So long, Frank Lloyd Wright
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune
So soon, So soon.
Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile and think of you.
— Simon and Garfunkel, 1969
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 in the State of Wisconsin. In 1889 when he was in college, he moved to Chicago and joined as an apprentice a firm run by the architect Louis Sullivan. Four years later, in 1893, Wright began his own practice, launching a career that would span six and a half decades. In 1937, at the age of seventy, after a long period of only scant accomplishments due to the Depression when most assumed he had retired, he started the most productive phase of his career. Wright produced some one-third of his total output in the last decade of his life.
His boundless energy far eclipsed in total productivity most of his competitors in the Bauhaus movement, many of whom produced only a handful of buildings. Wright designed around 1000 structures, 532 of which were built.
Among all the European architects on either side of the cultural struggle–both International Style and those prominent in Germany after 1933, none broke as radically from past practice as did the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Bauhaus group produced, with some exceptions, buildings that ranged from boring to aggressively ugly. Many were hard to distinguish from a parking structure. The German architects led by Albert Speer produced some fine buildings, but most of them borrowed heavily from classical Roman architecture. It was left to an American to develop a new and revolutionary technic and a national style Americans could call their own.
During his lifetime, Wright was not popular amongst his peers, most of whom belonged to the Bauhaus or International school, which was a closed system centered in the Universities much as the academy controls political opinion in America today.
Fifty-six years after his death, his fame has exceeded that of his orthodox competitors, most of whose work has been forgotten. Curiously, despite Wright’s posthumous reputation, the lessons he constantly preached about architectural design never really took, and today there are few practitioners who operate in the footsteps of the master.
In contrast, the International Style now prevails almost everywhere at least in commercial architecture, though most of its original practitioners of the Bauhaus School in Weimar Germany have now become obscure. The Style however is widely hated, and apostates do a brisk business flaunting it as noted by Tom Wolfe in Bauhaus to Our House:
One will note that Stone’s business did not collapse following his apostasy, merely his prestige. The Taj Maria did wonders for his practice in a commercial sense. After all the International Style was well hated even by those who commissioned it.
Does Frank Lloyd Wright offer a genuine alternative to the dreaded and now ubiquitous glass box, or was he just an ultra-flamboyant hustler of an insignificant variation of the style made common by the likes of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Richard Neutra and others?
Are Wright’s en bloc condemnations of the International Style justified or was he throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Is there value in modern architecture, or are Americans just bored with endless imitations of styles from bygone eras?
The Bauhaus School was started in Weimar in 1919 and continued in Germany until 1933. The new National Socialist government took a dim view of the Bauhaus School, which it regarded as a magnet for leftists, and whose buildings were considered degenerate art. This later became known as the International Style. The intent was to create a style that would serve for all nations and cultures. Its first leader was Walter Gropius who served from 1919–1928. Gropius was succeeded by Hannes Meyer who served till 1930, when Mies van der Rohe took over until its last year in Germany—1933.
In 1933, the Bauhaus School was closed under pressure from the new government. The Bauhaus School leader Walter Gropius went first to England then later to the United States. Meyer left for the USSR in 1930, then on to Switzerland, Mexico, and then back to Switzerland. Mies van der Rohe left Germany for the United States.
Clearly, for those of us on the American Right, there are red flags already just in the basic description of the Bauhaus School objectives. International—a one size fits all style—anathema to nationalists and those who wish to preserve rather than obliterate Europe’s wide variety of cultures. It seems the National Socialists were on solid ground in giving the Bauhaus crowd its walking papers. The new Germany—with architects Albert Speer, Paul Bonatz, Woldemar Brinkmann, Paul Troost (designer of the two honor temples containing the coffins of the sixteen killed in the Beer Hall Putsch), sculptors Arno Breker, Josef Thorak, Fritz Klimsch and Willy Meller, painters Julius Paul Junghanns, Hubert Lanzinger and Leopold Schumtzler—seemed to be poised on the edge of a cultural and artistic revival which was cut short by the War’s end in 1945.
Tom Wolfe had this to say about the International Style:
Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement parts wholesale distribution warehouse. (Bauhaus, 3)
Many Bauhaus creations were astonishingly sterile. Further, the Bauhaus architects were elitist and authoritarian, brushing aside the concerns of the client in favor of the prevailing orthodoxy of the movement:
[Corbusier’s imitators] would build expensive country houses in wooded glades patterned after Corbu’s Villa Savoye, with strict instructions that the bedrooms, being on the upper floor and visible only to the birds, have no curtains whatsoever. Tired of waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to the light of the summer sun, the owners would add white curtains. But the soul engineer would inevitably return and rip the offending rags down . . . (Bauhaus, 76, 78)
With the International Style architect Peter Eisenman of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, esoteric babble reaches such dizzying heights that it exemplifies the modern maxim:
Modern life’s absurdities render the satirist’s role redundant.
