The failing architect who dreamt up modern America

What makes an architectural reputation? What does it need if it is to last? Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) can tell us a great deal. This year is the 150th anniversary of the American architect’s birth (today actually), and there is a great deal of activity to mark the occasion in the US. Historic Wright sites, museums and hotels are celebrating with special events, new exhibitions and anniversary packages.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York will honour Wright’s legacy with a major exhibition of his work from June 12 to October 1. Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive includes about 450 works ranging from the 1890s through the 1950s, featuring architectural drawings, models and photographs.

Milwaukee Art Museum is also set to introduce a new exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie, showing from July 28 to October 15. With a focus on designs from the Wasmuth Portfolio — famous lithographs by Wright published in 1911 by the Berlin firm Ernst Wasmuth — the show also includes examples of his furniture, stained glass and textiles.

The Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York will be open Thursday, June 8 (it is usually closed on Thursdays), offering $1.50 admission, free birthday cupcakes!!, a noon tour and rarely seen construction photographs of the museum. During the Museum Mile Festival (June 13), visitors can receive free after-hours admission and Frank Lloyd Wright temporary tattoos.

More than half a century after his death, Wright’s reputation looks in fine health.

The words ‘American architect’ feel a little bare when applied to Wright – convention pushes for the addition of a superlative, such as ‘greatest’ or ‘best loved’. He is routinely described as America’s ‘favourite’ architect, generating among the public the kind of affection that most 20th-century architects could only fantasise about. This pre-eminence was hard won, and never inevitable – in fact a snapshot of Wright’s career makes failure appear the recurring theme. And it’s a lonely sort of achievement: triumph for Wright, obscurity for his ideas.

The buildings that secured Wright his lasting fame came very late. Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867. Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania house that brought him global fame, was completed in 1937, when he was 70. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the masterwork that crowned his career, opened in 1959, six months after his death at the age of 91. Though he built far more than his image as a prickly visionary might suggest – hundreds of works, mostly individual houses – those two bought him the lease on immortality, and he knew it.

Wright trained at the Chicago offices of the legendary firm of Adler & Sullivan, joining at the age of 20; in 1893 he left the firm and set up his own practice. He built scores of houses in a distinctive ‘Prairie’ style, with long profiles, low pitched roofs, and strips of windows under the eaves. Geometric ornament was applied with restraint and intelligence. Soon he was picking up more prominent commissions, completing a headquarters for the Larkin soap company in Buffalo, New York, in 1906, and Unity Temple, a Unitarian chapel, in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1908. Architectural historians seeking the first signs of modernism in the United States, would alight upon these buildings, although Wright’s relationship with the modern would always be characterised by difference and disagreement.

Then came a near-legendary series of disasters. In 1909 Wright abandoned his wife and children for Martha ‘Mamah’ Borthwick, the wife of one of his clients, and the couple went to Europe to escape the ensuing scandal. In 1914, after the couple’s return to the United States, a deranged manservant set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin, a house and studio built by Wright in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Mamah, her two children, and four other people were killed.

Cross section looking east of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1913–23), Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, New York. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Wright’s career was badly affected by the scandal, and the tragedy might have ended it entirely, were it not for his work in Japan. In 1913 Wright was commissioned to design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a story told in fascinating detail in Ken Tadashi Oshima’s essay for the large and beautiful catalogue accompanying the MoMA sesquicentennial show. Wright was already an admirer of Japan’s art, architecture, and landscape, and had travelled in the country. He had a particular, passionate interest in ukiyo-e woodblock art, which he began to import to the United States in 1905, and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906. This became an important side business in the absence of architectural work. Completed in 1923, the elaborate Imperial Hotel kept Wright busy, but without American work his profile began to suffer. And his misfortune continued. In 1925 Taliesin burned down again, the result of an electrical fault, and Wright lost his stockpile of Japanese art. In 1929 came the stock market crash and the Depression. He declared bankruptcy and teetered on the edge of total failure.

