The cold heart of Frank Lloyd Wright

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SDR
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Post by SDR »

I think so. There's much more to this slender volume---but that early excerpt sets the tone.

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

P167
I have been in acoustically magical Unity, on the second tiered level fromo the main floor, high up , close to the ceiling, when two-year olds on their mother's bosoms were hacking all around me - and it was as if the minister was still whispering in my ear. What was the theme on that particular Sunday? Wasn't it about humility, and didn't the minister talk about "giving life to the shape of justice"? The temple seats roughly four hundred worshippers, and yet no seat is more than forty-five feet from the pulpit. How is that possible?

I have been in Unity with a retired Chicago architect named Jack Lesniak. He had a long, good career, mostly in architectural administration. He is a humble man. He has served on early preservation and restoration committees for Unity. It was a winter day. Just the two of us. He wore an old tam, like something a cabbie might have worn in Al Capone's Chicago. He removed it when we entered. He kept wringing it in his hands, like a man trying to squeeze water from a chamois cloth. "I'm an architect and yet I have a terrible time trying to understand what he did here," Lesniak said. "It keeps changing in spatial dimensions. The planes on the wall become almost like folded paper. He does it with color, with the trim, with the banding. The wood is folding across the corners. At night, the building glows from the outside. Think about when this was built. This is the beginning of the century. This is a spaceship. Nobody has ever seen anything like this."

P168
In a letter of March 4, 1906, Charles White, working [in Wright's Studio] said: "The chief thing at Wright's is of course Unity Church, the sketches of which are at last accepted, after endless fighting. We have all pleaded and argued with the committee, until we are well nigh worn out. All hands are working on the working drawings."

P169
"Earlier, there was mention of a fellow Wright Prairie School architect, George Elmslie, and of how, after An Autobiography appeared, he wrote a long letter to Wright to both congratulate him and to chastise him on his ego and prevarications. He said, "It may amuse you to have recalled to your mind a comment you made to me, long ago, in connection with Unity Church in Oak Park. I made some general comment about the use to which the building was to be put, and your reply was, 'I don't give a damn what the use of it is; I wanted to build a building like that.'"

"Wright attended neither the informal opening of Unity in October 1908, nor its formal dedication a year later. For the second, he wasn't invited. They wrote him out of the program - literally. Four days before, he had left Oak Park to meet Mamah Cheney in New York. By then practically the whole village, not just the decent stewards of Unity Temple, knew he was an adulterer of no shame. ..."

Tom
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Post by Tom »

BTW:
Mark Hertzberg, Ron McCrea, and John Eifler are all listed in Hendrickson's bibliography.

He also says that Storrer's introduction to his 3rd edition of the Guide is like an "epiphany" ...
Anybody have an opinion on that?

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Who knows; I have the second edition. Maybe someone can supply us with the goods . . .

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

The title of the Storrer essay is "Shaking Houses out of His Sleeve."

SDR
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Post by SDR »


Tom
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Post by Tom »

You think I'd have learned by now.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

"Placing the design on a grid regularized the concept. First, it prevented many possible mistakes in design, but more importantly, it simplified the design. It was a form of standardizing parts in construction to reduce or
eliminate unnecessary labor. The more I look at this one element of Wright's step from Victorian to Prairie architecture, the more I see, and the more I see it as a major element in the concept of Democratic Architecture."

I continue to puzzle over the emphasis Wright and his interpreters place on a "democratic" architecture. Despite the torrents of words devoted to
this point, by him and by them, I fail to see how it is derived from the materials at hand. Here Storrer seems to equate it with the transition from a
servant to a servant-less household. Paid servants are not slaves; their employment (whether considered a luxury or a necessity) occurs without
regard to the manner in which the surrounding society operates, in a political sense. That is, the owner of the house and the servants as well are
presumably able to vote for their representation in the town hall and in the nation's capitol---aren't they ? (Yes, yes---suffrage wasn't yet universal
at that time . . .)

What does democracy have to do with a grid ?


"He then began asking the ultimate question about his designs, 'What if?' What if I changed this or that, could I reach something more American or more Democratic [?]"

Well, if Wright was looking for something "more American," I can get on board; it feels good and sounds right. Wright saw the servantless society
coming---though he certainly didn't make it happen with his own hands. But in what way does that equate to democracy ?


