Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum Misses the Point
Better chug a Red Bull before you walk into "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century," currently taking up Steele Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum. You'll need it.
Yes, Phoenix Art Museum has done it yet again, only this time it had help from the Milwaukee Art Museum. Just in time for Arizona's centennial celebration, PAM rolled out the red carpet for an exceptionally soporific traveling show only an architect with OCD might love, on view through April 29. Both Arizona and Wisconsin, locations of Wright's Taliesin homes, lay claim to Wright as a quintessential homeboy. So whom better for Arizona to drag out and parade around on this momentous occasion?
If you love poring over blueprints, you're going to absolutely drool over this show. For all its pre-run press, "Frank Lloyd Wright" is a lackluster exhibition heavy on plot plans, elevations, models, and client-presentation drawings now owned and archived by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation — most of which, by the way, were not drawn or made by Wright himself. Despite the reference to "organic architecture" in the title, the show is totally devoid of any explanation regarding the complexity of Wright's professional, aesthetic, and social philosophies, personal lifestyle, or construction foibles, elements critical to understanding how the world's most notorious architect lived his life and the utopian goal that he claimed was the basis of his art.
Yes, PAM's "Frank Lloyd Wright" is yet another sterling example of the bland leading the bland into the gift shop nirvana of coffee mugs, ties, and notepads emblazoned with Wright designs — designs that may or may not have been created by the flamboyant architect. It's disappointing that the museum has bought into the cloying cult of genius that surrounds Frank Lloyd Wright even to this day, rather than presenting a critical look at the work of a man who was not what he appeared or claimed to be.
Phoenix Art Museum's ad for its latest supposed blockbuster lures you in with the line, "Wright's visionary designs emphasized the use of natural materials, harmonious integration of building and landscape, and high functionality."
The problem is that, in creating a structure, whether residential or commercial, Wright very often blatantly ignored the basic tenets of organic architecture he claims to have devised, not to mention the wishes and needs of his usually frustrated clients. In point of fact, Wright was a self-crowned crusader against ugliness wherever found in American life, as well as ultimate arbiter of what amounted to "beauty," which didn't always take into consideration comfort, safety, or serviceability. And I'm still trying to figure out how molded concrete blocks, dearly loved by the architect, can be considered a "natural material."
Recent scholarship verifies that Wright lifted wholesale the term "organic architecture" — and the concepts underpinning it — from 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin, to whose writings he was exposed at an early age by his architecture-obsessed mother, Anna Lloyd Wright. According to one Wright biographer, Meryle Secrest, Ruskin believed that right emotion, true feeling, and lofty thought were all included in the concept of what was beautiful — "even that the perception of beauty was a test of one's morality and inner integrity." Ruskin also pushed the notion that architecture was the highest form of art and that its practice "ennobled" the practitioner, elevating him far above the rest of us mere mortals.
"[Wright's] whole architectural philosophy," says Secrest in Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (1992), "was based on the Arts and Crafts concept that a house should express an ideal of marriage and family life." This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that Wright's personal life was akin to a bad soap opera, rife with failed marriages, verbal and even physical abuse, abandoned children, extravagant living at the expense of others, and debt collectors at the door.
For Wright, the concept of organic architecture was very fluid, if not entirely amorphous. It would be just one of many ideas the architect ripped off from other people, for which he brazenly would cop credit. In fact, much of what you see in "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" was the physical product of blood, sweat, and tears shed by apprentices in Wright's Taliesin Fellowship, the precursor to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, founded in 1932 in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Plans for three incarnations of Taliesin, as well as for Scottsdale's Taliesin West, appear in the exhibition without much information as to why the Wisconsin Taliesin kept being rebuilt.
Brendan Gill, the Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (1987) author who knew the architect personally, notes that "Wright boasted all too often of having revolutionized 20th-century architecture. He did so, he said, by means of his genius, aided by certain technical innovations for which he was always quick to take credit. Many of these innovations required hitherto untested engineering solutions, and it is one of the oddities of Wright's voluminous documentation of his work that he has comparatively little to say about the sources of his engineering skills."
