All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable.
January 21, 2013 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most important architects of the 20th century. He is known for buildings such as Fallingwater, the Guggenheim museum, and the Darwin D. Martin House. One of Wright’s most fascinating houses is Taliesin, his second home. Wright built the home in Spring Green, Wisconsin upon ancestral land given to him by his mother. Wright had fled his home in Oak Park, Illinois after abandoning his family and running off with the with the wife of a client. The Wisconsin home was built as a getaway for Wright and his mistress, but ultimately was the scene of her brutal murder. Wright did not abandon the building, but turned it into a place where young architects could study under the master. In 1937 he created a second home and school at Taliesin West. Fascinating documentary on Wright. Previously
posted by holmesian (37 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best museum tours of my entire life was my 3-hour tour of Taliesin. I highly recommend it - it's an incredible view into Wright's life and work. I've been to the Oak Park Studio, Fallingwater, Unity Temple, and Kentuck Knob too, but the Taliesin experience was by far the most intimate and offered the most new insights.

My favorite parts were the Romeo and Juliet tower, and also the dining room with modular furniture, where the students took turns arranging the dining room differently each week to test their design ideas.
posted by Miko at 10:41 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Looks like I've got my evening planned out.

By the way, I'd highly recommend a day in Oak Park for anyone visiting Chicago. Aside from the aforementioned home studio and the Unity Temple, there are many of his works within walking distance.
posted by graphnerd at 11:08 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

[Heyyyyyy, a couple comments removed. Maybe let's not divebomb the thread with an aggro rant in the second comment of the thread?]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:10 AM on January 21, 2013

We visited Taliesin West a few years ago. I was surprised at how rustic and minimalist it seemed, and yes, kind of small in scale. I guess before that I always made a connection in my mind between Wright and expansive.

I still really like his designs in glass (windows and lighting).
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 11:18 AM on January 21, 2013

Wright was an amazing architect, and I'd love to get to see Taliesin someday - and Fallingwater. The tour of the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo is fantastic (I've been on it twice!) and I also really liked the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL. The Thomas house is a great example of Wright preservation done right - the second owner kept everything the way it was when Mrs. Dana lived there, and then eventually sold the house and all the furnishings directly to the state, and everything stayed as it was intended. It's beautifully preserved.

It's great that there are so many opportunities to see the inside of the homes he designed (although the Martin house lost a good deal of its furniture and glass, I believe mostly due to looting). The Martin House was purchased by the University of Buffalo in the '80s and was used as the President's residence for quite some time. Several "improvements" were made that changed the house significantly, especially in the kitchen area, and lots of the outer buildings (also designed by Wright) were demolished. I believe they've all been built entirely anew, restoring the compound to its original state.

The Martin house was not preserved as well as the Thomas house, but both are beautiful and the tours are fascinating.
posted by k8lin at 11:37 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Falling Water has been falling down since the beginning.

I'm profoundly utilitarian in my general orientation, so functional is by definition beautiful. Design should serve humans, not the other way around.

I need to rewatch Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. In it, he discusses how modernist architecture turns out buildings that end up not serving the humans who inhabit them, can't be altered to suit the changing needs of the people inside them over time, and that architects seem to cultivate an active disinterest in how their buildings are inhabited once they're built.

Building materials like concrete, steel and glass, they can be crafted into exquisite, artistic designs that are then pretty much locked in place and can't evolve as the needs of the inhabitants evolve. This was not presented as a positive quality. I'm profoundly Utilitarian at heart, so Brand's stuff really spoke to me.

Wright, to me, falls squarely into the kind of "starchitect" criticism Brand was leveling.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:40 AM on January 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

Just toured Talliesen West this Saturday and I have to agree with Sir Cholmondeley. It had some great elements but was still every bit a winter desert camp.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 11:41 AM on January 21, 2013

I am "profoundly" of proofreading fail right now.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:44 AM on January 21, 2013

Wright, to me, falls squarely into the kind of "starchitect" criticism Brand was leveling.

