Monday, November 26, 2012
Adventures with Frank Lloyd Wright
I am a doodler and I love sketching, particularly perspective sketching, the classic perspective that I learned pretty young was the one point perspective. It usually involves a streetscape, later I'd learn the 2 point perspective which is great for doing corner buildings. Learning to sketch in freehand perspective allowed me the freedom to create my own worlds- I became known in school for my sketches, including an aerial view of a fictional town with shops named for all of my classmates. I have it somewhere back in California in storage, I hope. To draw like that quickly you start to see the world as a series of abstract shapes and planes, it allows you to quickly communicate depth on the two-dimensional paper surface.
Wright's architecture is derived from the geometrical abstraction of the natural world, I found that his work so clearly meshed with how I had come to see the physical environment around me. I studied his drawings for style and content and would earn the nickname in Architecture school of "Frank Lloyd Cueto". He was pretty much the only Architect I was widely aware of when I entered college. He would become the gateway to so many other architects whose work I admired and studied, I would later intern at the Cal Poly Pomona owned Richard Neutra House, and lived in the John Lautner designed Tolstoy Residence in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
My parents are from the same small mining town in southeastern Arizona, and even though I grew up near San Bernardino, CA their stories made Arizona very real even after we stopped making frequent visits once most of the family relocated to Southern California. So I felt the Arizona connection to Wright and his Taliesin West compound. I imagined myself in another life if only I were my Grandparents age joining the Taliesin Fellowship, and with the proximity to Arizona it was a believable scenario.
I recently finished the book "The Fellowship" a history of Wright, and his wife Olgivanna and the Taliesin Fellowship. It was a real behind the curtain look at the operation. It was written in a page turning fashion as it promised to reveal the dark side of Wright and is filled with gossipy stories about the Wrights, the relationships between Fellows, and Olgivanna's strange obsession with Eastern mysticism. How it motivated her to mold the fellowship and then consolidate her power after Wright's passing. It was a fascinating, and sometimes disturbing read.
A lot of historians obsess over the idea that Wright was an artistic genius and yet was in many ways a selfish jerk as if those qualities were somehow mutually exclusive. I've never really cared that he had a reputation for as one biographer put it being "barely a human being". I don't think that is entirely fair. He inspired devotion in many people and not just for his work which hardly seems compatible with the notion that he was such a completely horrible person. So much harm has been done in the world by people clinging to the notion of the perfectibility of man on earth. We are flawed creatures that we are capable of transcending that is the real miracle not that if we just try hard enough Utopia will be within our grasp. I have no doubt he had many serious personality flaws but really who doesn’t? I have never seen anything to make me expect that success and ability in one aspect of your life necessarily translates to success in other aspects. For the most part nothing in the book caused me to change that assessment with the exception that Wright is alleged to have been physically abusive to his wife and step daughter. I was aware of his temper but had not heard any stories of him being a wife beater, so that was a shock and a disappointment if true. I have read many books and memoirs on Wright and the picture they paint of him is entirely different, but who knows.
I was never a huge Olgivanna fan, and the book didn’t give me any reason to change my mind. Certainly a case can be made that the Fellowship and the great later period of his career might never have come into being, without her having been at his side. Her contribution to stabilizing his later career or perhaps the coincidence of her being there will always be debated. They always presented such a unified front in public with such seemingly obvious devotion to each other that there are revelations in the book that are somewhat shocking. Olgivanna was captive to the teachings of mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and this is the heart of this book. The emphasis on self denial as the path to self-enlightenment and immortal salvation is given as the motivation for most of her cruel and manipulative actions. She learned this when she was an acolyte of Gurdjieff and the unpleasantness he put her through would supposedly strengthen her. This was her justification for her manipulation of people, it sounds like the typical rationalization of most tyrants. Josef Stalin's daughter (Svetlana Alliluyeva who recently passed away, R.I.P.)recognized this when she was briefly pulled into the Taliesin orbit having seen the cult of personality surrounding her own father.