That's because he basically had none and relied on devoted apprentices like his son-in-law, Wes Peters, and other experienced engineers to pull his fat from the fire when there were serious structural problems with a project, which was a constant and unremitting state of affairs.
Wright was well known for living the high life and not paying his bills, even at the beginning of his architectural career in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. In the early 1930s, Wright came up with the idea of a Taliesin Fellowship, an apprentice program in which students would pay $500 a year for the privilege of being in the presence of the master and building Taliesin, his rural home in Wisconsin, into Wright's ideal country estate by laboring in its fields and physically erecting its structures. Purportedly, students would be learning the art of architecture by osmosis (there never were any actual architectural classes offered) and developing "spiritually." The apprentices also were expected to design and make art objects for sale, for which they would share in the proceeds. This was Wright's solution for raising money for the mortgage on Taliesin, which was about to be foreclosed on, not to mention providing unpaid grunt labor for farming and construction when skilled workers he hired walked off the job because of nonpayment.
Actually, the whole idea of the Taliesin Fellowship was that of Henricus Theodorus "Dutchy" Wijdeveld, a Dutch architect affiliated with the European Internationalist movement, who had corresponded regularly and eventually visited with Wright, and thought he was going to be appointed Fellowship director. In typical fashion, Wright dismissed Wijdeveld after the unlucky Dutchman had done all the conceptual heavy lifting on the project, thereafter claiming to have been the creator of the Fellowship idea.
According to Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Harold Zellman, an architect and historian of modernist architecture, both of whom spent 10 years researching and writing The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship (2006), "Wijdeveld's role was . . . concealed from the public record, and until recently from history. To acknowledge that the very ideas underlying his Fellowship were crafted by a European would have compromised Wright's vision of an organically American community."
In truth, the Fellowship was not particularly unique for its time, since it was basically a re-working of other 19th-century utopian communal living experiments, like the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Château Le Prieuré at Fontainebleau-Avon, France. Gurdjieff's philosophy and beliefs — entwined with the metaphysical principles and cosmic secrets of theosophy, as espoused by Russian-born Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky — would play a huge, and not always positive, role in the running of the Fellowship over time.
Charles Robert Ashbee's Arts and Crafts colony in Chipping Campden, England, was an obvious inspiration for Wright. In 1910, Wright had become friends with Ashbee, an architect, designer, and devotee of William Morris, the father of the English Arts and Crafts Movements, who was enamored with the "simple" country life. His craft community was aimed at members learning craft skills to produce and sell beautiful objects in a communal setting, while participating in exercise, music, and theater. All of this was to be repeated at Taliesin, though the craftmaking part of it quickly fell to the wayside there.
The handicraft community of Roycrofters, in East Aurora, New York, started by Elbert Hubbard, a Larkin Soap Company salesman turned writer, artist, and publisher, also was a demonstrable precursor to the Fellowship. An anti-industrialist and pioneer in the field of advertising, Hubbard was a maestro of mass marketing and self-promotion. Wright enthusiastically embraced these two skills, raising to high art blatant self-promotion of himself as genius and architectural messiah to the masses as his career developed.
In addition to Hubbard's self-marketing techniques, Wright also would adopt Hubbard's flamboyant sartorial style, dressing in flowing capes and odd hats, topped off with floppy ties and a walking stick, outfits that one writer has said at times bordered on buffoonery. Especially noteworthy were Wright's high-heeled shoes, worn to add more height to his rather short stature.
In 1904, the architect ended up designing the Larkin Soap Company's five-story administration building in Buffalo, New York, plans for which are on display in PAM's show. The austere red-brick building was noted for many innovations: an early version of air-conditioning; stained-glass windows; double-glazed windows to help control temperature and sound; floors and desktops made from Magnasite, a fireproof material; a built-in central vacuum-cleaning system; built-in office furniture; a gigantic pipe organ, said to be the fifth-largest in the world; suspended toilet bowls hung from the walls; and toilet partitions hung from the ceiling. However, its severe exterior looked like a maximum-security prison. Considered to be a white elephant, it was demolished in 1950.
Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, got a taste of the weird hierarchical situation at the core of Taliesin when she visited Wright's Wisconsin compound after her best-selling book was published. Many erroneously believe this 1943 opus about a high-minded, renegade architect who baldly refuses to compromise his aesthetic vision and moral values was based on Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Rand actually had never met before writing her wildly popular work of fiction. In fact, Wright declined her request to visit him for inspiration as she was writing The Fountainhead; after reading it, Wright was convinced that the main character was fashioned after himself, and he welcomed the author with open arms.
Rand was shocked by what she experienced. According to Friedland and Zellman, she found that it "'was like a feudal establishment . . . [the apprentices] were like medieval serfs. The most horrible thing was that the menu for [Wright's] table, where his guests also ate, was different from the menu for his students. We sat on a raised platform, high above the others, we ate fancy delicacies and they got fried eggs; it was a real caste system.' That the apprentices paid for such privileges simply stunned her . . . And she was distressed to see that their work 'was badly imitative of Wright.'"
Rand found Wright's apprentices to be glorified farmhands, construction workers, and house servants, all of whom bowed to the will of their architect overlord. It was an odd way of life for a so-called visionary who purported to be interested in creating low-cost, utilitarian housing for the American Everyman.
Though a sizable number of the project plans on display in "Frank Lloyd Wright" may be long on sculptural charm, they fall very short on real functionality and, in fact, were never built in any century, much less the 21st. A good example of this is the large model you encounter before you walk into the exhibit proper, Oasis in the Desert (1957); it is the maquette for the Arizona State Capitol building envisioned by Wright. The plan called for a 400-foot-wide area of fountains, gardens, and reflecting pools covered by an open-to-the-elements, honeycombed latticework roof of crenellated concrete (Phoenix's suffocating summer heat and searing July sunlight be damned). Wright wanted an enormous spire, similar to the one he designed for the First Christian Church on Seventh Avenue, to top off the dome. Two hexagonal copper-domed halls flanking the garden area were slated to be state House and Senate chambers. Other wings would house the governor's offices, the Supreme Court, and other government agencies.
Because Wright insisted on having the project built, of all places, in the pristine buttes of Papago Park, his plan was a definite no-go, thank God. How's that for "harmonious integration of building and landscape and high functionality"?
Other projects actually built in flagrant violation of Wright's purported organic principle of structure accommodating site abound. One of the most obvious, besides the turban-shaped Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side of New York City and Ennis House, a monumental, textile-concrete block residence virtually crushing a hilltop in Los Angeles like some Spanish parador, is Fallingwater.
Wright designed and built Fallingwater, which was supposed to be a casual rural retreat, for department store magnates Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann in 1935. A video of this highly problematic house, cantilevered precipitously over the top of a waterfall at Bear Run Falls in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania — which is in need of constant restoration and maintenance — is a part of PAM's exhibit, along with renderings most probably executed by either longtime apprentice Jack Howe or Bob Mosher.
And then there's Broadacre City, a giant model of which sucks up a large part of the back of Steele Gallery. Edgar Kaufmann underwrote the plans for this utopian social fantasy of Wright's, as first explained in the architect's 1932 book, The Disappearing City, which he then elaborated upon via lectures, books, and articles up until his death. Wright was in favor of razing large urban centers, like New York and Chicago, and replacing them with sprawling, low-density suburban areas linked by various modes of motorized transportation (cars, freeways, trains, and, later, monorails and personal planes) that would ooze over the country, from sea to shining sea. Each citizen of Broadacre City would be given at least one acre of land, ideally from federal land reserves, on which to personally build a home of pre-fab components — of Wright's design, naturally — and attain self-sufficiency by farming. Broadacre City citizens have little or no use for cash and would barter for, instead of purchase, the food, supplies, and services they could not provide themselves. They are jacks-of-all-trades, as there are no "experts" in Broadacre City: farmers, industrial workers, artists (woe unto anyone in need of serious medical care). Completely decentralized, there is no governmental bureaucracy at all, with one major caveat: The entire shebang would be run by organic architects — in 1932, that was essentially Frank Lloyd Wright — who would plan and run the cities, determining who could own land and how much, and whether and where roads would be built.