"When I finished my exposition, [Lloyd] but rested his left elbow in his knee, raised his left forearm vertically, then straightened his right arm and rested his right forearm near its elbow on his left hand, his right arm extending a
foot or more beyond the supporting left forearm and stated, simply, "and the cantilever." That was all he needed to say, for that took me finally into the mindset of Wright. The cantilever is the third dimension in Wrightian organic
architecture. It is the first step out of the box, the Victorian mindset. Even the broad overhang of hipped roofs may be considered a small example of a cantilever. If you look at Wright's designs with an open mind, you will find
cantilevers everywhere.
"What this did for me, however, was make me realize that Wright saw the spaces in which his clients would live before he thought of the plan that would accommodate their needs. Placing the design on a grid regularized the
concept. First, it prevented many possible mistakes in design, but more importantly, it simplified the design. It was a form of standardizing parts in construction to reduce or eliminate unnecessary labor. The more I look at this
one element of Wright's step from Victorian to Prairie architecture, the more I see, and the more I see it as a major element in the concept of Democratic Architecture."


So, at the knee of Lloyd, Professor Storrer absorbs the idea that the cantilever is (by Lloyd's lights) a basis on which to build an understanding of
his father's contribution. Lloyd, a designer, points quite understandably to a formal development in the work. Yet by the time that lesson has been
digested, it somehow becomes---along with the grid---conflated once again with . . . democracy !

Is more direct and efficient construction . . . democratic ? Is the pinwheel plan . . . democratic ? If America is a place where new ideas like those
mentioned can take hold, where innovation is welcomed, where families can be made more comfortable thanks to new design and construction
ideas and methods, then why not call the work American ? What does democracy have to do with it ?

The work is American; America is a democracy; therefore the work is democratic ? Really ?

S
Last edited by SDR on Sat Feb 01, 2020 10:01 pm, edited 2 times in total.

Tom
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Post by Tom »

I haven't read the essay yet. From what you've posted here it sounds forced.
Never thought in detail about the democracy issue in Wright.
Always assumed it as sort of a personal yet general poetic expression from a
guy immersed in Whitman.
Broad, open space - freedom for possiblities, independence
horizontal symbol of human horizon opposed to law from above ...
I'd think the discussion would need to be of a symbolic and poetic nature...
Certainly Broadacre would have to figure into a detailed technical discussion.

The dubious stuff for me in those first couple of lines is Storrers association of
Democracy with efficiency, elimination of labor, standardization of parts and cutting costs.
... the Hamilton vs. Jefferson thing.

Will be curious to think about why Hendrickson considered this essay "epiphanic"
... or something like that.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Yachting: If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it.

Wright: If you have to ask what it means, you'll never get it . . .

My idea of a joke.

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

This makes me miss some things from Wright that we don't have.
I think it's Tafel that tells the story about walking into the board room to
Johnson Wax with Wright and the drawings.
Tafel says, you should have heard him, a great speech.
Being able to hear something like that .... would have liked to have been there.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Yes indeed. "Mr Johnson, this is your architect calling . . .!"

S

jay
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Post by jay »

Never thought in detail about the democracy issue in Wright.
Always assumed it as sort of a personal yet general poetic expression from a
guy immersed in Whitman.
My initial thought was perhaps Wright was tapping into the national rhetoric of the time period––Great Depression, WWII, postwar pride, etc...
But then I was flipping through Specimen Days, Whitman's late work, and there in the very last passage reads:

Nature and Democracy––Morality

DEMOCRACY most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and
sane only with Nature�just as much as Art is. Something is required to temper
both�to check them, restrain them from excess, morbidity. I have wanted,
before departure, to bear special testimony to a very old lesson and requisite.
American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops,
stores, offices�through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their
manifold sophisticated life�must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact
with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees,
birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will certainly dwindle and pale. We
cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the
only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no
flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of
Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main
part�to be its health-element and beauty-element�to really underlie the
whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Thank you. And, thank you.

Now we can put Wright's notion of Democracy (capital D) in the file with other poetic airs which inspired and moved him---rational or not. Every nation,
every people, can be expected to crow about what they consider or know to be special to them---what makes them unique, never mind that we're all from
the same stock, ultimately, and share the same space under the sun and the stars.

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Nice find - that bit from Whitman
It's perfect.

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