In her book Wright on Exhibit (Princeton University Press), Kathryn Smith shows how Wright used exhibitions to keep his reputation alive. He tried for five years to secure a show of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, finally succeeding in 1930 after a successful exhibition at the Architectural League in New York. A study focused entirely on an architect’s exhibitions, as Smith has provided, might seem specific to the point of narrowness – and for another architect perhaps it might be. But exhibitions and self-promotion kept the Wright flame alive. ‘Wright’s intention,’ Smith says of the Chicago exhibition, ‘was clearly to show that for the previous fifteen years, despite the implication of headlines in the popular press, he had been intensely active as an architect. Although the majority of the work remained unbuilt […] the exhibition proved that he had moved beyond the single-family house to large-scale commissions, including monumental buildings.’

The Architectural League exhibition, Smith demonstrates, rehabilitated Wright’s reputation, earning praiseful press in the New Yorker, the New York Times and Time. Wright had also won a champion in the person of the critic Lewis Mumford, who would become one of his most important advocates. The details of how architectural shows come together might not be immediately fascinating, were it not for the fact that exhibitions did provide vital turning points in his fortunes, and that Wright’s abrasive manner and perfectionism ‘invariably led to last-minute dramas of operatic proportions’, in Smith’s generously gentle assessment.

So it proved when Wright was included in the new-founded MoMA’s seminal 1932 exhibition of international modernism, curated by Alfred Barr, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and a young architect called Philip Johnson. The three men were devotees of the first generation of European modern architects, including Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, and the initial agenda for the MoMA show had been to promote these men to an American audience. But the museum wanted Americans included, and an uncomfortable selection were added, including Raymond Hood and Richard Neutra. Last of all came Wright – admired by the curators, but very much in the past tense, as a has-been whose contribution to modernism was negligible and spent.

Wright could smell the condescension from Wisconsin, and was already ideologically up in arms against the whitewash-wielding European modernists. He disliked Hood, an enmity that may have informed The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s novel of feuding architects. ‘My way has been too long and too lonely to make my belated bow to my people as a modern architect in company with a self-advertising amateur and a high powered salesman,’ Wright telegraphed Johnson in January 1932, three weeks ahead of the opening date, in the most serious of his pre-show tantrums: ‘No bitterness and sorry but kindly and finally drop me out of your promotion.’ Mumford intervened and Wright reconsidered. Johnson was unable to attend the opening of his own show, as the stresses of putting it together had sent him to hospital with exhaustion. Even then, Wright was not finished, and demanded to be withdrawn from the touring part of the exhibition. ‘You can comfort yourself with the consolation […] that Michelangelo was impossible to get along with – and posterity has forgiven him,’ an exasperated Hitchcock wrote to Wright. ‘In so far as we are posterity doubtless we have already forgiven you.’

Perspective from the south of Fallingwater (Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1934–37), Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, New York. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But posterity was not yet finished with Wright. In 1932, ever battling to stay afloat, Wright had founded a school at Taliesin. Among the young ‘Fellows’ who came to study was Edgar Kaufmann Jr. His father, Edgar Kaufmann Sr. owned a Pittsburgh department store, and commissioned Wright to build a weekend home on a tight site beside a stream called Bear Run in the Laurel Highlands. Wright’s design was a series of smooth concrete trays cantilevered out over the stream where it tumbled over a small cascade. These trays projected from a central mass of stacked stone. Their dramatic horizontal lines, which might look harsh against the rough stone and natural setting, are almost unnoticeably curved at the edges, giving them remarkable subtlety. The lowest deck is reached from the stream bank by a suspended staircase that almost floats in the air. This house was called Fallingwater. In 1938, drawings and photographs of the house, which had been completed the year before, were exhibited at MoMA: a single-building show. Wright’s fame was secured. Time magazine put him on the front cover; Mumford, in his New Yorker column, called him ‘the world’s greatest living architect’.

Fallingwater was the distillation of the ideology that Wright had sculpted since the first years of the century: organic architecture. Wright had always been acutely aware of the peculiar responsibility of his generation of American architects. ‘How great is the privilege granted us, in being part, not of a Renaissance, but of a naissance in architecture,’ wrote Dankmar Adler, business partner of Wright’s mentor, Louis Sullivan, in 1886. ‘For there is surely being born into our world a new style, the style of America, the style of the civilisation of the nineteenth century, developed by its wants, its conditions and its limitations.’ Wright wanted to create this style for the 20th century, and was dismayed by what he saw as the corrupting European influences: first the Beaux Arts style, lumbering under the weight of ornament, and then the alien and unadorned work of the modernists whose party he had reluctantly crashed at MoMA.

