Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Frank Lloyd Wright by Ada Louise Huxtable


Rating: (Recommended)




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Ada Louise Huxtable’s contribution to the Penguin Lives series is a fine biography, Frank Lloyd Wright. Our offices are four short blocks from Mr. Wright’s Oak Park home and studio, which he left in 1909. In this neighborhood, there’s much about the life and work of Saint Frank that’s admired and reviled. Huxtable does a great job in separating fact from fiction, and presenting a portrait of Wright as person and artist. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 4, pp. 68-79:


There is a famous tale—this one true—that documents his casual financial habits and personal priorities. Finding himself without funds for the return to Oak Park from Chicago one day, he went to the office of his cousin Richard Lloyd Jones—who would become a prominent Midwestern publisher and the client for one of Wright’s great houses— to borrow the price of a train ticket. He took the money and returned shortly with some irresistible Japanese prints he had purchased on the way to the station, still in need of the loan to get home.


Lloyd never questioned that the Oak Park house was the source of his own sense of beauty and love of art. But the backgrounds that architects create for themselves are more than homes. They are a discreet form of self-advertisement, the way they present themselves and their design credos and credentials to the world. There were frequent parties in the Playroom; the Wright-designed setting, toys and all, served as much to impress a growing circle of friends and clients as to accommodate the children’s games. In later years, Lloyd would rescue objects he remembered and loved, sometimes finding them in the ruins of a Taliesin fire, arguing with his father over their possession in a way that had as much to do with his emotionally complex childhood as with their beauty or value.


Wright’s presence and standing in the community were noticeably on the rise. He was probably the highest paid draftsman in any Chicago firm, supervising a staff of thirty in the Adler and Sullivan office. But as the financial bur­dens of the exploding family and his expensive lifestyle be­came more pressing, he was caught in a nonstop financial shell game of loans and deferrals. He became known in Oak Park as much for his unpaid accounts as for his flair for el­egant living. Bills were pushed into some deep, dark hole until creditors or the bank served notice and a bit of last-minute legerdemain preserved the status quo. He kept a fine horse, on which he became a familiar figure as he rode around Oak Park in well-cut tweeds; later, when automo­biles were available, he was never without a handsome fast car. He cut a conspicuously fashionable and sometimes ec­centric figure in custom-tailored suits and costumes of his own design ordered from a Mr. Hutchinson in Chicago, Sul­livan’s tailor.


Wright stayed with Adler and Sullivan until 1893, work­ing in the Chicago office by day and in the Oak Park house at night. To meet expenses, which meant, for Wright, not just supporting a family but sustaining a standard of living that included season tickets to the Chicago Orchestra, he began to design “bootleg” houses, as he termed them, on his own time. But there was a significant difference between this secret activity and the houses he had carried out for the firm on office overtime with Sullivan’s knowledge and consent. Wright’s five-year contract specifically prohibited moonlighting, and the bootleg houses were sure to come to Sullivan’s attention. When he found out, he was furious; he fired Wright immediately. In his anger, Sullivan refused to surrender the deed to Wright’s property, which he had held as collateral for the loan, although the money had been re­paid. The document was eventually returned through the intervention of Sullivan’s more conciliatory elder partner, Dankmar Adler. The break was bitter and lasting; the two men did not speak again for seventeen years.


It is impossible to know what factors may have con­tributed to Sullivan’s extraordinary response; he was soon to go into a tragic downward spiral of depression and inactiv­ity. But there was certainly a sense of betrayal of trust and friendship—although he had never called Wright by any­thing except his last name—that went far deeper than the breaking of a contract. It was a critically difficult moment in Sullivan’s career; his architectural preeminence had plum­meted with the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposi­tion in Chicago in 1893, where the dreamlike Great White City designed by East Coast architects in the classical manner was wildly popular. Sullivan’s own Transportation Building, a striking structure of polychromed concentric arches in russet and gold, rich with his interlaced ornament, was seen as hopelessly out of step with the snowy grandeur of the fair’s paint-and-plaster Renaissance palaces. Clients abandoned him for the newly fashionable academic clas­sicism of Daniel Burnham, McKim, Mead and White, Richard Morris Hunt, and the members of a social and professional old-boy network to which the outsider, the moody and bril­liant Irishman, never belonged.


In Sullivan’s anguished assessment, the fair set the course of architecture back fifty years. The optimism and high purpose of the American ideal of progress that he and Wright believed would be expressed in new ways of design­ing and building gave way to the established forms of a tra­ditional Eurocentric architectural culture well into the twentieth century. A depression the same year as the world’s fair cut back commissions that might have been Sullivan’s; his jobs declined in number and he was without work after 1910. Emotional, introspective, bitterly resentful, and un­able to come to terms with the reversal of fortune or his own temperament, he was to spend his final years living in poverty, fighting a hopeless vendetta with fate, exacerbated by his obsessive concern with the cruel and bizarre turn in architectural taste.


