Rethinking Frank Lloyd Wright
While in New York this July I visited MoMA’s retrospective of Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘Unpacking the Archive’, an extensive collection of Wright’s production to celebrate his 150 year anniversary. Despite his revered position as America’s protégé architect and seminal figure — and having studied his work in the past — a number of surprising and unexpected thoughts from the show stuck with me during my subsequent month-long journey through the American Midwest. Both a pioneer of radical experimentation and a deep-rooted member of the status quo, Wright’s projects draw from many cultural histories and are, at times, divisive. But is it time the architecture press retires from reinventing Frank Lloyd Wright, the tireless self-publicist, and instead focuses the spotlight elsewhere? I discuss my thoughts with architect, cultural historian and Wright scholar Mabel O. Wilson, who currently teaches architectural history and theory at Columbia GSAAP.
The 70’s Sedan screeched across the junction and pulled down a side street. From the back seat I could see plot after plot of abandoned colonial-style houses, their structural timberwork bowing as they collapsed into their overgrown gardens. We jolted up the driveway of the musky Detroit residence where a group of east coast artists turned estate sales merchants had set up shop. Stepping out onto the verandah I saw a plume of smoke billow upwards, thick and dark, and I suspected it must come from a house fire no further than three blocks away. An elderly lady, who I guessed must live around the corner, strolled by, her stick tapping the ground, and called out to us she was on her way to check out the scene. “Second one this week”, my friend gestured to her as she voiced her weary familiarity to the situation.
The Kettering neighbourhood, as with many areas of inner city Detroit — a city built for two million people now housing just 700,000 — remains for the most part deserted, its spacious residences and antique contents sold on for markedly cheap. Once the centre of America’s automotive manufacture, it is now possible to cycle diagonally across a five lane motorway without a car in sight. Kettering, a majority black neighbourhood, has been slower than most to show signs of economic recovery and has for the most part missed the gentrification other areas of Detroit have experienced over recent years. House fires were common in the area and are often linked to evictions, retaliation or bankruptcy insurance claims. Perhaps due to this hardship, the local community was strong and people seemed to look out for one another.
While we might consider Frank Lloyd Wright as an architect of America’s bountiful Golden Age — that enchanted era which perpetually resides in the past — he was also a citizen who lived through the Great Depression and often wavered on the edge of bankruptcy himself. From his extensive written correspondence and journal entries, we now know he was acutely aware of the fragility of American cities and their infrastructure networks.
While we might consider Frank Lloyd Wright as an architect of America’s bountiful Golden Age — that enchanted era which perpetually resides in the past — he was also a citizen who lived through the Great Depression and often wavered on the edge of bankruptcy himself. From his extensive written correspondence and journal entries, we now know he was acutely aware of the fragility of American cities and their infrastructure networks. Echoing many theorists of his time, Wright popularized individual self-sufficiency and separation from the State, which subsequently lead him to propose his most utopian schemes, such as Broadacre City, the original drawings of which I first saw at ‘Unpacking the Archive’.
Despite its extensive publicity, Broadacre City remained a paper project, and was first published in Wright’s 1932 book The Disappearing City. It projected the incursion of the American suburbs into the wild plains, but instead of fragile and atomised commuter settlements dependent upon the metropolis, his new ‘Living City’ would instead become a collection of household agricultural sites of production. Both radical planning proposal and utopian social vision, for Wright’s model to work the Federal Land Reserve would supply one square acre of property to each family to cultivate. His idea was markedly American and of the time, reflecting ideals of democratic capitalism with undercurrents of a deep unease with the unyielding vastness of the Great Plains which by that point had been settled for less than ten generations.
It was at this time, with no commissions materialising, that Wright moved his family ‘back to the land’ — to a farm in Taliesin, Arizona, where he developed his Davidson Little Farms Unit project (1932–33), a large model of which is also unveiled at ‘Unpacking the Archive’. His grand vision utilized state-of-the-art prefabrication methods to produce ‘little farms’ on which each nuclear family could lead an independent existence, deriving their subsistence from the land, and therefore, as in Broadacre City, cut their attachment to the State, infrastructure systems and the wider community. The project built upon ideas proposed by Wright’s friend and warehouse company owner Walter Davidson, who suggested there needed to be a drastic reworking of the food supply chain into a situation where people in the main fed themselves, with any excess then sold into a common market.
While the US has since implemented radical mass farming and monocropping measures to lower the price of agro-produce and in theory make affordable food available to all, from my European perspective I was unsettled by how in so many inner city neighbourhoods, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, there seemed to be a desert of fresh and affordable food within walking distance. To find a shop selling fresh produce, the only solution seemed to be to drive to a wealthier neighbourhood, and for affordable food, to an out-of-town hypermarket. Stemming from concerns already present in the 1930’s, the fragility of the US food supply was again brought to light during recent disasters such as Hurricane Sandy which lead to a surge in concerns over self-sufficiency. This was echoed in the growth of the Prepping subculture, which I covered for LOBBY in 2015. Rather than rely on state infrastructure, Preppers take it upon themselves to prepare for when disaster strikes, by hoarding food and planning escape routes through the city.