Interesting, because he placed himself squarely in opposition to those kinds of ideas. I agree that Wright was a demagogue, but when you spend time in his feel good. Sunshine, air, and water flow around. THe scale is really comfortable. It would have all been better if he let you move the furniture, and if he had been a bit more interested in kitchens than he was - but he was, in his own principle, dedicated to utilitarian design that was meant to be experienced. If it doesn't seem quite comfortable to us today, remember that he was just a step more modern than the high Victorian style he grew up with.
posted by Miko at 12:08 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Love the art and design but...

I'm from near Spring Green. The locals did remember Wright and talked about him a bit when I was growing up there. Mainly about how he had stiffed them on a lot of bills.
posted by bert2368 at 12:10 PM on January 21, 2013

You feel fine in his rooms if you're no taller than he was. Me? Claustrophobic.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:15 PM on January 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mainly about how he had stiffed them on a lot of bills.

My grandma used to tell me about a summer job she took very near to Wright's school in Wisconsin, while she was a student at Iowa State in the 1940s. He used to come down for a time in the summer, apparently, in his trademark cape, and would buy up the stock of some of the shops in town - but never settled his bills. It's nice, in a way, to hear that corroborated here.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, so a short drive to Fallingwater, but the shadow of Wright's acerbic reputation always hung over my trips there and to Kentuck Knob close by. Something of a shame I let that happen.
posted by mcoo at 12:21 PM on January 21, 2013

You feel fine in his rooms if you're no taller than he was. Me? Claustrophobic. Good point. I'm 4'11" and his spaces feel downright expansive to me, but I always forget that I'm on the short side of the height stick.

I've also heard that Wright wasn't great about paying his bills, but I can't remember where I picked that up - perhaps in the Martin House tour.
posted by k8lin at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2013

Wright, to me, falls squarely into the kind of "starchitect" criticism Brand was leveling.
That first article that Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey links to is a good one... I hadn't heard the story of the engineers warning about the concrete slabs (and being poo-poohed by Wright) but it doesn't surprise me.

I was a docent at two of Wright's more famous Los Angeles homes (Hollyhock House and The Ennis House) and a related problem was that he was pretty much always in experimentation mode, never spending long enough on a particular style or technique to get the bugs out, which definitely contributed to the overruns and delays he's so famous for. His L.A. houses also suffered from his distraction with the Imperial Hotel project in Japan... many delays and miscommunications with contractors.

On the other hand... having spent a lot of time in those two houses and having toured a number of other Wright buildings, I agree with Miko. Even the Ennis house, which has a huge footprint and completely dominates the hillside it's situated on, manages to be both grand and intimate inside (Granted, I am not much taller than he was. And he did like his low ceilings for transitional spaces.) Also: I wish I could remember where I read it, but my understanding is that Wright's Usonian houses were probably his most successful as far as size, cost, form, function and client satisfaction; there are (or were) people who lived in theirs for decades compared to a lot of his earlier residences, which clients often sold after only a few years.

(yes, eponysterical)
posted by usonian at 12:37 PM on January 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've been fascinated with him since I was a teenager, and read a couple of biographies. No question - he was a huge jerk. There are uncountable stories about his being an arrogant, insensitive jerk in one way or another (money, women, deceit, lying, rigidity), everywhere you go. People love to pile on him for it, and I can't really blame them, jerks are jerks. And there is a thing where it does sort of magnify when a person in any field very celebrated for one outstanding thing but personally is not a lovely individual. So there are hundreds of "FLW was an asshole" stories and they're mostly true. But that doesn't lessen the quality of his work or his impact on American (and world) visual culture.
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You feel fine in his rooms if you're no taller than he was. Me? Claustrophobic.

Yeah, this was something that stood out to me when I toured Taliesin West, and the guide pointed out that he felt that he was essentially the ideal height and basically anyone taller could suck it. Paraphrasing, but still, that was obnoxious.

His designs are interesting and poignant, but I'm really not a fan of a great deal of them, from an aesthetic perspective. I understand building into the environment and from the environment: TW was built with stones from the surrounding area, and built with canvas and wood and such. But to me, it's ugly. Really ugly. I like that his studio uses canvas as a natural light diffuser and I thought that was clever, but the aesthetic really didn't work for me. It definitely looks like it's "of the environment", but it comes off as slapdash in a way in many parts of it. The auditorium was neat, though.

