Life & Liberty: Wright and Wrong Ideas


"In the Realm of Ideas" is an ambitious exhibition: it includes detailed samples of Frank Lloyd Wright's work and also attempts to express the ideas behind them. Created and produced by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Scottsdale (Arizona) Arts Center Association, the show displays the breadth of the designs Wright created—from buildings, to bridges, to furniture, to dinnerware. His designs for houses, factories, office buildings, and public buildings are all represented. But despite the efforts of its creators, the show actually best exhibits two less-than-inspiring facts: that Wright was a fuzzy thinker and that the show's creators do not share Wright's genius for design.

The exhibit does excel in one special way. A complete, full-sized Wrightian house is being transported from city to city as part of the exhibit. This rare and difficult feat lets you experience—not just read about—what architecture is: space.

This house was specifically built for the exhibition from a 1950s prototype design intended as a house that almost all Americans could afford. Wright called it his Usonian house (a word play on "U.S."). It was Wright's answer to demand for lower-cost houses, houses that could be built in many variations from simple, cheap, prefabricated materials, in almost any part of the country. In his usual iconoclastic way, he used concrete block as the main material—then, as now, considered a hopelessly ugly, utilitarian material.

If you have never seen a Wright building in person, the Usonian house makes this show worth a trip. While not one of his great buildings, the house represents well the small-scale residential designs of Wright's later career. It has a spacious feeling, stemming from the abundant natural lighting, from the high ceilings contrasted with low ceilings, and from the illusion that the outdoors is indoors. It also includes original uses of materials, such as oversized, square-doughnut-shaped concrete blocks with glass set into each block. (A feeling of visual coolness arises from so much gray-brown exposed concrete in some rooms, but such design inadequacies are small, in contrast with all the successes.)

Wright used space and light as "materials," and a simple example shows up in the exhibit house. In the normally unremarkable hall to the bedrooms, he placed closets in a long strip, made them less than full height, and put windows above them. This design turned a usually nondescript hallway into an appealing, light- filled, functional space full of expansive storage.

Wright was a prolific writer on architecture, art, and political ideology. To divide the show into coherent sections, the producers focus on four themes of his architectural work and writings (the "Ideas" of the show's title). Three of the themes are aesthetic and architectural, while the last is political.

Wright often cast the first theme—really several ideas—in negative terms as "The Destruction of the Box." To turn this around, it is the positive idea that the space in a building should be freely connected from area to area, with separations only for privacy and special functions. Second, it is the idea that there is pleasure in having a visual connection between the inside spaces and the outside environment. And third, it is the idea that a building's outside shape should reflect its interior functions.

In Wright's early years, he was reacting against the Victorian and neoclassical styles. (Most state capitols across the country are examples of the neoclassical style.) Architects working in those styles usually created a series of separate boxes (rooms) that were part of a larger box (the building), isolated from its environment. While gracious and delightful exceptions to the rule exist, most architectural design was stiflingly boxy.

Wright developed residential architectural designs in his early career to end this box-like architecture. Instead of rigidly separate rooms, he used interwoven spaces—with only partial walls (screens, he called them). He made the living room, kitchen, entry hall, or dining room distinct by varying ceiling heights, light sources, or wall and floor materials—not with encircling walls.

Along with this continuous flowing space inside. Wright made the space appear to flow from inside to outside to inside. The exhibition house, while modest-sized at 1,800 square feet, seems larger than it is, because it connects so thoroughly with the terraces outside.

Unfortunately, the exhibit fails to express this theme clearly. It uses Wright's words and shows building plans by Wright…but too often they are not a good match. The chosen sample building plans, while they are some of Wright's better designs of his early career, have no obvious relation to the "destruction of the box." A major building pictured, the Larkin office building in Buffalo, is one of Wright's triumphs (now demolished, tragically), but it looks rather boxy on the outside and must confuse many visitors who are trying to understand the "destruction of the box." It would have been better to use the exhibition house to concretely illustrate Wright's ideas of architectural space, and it would have made better use of a great on-hand asset.

The second theme, "The Nature of the Site," refers to the principle of connecting the building design with the surrounding site. Wright's work was seminal in demonstrating the importance of designing with the nature of the land and environment around the building.

For example, he is famous for telling residential clients to find a "difficult" site, one that ordinary builders and architects avoided because it was hard to build a normal, flattened, neo-something-or-other house on it. Like all good problem-solvers, Wright knew that solutions are easier when the problem is clear and unequivocal. A site with lots of character, such as steep slopes, creeks, or complex vegetation, (read: "difficulties" for the classical architect) lent itself to a relatively easy "natural-looking" solution for him, because the very character, the identity, of the site "forced" a solution.

Whatever the site—whether interesting or not—the point of Wright's organic architecture (as he called it), was always to consider the context, the character of the land and the environment, in melding the functional needs of the client with a dramatic design sensibility. Wright once said (in one of his occasional clear and brilliant comments): "The good building makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built." Cherishing the complexity and beauty of land, he was a real "environmentalist" long before environmental science became a branch of political science. Yet he knew that mankind, as part of nature, can enhance the raw stuff of nature with an act of human creation.

This theme of the exhibit works. Scale models show his dramatic uses of sites. For instance, Fallingwater, his famous house projecting over a waterfall in Pennsylvania, is a natural choice to show the wedding of house and site.