Wright, as usual, rationalized his behavior in designing the bootleg houses with his own interpretation of his con­tractual obligations. Whatever rupture took place in his personal or professional relationships he reasoned away as morally defensible or excused by inevitable circumstances that left him no other course of action. His needs were ur­gent, a society that condemned him held false standards, his personal values put him beyond censure in his own mind. It was Wright who finally made the overture to Sulli­van, by then destitute, ill, and alone. Between 1910 and 1924, when Sullivan died, he gave his lieber meister small sums of money, and the proud and desperate letters he re­ceived from Sullivan are heart wrenching. The man who represented the most creative tendencies of an innovative American architecture never saw the realization of his dream that the twentieth century would bring.


When Wright left Adler and Sullivan in 1893, he opened an office in the Schiller Building, one of the firm’s earlier designs. He shared it for a while with his friend Cecil Cor­win, but it was used primarily as a place to meet his Chicago clients. He continued to work at home, as he had for both the overtime and the bootleg jobs. The houses that had caused the rupture were a curious, transitional lot, hybrids of his own ideas and of the currently popular styles that his clients must have requested and which Wright was not yet well enough established to refuse. The lordly take-it-or-leave-it autocrat was yet to come. There were some colonial and Tudor revivals, and a few odd, top-heavy experiments with arcaded, Florentine-style loggias that were soon aban­doned. What they shared was a consistent simplification of academic detail and a superior sense of scale. Traditional cornices were replaced by overhanging eaves, gabled roofs gave way to the hip roofs he favored, and interior walls shifted and disappeared.


Once Wright was on his own, his work quickly flowered into the tradition-shattering and history-making houses of his Prairie style, accompanied by a philosophy of “organic architecture,” which he proclaimed, and preached, for the rest of his life. The name “Prairie houses” has been alter­nately praised and derided—accepted as a revolutionary concept of regional domestic architecture, or attacked as a pretentious misnomer for houses far from the prairie on sub­urban Chicago lots. The reference appeared in print in 1901, when a model home Wright designed for Edward Bok, the head of the Curtis Publishing Company, was published in Ladies’ Home Journal as “A Home in a Prairie Town.” Bok was an advocate of better house design; he had asked a number of prominent architects to contribute progressive house concepts to the magazine and they had all refused. Wright understood immediately that this would bring his work to an audience beyond the Middle West, and would also give him an opportunity to display his ideas untainted by client compromise.


Two of his designs were published in the same year. The houses could be built on a budget of $7,000 and $5,800, respectively, and the plans could be purchased from the magazine. There was no rush to buy the plans, but the type was clearly established: a low, horizontal structure, rather than a high, straight-sided box, with a relationship to the land that the rigidly vertical dwelling had never acknowl­edged. Continuous bands of casement windows ran under low, hovering roofs; the conventional formal parlor was replaced by a living room, dining room, and study that flowed together in a hearth-centered, single space. Interior walls were suppressed or minimized to emphasize open­ness. The focus of the house was the large, central fireplace that suggested a family gathered together in its embracing warmth; a broad chimney appeared to secure the building to the earth, under a sheltering roof. The houses continue to be intensely appealing.


In Wright’s own mind, the westward sweep from Chicago to the prairie towns that still existed close by at the turn of the last century was easily rationalized and romanticized as a basis for his designs. Once established, the type appeared wherever the client had land, from a suburban street to a wooded lot. Wright’s love of the gently undulating hills and open vistas of his Wisconsin childhood led naturally to his belief that the house should be part of the land in a figura­tive or metaphorical sense. Most architects give their cre­ations some kind of rationale based on a sensed or expressed inner belief or conviction, often stretched beyond easy credibility. But the long, low lines, interlocking forms, and open spatial planning of Wright’s Prairie houses not only “broke the box,” as he put it, of the traditional house with its unyielding vertical plan and circulation, they created a con­nection with the site that broke the barrier between indoors and out with banks of windows, terraces, and indirect ap­proaches through visually related landscaped settings. Even when the house did not escape the restricted subur­ban lot, it made it into a different kind of place.


Where did this house come from? The most assiduous search of the literature turns up nothing like it being built at the time. There are no obvious precursors, no published look-alikes, no neat iconographical clues to a developing style. The fiction that Wright insisted on throughout his life, the myth that he maintained, was that his work was pure in­vention, a kind of architectural virgin birth, that the con­cepts sprang fully formed from his own mind without debt or precedent. In one sense this was so; he was an “original,” as he claimed, a maverick, the inventor of something new. But the truth is more rewarding; if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that what seems so spontaneously created actually drew on many interests and influences, synthesizing them in a way that was both revolutionary and beautiful, and uniquely his own.