I never knew this stuff about his mistress and the murders, though. Surprised that I've been to PHX Art's Wright exhibit and TW and watch tons of Jeopardy and read about him and never heard that. Fascinating. Grisly. Oy.
posted by disillusioned at 12:53 PM on January 21, 2013

I went to Taliesin West in the fall during my first visit to Arizona and (other than seeing the Grand Canyon) it was my favorite part of the trip. Not sure I'd ever want to live there, but the history behind the place was fascinating, and there was something about the fact that a couple students who had worked with him were still in residence working that brought him out of being a historical figure into the present.

The most striking thing about it for me was the theatre that had virtually perfect acoustics. The shape was such that, with the docent standing on the stage and all of us in the far back row, we could hear her perfectly.

Re: his bills, I remember a lot of emphasis during our tour on the fact that while Wright earned a lot of money at certain points in his career, he managed to spend as much or more, so I imagine most, if not all, of those stories are true. He seems to have had quite a sense of entitlement.
posted by Kosh at 1:10 PM on January 21, 2013

I lived in Oak Park for a few years, two doors down on Kenilworth from this semi-creepy, imposing, and not at all friendly-looking church that seemed to be made entirely of cement. Never even went inside, and was often so freaked out by the building that I'd walk on the other side of the street. Only years later did I come to understand that that old, crumbling Unity Temple had some significance.

I was kind of a goof in my 20's.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:10 PM on January 21, 2013

Great post - thanks.
In architecture there is this fantasy of genius, where innovative stars don't really have to be able to build feasible structures. Maybe it started with Leonardo, but it gained traction with the revolutionary architects of the 18th century. Very long story, but to cut it short: with romanticism, the concept of the autonomous artist coupled with the late-renaissance ideal of a genius artist led to the idea that a true great artist would forever push boundaries and create new visions which were only barely realistic. Wright both knew this theory and lived it, as did le Corbusier, and several other modern architects. It was the beginning of the now all-encompassing relationship between architecture and marketing. I'm not saying FLW or le Corbusier were bad architects - to the contrary. But they were among the first good architects who realized that they had to market their goods, even at the cost of quality of product.
posted by mumimor at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

One weird thing, there's not one, but two FLW buildings in Witchita KS. I went biking around the Corbin Education center one late night, and I think my main impression was that the fountain would make a great place for an RC Boat race.
posted by hellojed at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2013

I rather enjoyed his correspondence with the young son of one of his clients, which resulted in a (one and only?) Frank Lloyd Wright designed doghouse.

(I also rather enjoyed that the dog hated it.)
posted by AgentRocket at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

(I also rather enjoyed that the dog hated it.)

Well, yeah. How many dogs do you know who are five feet eight and one-half inches tall?
posted by radwolf76 at 2:40 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nice post. I've toured Wright's home/studio in Oak Park, and know a modest amount about him, but I am truly surprised to learn that one of the servants carried out a mass murder at Taliesin. Here in Bar Harbor, in 1947, the famous mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was at her summer home reading when her chef suddenly came into the library and tried to shoot her, then stab her with two carving knives. Rinehart, who often gets credit for the idea that "The butler did it" (not the chef), survived the attack.
posted by LeLiLo at 3:12 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to see a completely restored Frank Lloyd Wright home then Minneapolis is where it is at! The Malcolm Wiley House was being sold for 2 million at one point and the interior was competely restored. It is mentioned as the commission that "rescued" Llyod Wright at Taliesin West when commissions were few and very far between.
posted by jadepearl at 3:23 PM on January 21, 2013

You can spend the night at this FLW house in Two Rivers, WI or in this house in Acme, PA.
posted by carmicha at 4:44 PM on January 21, 2013

From "The Taliesin Tragedy":
And up until the event that transpired, they were considered to be mild mannered servants. But while Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago, Mamah fired Julian and Gertrude because of strange behavior on Julian's part, and the servant snapped... He died a few weeks later in jail...
Hmm, knowing Wright, I assume there's a fair bit missing from this narrative. The article mentions only "strange behavior", and says nothing about Wright's relationship with Carlton, which leaves too much to the imagination. Not that Wright killed Carlton, certainly, but I can easily imagine Wright not being the easiest employer to work for.

jadepearl: "If you want to see a completely restored Frank Lloyd Wright home then Minneapolis is where it is at!"