A key aim of ‘Unpacking the Archive’ is to reopen Wright’s lesser known work for critical enquiry and debate to mark the arrival of the Wright archives to MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library in New York. Many of the pieces have been selected by recognised scholars or curatorial staff as being understudied, or harbour interesting juxtapositions when viewed next to some of Wright’s most seminal and best-known works. While exploring the exhibition, a drawing which caught my eye was the sketched perspective of the 1928 Rosenwald School, a courtyard schoolhouse with triangulated windows and a double-hipped roof. As Wright was not commonly known for academic buildings, I read further into the project to realise it was part of a scheme lead by two prominent Chicago philanthropists, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, to supply prefabricated schoolhouses for black students across America.
The Rosenwald project provides an interesting example of how Wright begins to connect places of education to the the learning process in the understanding that architecture possesses agency within itself to alter behaviour. This was a radical concept for the time. The aim of the project was to upgrade the existing model of pattern-book ‘clapboard schoolhouses’ rolled out in black neighbourhoods and instead create buildings innovative both in terms of their construction methods and architectural style. As with all Rosenwald schools, the students were expected to help construct the building, the hands-on labor subsequently forming a vital part of their education. The project also exemplifies how Wright was prepared to implement ideas he had developed for his wealthier private clients for the greater good, adding what at the time would be considered luxury features — such as a spacious plan with a central pool — to what otherwise would be strictly utilitarian designs. Despite these progressive moves, interviews and letters from the time clarify that Wright strongly believed black Americans should be educated separately due to inherent racial differences, reflecting the cultural hierarchies and othering of non-white Americans at the time.
“The bulk of Wright scholarship is always so hagiographic, it mines the words Wright put out for himself when touring the exhibition circuit, so now that the archives have shifted to Avery and Columbia where I teach, I think it does offer an opportunity to find different perspectives and ways of looking at well-known projects” Mabel O. Wilson
Further research into Rosenwald lead me to Mabel O. Wilson, architect and Columbia GSAAP professor who has studied the drawings in depth and contributed an essay on the project for the exhibition catalogue. Speaking over the phone, she expressed to me the frustration she feels when researching Wright. “The bulk of Wright scholarship is always so hagiographic, it mines the words Wright put out for himself when touring the exhibition circuit, so now that the archives have shifted to Avery and Columbia where I teach, I think it does offer an opportunity to find different perspectives and ways of looking at well-known projects”. That does ring true, I thought, as the majority of the architectural and biographical literature on Wright might lead a reader into thinking he was a lone operator, a solitary dreamer and visionary with an insatiable production rate. The Rosenwald School project therefore puts forward an interesting case in that it exhibits how Wright worked progressively within a constellation of other well-known names of his time.
Wright embedded himself in fashionable intellectual circles and socialised regularly with many prominent thinkers, records of which he kept in his diaries. “The number of other archives the Rosenwald School project touches goes to show that Wright was interacting and working between other major institutions and personalities of the time”, explains Wilson. “In the formative months of the project, Wright travelled with his uncle, the prominent Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones and education reformer Jerry J. Adams, to visit and survey existing Rosenwald school buildings.” These trips heavily influenced Wright’s thinking especially in regards to education in minority and low-income communities. Due to the Jim Crow laws of the time, black students rarely had access to school buildings, despite paying the same state tax.
Wilson’s understanding of the Rosenwald prototype is holistic, engaging with both the constructional aspects of the project and the procurement process in equal measure, which she suggests brought to light important structural inequalities that cannot be overlooked. “When Wright says America, he means white America. That’s the transparency of whiteness that has always been constructed in the US. When [Wright] says ‘I have done projects for alien races, such as the Japanese and the negros’, he clearly does not see blacks as Americans. Rhetoric aside, that is part of his beliefs.”
Chasmic racial divides not only continue to exist within the present-day US but were markedly visible as I travelled through the Rustbelt towns. These divisions cut through every aspect of everyday life — the spatial, economic, and educational. If a neighbourhood appeared to have less access to services, money to repair roads or even access to basic healthcare provision, nine times out of ten it was majority black. It may not be surprising that many prominent black Americans I came to be aware of during the trip, such as Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, founder of Chicago, have been for the most part written out of the historical narrative. As in Wright’s day, racial divides still determine how and where students are educated. According to a 2016 GAO study, US schools are increasingly segregated, with the number of ‘apartheid schools’ — schools in which black students make up 99% of the student population — on the increase since 2003. Over 1/6 of black students in the US are currently educated in such schools, many of which are underfunded and understaffed. The latest wave of racialized sentiment, which the current President has done little to repress, now threatens to worsen the situation.