Wright once said: "Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men, to put man into possession of his own earth." These few words show Wright at his best, emphasizing man's connection to the world around him. And aside from the uncertainty of who the "men" are that need to be triumphed over, it expresses well Wright's focus on the human mind's capacity to reshape and materially develop the things of this earth.

This concept lies behind the exhibit's third theme, "Materials and Methods," which focuses on Wright's innovative handling of materials and technologies. For example, his buildings incorporated central heating systems and integral electrical lighting when these were little-known technologies.

He pioneered the use of concrete, previously an engineering material, in architectural buildings. The Usonian house uses a special concrete-block system he invented. Wright reinforced the blocks with steel rods and used special molds to create intricate patterns on faces of the blocks. These patterns cast changing shadows throughout the day as the sun passed. Stronger than normal concrete block, this invention brought the ugly duckling material to a level of design that was playful and inventive.

His Unity Temple (Unitarian Church) in Oak Park Illinois, his Fallingwater residence, and his Johnson Wax buildings in Racine, Wisconsin, all used concrete as an elegant, beautiful, structurally poetic material. The church shows the massive, majestic quality of concrete; Fallingwater shows its power to span effortlessly; Johnson Wax, with its "umbrella" columns, shows how delicate and soaring concrete can be.

Similarly, many unbuilt designs using hanging steel cable structures (similar to suspension bridges) are shown in drawings for parking structures and exhibition buildings. Rods pulled in tension are the strongest and most efficient use of steel and, designed intelligently, tensile steel has a beauty that only 20th-century engineering offers.

Despite including many excellent examples, however, the exhibit fails to capture Wright's rich legacy of ideas about materials. The exhibit designers have made these ideas quite literally hard to see. Enlargements of photos and drawings are used, some backlighted, some not, some oversized, some not, some with lettering over the images (preventing an unobstructed view of the designs and making the words hard to read). Images are jammed next to one another so that they require some effort to distinguish from one another. All this conspires to create an unsatisfying, hodgepodge appearance, even though there are many clear photographs and drawings.

The fourth theme, "Building for Democracy," is the least successful part of the show—but here the fault is Wright's. This section attempts to make concrete the fuzziest area of Wright's intellectual life.

Despite his talk of individualism, despite his own cherished freedom to do as he pleased, he was a collectivist. If the exhibit actually showed clearly his ideas of "democracy," most Americans would be badly shocked. He was decidedly un-American in many of his ideals. His democracy is closest to the majoritarian democracy of the most radical European democratic socialists, with a strong scent of the "democracy" of the communist collective thrown in.

When I studied at the Taliesin Fellowship during my college years, I was puzzled by the peculiar communistic atmosphere of Wright's private world. He and his wife strove for a classless society in the fellowship and for a radical egalitarianism in the everyday life of this architectural commune. All day-to-day tasks were performed on a rotating basis by everyone—architects, draftsmen, and artists would scrub kitchen floors or take care of garbage detail (although the Wrights themselves avoided most such tasks). There was also a communal policy toward the distribution of money: all the proceeds of architectural work were regarded as part of the common funds and "wisely" redistributed by the leader (Wright, then later Mrs. Wright).

At the same time, Wright contradicted these collectivist ideas in many ways by his Nietzschean "super-man" view of himself and other people. He was, like many intellectuals of the 1920s and '30s, a strong admirer of the Soviet "experiment," although he recognized (due to his own special interests) that the Soviet system wasn't quite supportive of the free expression of great architectural design. He was deeply influenced by 19th-century utopian thinkers such as Edward Bellamy, Henry George, and Silvio Gesell.

Like them, he saw laissez-faire capitalism as evil but seemed to have only a vague notion, evidenced by his writings, of how to implement the utopia of his dreams. His only way of expressing himself well was through design, and he spent many lean years through the Depression designing a new utopian, socialized American landscape, trying to turn America away from its industrialization (or maybe not, depending on what you read in different parts of his writings). He thought everyone should return to the beloved land, farm for himself, and live in a Wright Usonian house.

At an exhibition of his utopian Broadacre City design schemes, Wright once had students of his atelier hand out writings of Bellamy, attacking the evils of capitalism and extolling socialist ownership of the means of production. Wright also subscribed to Henry George's call for the banning of "rent"—the socialization of all land ownership in the United States. And lastly, Wright was influenced by a little-known Swiss economist, Silvio Gesell (1862–1930), whose main idea was laughable while horrible. This idea is best expressed by one Wright scholar: "To prevent hoarding, encourage spending, and reduce interest [rates] to a minimum, Gesell proposed to make money perishable by making a banknote issued at the beginning of the year lose a fixed percentage of its face value by the end of the year."

None of these ideas of Wright's about democracy is evident in the exhibit. Perhaps one cannot expect much clarity on this subject from an architectural exhibition. Once the show's producers had decided to include this philosophical and political theme, however, they should have handled it clearly.

The best exhibit on Wright's work still must be Wright's work. So, except for the great idea of including an actual building, this exhibit is not as good as it aspires to be. To expand your enjoyment of the best that architecture can offer, buy a copy of William Storrer's book, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (MIT Press, 1978), which lists all of Wright's work. Then, as you plan your travel around the United States through the years, keep the list in mind and visit the actual buildings. This is the best exhibition. It takes a little time and planning and desire on your part, but the rewards are equally long-lasting; Wright's design genius continues to light up the minds and energize the passions of people who have lived in, worked in, or just fleetingly seen his best works.

John Gillis is an architect in New York City.