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Discussing Grant Hildebrand

Posted: Mon Aug 19, 2019 6:37 pm
by jay
Earlier today on this site I quoted Grant Hildebrand, from a great video interview, in which he prefaces his thesis of Wright's 'prospect & refuge' architecture by saying Wright's homes are: "in some ways just terrible houses, they just don't work. In many of them you can't arrange furniture, the closets are inadequate, the roofs leak." As some Chatters remarked, I cherry-picked that quote, which I suppose does need its resolution: "But they have a very powerful draw. The people who built them love them. And people go to see them and are enchanted by them."

While I perhaps shouldn't have truncated the quote, I do think an emphasis on those first critical lines are worth consideration, especially if you are a big fan of Hildebrand's work, as I am. Because for me, I've never read Hildebrand as a full-throated endorser of Wright's houses. Of course, Hildebrand sees the extraordinary talent in Wright, calls him an artist, and is clearly fascinated by Wright's architecture. But from all I've read and seen from Hildebrand, there seems to be an undercurrent of questioning as to whether Wright's houses are truly serviceable homes for basic living, as opposed to pure sculptures of architectural beauty. (My words, not his.)

How many times have we heard someone say: "I love Frank Lloyd Wright's houses, but I could never live in one"?

To me, I feel like Grant Hildebrand was trying to answer that predicament. The conclusion of his quandary�again in my understanding�starts with the notion that Wright used such deep biological aspects of spatial preference that his houses became simply irresistible. This line of thinking suggests that people are drawn to Wright's spaces in the same regard that human beings are drawn to sweetness in food. As in, we are biologically programmed to want sweet things, from milk to fruits to sugar (carbs), just the same as we are programmed to want 'prospect & refuge' in our dwellings. (Hildebrand also suggests that Wright was the only architect to so prominently use this 'intuitive' concept.)

But while 'Prospect & Refuge' might explain the deep love for Wright, it doesn't explain the aversion of mainstream homebuyers in wanting his houses for habitation. In this aspect, Hildebrand discusses "complexity & order", and suggests that Wright's houses are so complex and so ordered that they become objects of art, beautiful as they are, but not really homes, because they leave nearly no expressive space for the inhabitants' personalities.

In terms of criticism, Hildebrand comes off�to me�as the most effectively damning of all critiques I've seen. Because while his work on Wright retains such deep respect for the architect's immense talent, and recognizes all of the wonder and beauty in Wright's designs, it also so convincingly questions if that wonder and beauty comes at the expense of autocracy.

For me, I think there's a lot to unpack in Hildebrand's prefacing remarks about "terrible houses" that "just don't work". Sure it's not the whole story, but it's a full story in itself.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on Hildebrand, I'm sure opinions will vary.....


And to further quote the author, here's a passage from The Wright Space, in the "Some Conclusions" chapter, page 147:

"In the introduction, I spoke of the "sheer power" of some of Wright's spaces, that can "intimidate the more varied and spontaneous acts of ordinary daily life." Vincent Scully once made a similar point with regard to the Coonley house: "It was a kind of freedom and there being, as it were, no end to it, it was also a kind of death; underneath everything, how great and terrible an architecture it was. We ask ourselves about the clients. Did they know what they had, or what had swallowed them?" And I have revealed some of my own quite personal reactions in saying of the Usonians that there is a lot going on in them and not much ground left over for the occupant. Is there more to be said on this point?

"The complexity-order and prospect-refuge model of analysis put forward here may be of help in understanding such negative reactions. For I suggest that such reactions probably arise from an overload of the first of the two pairs of conditions. There is little doubt that the high levels of complexity and order that these houses exhibit make them extraordinarily intriguing as works of art. But these same high levels of complexity and order can also make these houses inhospitable to the various incursions of individual lives, whose differing and more personal complexities and orders have little chance against the already rich conditions of the architecture. And typically in Wright's houses, there is no real way to modify one's exposure; complexity and order are not only typically strong, they are also typically pervasive. One can neither escape them nor mute their intensity.