Wolfe quotes a baffling and indecipherable phrase from Eisenman:
syntactical nuances, semiology of the infrastructure, semantics of the superstructure, morphemes of negative space, polyphemes of architectonic afterimage, articulation of the perimeter of the perceived structure and its dialogue with the surrounding landscape . . . (This caused a Harvard logician to ask, ‘What did the landscape have to say?’ . . .) (Bauhaus, 121)
As the popular phrase has it:
If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.
Wright’s buildings were an order of magnitude apart from the International Style, though it is difficult to put into words why. Both schools had similar core ideas of value: the use of glass to blur the distinction between the outdoors and the indoors, the use of modern materials (concrete, steel glass), and daring engineering techniques such as cantilevered floors and split-level floor plans. Unfortunately, Wright was typically careless about quality control, usually relying on local talent for his sprawling worldwide practice. FLW buildings both commercial and residential are notorious for expensive problems, particularly roof leaks. Many but by no means all of these were caused by a mysterious attraction to the flat roof, which was also shared by the Bauhaus group:
These young architects were working and building in cities like Berlin, Weimar, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, at about the fifty-second parallel, which also runs through Canada, the Aleutian Islands, Moscow, and Siberia. At this swath of the globe, with enough snow and rain to stop an army, as history had shown more than once, there was no such thing as a functional flat roof (Bauhaus, 24)
Today in Southern California flat-roof commercial buildings are still being built. After the first rain of the season, local Angelinos are accustomed to seeing five-gallon buckets all over the floors of many businesses.
Fallingwater, arguably Wright’s best stylistic exercise, was plagued with problems from the beginning caused by overly ambitious use of cantilevered sections which were not supported by either the materials or the technology of the late 1930s:
Deflection issues and questions of sufficient strength have been associated with Fallingwater ever since the initial construction process. When the formwork for the first floor cantilever was removed, the construction workers recorded a downward movement of 1¾ inches. . . . When Robert Silman Associates was hired to examine the house’s structural issues in 1995, a total deflection of 7 inches was measured at the edge of the 15 foot cantilever. . . . Had it been built using today’s techniques and materials, there would have been no structural issues.
One-and-a-half-million dollars later, the sagging cantilever section was finally fixed—well, mostly fixed. It still retained some of the original pre-repair sag, as bringing it back to level would have caused extensive damage to the house. Altogether, about eleven-and-a-half-million dollars have been spent on upkeep and repairs over the life of Fallingwater. Wright was a very good idea man—arguably one of the best. Unlike the California architects Greene and Greene, Wright used on site crews from the build locale over whom he had little control. Greene and Greene worked locally in Southern California and used the same crew, giving them greater control over the build quality of their structures.
Wingspread: Wright House, Wrong Roof
Wingspread, built in 1939 as the personal residence of Herbert F. Johnson, the head of Johnson Wax, was plagued by leaks from when its owner first moved in:
So famous did Wright become for his leaky roofs, including the roofs of Taliesin in Spring Green, that he developed a number of defensively humorous responses to his clients’ complaints. A well-known anecdote concerns a long-distance telephone call to Taliesin made by Herbert F. Johnson, owner of Wingspread, the great country house that Wright designed for Johnson in Racine, Wisconsin in the nineteen-thirties.
Johnson to Wright, indignantly: “Frank, we’re just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and your damned skylight is leaking. What are we to do?” Wright to Johnson suavely: “Move the table.”
The nature of the roof was revealed during its restoration:
At first, no one knew exactly what held the roof up — Wright’s plans were short on detail. To their amazement, members of the restoration team found the sagging Z-shaped rafters in the upper part of the roof were nothing more than butt-nailed, plywood-gusseted 2×4’s; eight had been rotted by the chronic leaks.
Rot-proof replacements for the rafters were fashioned from 1 1/2-inch thick slabs of aircraft aluminum. Robotic water jets did the cutting. Extracting the old rafters and fitting new ones in their place demanded surgical precision, so the workers first rehearsed the entire procedure on a full-size mock roof.
To strengthen the structure without altering its shape, thin sheets of carbon fiber, used in racing boat hulls and Stealth bombers were epoxied to the sheathing . . .
Two million, eight hundred-fifty thousand dollars later, the roof was fixed.
Despite these problems, Wright remains the greatest architect America has ever produced, and ranks as one of the top architects in the world. Unlike most of his peers in the International movement, he was able to make the hearth the focal point of his houses in a fashion that practically shouted Family, Wife, Children—a heretical sentiment in the postwar era. Other modern houses had fireplaces of course, but none even came close to Wright’s designs in their ability to evoke primal emotions of kin and blood.
Modern architecture, then, has earned a place of permanence in the field because it is a genuine and valuable departure from past practice, and because it avoids merely repeating minor variations on old styles. Modern architecture brings buildings into the present age with the use of contemporary materials and modern engineering and construction practices.