By the time Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867, racial divisions already deeply stratified American society. Should Wright’s opinions on this matter therefore be confined to the past as irrelevant when appreciating his design work, which is, even by today’s standards, visionary and radically experimental? I discussed the topic further with Wilson. “Wright was clearly a student of [architect Louis] Sullivan, who was also grappling with the pressures of American identity,” she suggests, “I think he honestly thought they [his comments relating to the black community] were noble, as in, he did not go about it in a derogatory way. On one hand you have these very progressive ideas about education, that African American boys should be at school, but on the other hand he refers in several locations to them as ‘darkies’, a very racist and derogatory term used in the South. Wright is kind of a bundle of contradictions in that way.” Wilson believes Wright’s social philosophies cannot be detached from his design work, and these reflections instead open up new understandings due to the entanglement of architecture with other recognised disciplines of academic study.
In fact, Wright had originally approached Rosenwald as he knew his catalogue was soon to expand from schoolhouses into homes. Rosenwald’s construction philosophies conveniently overlaid onto his own, and if the schoolhouses were a success, Wright saw that prefabrication had the potential to franchize into other typologies.
While the bulk of Wright’s commissions were custom homes for wealthy clients, he did pursue prefabrication as a means of democratising construction — not unlike what WikiHouse promises today for digital manufacturing. For the Rosenwald project, Wright researched and tested a textile block system to create prefabricated panels that could be installed with minimum cost. It was a exploration of the commercial potential of architecture before the mid-century catalogue culture fully took off during the 1950s. ‘Democratization’ was a buzzword in American civil life during the time and featured heavily in Wright’s theoretical writings. He saw himself in the footsteps of the great industrialists by promoting democratization, but he was also acutely aware of the business benefits an off-the-shelf architecture promised.
Back in 1917, a full-page ad for Wright’s system-built homes had appeared in the Chicago Tribune with the headline ‘You can own an American Home!’ and went on to reassure the reader the ‘distinctly American design’ would ‘endure’, with ‘personality and beauty’, at a ‘guaranteed price!’ In fact, Wright had originally approached Rosenwald as he knew his catalogue was soon to expand from schoolhouses into homes. Rosenwald’s construction philosophies conveniently overlaid onto his own, and if the schoolhouses were a success, Wright saw that prefabrication had the potential to franchize into other typologies. The ethos of the Rosenwald project — how architects can expedite and make construction affordable to all — exemplified a seismic shift in the role and production of the the design industry during the twentieth century.
While in Chicago, I visited a number of Wright buildings, including his shingle-style home and studio in Oak Park, built when he was just 22 years old. Located on a ‘dirt road to the prairie’, a newly occupied zone of the sprawling Chicago suburbs, the house is constructed of a dark stained cedar with dentil moulding and wrap-around verandah. Wright rebelled against the dark and compartmentalised styles in fashion at the time to design a labyrinth of ‘rooms within rooms’, with groupings of windows which beam light across the interior. Dark corridors open up into spacious and bright rooms through concealed doorways. Looking to the future, Wright pre-wired the house to receive electricity before it was available in Oak Park, and utilized the recent invention of the power jigsaw to commission ornate timber detailing. The elaborate frescoes painted inside many of the rooms, including the children’s playroom, depict a series of romanticised scenes reminiscent of Native American mythology, as Wright seeked to define an aesthetic and spiritual architectural language meaningful to the American Industrial Age.
The elaborate frescoes painted inside many of the rooms, including the children’s playroom, depict a series of romanticised scenes reminiscent of Native American mythology, as Wright seeked to define an aesthetic and spiritual architectural language meaningful to the American Industrial Age.
The philosophy behind the frescoes evolved to become a main preoccupation in Wright’s career — to reinvent the aesthetic language of modern American design by leaning on symbolism from other visual cultures, including those of the Native American and the Japanese. How Wright’s domestic plans pivot about a central hearth speaks directly of Native American vernacular architecture, and can be seen in other projects presented at ‘Unpacking the Archive’, such as the Nakoma Country Club (1923–24), which also exhibits animal iconography borrowed from the Winnebago tribe who once inhabited the land around Madison, Wisconsin. This organicism has since been cited both as an attempt to divorce American architectural language, at least in part, from its colonial roots, and as a way of furthering the Frank Lloyd Wright brand. “There is a way in which Europeans arrived in America”, Wilson suggests, “they couldn’t quite figure out what the New World was about, therefore the native becomes some sort of an icon of the natural man. On one hand I think it was kind of sympathetic, but again it points back to the idea of a civilising force, which was so fundamental for the emergence of the modern world.”
