenthetically as the “greatest architect of the nineteenth century”; but the bitterest sting remained for Wright to deliver when, meeting Johnson after he and Mies had completed New York’s Seagram Building, Wright asked whether he was “still putting up little buildings and leaving them out in the rain?” In the public eye, all this gossip kept architects obviously disunited, fractious, and unequal to a reliable stand on public issues involving art. Thus when Wright appeared as the star witness before a Congress worried about the Miesian Air Force Academy, he attacked the whole project, offered his own services, and flagrantly misused his power.

THERE are no great rewards to be had from Frank Lloyd Wright’s writing, where the pages contain mawkish paeans to democracy and the “organic” life, an occasional sensitive tribute to the Arizona desert or the Badlands of the Dakotas, and many ranting and frequently undeserved attacks upon people, institutions, and history, in a patent rewrite intended to bolster his autobiographical position. No student can learn about architectural design from Wright’s pages, for he never spoke of it, though he claimed to talk of nothing else.

His themes are nineteenth-century themes. First there is the hero, of Wagnerian dimensions, capable of great public service, as Plutarch would have him, but a Carlylean hero forced to breast the wave of ignorance around him. This hero, a Messiah in the lineage of Christ, a philosopher like Lao-tse, owes his strength to nature; his parables come from the field; his metaphor is the root and flower, never the machine. He is first and foremost an individual, total in his grasp of life, and his pulse, too easily stilled by the academy, must be quickened by creative work beginningin Froebel’s kindergarten. He is an architect, the master builder of Ibsen and Ruskin, alert to structure, as Viollet-le-Duc taught, and able to command all the arts and crafts to realize William Morris’ social aims. With Whitman he sings of the dignity of man, of democracy, of American destiny; with Emerson he praises self-reliance; and over all are written the Darwinian theory of adaptation and the Spencerian formula for survival.

Here were all the myths of the American mind: that the city is iniquity, the yeoman farmer pure, the village a strength; that the epitome of civilization will arrive on American soil — in the Midwest, far from Europe, far from the East coast, its universities, churches, and cities; that the American destiny is to create an original form of natural life in which the individual stands supreme, more primitive than urbane, more democratic than bureaucratic, with the artist in control of the machine, no longer its slave; and that, once surrounded with proper environment, human nature will invariably aspire toward the best.

The myth cut Wright off from most of the deepest currents of twentieth-century culture. An optimist, as all architects must be, he drew a curtain between himself and the geometric retreats of Mondriaan, the witty caricatures of human frailty proposed by Miró. the ghastly inhumanities of Guernica, the dark world of Faulkner. In spite of all his apostrophes to “organic architecture,” an architecture derived from twentieth-century necessities, he failed to drink from the wells of contemporary science and remained content with a vitalistic interpretation of heredity and adaptation long after experimental biologists had turned from Bergson to seek physicochemical explanations of life. Thus he regarded a building as a plant sprung from its space-seed, exfoliating in conformity to the laws of growth and environment but lorced by an impelling inner urgency to flower in an unexpected brilliance that transcended the soil where it grew. Meanwhile, crystallography, astronomy, nuclear physics, and biochemistry passed him by.

Nor will you find Wright in the vanguard of liberal social reformers in any of the great movements of recent history, whether associated with labor, world government, or education. He believed his social mission was to build beautifully, and when the centers of power failed to seek him, they became in his mind the strongholds of reaction. He clung to an idea of primitive democracy at a time when decisions were more commonly made by officials appointed to dole out patronage and organize graft and when state legislators were as olten as not also real-estate speculators whose investments determined where the new highway or public building would go and who would build it. He established no seminal designs for labor buildings, government buildings, public schools, factories, recreation facilities, or public housing. When he condemned even the sincere attempts at providing such buildings, he seemed an ember glowing brightest just before it joins the pile of dead ashes.

You cannot ask too much of his buildings, either. You cannot be satisfied if you require that they be perfect in detail and lull of wonderful joinery and refinement; for he was the strongest devotee of the cult of originality that has driven the post-Renaissance artist into frenzied innovation at the loss of perfection. You cannot expect to find satisfaction either in his innovations, for the inventions, whether split-level living rooms, the corner picture window, the carport, radiant heating, allsteel office furniture, or air conditioning, were technical answers to demands for a mechanically controlled environment and gained no aesthetic quality by being first. You cannot delight in finding an isolated form so powerfully distinctive that it remains an emblem for the institution it houses, for Wright, like all artists in the twentieth century, found it impossible to reserve the strong structural forms made available by modern technology, because society continuously robs the architect of his best language, using it for tawdry gas stations, hamburger stands, and motels, so that he can no longer speak the speech he should make for the important centers of culture. In all this, society piped the tune, and if it was satisfied with the crude, the gadget, the blatant, the misappropriated, even the strongest artist might not survive the dance.

It is, of course, important that architecture meet the measure of utility, and few of Wright’s buildings would satisfy the physical demands an efficiency engineer would propose. A long list of leaky roofs, parting seams, cracking walls, and tortuous corridors could be compiled by anyone who has knocked his head against Wright’s low doors and trellises. Some of the failures in his houses were due to half a century of negligent occupancy; some, like the inconvenient secondstory kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms, were wistful reminders of earlier times and plentiful servants; still others revealed that penchant of all aging architects to press a tyrannical formalism regardless of performance — the hexagon, for instance, that Wright imposed throughout a house until the clients rebelled at having a bathtub to match, and Wright characteristically warned that if they wanted to start compromising now he was through.