"But if we turn from conditions of complexity and order to those of prospect and refuge, we find that the analytical model used here leads to a helpful distinction. Although the occupant must confront high levels of both complexity and order in whatever part of the space he or she occupies, on the other hand, movement to various positions within the space clearly yields a wide range of choice between various degrees of prospect or refuge. Thus the degree of refuge or of prospect is subject to infinite variety and can be manipulated by the occupant at will simply by moving to the condition he or she wishes to enjoy at the moment. We move around, we take our pick, we suit our mood. And when our mood changes we know there are other spaces in the house that can suit the new mood too. That Wright was able to provide not only a rich array of these conditions, but also a range of choices with regard to them, is an extraordinarily important legacy of his work. It is exactly this issue of choice that makes all the difference between a dictatorial surrounding and a malleable one.

"Many persons who have, or have once had, an unequivocal love affair with Wright's work also possess, I suspect, a high tolerance for, or a deep attraction to, rich portions of both dualities of conditions. But the many whose responses to his work are more complex may be repelled by the compulsive grip of an inescapable and titanic complexity and order, yet at the same time feel the much more supple but equally powerful appeal of the prospect and refuge choices."

Posted: Mon Aug 19, 2019 9:50 pm
by SDR
Thank you for that, Jay.

I think that the love Hildebrand lavished on some examples of Wright's work, in his book, is ample evidence of his willingness to be charmed by the
architect's wiles. Among all critics of the work, moreover, he may be the one to put his money where his mouth is, delving deeply into the meat of the
matter---not skimming over the surface-effects as so many do, while paying lip service to the spaces themselves, but asking the harder questions, and
coming up with a rich menu of answers---including the vital punch line, "prospect and refuge" ?

Just ask the Freemans, or the Hannas, if they were put off by their homes' charms and complexities. iI doesn't sound like either couple could bear to
leave, whether together or apart, their respective environments, instead lavishing them with care and improvement---in the Hannas' case at least ?

Your words, and Hildebrand's, raise the subject of the psychological response to architecture. Human nature being what it is, a varied reaction can be
expected from the variety of minds and souls---the personalities---that one will find in any group of individuals---including Wright clients ?

I like nothing less than the gushing unqualified idolatry that seems to characterize some appreciations of Wright's work. On the other hand, some,
perhaps including Vincent Scully, seem intent on pulling the rug out from under his object, alternately praising and sneering. Hildebrand does neither,
leaving the student instead with food for thought, based on a sincere search for what it is that attracts the seeker to the subject.


Posted: Mon Aug 19, 2019 10:07 pm
by HenryWhiting
Jay: Have you read Jay Appleton's work, which is the source for Grant Hildebrand's thesis about 'prospect and refuge'? Hildebrand took Appleton's thesis, which is really about landscape painting, and applied it to Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture. Appleton's, 'The Experience of Landscape' is fascinating reading for any Wrightophile, when read in this context.

Posted: Tue Aug 20, 2019 11:34 am
by jay
Hello Mr. Whiting��Yes, after becoming enthralled with Hildebrand's thesis, I searched for nearly everything he mentions related to the concept, and was particularly impressed with the works of Appleton, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, Gaston Bachelard, and even went for a deeper reading of Darwin. (If you have any further reading suggestions in addition to these, please let me know.)

"The Experience of Landscape" is a hard book to find at a reasonable price. I actually took a sojourn to the [Olmsted firm designed] Swarthmore College campus library to read it. About a year later I found a good copy for cheap.... I also think Appleton's "Symbolism of Habitat" is a good compliment (plus much easier to obtain); it's a transcript of the lectures he held at UW in 1988, where I presume Hildebrand was introduced to the concept.