It was not possible to continue indefinitely using the materials and styles available to the Romans two thousand years ago, any more that it is possible today to continue making bicycles of wood or automobiles that must be crank-started. Use of modern methods and materials, however, is not enough as the Bauhaus School of Ugliness has shown us. It remains for future architects to carry the ideas of Wright forward into the twenty-first century.
Was Wright One of Us?
Wright’s own personal writings are difficult to read. If one of our own on the New American Right begins reading some of his work, it is immediately apparent that he is all over the map politically. He is so inconsistent that it is next door to impossible to figure out if he is a leftist or a rightist. Some of his ideas in print express hopeful signs; in other instances, he sounds much like the standard leftists of the day:
Wright’s Leftist Positions:
Wright’s message to France, April, 1952—“France really lived when she lined up on the side of Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity: a lesson learned from the forefathers of the Unites States of America . . .”
False equivalency between Left and Right—“Hitlerism (conquer the world to make it safe for Kultur) was what the Russians most feared when we visited them [in] 1937 But Communism, now by Politburo if necessary, had become ‘Conquer the world to make it safe for Marxism!’” (Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, 54)
The Side of Frank Lloyd Wright a Nationalist Would Recognize:
The International Style—“The great Art of Architecture is thus made a mere cliché, a pattern that could be cut from cardboard with a pair of scissors by the novitiate.” (FLW Collected Writings, 27)
A Culture of our own—“If an intrinsic architecture failed to emerge in the United States, the country would never have a culture of its own.” (FLW Collected Writings, 9)
Soulless architecture—Thus Modern architecture is Organic architecture deprived of soul. Therefore architecture is now so easy to grasp that any boy of three months’ experience can practice it and appear with a dose of it on the front page of the local newspaper next month, or within a year (or two) be heralded in color by the market magazines of building materials as the new ‘It.’ “ (FLW Collected Writings, 45)
Korea—Not only peace in Korea, the peace of the world, so it seems to me, would be best served if the United States of America would try to recover the lost art of minding its own business.” (FLW Collected Writings, 42)
Racial Instinct—“An idea (probably rooted deep in racial instinct) that shelter should be the essential look of any dwelling; put the low spreading roof, flat or hipped or low gabled, with generously projecting eaves over the whole. I began to see a building primarily not as a cave but as broad shelter in the open, related to vista; vista without and vista within.” (FLW Collected Writings, 79)
“Gothic soared for me, too; but seldom if ever the Renaissance in architecture, outside the original contributions of the Italians.” (FLW Collected Writings, 211)
Lastly, this capital observation, running counter to all the received wisdom since the Reformation—one of Wright’s favorite and most often cited observations, taken from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame:
The Renaissance in Europe—“It is that setting sun which we mistake for a dawn.”
More from Victor Hugo on architecture as it stood at the beginning of the 16th century:
Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone. (Hunchback of Notre Dame, location 3077)
Behold how, beginning with the discovery of printing, architecture withers away little by little, becomes lifeless and bare. . . . But practically beginning with the sixteenth century, the malady of architecture is visible; it is no longer the expression of society; it becomes classic art in a miserable manner; from being Gallic, European, indigenous, it becomes Greek and Roman; from being true and modern, it becomes pseudo classic. (Hunchback of Notre Dame, locations 3095-3101)
2. There are some exceptions. Here is a link to the excellent work of Dean Meredith, San Diego, California http://www.deanmereditharchitecture.com/test-linked-galleries/
3. Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd, 1981), 89.
4. I share Tom Wolfe’s distain for the International (glass-box) style, but there are some intriguing exceptions. See the work of Pierre Koening (Stahl House) and some of the homes built by Richard Neutra
5. In this connection, see Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949 http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architecture/2012-09/architect-philip-johnson-glass-house-modernism-article
6. Wright was no better, filling his houses with furniture so uncomfortable it was virtually unusable. He then complained when clients later jettisoned it in favor of their own furniture.
7. Obviously the presumption of privacy on the upper floor no longer applies today due to the invention of camera-bearing drones.
8. Anyone viewing a flat roof after a rainstorm can see that a flat roof is flat in theory only. In the real world there is no such thing as a flat roof, which is why they leak. After a rainfall, flat roofs will all have pools of water here and there, and dry areas elsewhere. Of course the pools of water are the low areas, and the areas that will eventually leak.
10. The Gamble House (1909) in Pasadena, California is the most famous example. It was built for David B. Gamble of the Proctor and Gamble Co.
11. Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York, Putnam, 1987), 271. Another version of this story sets the scene as an open house party on move-in day, and FLW says “Move your chair” instead of “Move the table.”
13. Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, vol. 5, ed. Bruce Brook Pfeiffer (NYC, Rizzoli, International Publications, Inc., 1995), 34.
14. Victor Hugo, Hunchback of Notre Dame  (Point Blank Classics e-book), location 3101.