Wright was no stranger to the role personal branding had in propelling his local office from drawing domestic projects into a household name then touring the international exhibition circuit. “Wright and architecture had, for many Americans, become synonymous”, writes exhibition curator Barry Bergdoll in his foreword to the MoMA catalogue. Born Frank Lincoln Wright, he changed his name around the same time he was establishing his practice at Oak Park, which has since been cited as a branding exercise. Wright’s personalised visual identity and Japanese-esque stamp evolved throughout his career, as did his penchant for self-publicism. Wright was known for calling his own press conferences and even appeared as Man of the Year in the 1938 edition of Time Magazine. He also featured on Mike Wallace’s television show and the game show ‘What’s my Line’ as he cultivated his pop-culture image. This aspect of Wright appears strikingly contemporary in the current political climate, with the current US president propelled into celebrity status not only as a cut-throat developer, but also with an acute knowledge of how to manipulate the mass media to influence popular thought.
While lauded as visionary and prophetic, The Mile High project in Illinois (1956) is often cited as a key example of Wright at his pinnacle of egoism. It stood at four times the height of the Empire State Building in New York, the tallest building in the world at the time. To present the project to the world, Wright called a signature press conference, this time with an eight-foot-tall drawing showpiece, which is displayed at ‘Unpacking the Archive’. “This drawing is a manifesto about architecture”, exhibition curator Barry Bergdoll asserts in a video explaining the project, “it’s also an autobiography of Wright.” Wright was savvy not only in his design work, but also in constructing his public image as a frontman, strengthening his networks, making deals and securing contracts.
“It is typical in architecture, that the great man gets the name and can claim everything, but in fact it is a collective production, the labour is distributed amongst many people, whose signatures, fingerprints and thoughts are all over the drawings.” Mabel O. Wilson
Wright’s propensity for self-publicity throws up interesting questions regarding the authorship of his projects. While as a designer he was undoubtedly extremely accomplished and productive, Wright also had a talented and international drawing team behind him who produced the majority of the physical material, the sketches, models and renderings, not unlike a major international design office today. “It is typical in architecture, that the great man gets the name and can claim everything, but in fact it is a collective production, the labour is distributed amongst many people, whose signatures, fingerprints and thoughts are all over them”, Wilson suggests. It is also less well-known that Wright employed the first practicing female architect, Marion Mahony Griffin, who penned some of Wright’s best known renderings, such as Unity Temple, which I also had the opportunity to visit while in Chicago. Many prominent Japanese draughtsmen also passed through the studio, the impact of which could be considered self-evident regarding the design and detailing of many of Wright’s buildings.
“Architectural education is one of the few professional educations where history is taught directly. Architecture draws on its histories — what architecture students are taught is what these histories are, what they mean.” Mabel O. Wilson
Wright was a pioneer of architecture as a laboratory of innovation, of progressive social reimaginings. He understood the profession’s problematic entanglement with money and political influence which determined — for the most part more than he could — what he built and where. Equally, Wright was an established professional who prioritised craft and construction detailing and the associated competencies of the master builder. It is the intersection between these characteristics that underpin his practice and produce such a fascinating figure to study. But what more is there possibly to know about Frank Lloyd Wright?
As long as Wright remains the uninterrupted frontman of American architectural production, copious talented practitioners will never gain access to the spotlight. Yet, each new generation brings a unique reinterpretation of the ‘great master’, linking aspects of his practice to the issues which matter in their present. “Architectural education is one of the few professional educations where history is taught directly”, suggests Wilson, “architecture draws on its histories — what architecture students are taught is what these histories are, what they mean.” In reflection, this is why it is important to keep these histories alive and under constant reimagination. The Wright archives being received in their new context has brought to the fore projects that have never before been studied. During my time at ‘Unpacking the Archive’, I was surprised how not only the ideas behind Wright’s projects had endured the test of time, but also the graphic style of much of the drawing work and models — an example of how history makes and remakes itself.
The wind rustles through the trees in the leafy campus of Chicago University as I look on at Wright’s Robie House with its almost impossibly cantilevered roof, an engineering feat today despite it being finished in 1910. As one of the best known examples of Wright’s Prairie Style, the house exhibits a strong horizontality in its exterior lines, supposedly inspired by the plains of the American Midwest. It stands gracefully quiet, upkept and manicured. The moment seems a world away from my time in Detroit. America’s endless supply of mystifying contradictions is part of its allure, and why I view Wright as a true American architect.
“America’s endless supply of mystifying contradictions is its allure, and why I view Wright as a true American architect”
Unpacking the Archive is available to view at MoMA until October 1, 2017. Readers may also be interested in the upcoming conference for the Society of Architectural Historians, September 13–15 in New York.
Mabel O. Wilson is currently working on a memorial to Enslaved African American laborers at UBA and a collection of essays on race and modern architecture in collaboration with Charles Davis and Irene Cheng to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018.