But while Appleton coined, as SDR says, the vital punchline of 'prospect & refuge', it seems the concept goes much further back than Appleton's excellent work. Perhaps it's one of those things that once you're conscious of it, you see it everywhere. For example, I'm reading Christopher Alexander's late 1970s works on building patterns, and it's just filled with 'prospect & refuge' ideas, although not using those terms. I literally just flipped the book open, and on page 558 of "A Pattern Language", Alexander writes: "Outdoors, people always try to find a spot where they can have their backs protected, looking out toward some larger opening, beyond the space immediately in front of them."

Going back even further to the 'prospect & refuge' theoretical "origins", I was recently delighted by writings of Olmsted from 1868 (which were mentioned in a newer book called "Spying on the South" by Tony Horwitz). That author mentioned that the "Address to Prospect Park Scientific Association" is considered by scholars to be Olmsted's most explicit statement of his design theory.

Here's a few paragraphs I thought were revealing (italics mine):


"In fact we found that wherever the pioneers were settling in this country, they were selecting just such places..[]... For example, in such a situation it would be easy to get water when wanted, easy to get wood when wanted, easy to find shelter from wind, easy to find shelter from sun, easy to make shelter from rain, easy to spy game at a distance, easy to enclose stock, easy to keep watch of stock, when turned out, easy to follow stock when strayed, easy for stock when turned out to find good grazing, water & shelter, easy, if desired, to enclose land, to cultivate it, &, to house the crops from it."

"And this topography as I have shown is also the characteristic topography of the old parks, this is what a park was, this & nothing more when certain pieces of land were first enclosed & called parks. This gives us, therefore, the original, radical & constant definition of the topography which is wanted to be selected or constructed when a park is called for. I do not mean that this is all of a park, but that an idea of a park centres & grows upon this."

"You will recollect that I used the term hospitable as descriptive of the essential characteristic of park topography, and that while I hinted at a more recondite significance, in the possible appeal of a hospitable landscape to the simplest instincts of our race, I also described this quality of hospitality to consist in conditions which make the ground appear pleasant to wander over. Among such conditions, one will be the absence of anything which should cause severe exertion to the wanderer, and another the presence of opportunities for agreeable rest at convenient intervals. Together these conditions imply general openness & simplicity with occasional shelter and shade, which latter will result both from trees and from graceful undulations of the surface."


But as with any prominent idea, the identifying of this 'prospect & refuge' concept undoubtedly reaches back even further than Olmsted. (One can wonder if the native builders of Mesa Verde articulated explicitly the reason for their locational choice?) Were Olmsted's concepts solely based out of his thoughts and observations, or were they influenced by other thinkers of the era? Did Andrew Jackson Downing have ideas in this vein?

For me, these somewhat-modern "expressions" of biologically satisfying spaces were inarguably mastered by Wright and Olmsted. In Olmsted's case, he shaped exterior spaces, to be used in social settings. For Wright, he shaped interior spaces, to be used privately by individuals.... Both designers had a dominant side of the coin (Olmsted�expansiveness in open prospect; Wright�intimacy in earthen shelter) and yet each so wonderfully used the contrasting flipside of that coin, as Hildebrand says, thereby enabling "movement to various positions within the space [which] clearly yields a wide range of choice between various degrees of prospect or refuge."

And as Jay Appleton said somewhere that I can't find the quote of, all of the 'prospect & refuge' landscape paintings have both conditions, with the important transitional pathway between them.... Another iconic trait of both Wright and Olmsted.

Has anyone read a book called "The Experience of Place" by Tony Hiss? I don't know if a more enjoyable account exists of "experiencing" Olmsted than in Chapter 2 "Connectedness", where the author so brilliantly takes the reader through the entrance sequence of Prospect Park.

Posted: Tue Aug 20, 2019 12:26 pm
by Roderick Grant
"Prospect & Refuge" is easy, considering that H. Sapiens trace back 350,000 years, and habits are hard to break.

"Complexity & Order" is subject to the whole, messy range of individual ideas of worth and need beyond finding adequate food and safety. Yet it is present in all forms of art. Perhaps FLW's C&O is easier to perceive than Picasso's, but both have it in spades. All artists do. (Well, the jury is out when it comes to Gehry.)

