The cold heart of Frank Lloyd Wright

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jay
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Post by jay »

I found the speculative exploration into Wright's emotional life intriguing,
never conclusive, not intended to be.
Hendrickson: “[Wright] lived his preposterous life in a kind of beautiful rage, and flames ran through it. It’s just a fact, and you will know it by the end of this book�.

Never conclusive, eh?

And sure pulling quotes out of context can be misleading, but that statement stands pretty solidly on its own, no?

It's nice that people have different opinions. You say the critics have been harsh on this book; I've seen them as mixed reviews. Moreover, I've noticed that the 'Wright community' in general appears pretty satisfied with this "postmodernist biography", as JCO calls it.

It ain't hard to get me to read a book on recommendation, especially from this group, yet in this case I cannot do so... I've seen more than enough from Mr. Hendrickson––including the title of the book––to be thoroughly annoyed with the premise. (One detailed description of the brutal murder of an 8 year old child is plenty enough for me to pass...to spend my time on the many thousands of quality books out there....not to mention the many dozens of high quality books on Wright and his work––ones that forego the sensationalism.)

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Got it -
at least I tried.
Yours,
T

SDR
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Post by SDR »

I'm glad you found things to like in the book, Tom. Maybe you could find for us some passages that describe Wright's work usefully or enjoyably . . . ?

I'd like to read those.

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Sure

Tom
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Post by Tom »

P14:
"On the South Side of Chicago, in an un-serene urban neighborhood called Woodlawn, between East Sixtieth and East Sixty-First, there is a parking lot that serves a medium-rise apartment building and a smaller residential facility for the elderly. Until very recently (as I am writing this), if you had come in off East Sixtieth Street, and had gone through a gate between the two buildings, and then walked to the southeast corner of the lot and edged your way behind a tangle of bushes and weeds that used to grow tall and thick in the summer months, and had kicked away the latest refuse that may have accumulated there - old cigarillo wrappers, flyblown sales receipts from Burger King, Styrofoam takeout containers, maybe a spent condom - you would have seen a piece of buff-colored stone. It was about ten feet long and about seven or eight inches high and roughly a foot across. The texture of it was pebbly. It almost looked to be erupting from the earth, but in another sense it's as if it was erupting from time: this wedge of poured concrete, which must have been part of a foundation for a wall or a terrace or possibly a staircase, had existed at this spot for more than a century. It seemed to be the last visible trace of a buried and bulldozed moment of quixotic Chicago civic history called Midway Gardens.

.......

P17:
In the years of working on this book, I found myself coming to this lot, this spot, this stone, fairly often, but not because I wished to pay homage to an architectural relic (which very few people seemed to know about). I came when I was trying to feel Frank Lloyd Wright's humanness again. As you have figured out, he was the creator of Midway Gardens. And as best as I can determine - and I have consulted a lot of experts, at least one of whom has given over much of his scholarly life to a study of Midway Gardens - he may have been standing no more than a hundred or one hundred and twenty five feet from this chunk of worthless looking and now gone rock when he pressed the telephone reciever to his ear and got the first word from Wisconsin of what had just happened. He may have been half that distance. That part doesn't matter. He was somewhere nearby. Which is why I always came, on reporting trips to the Midwest, more or less to just stand there, be there, minding my business, kicking away trash, sometimes feeling foolish, but trying all the same to imagine a man's dizzying shock, his instinct to disbelieve, his fear, his need to reach out and grab hold of the nearest solid thing. In front of this stone I could find Frank Lloyd Wright's humanity again, which, as a matter of fact, I contend was large - no, greater than large, in fact, immense. The problem is, when you are in search of that humanity, wish to make a case for it, you have to be willing to keep kicking away with your shoe a lot of refuse, dross, under which, behind which, the humanity and vulnerability will lie - every time. That's part of what this book is about, hopes to say, although that is trying to define it from the top down, when the Wrightian building principle is to work from the bottom up, and from the inside out."

Tom
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Post by Tom »

I'll find something more on the buildings next.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

I'll appreciate that. In the meantime, I see that the man can write. He certainly can put words together to set a scene and build a narrative.

I suppose someone somewhere must have observed that the only gripping stories are tragedies. And some authors no doubt are drawn to them, either for their dramatic power or their potential for commercial success. Or maybe both ?

S

jay
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Post by jay »

A very nice image in the first passage. (The second one starts to drift into the psychoanalytical stuff...)

It reminds me of how powerful and effective "immersion journalism" can be by simply showing the reader images up close (the first person narrative gives far more of an "experience" than third person narratives do). There was a recent book called "Spying on the South" by Tony Horowitz, where he re-traces the journey into the antebellum south that Olmsted took to report on slavery for the NYT. Horowitz allows the images of the American South in our modern era to juxtapose Olmsted's own writings of his experiences. A truly fascinating contrast (with some human aspects not much different at all). Horowitz then illustrates, mostly with Olmsted's own words, the application of Olmsted's social ideas to its physical expressions in the public parks he later designed––public spaces where true social democracy could be experienced.

Speaking of Olmsted, I find it peculiar that this designer, whose parks are visited by literally hundreds of thousands of people each day, has none of the adjacent-biographical-psychoanalytical market that Wright does. One can say that Wright brought it on himself, or that his life was just more scandalous with divorces, but this isn't exactly unusual for semi-famous people, historically and currently. (JCO even chides Wright in her review for him being a mostly absent father––yet my understanding of this time era is that active "fatherhood" was not common like it is today. It isn't hard to find a man in 1903 who paid very little attention to his children.) I find it very hard to believe that people are drawn explicitly to Wright for his personal life drama, as I just don't find it very shocking or interesting (I suppose the murder is shocking, but that's something that happened to him, not by him...). Obviously, people are drawn to Wright for his architecture....yet if interest in a great artist's work leads to interest in their personal life dramas, then why doesn't every famous artist quickly find such a large secondary market into this realm? Why is there literally not a single speck of interest of people into Olmsted's "psychology" or personal life? (He married his sister in law, which was noble in that after his brother died, he "took care of her", but still, that is his sister in law.... If Wright had done this, can we imagine the narratives?)