Axonometric view of model D1 in the American System-Built (Ready-Cut) Houses project (1915–17), Frank Lloyd Wright. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Against this, Wright wanted to craft a distinctively American idiom. The first stirrings of this ‘organic architecture’ could be seen in the ‘Prairie’ houses of his early career, which took cues from the landscape of Wright’s native Midwest. ‘The straight line of the horizon became the low sheltering roof, trees and flowers were abstracted as geometric patterns in the art glass windows, and leaves contributed their autumnal palette to the plaster surfaces,’ Smith writes.

Wright would use biological metaphors in his buildings throughout his career, such as the tree-like columns at the Johnson Wax Headquarters building, a major commission completed in 1939. But in speaking of ‘organic’ architecture, Wright did not mean straightforward biomorphism of the sort that too often serves as a substitute for inspiration among ‘visionary’ architects. ‘Be warned this word “organic” is like the word “nature”,’ Wright wrote in his book The Living City (1958). “If taken in a sense too biological, it would not be what it is: light in darkness; it would be a stumbling block.’ Instead Wright intended a broader and more sophisticated connection to the landscape, both physical and human, ‘a daily working concept of the great altogether’. He imagined architecture and planning as playing roles in forging an American identity, one that united land, people, and democracy – Usonia.

Aerial view of Broadacre City model (1934–35), Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, New York © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The grandest expression of the Usonian dream was ‘Broadacre’, a continent-spanning utopian urban form. Broadacre dissolved the American city into the landscape, giving every one of its inhabitants an acre to call their own and marbling together homes, industry and farmland. It was resolutely low-rise, with only a few tall buildings, set in wide parks. There were to be no trains or streetcars, only broad freeways with multi-level junctions. The car was king: Wright categorised homes by the size of their garage, although he also imagined that helicopter taxis would be widely available. This was Wright’s retort to the agglomerated, centralised, congested city inherited by modernity, and to the functional city proposed by the modernists.

Broadacre prefigures the exurban sprawl of the American city in the later 20th century – the twisted, resource-hogging dystopian shadow of Wright’s Jeffersonian vision. Otherwise it was inherently impractical, and Wright knew it. Broadacre was ‘nowhere unless everywhere’, Wright said, as quoted in Neil Levine’s book The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton University Press). But it was a useful promotional tool for the studio, generating publicity at a time of considerable public debate about the future of the city. To aid this publicity, Wright prevailed upon Edgar Kaufmann Sr., who later commissioned Fallingwater, to fund the construction of a gigantic model of a section of Broadacre, for public display. The city also served as a clearing-house for Wright’s ideas as a focus for his creativity. It can perhaps be understood as a bold early effort to come to grips with the problem of the automobile, a technology that had not yet fully exposed its horrible urban effects – similar misguided efforts are today being made by architects to understand the implications of self-driving cars. And Wright’s engagement with the automobile gave rise to one of his most interesting and stealthily influential unbuilt designs, the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a drive-to, drive-through, drive-up viewing platform and planetarium proposed for a hilltop in Maryland. A spiralling ramp ran up its exterior, for cars to ascend to the platform – a form that would later be adapted to the Guggenheim Museum.

Perspective view of Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland (1924–25), Frank Lloyd Wright. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Wright’s advocacy for Broadacre was accompanied by polemics against the modern city, in particular New York. ‘Tier above tier rises the soulless habitation of the shelf,’ he wrote in The Living City, adopting the apocalyptic cadence common among urban critiques of the time:

‘Interminable empty crevices run up and down the winding ways of windy unhealthy canyons. Heartless, this now universal grip of grasping, unending stricture. Box to box on box-boxing, glassed-in boxing looking into other glass-boxing. Black shadows falling on glass fronts with artificial lights burning behind them all day long. Millions upon millions of little cavities, cells squared by the acre, acreage spread by the mile. This a vast prison with glass fronts. […] Incongruous mantrap of monstrous dimensions! Enormity devouring manhood, confusing personality by frustration of individuality? Is this not Anti-Christ? The Moloch that knows no God but more?’