Picasso has an advantage over Wright: Paintings don't have those tiresome quotidian necessities that buildings have. Anyone can hang a Picasso on the wall and be done with it. Everyone who lives in a Wright house has to deal with whatever idiosyncrasies the architect built into it. But the same is true of the most modest tract house, to a lesser degree, to be sure, but it is still there. And it is always restrictive.

Posted: Tue Aug 20, 2019 1:52 pm
by SDR
And there we find, nicely expressed, a rationale for the presence of "wall art," wherever it is to be found ...?


edit spelling of rationale

Posted: Tue Aug 20, 2019 3:03 pm
by Roderick Grant
Why not? I live in a bunch of plaster boxes without nuance or individuality. I have 69 artworks hanging on my walls or propped up on tables and desks. I have two of my favorite Klimt paintings high on the walls of my kitchen! Without all this fuss, I would be compelled to hunt for new digs, which I can ill-afford ... being old and on a fixed income.

Posted: Wed Aug 21, 2019 10:03 am
by HenryWhiting
I have read The Experience of Place. You are exactly right about Tony Hiss' description of the experience of walking through Prospect Park. This type of writing could serve as an excellent prototype for describing Frank Lloyd Wright's it does in Grant Hildebrand's work. The descriptions in Charles and Berdeana Aguar's book, Wrightscapes, are another good example of this type of writing.

Posted: Wed Aug 21, 2019 10:43 am
by yellowcat
Jay, there is an interesting essay available as a small paperback (72 pages) called "the Tao of Architecture", by Amos Ih Tiao Chang. I believe the principles, presented in this essay, was applied by Wright intuitively.

Although this book doesn't mention by name, "prospect and refuge", or "complexity and order", these concepts certainly come through in the text.

If, "Tao" (meaning the principle of the natural order of the Universe), is applied to structures, I can easily understand why many people would reject the idea of living in such an environment, especially now. Some people just love chaos!

Posted: Thu Aug 22, 2019 12:04 pm
by jay
Thanks for the reading recommendations, Henry and yellowcat. I'm not familiar with either, I look forward to reading them.
Picasso has an advantage over Wright: Paintings don't have those tiresome quotidian necessities that buildings have. Anyone can hang a Picasso on the wall and be done with it. Everyone who lives in a Wright house has to deal with whatever idiosyncrasies the architect built into it.
Additionally, if you also just do the math concerning how many hours someone might look at a Picasso painting, even if they owned it, you'd be at what maybe 100 total hours? 200 hours? But to "live" inside of a complex piece of artwork, obviously you're talking far, far greater amounts of time 'absorbing the art'.

On one hand, it's hard for me to see what the complaint is�I love Wright's "art" and his 'complexity & order' just as I assume all on this site do�and I'd do nothing but enjoy living inside one of his "autocratic" designs..... But if I were to apply the same mind-frame to a complex piece of architecture that I don't admire, let's say the Vanna Venturi house, I can then quickly see how offensive the 'complexity & order' of architecture could feel.

(Granted, as I don't admire the Venturi house in the first place, there's no real dilemma there... No "I love FLLW's houses but would never want to live in one" type predicament....)

Did Hildebrand suggest that 'complexity & order' is the function of subjectivity, but that 'prospect & refuge' should be considered objective? Or at least much closer to it, if preferences could ever be considered purely objective...?

Posted: Thu Aug 22, 2019 4:11 pm
by Matt2
Where I think Wright and Picasso are comparable is the number of times they reinvented their artistic vocabulary. Wright had three or four dominate types from Prairie to Usonian. Picasso went from pictorial to cubist and abstract. Very impressive as most artists just have one "style" if that.

Hildebrand's book "Origins of Architectural Pleasure" is one to read for more on prospect and refuge. I met with him some years ago and when talking about Wright he noted how the work grabs you...and then he sat forward and grabbed my arm!