SDR
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Post by SDR »

I applaud that.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Law_Olmsted

(See section on journalism)

Frank Lloyd Wright's children seem to have had successful or at least productive lives. I am of the belief---not so radical, is it---that the earliest
years of a person's life set them up, for better or worse, for the rest of their days---psychologically, at the least. I can recommend John Lloyd Wright's
"My Father Who Is on Earth" ("My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright") for its descriptions of life in the Wright household as he and his siblings were being raised.

S

SDR
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Post by SDR »

"My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright," John Lloyd Wright, as "My Father Who Is on Earth," G P Putnam's Sons, New York, 1946; 1992, Dover Publications, Inc


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© 1979 David A Hanks

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Based on the excerpts, I can think of 2 novelists, had they lived long enough, who might have been kinder to Hendrickson than JCO: Fannie Hearst and - with a bit more 'skin' - Barbara Cartland.

Tom
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Post by Tom »

P165
" ... No single piece of Wright architecture moves me more. I haven't seen all of his extant buildings, but I've seen plenty. Long before I started this book, well before i started the last, which was about Ernest Hemingway, I ws going to Unity Temple whenever I could, to sit in one of it's old smooth wooden pews, with all its light and silence and seeming saving grace pouring down. Going to Unity, during all the years of the work on Hemingway, so I believe, helped me to begin to understand things about him I wouldn't have otherwise remotely understood. Similarly, sitting these days in Unity ( no less than standing now and again at a stone on the South Side of Chicago) has helped me to find, or re-find, the person who I think Frank Lloyd Wright truly was.

I submit that there is a strange and beautiful convergence between the art of Hemingway in general and the art of Unity Temple in particular, and that the convergence meets at the simple-seeming word "space." "Space" is the word Wright himself used at various times in his life to try to explain what he had accomplished with Unity. Seven years before he died, he said of Unity: "Here is where you will find the first real expression of the idea that the space within the building is the reality of that building." What did he mean exactly? That space itself, air itself, invisibility itself, not borders, not walls, not pulpits, not altars, not cloisters, not pews, not organ pipes, but something you couldn't actually see was what he aimed to make people see - and so feel? His "little jewel box," he called Unity. As for Hemingway, it's easy to think of early little little three- and four-page jewel-box stories, or even fragments of stories, inter-chapters, where the white space on the page seems almost equal to the print on the page. Wright once said of his work on Unity that it "looks easy enough now, for it's right enough," words that might also have been said by a kind of autodidact, shed of Oak Park, living impecuniously in Paris in the mid-twenties with his wife and baby boy above the now-so-mythic whine of the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame des Champs and trying to do something he didn't fully understand. It was essentially about elimination. It was a notion of a new kind of writing in which you purposely leave things out, create white space on the page. The art of omission, of trying to make the reader feel more than he necessarily understands. His "iceberg theory" he later called it, noting that the "dignity of movement" of an iceberg owes to the fact that only one-eighth of it is above water. In the fall of 1905, when a full-fledged genius named Frank Lloyd Wright began working on what would become Unity Temple ( it would take him thirty-four studies and more than three years of elimination to get it all down right), a sturdy little incipient genius named Ernest Hemingway was in short pants and in first grade at Oliver Wendell Holmes School catty-corner across Chicago Avenue from the architect's home studio. He probably seemed unremarkable, except maybe for that disconcerting grin, parts of it aggressive, parts warming.

So a try, however inadequate, at saying a little of what Unity is. He conceived it as a cube. It's a kind of cubed cube. In a way, it's as if seven-eighths of it cannot be seen, floats beneath the surface. Regarding the metaphor of water: It's possible to feel almost a sense of weightlessness when for the first time you enter the central space, or sanctuary, with its two levels of balconies that enclose three sides of the room. The room, in it's pale=yellow and pale-green and yellow-gray color schemes, draws you up and up, right to the clerestory windows and the stained glass skylights, which wash and cone the room in amber. It's as if all the details of the architect's design have been left out, all the interior structure deliberately destroyed, so that the only thing remaining to experience, if not understand, is this vaulting and intimate and light-filled room itself, so full of space. The great and late Yale critic Vincent Scully, already referenced, once said: "It's not a big building, but I think it's it's the biggest space in America." Neil Levine has spoken of the perfect square of Unity's main room as a "raised platform." A platform with the sensation of floating. You're "on this raised plane with space dropping away from you on every side." Levine has also written that it is as if the room is somehow "free of material constraints." Yes, water; yes, the seeming weightlessness."

... to be continued, not finished with this excerpt yet

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Thank you.

"Going to Unity, during all the years of the work on Hemingway, so I believe, helped me to begin to understand things about him I wouldn't have otherwise remotely understood."

About whom: Hemingway, or Wright ? There is nothing in the sentence, within the context of the paragraph, to indicate which. How do you read it ?

S

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Exactly!
I re-read that a couple of times.
He's talking about Hemingway!
He is saying that meditating on the interior of Unity helped him understand Hemingway - before he thought about writing about Wright.
The immediately following sentence begining with "Similarly...." is about Wright and helps to clarify
It only begins to make sense once the following paragraphs are read.

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Never picked up John Lloyd Wright's book on his Dad becasue I couldn't stand the title.
What SDR has posted here however I've really enjoyed.
In some sense it proves Hendrickson's humanizing thesis better than Hendrickson.

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