I have been fortunate to see several Wright sites over the years. I have visited Taliesin West in Scottsdale many times, been to the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles and seen the outside of the Textile block houses in LA. In San Francisco I visited the V.C. Morris Gift Shop and the Marin County Civic Center. I made the pilgrimage to Fallingwater, a thrill to be sure, and in nearby Alexandria, VA I have toured the delightful Pope-Leighey House.
Fallingwater was a sublime experience; we went on a pretty hot and sticky late spring day. Probably the best description of it is by Robert A.M. Stern in Ken Burn's Frank Lloyd Wright documentary. He says something to the effect that you travel through the woods with the trees and the bugs eating you alive and then there you see it, Mr. Wright's Masterpiece. I was struck by how timeless it felt, it is a project of the 1930's but it looks like it could have been 25-30 years later. The scale of is it is remarkable, it seems to spread out forever, even the low ceilings do not create an atmosphere of claustrophobia because your eye is always being drawn out of the building towards the forest. The house is luxuriously appointed and yet it remains very modest in feeling, while no cabin in the woods it is also no palace either. Having seen the Pope-Leighey House a typical Usonian it is remarkable that although the textures and materials are different the same modesty is expressed, both houses feel classless, they could be the homes of millionares or a middle class family, as in fact they were, it is an uplifting and yet democratic architecture.
I have two complaints at Fallingwater, the scale is so specific clearly designed to Wright's 5'7" frame that most people throw it off, especially on the terraces, the parapet must be 30" or lower from the terrace floor so people look like they are going to tip over the edge- and the window mullions in my opinion are visually redundant, larger panes of glass would be a dramatic integration with the site and wouldn't have sacrificed horizontality, but these are minor points on what is otherwise a practically perfect design.
The Pope-Leighey House is a wonderful jewel. It was relocated to the grounds of George Washington's step-granddaughter's estate (itself a wedding present from the General) to save it from the path of a freeway. Phillip Johnson made a good point in Ken Burn's FLLW Documentary; he was speaking about the Johnson Wax building. He felt the genius in that design was the quality of light that filtered through the columns, that made the space so magical. Wright would go on and on about the strength of the columns to which Johnson thought was no big deal. "Anyone can make you a column, you just pick up the telephone and get someone...” It's a humorous story that illustrates that the great architect makes great spaces this is the higher calling, not engineering structural loads. I have a similar outlook, and it came to mind with this Usonian house. Wright would often go into detail about the plywood sandwich walls, plywood panel weatherproofed and faced with board and batten siding. The walls are super lightweight and are screens between masonry cores that support the roof structure. It is a detail you don’t need to know about to appreciate the warm grandeur of the space, which was Johnson's point. Although I might add the ease at disassembling the walls came in handy as the house has been relocated twice, so maybe the structural ingenuity is just as important as the aesthetic considerations.
This particular house has a high ceilinged living room a welcome touch that addresses the change in level of the site and sets it apart from most Wright designs without sacrificing the all important horizontality. I have heard it said the living in a Wright house is to subordinate yourself to living in his head. While it certainly is a total unified environment I think they lend themselves to more customization and personalization then people give credit for. I think they are marvelous backdrops for collections of interesting objects and books. There are also a lot of integrated closets and storage walls. The bedrooms are almost oppressively small, but then if you really think about how much time is really spent in bedrooms they are entirely acceptable. The square footage of more conventional bedrooms is then transferred to the living area. The living area becomes deceptively spacious with zoned areas for different uses, dining, working, reading, etc.
I lived in a house designed by former Wright apprentice John Lautner and had a similar experience, the house provided lots of interesting overlapping spaces and integrated storage and display shelves. It accommodated my possessions without subordinating me to the aesthetics; it really was like being in a vacation home all the time. I have included pictures of Fallingwater and the Pope Leighey House to illustrate this post.