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Frank Lloyd Wright's star eclipses his buildings
By Amanda CooperMon Oct 16, 11:38 AM ET
Frank Lloyd Wright is remembered as America's most acclaimed architect and iconic designer, but many of his most famous buildings seem unable to withstand the stresses of time.
Wright, who died in 1959 at 92, was one of the world's most prolific architects, designing homes, churches and office buildings like the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, as well as public spaces including the famed white spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Of the roughly 1,141 buildings he designed, 409 still stand. And while he is lauded as a creative genius, perennial cracking and leaking seem to be a feature of much of his work.
The Guggenheim's rotunda is under scaffolding to fix cracking that has plagued it opened in 1959, while Fallingwater, perhaps the most famous Wright home, has undergone years of work to fix sagging terraces, leaking and cracking.
Wright detractors say he lacked adequate training in engineering or his designs were simply far too advanced for the materials at his disposal.
"Many of these buildings -- with modern materials, improved concrete and steel and more precise engineering calculations -- could be hypothetically done without structural or maintenance problems," said Charles Rosenblum, adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
"But that's why it's a hypothetical, because nobody is going to rebuild the Price Tower, nobody is going to make another Guggenheim."
Philip Allsopp of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, says Wright was just ahead of his time.
"From the point of view of some of his buildings being relatively high maintenance it is because he was pushing the envelope and he was exploring the art of the possible as well as the science of the possible," he said.
During his 70-year career, Wright constantly experimented with different materials and forms. He built only two skyscrapers -- the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the Johnson Wax headquarters' research tower.
ON A PAR WITH THE BARD
But in keeping with his concept of "organic architecture," Wright's buildings are typically low-lying, with clean, horizontal lines blending into their natural surroundings.
Wright's legions of admirers say his detractors are taking an overly simplistic view of his work.
"'They're dark, they leak and why on earth would you have a flat roof?' That's akin to saying Shakespeare is very hard to understand," Rosenblum said.
"It's the creativity and the artistic conception and ... the poetry of structure and space are so compelling that minor discomforts or inconveniences are not significant. It's like someone who owns a classic car and is willing to put up with oil leaks and electrical problems," he said.
Fallingwater, the country home Wright built on top of a waterfall for department store owner Edgar Kaufmann in Pennsylvania, has undergone near constant repair since its 1939 completion.
But it is widely considered a master's masterpiece and the greatest house of the 20th century.
Wright was known for his strong opinions and developed a reputation for narcissism and hotheadedness in his dealings with clients.
In a letter to Kaufmann during Fallingwater's construction, he wrote: "I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven't your confidence ... to hell with the whole thing."
The Frederick C. Robie House on the University of Chicago campus is undergoing major repairs both inside and out as part of a 10-year restoration project. But the quintessential "Prairie" house is considered one of the most important buildings in modern American architecture.
"What I would say though to people who are concerned about a roof leaking in a Frank Lloyd Wright building that has actually been around say, since 1920 or 1930 -- how many of our buildings in suburbs that are basically made of foam core and glue are going to be around in 10 years?" asked Allsopp.
"A lot of them won't even outlast warranties of their in-built equipment before repairs are needed," he said.