At what point should an intimidated client rebel? Early, Frederick C. Robie had found no reason to break his happy relations with the fortyyear-old architect who designed the roof-sheltered and rhythmically mullioned spaces of his beautiful house in Chicago. Even the Wisconsin engineers who doubted Wright’s faith were reassured by the graceful dendriform columns that today still sustain the glorious space in the Johnson Wax Administration Building. Tokyo saw his Imperial Hotel withstand both a leveling earthquake and the later taunts of engineers who suggested that the Imperial had caused the quake. Not even the obvious unsuitability of the Guggenheim Museum’s low-ceiled helix, cramped offices, echoing auditorium, and inadequate work spaces deterred the headlong pursuit of sculptural form; if the pictures were too tall, cut them in half, Wright said, brandishing his cane.

But once you have picked all the cracked calking from the leaky joints between the glass tubes around the Johnson Wax Building, once you have stood by silently as the Robie House, Coonley House, and other great heirlooms die a slow death on the altar of functionalism or meet the cleaner stroke of the wrecker’s ball and bulldozer’s blade, joining the rubble made of the Larkin Building and Midway Gardens and soon to be made by the hotel owner in Tokyo, there is still a greater, deeper sense of function to be remembered the one that has kept the scaffold-borne masons and glaziers repairing the Gothic cathedrals and Byzantine basilicas for centuries in spite of their manifest inefficiencies and physical shortcomings.

For Wright’s buildings accept the snow on their rock ledges, shine in the desert sun, are freshened by rain and fog, have a serenity that gathers children to them, and receive the vine and flower when crassly functional buildings refuse. His best spaces have a peace that surpasses functional understanding. You may expect and you may receive from many architects a reliable, practical performance, even a brilliance and finish that the sensitive poet will not often achieve; but you will sometimes obtain from a poet that elusive and spirited art which makes wood and stone and concrete spring palpably to life. Wright ‘s best buildings retained the thrill of a man inspired by an idea and also the sense of a man who could make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones like the Community Church in Kansas City, where clients, deciding to go their own way with a merctiicious design, produced one of the ugliest buildings in America. Work-weary and dulled by such environment, we seek Wright’s best or leaf through his drawings, astonished and revived by the fountainhead of sheer genius with space.

Wright worked best when the landscape suggested a definite theme, a declivity to be accented by a tower, a boulder beside a lake to be echoed by a quirk in a long roof, a cactus-dotted, rockstrewn knoll to be translated into ship-lapped balconies and Maya-battered walls, a pond and low-hanging willows to reflect and filter a geometrically patterned concrete wall, a waterfall set among striated rock and Pennsylvania woodlands, a hill for roofs to hover around, nestling gardens and pools and living spaces. His work often retained much primitive, rugged, earthy vitality, even peasant crudeness, and his geometry boldly sprang long continuous horizontal masses, penetrated them with rhythmic sequences of interrupted verticals, phrased the statements with bracketing chimneys and punctuating towers, took a deep breath at the void of a door, then ended the statement with a flourish of roof planes floated in air. In the city, Wright never was struck with any desire except to close a wall against frenetic tempos and banal surroundings, and, turning his buildings inward, he attempted to outshout his neighbors through gargantuan scale and powerful forms. Then his power could be felt, as in the great prow of the Guggenheim, only in relation to the dull staccato of the dreary passage along our city streets. Even Florida Southern College, where Wright designed the entire campus, did not escape one of the pitfalls of modern architecture, the restless assemblage of overwrought, grossly scaled bombasts and nervous sophistications that drive us to seek a private corner away from an architecture that is too much in evidence and so all-demanding that neither painting nor sculpture, let alone people, can live easily with it.

The devotee of Wright did not often see past the superficial signs of his style, and indeed the view was difficult, since subjective axioms were promoted as dogmas. Thus many young architects were led astray by the fetish of hexagons or, more basically, developed a cult of self-conscious expression of the nature of materials, sites, structural systems, functions, and interior spaces, forgetting that great buildings, including the Parthenon and Taj Mahal, made no overt expression of those particular beliefs. Then there arrived the new architecture of weather-worn peasant rusticity, ebullient but raw materials, structural exhibitionism, and pathetic patches of skylit gardens in living rooms. Wright’s style was too personal and also too peripheral to his genius to be followed, and those who emulated his details could never evolve the next stage in the development of architecture.

What was truly essential in Wright’s work was his capacity to capture space within eccentrically disposed masses; to describe planes that come forward and planes in recession, projections and hollowed places; to balance these as no previous architect had; to make them become rhythmic patterns revealed by light and shade. From the exterior we anticipate his interiors, but once inside we find consonant, rich developments of his themes, as space is trapped at an entrance, drawn out thin under a porte-cochere, revolved through a door, released to pirouette in the cylindrical recesses of a Johnson Wax lobby, then set free to soar over the bridge or glide beneath it into the main secretarial room, where the space eddies around ballerinas poised delicately on tiptoe as only Degas might have recorded.

You will find architects now working in Detroit, in Chicago, in New Haven — a Yamasaki, a Nctsch, a Rudolph for whom that marvelous development of spatial theme taught the lesson that a building’s only memorable function is to be a satisfying work of art. Wright showed that such art might arrive on American soil. Gould a lesser arrogance or a dishonesty have taught as much?