Model of St Mark’s Tower, New York (1927–29), Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, New York. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diatribes like this have given rise to the impression that Wright was an anti-urban architect, a view Levine sets out to disprove. The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright is a companion to Levine’s landmark study The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, published in 1997, and it is as monumental as might be inferred from the 20-year wait. To make his case, Levine teases out an urban thread from Wright’s earliest projects, including a plan for a residential subdivision of Chicago, and a 1928 scheme for three small towers at St Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie in New York. The St Mark’s scheme, often overlooked among Wright’s unbuilt projects in favour of flashier fare like his mile-high skyscraper brainwave, was clearly important to the architect – although squashed by the Depression, he continually returned to and recycled its plans and drawings. It was the seed of later urban schemes proposed for Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, consisting of towers sprouting from a part-buried slab that takes the form of a sculptural landscape. The organic principle of union with the landscape might seem to have lost some of its subtlety, but the ideas are spectacular: at Pittsburgh, the spiral ramp of the Strong Automobile Objective is inflated to megastructural scale, and an aquarium is sunk into the confluence of the city’s rivers, achieving something close to perfect union with the water. Levine concludes with one of Wright’s final projects, again unrealised, a masterplan for Baghdad.

Models of Wright’s St Mark’s towers are an important feature of the exhibition at MoMA, as is his original model of the Guggenheim Museum, and the catalogue contains a detailed examination of the immense effort that went into their restoration. As well as celebrating Wright’s 150th anniversary, the exhibition marks the transfer of the architect’s copious archives – 55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, dozens of models – from Taliesin and Taliesin West to the museum and Columbia University. This archive is the evidence of Wright’s decades of thought, writing, striving and designing – a body of architectural work of unique originality and vitality. It is the secret of why there is still much to learn about Wright, and why he rewards study. Fallingwater and the Guggenheim are the tip – the archive is the iceberg.

From the May 2017 issue of Apollo Magazine.

Lego’s Frank Lloyd Wright Collection

This is new!

It is, Lego has released the latest kit in their architecture series, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. It is a new rendition of the building. The original interpretation of the building was released by Lego in 2009. The new set provides a much more realistic portrayal of the Wright’s original building as well as the 10-story limestone tower added by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects in 1992 (based on Wright’s original sketches). Arch and bow bricks make up the swooping lines of the main rotunda and the rounded edges of the base. Even the porthole side windows are represented, as well as little taxis — rendered as two yellow bricks each — and other street details.

We took the little model to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The Lego Group and Adam Reed Tucker of Brickstructures, Inc. officially introduced the Lego Architecture line in 2008. In 2009, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation announced that the Lego Group was the exclusive licensed manufacturer of Frank Lloyd Wright Collection® Legp Architecture sets.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater models were shown at the opening of the Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit: From Within Outward at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2009, to commemorate the 50 years of the death of Frank Lloyd Wright and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the museum.

Fallingwater is one of the most famous and ingenious houses in the world.

In 2011, Lego released a model of the Robie House. Robie House was the first property to be declared a National Historic Landmark based on its architecture alone.

In 2013, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was the fourth Wright design to achieve micro-scale Lego-dom. The Imperial Hotel was the first set in the Lego Architecture sub-brand that is no longer with us. Having survived both 1923’s Great Kantō Earthquake and the American bombing of Tokyo during World War II, Wright’s dramatic Mayan Revival-style structure proved to be no match for the wrecking ball when it was decided, not without protest, to raze the ailing H-shaped building in 1968 and replace it with a more space-efficient modern hotel tower. Portions of the hotel including the main entrance were, however, relocated and rebuilt at an open-air architectural theme park north of Nagoya, Meiji-Mura.

We’ve been there!

Time for cupcakes!

Introducing…

Wonder Honey and Wonder Isabelle 🙂

They are waiting for the movie to start…

Wonder Woman, of course!

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman, which opened last weekend, is a mammoth hit, meeting the most optimistic expectations and setting up its director, Patty Jenkins, for a place in the record books. The movie is Hollywood’s first classic, female-led, big-budget superhero movie in 12 years, and the first time a female director is in charge of such a film. It is also the first time that Wonder Woman — a seminal character dating from 1941 in the DC Comics universe — is the star of a feature film. Male characters from the same stable, on the other hand, are consistently rebooted, reflecting the general belief that the audience for superhero movies is mostly male.

Warner Bros. had a lot riding on the film, apart from having a female lead. The first two films in the series, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, did well at the box office but did not get great reviews. Batman v Superman was pretty bad! And Suicide Squad was hopelessly muddled. The pressure was on to make a better movie, or risk burning out interest in the DC universe.

Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman saved the day and possibly the franchise.

Connie Nielsen, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Robin Wright

Wonder Woman has received terrific reviews from critics and high grades from audiences, including little bears. Eight paws 🙂

Spellbound…

The movie is enormous fun. Diana is totally gorgeous and she makes like an idealist who would never think to outsource her safety, her judgment, her anything to a man. Having grown up on an all-woman island far from the rest of the world, she carries no grudges or aspirations regarding the treatment of women. In her experience, women have always been in charge and have always been self-sufficient. That’s just the natural state of things.

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Diana (Gal Gadot) and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen)

The movie opens as WWI pilot Steve Trevor and his plane crash on Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, where Princess Diana has been trained by her aunt, the great warrior Antiope (Robin Wright). Soon, Diana leaves the island to try and stop the war, marking the beginning of her transformation into Wonder Woman.

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and Diana (Gal Gadot)

It doesn’t take long for Capt. Steve Trevor to discover he’s the sidekick. He brings Diana to London and shepherds her about, dressing her in appropriate clothing and trying to keep her out of trouble. When the two are accosted by a group of armed German spies. Captain Trevor tells Diana to stand back, but she steps in front of him and starts blocking bullets with her bracelets.

“Or maybe not,” he says, as Diana quickly dispatches most of the Germans.

In the story that follows, Captain Trevor will occasionally try to protect Diana when she doesn’t need it, and he won’t always go along with her plans. But by and large, he plays second fiddle gamely, even eagerly, offering one of the most appealing onscreen depictions of masculinity in recent memory. Steve is the living embodiment of the phrase “not all men”.

Diana is a demigoddess, the child of a god and a queen. Raised by a society of warrior women, she can create force fields, snare people in a lasso of truth, speak dozens of human languages and crush stone with her bare hands. Steve Trevor, a mere mortal, could be threatened by all this. Instead, he’s inspired.

Steve and Diana are assisted in their mission by a trio of misfit sidekicks – Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) and Charlie (Ewen Bremner)

Captain Trevor supports Diana in her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, and he ultimately sacrifices himself for their shared goal. “I can save the day,” he says, “but you can save the world.”

It’s a cheesy line, sure. But this is a cheesy movie. And Captain Trevor never forgets whose movie it is.

Much of the credit for the character’s charm goes to Chris Pine, who knows how to project confidence even as he’s stepping out of the spotlight. Diana’s mother Hippolyta explains at the beginning of the film that humans were originally created to be “strong and passionate”, and Captain Trevor is both, and when it matters, he can use those qualities to support someone else.

But this is Gal Gadot’s movie. She acquits herself with distinction, expressing power not merely as a display of cool moves and physical derring-do (she trained 6 hours a day for seven months in order to complete as many of the stunts as possible herself), but quiet focus and almost nonchalant self-possession. Cool, solemn, her eyes often welling with tears at the human waste and destruction she witnesses, Gadot’s Diana is the very opposite of a cartoon character: She’s soulful and utterly credible, even when she comes out bracelets blazing, effortlessly scaling a tower that might have imprisoned a princess like her in another story, at least until the right hero came along. As a young woman just coming into her superhuman powers, Gadot finds the right balance between doelike naivete and determination. Constantly told that she can’t stop all war, she tries to ignore the instincts that tell her otherwise: Still, she’s persistent.

Patty Jenkins directs Gal Gadot for a World War I battle scene

The pairing of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine showed what the other films in the DC Comics universe have been missing: heart and emotion.

Wonder Woman such fun to watch, even when it descends, in the final half-hour, into the usual slow-motion CGI mishmash of explosions, mayhem and stodgy spectacle.

The Twilight Zone

Went out early this morning to take a photo of the city at sunrise. Technically it was before sunrise, in the twilight period. Did you know there is an astronomical twilight, a nautical twilight and a civil twilight, in that order, before sunrise? The photo was taken during the nautical twilight period.

Will need to practice a lot more and will have to try this again when there are some clouds in the sky for a different light effect. At the top of the picture, just off centre, is a tiny “star”. That’s Venus!

Not sure what provided more motivation for the twilight adventure, getting out to learn how to use the camera or getting a freshly made Swiss chocolate croissant afterwards 🙂

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