Thursday, June 8, 2017

This Day in Midwestern History (Birth of Frank Lloyd Wright, Architectural Fountainhead)

June 8, 1867—Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect who left his imprint on American and world landscapes with more than 500 buildings he designed in his seven-decade career, was born in Richland Center, Wisc.

You can read biographies of Wright, see his buildings, even read fiction based on his life (Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead). But perhaps the best way to appreciate him is to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill.

Here Wright, after a stint working with famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, set up his own independent practice. Here he designed local 25 buildings and houses that set the standard for “prairie-style architecture,” characterized by interior light, open spaces, integration with the surrounding landscape, with a boxy, horizontal orientation. (The largest collection of Wright-designed houses in the world, the community attracts thousands of students and tourists from around the globe.)

And here he met the wife of one client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, with whom he embarked on an affair that scandalized this straitlaced town, destroyed their marriages, alienated several of his children, and forced them even to leave the country to get away from it all. (The tragic denouement of the affair—a fire set deliberately by an aggrieved servant that ended up taking the life of Mameh, two of her children, and four other people— was detailed in this blog post of mine from eight years ago.)

When I visited Oak Park in October 2004, I was especially struck by Unity Temple, which made a virtue of a distinct limitation: lack of funds that restricted the materials to concrete. Wright’s insistence that the concrete not be covered by plaster, brick, or stone drew from the advice he offered in In the Cause of Architecture:

“Bring out the nature of the materials, let their nature intimately into your scheme. Reveal the nature of wood, plaster, brick, or stone in your designs, they are all by nature friendly and beautiful. No treatment can be really a matter of fine art when those natural characteristics are, or their nature is, outraged or neglected.”

In an article three years ago in The New Republic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen summed up Wright’s enormous influence:

“[I]n addition to being a flat-out great architect, [Frank Lloyd] Wright, in his person and in his work, concretized a powerful strain of American romantic idealism that lives on even today, to our benefit and our detriment. But Wright’s architectural vision lives on for another reason. Writers such as E. O. Wilson, Stephen Kellert, Esther Sternberg, and others have established today what Wright intuited: that people respond to buildings that allude to or offer experiences also found in nature. Wood is different from steel. Texture, ornamental or material, helps to maintain a human scale. Jay Appleton proposed that people respond best to landscapes that offer both prospect and refuge, which some analysts have found embedded in Wright’s interiors. As contemporary architects struggle with density in our rapidly climate-changing, ever-exploding world, they would do well to learn at least this lesson from Wright’s vision.”

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