No one seriously bought into the Broadacre City plan, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which was approached by Wright for funding but soundly rebuffed the entire idea. And, as pointed out by Arizona State University professor Paul Zygas, an architecture historian, in "Broadacre City as Artifact," a chapter in Frank Lloyd Wright: The Phoenix Papers Volume I: Broadacre City (1995), Wright didn't really invent any new urban-planning concepts with Broadacre City (except, possibly, the part about organic architect(s) running the entire show). In fact, many of his propositions had already arrived on the American scene; he merely "repackaged the American order of things."
Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life is the stuff from which TV miniseries are made. A CliffsNotes-style version of his biography gives you some idea how outrageously he thumbed his nose at the very principles of home, hearth, and morality he was supposed to have been championing.
Even back at his Oak Park studio, Wright was always surrounded by a fawning coterie of mostly young, often unpaid acolytes from well-heeled families ready, willing, and able to do his bidding, drafting, rendering, and, on occasion, underwriting. Wright could be seductively charming, sucking his hapless targets into doing things they really didn't want to do. He was known to borrow money from his followers, even though he would owe them back wages. More often than not, he would outright lie to his clients about the cost of constructing one of his masterpieces, even the ones he touted as being low-cost. Then, in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, he would turn on them, becoming verbally abusive and outright dismissive.
In 1910, the architect abruptly left his wife, Catherine, and six children, who lived in Oak Park, for Mamah (pronounced "MAY-ma") Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his residential housing clients, whom he thereafter ensconced at Taliesin in Wisconsin. At the time, it was a huge scandal covered by area newspapers and did not end well. In August 1914, while Wright was away, Mamah and her two children were murdered at Taliesin after Julian Carlton, a deranged family servant from Barbados, locked all the doors at the rural complex, doused it with gasoline, and set fire to it. As she and the children fled from the burning house, they were hacked to death with an ax, with other people locked inside dying as Taliesin burned to the ground.
Within two months after the tragedy, Wright was at it again, though he still was not divorced from Catherine, who continued to hope he would give up his philandering ways and return home. This time, he became enamored with Maude "Miriam" Noel, a wealthy sculptress who moved in with him and contributed most generously to rebuilding Taliesin; she eventually manifested disturbing signs of schizophrenia and allegedly was addicted to morphine.
Despite this, after Catherine agreed to a divorce, Wright married Noel in 1923, only to become involved in 1924 with Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenberg. Olgivanna was a 27-year-old dancer, daughter of a Montenegrin chief justice, who was married to an architect with whom she had a daughter, Svetlana. Wright had met her serendipitously at a ballet performance in Chicago. Wright was close to 60 at the time. His affair with Olgivanna sent Noel into a tailspin, especially when Olgivanna got pregnant with Wright's daughter, Iovanna, and a round of acrimonious battling began, including Noel's having Wright busted for violation of the Mann Act, which prohibited the transport of a female across state lines for "immoral purposes."
Eventually, Noel caved in to a divorce, and Wright married Olgivanna and adopted her daughter, Svetlana. Svetlana would marry one of his loyal apprentices, Wes Peters, bear two sons, and die with one of the children in a car accident at Taliesin in 1946. Years later, Wright and Olgivanna would set up Peters with Svetlana Alliluyeva, only daughter of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who defected to the United States in 1967; their marriage was short-lived, lasting only 22 months, since Peters was more married to the Fellowship than he was to any woman. Wright's daughter, Iovanna, would become a hardcore follower of Georgi Gurdjieff, like her mother, and marry multiple times; later in life, she was diagnosed with manic depression and eventually institutionalized.