Wright was a magpie—a keenly intelligent, insatiable collector of everything that appealed to him from an infinite variety of sources. He was a cultivated man from a family that held knowledge in the highest esteem; his heritage en­couraged openness to ideas. Tireless in his pursuit of all that intrigued him, an omnivorous reader and keen ob­server, he was attracted to the most progressive and eclectic tastes and ideas of the nineteenth century. Like all archi­tects, he was well aware of other talented practitioners who broke new ground and whose buildings he admired; he studied them with care. He knew exactly what was worthy of attention in the work of the establishment architects he pro­fessed to scorn; while he rejected Silsbee’s fussy Queen Anne houses and spurned McKim, Mead and White’s Beaux Arts monuments, he was clearly receptive to the simpler, less formal, natural-wood “shingle style” both firms em­ployed for country homes.


He remembered everything, but copied nothing, absorb­ing what he liked and learned into his own creative think­ing. Anthony Alofsin, a particularly perceptive chronicler of his work, has defined the process succinctly: “Wright’s genius lay in his powers to assimilate, abstract and to emu­late without ever resorting to imitation.” His brilliance lies not only in the uniqueness of his vision, but in the way it connects with the most creative currents of his own time, while transforming those sources into a personal expression that changed the course of the building art.


He would, of course, deny any indebtedness forever. He insisted that he owed nothing to anyone, that the rest of the profession consisted of knaves and fools at worst, or merely the unenlightened. He alone represented architectural truth—the rest owed everything to him. He declared himself the enemy of the Academy and the Western classical tradi­tion. But the fact is that he both stood apart from his times and was a product of his times—another paradox of his art and life. Wright was an active participant in the intellectual ferment and creative inquiry that prefigured modernism in the arts. What he carefully denied was that he was in touch with every new development, every contemporary current, every innovation here and in Europe, through books, maga­zines, direct observation, and professional contacts abroad. Although he expressed admiration in the Autobiography for the work he saw in Vienna and Berlin, the only influences he ever publicly acknowledged were the art of Japan and the philosophy of Viollet-le-Duc—the first because it offered lessons in the intrinsic qualities of materials and the elimi­nation of the nonessential, the second because it taught a moral aesthetic of structure. Both could be quoted without compromising his creative independence.


The dark wood trim and light stucco walls of his early houses reflect his fascination with the Japanese architec­ture he saw for the first time in the Ho-o-den at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. Intrigued by the building’s simplicity, elegant craft, and structural lightness, he praised it as “nat­ural,” “organic,” and “modern.” His first trip abroad was not the traditional European grand tour, but a trip to Tokyo in 1905, where he left his wife and companions to make long detours alone to the provinces in curious “native” clothing of his own devising, immersing himself in Japanese art and culture, returning with his first exotic purchases.


It is not hard to discover, from his books and correspon­dence, that he was an admirer of the new art and craft of the Vienna Secession. His initial encounter with a Secession building was Josef Maria Olbrich’s Austrian Pavilion at the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition; he returned repeatedly to analyze its unusual design. He had contacts with English and Dutch modernist pioneers, some of whom expressed great interest in his early buildings and came to Chicago to see them. The Germans and the Dutch were the first to recognize Wright’s work, in major publications.


With the recession over, his commissions soared, and so did his confidence. By 1904, he had completed at least a dozen Prairie houses. Considered strange interlopers by their neighbors, they are classics today. There were three versions: a basic, standardized type that Wright felt was ac­cessible to people of modest means, a moderate model with better materials and more special features for those who could pay for them, and an expensive, custom form, exquis­itely and dictatorially designed, down to the last hand­crafted detail.


His clients were successful, well-educated, upper-middle-class businessmen, leaders in the community, political “progressives” with liberal leanings and cultural interests, who could afford the cost of a substantial home. Wright’s work, representing an advanced, “enlightened” view of architecture, intrigued them; it also appealed to their aes­thetically and intellectually involved wives. Like so many patrons of the arts, they became supporters of the new; their homes were brave gestures of informed patronage in what Wright habitually scorned as a surrounding sea of suburban bourgeois philistinism. They also became his friends and champions. Both would be needed in the years ahead, when success would turn into scandal, and scandal into tragedy of epic dimensions.


One theme that Huxtable mines throughout Frank Lloyd Wright involves his survival. Through personal and professional tragedies, Wright always found a way to survive. After his death, his work, for the most part, survives. My wife has often commented that Wright’s greatest legacy has been his ability to convince people to spend their lives and fortunes keeping up his buildings. Huxtable explores Wright’s charisma in bending others to his will, and his imagination and creativity, creating structures before the technology was available to support his ideas. All fans and foes of Frank Lloyd Wright will enjoy this fine biography.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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