Olgivanna, who would rule Taliesin long after Wright's death in 1959, was obsessed with Georgi Gurdjieff, a Gypsy-esque Armenian mystic, and his occult teachings. In fact, she had parted ways with her first husband and child, becoming the manager of Gurdjieff's Institute outside of Paris, before she moved to America and met Wright. An odd duck, Gurdjieff apparently was as charismatic as Wright and slept with many of his young female followers, who got pregnant for the purpose of populating the world with Seekers of Truth. Olgivanna was convinced that Gurdjieff's mystical dances and orphic teachings contained the key to powerful secret knowledge of the universe.
Early films of Gurdjieffian dance performances can be viewed today online and illuminate just what these soul-expanding dances entailed. To be honest, they look like a hallucinatory combination of military maneuvers, tai chi at 78 RPM, Jazzercise, synchronized swimming without the water, and Sufi dervish dances.
Wright appreciated and supported Olgivanna's passion for Gurdjieff's teachings, but only to a point. She wanted to see Taliesin turned into one of the guru's centers; he would have none of it, though he allowed her to hold classes and performances at both Taliesins and publically supported Gurdjieffian beliefs. There was room for only one king at the complex, however — and there was no question as to who reigned supreme. Gurdjieffian doctrine would badly divide the Fellowship in later years, especially after Wright's death, driving a destructive wedge between believers and non-believers, with believers being favored and non-believers marginalized.
Overall, Wright ended up being more sculptor than architect in his approach to creating functional structures. Though many of his projects look great on paper, they are not very utilitarian, working better as academic exercises than real-life structural solutions. Wright's well-documented abhorrence of certain amenities in residential structures alone dooms his designs in the 21st century. A palpable lack of storage space (which the architect railed against for decades), window screens, and privacy window coverings of any kind really don't lend themselves to today's post-modern lifestyle, with its emphasis on privacy and material acquisition. Not to mention that Wright often favored ridiculously low ceilings, narrow doors and hallways, and tiny bedrooms that have been compared more than once to ship's cabins.
Even today, a pricey Wright house is a hard sell. It's usually marketed as art for the ages, or a part of art history, rather than comfort-centric real estate. In fact, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an international preservation organization based in Chicago, has, at this writing, 19 listings for Wright homes on its website, www.savewright.org, none of which is under $1.2 million.
On the list is the Millard House in Pasadena for $4,995,000. More commonly known as La Miniatura, it has gone through a "multi-year restoration," according to the conservancy site, probably because of its leaky flat roof and notoriously porous building materials. It's recognized as the earliest Usonian house and the first to use Wright's decorative textile block system. Wright claimed to have created this system of interlocking molded blocks but, in fact, lifted it from a former disciple, Walter Burley Griffin, who had come up with a "knit-lock" block system several years before Wright did.
In Phoenix, the 2,553-square-foot Arcadia home Wright designed for his son and daughter-in-law, David and Gladys, in 1951 is listed for sale on a number of websites at $2.3 million and, as of March 7, had been on the market for 153 days. Its circular, gray concrete block-and-wood design smacks mightily of Wright's Guggenheim Museum circular ramp design. The house sold previously in 2009 for a reported $2.8 million.
The curators for "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" might have ended up with a more engaging show had they avoided the kitchen-sink approach that the exhibition employs. Of more interest to viewers might have been a show limited to the real innovations Wright was responsible for in American mass housing — the ones commonly in use today, together with commercial design amenities, like those he included in the Larkin building, and innovative hotel designs that champion rooms built around a open atrium and underground parking.
The Usonian House, with its concrete foundation embedded with a radiant heating system, single-level, open floor plan, and adjoining carport (which Wright and the Fellowship envisioned would be used for the Broadacre City project) is given short shrift. Equally snubbed are Wright's earliest ideas for mass housing, the American System-Built Houses he developed between 1912 and 1915, and multi-family residential Suntop Homes (also known as 1938's The Ardmore Experiment), consisting of four Usonian houses arranged in a pinwheel fashion. And there's no question that photographs of any completed construction would have assisted the less visionary viewer — myself included — in getting a feel for the finished product.
All in all, Phoenix Art Museum bypassed a golden opportunity to showcase the truly visionary designs and ideas that made Frank Lloyd Wright, in spite of himself, one of the most memorable architects in modern history, and one whose designs are still relevant today.
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