There are also bunches of other Prairie School buildings around the Cities; see especially the work of Purcell & Elmslie.
posted by jiawen at 5:33 PM on January 21, 2013

The mild mannered black immigrant butler did it!? Found at the crime scene by a mob that nearly lynched him on the spot? I don't buy it.
posted by humanfont at 6:52 PM on January 21, 2013

I have been to Wright's studio the Unity Temple in Oak Park and taken the walking tour of the town. I have visited Taliesin and Taliesin West, and Fallingwater as a child, though I had to stay in the car since at the time children were not permitted to visit. I have passed the Guggenheim practically every day on the way to work on the M4 bus. I did a report on Wright in high school, explaining the concept of Organic Architecture to my classmates. I have urinated on the Robie House after a night of collegiate drinking, which at the time I viewed as an act of respect. Yes, you can say I'm a fan.
posted by stargell at 7:28 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

humanfont, there is more than enough on the topic to satisfy your curiosity in Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders. Carlton attempted suicide with acid and confessed to authorities before dying in jail of his self-inflicted poisoning. Many locals attested to his temper, and his widow to an apparent paranoia -- including sleeping with the axe that became the murder weapon -- that grew after they moved from Chicago to Spring Green. As a lifelong Wright aficionado, which my father was as well, there may have been whispers about other "explanations", but the basic outline of the story has never been in dispute. There's no question that the family was was murdered and the house was burned to the ground, nor that Carlton was located inside the furnace. A murder for hire, or almost any other version, would pretty much not leave the murderer on site and readily implicated. Since his wife also reported a desire on his part to see a dentist, one may immediately surmise the possibility of a medical explanation such as a brain tumor.

Incidentally, we may add to the list of viewable Wright homes the Laurent House in Rockford [FB], a custom-designed accessible house for a disabled war veteran that was rescued from the auction block to become a house museum run by a foundation.

In other recent Wright news, the Milwaukee foundation looking after some of a row of nearly-identical American System-Built Homes recently acquired one more of them (the third of six), one step closer to owning the entire group, which will be restored using rental income. Crucially, they now control one of each of the three designs used.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

And after your stop in Minneapolis to check out the Malcolm Wiley House, head north to Cloquet and see the FLW gas station.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:10 AM on January 22, 2013

A few years ago I read Loving Frank, which is a novel told from the murdered mistress's point of view. Fascinating book; now I might read the non-fiction version.
posted by epersonae at 1:51 PM on January 22, 2013

Yesyesyes, he was a giant and a mega-talent, and his buildings are often beautiful. (I'm not blind.) But while they're beautiful as structures, they're often absurd as buildings...

Simple question: Would you want to live in one of his houses? I wouldn't, for two main reasons. Most important is the way a Frank Lloyd Wright house never becomes your home; instead, you move in and become the curator of one branch of the Frank Lloyd Wright museum. You're just the custodian in a monument to his genius. For the other, I wouldn't want to be in charge of (let alone pay for) the upkeep. Wright couldn't resist trying out innovative building techniques -- which has meant in practice that many of his houses are in semi-constant need of expensive repair.

As for the art and moral values his work is celebrated for -- openness, naturalness, a casual, flowing informality -- well, let's see. His ceilings are often very low -- uncomfortably low. Why? Because he was a vindictive short man who was resentful of taller people, and he liked ceiling heights that make tall people feel uneasy. Flowing and open? Sure: his use of space is often fascinating in an aesthetic sense. But in a human sense, it works only if you subscribe to the whole package -- if you don't mess with how and where he wants the furniture placed and the light to fall. It all works together or it doesn't work at all -- which is impressive but a pain. (There's nothing quite like being locked into someone else's concept, particularly when what you want to do is kick back in the comfort of your own home.) As far as I can tell, and from what the owners of one house told me, his buildings are about as unadaptable as buildings can be. And those long horizontal lines which we're told are such eloquent reflections of the American landscape and psyche? Well, they collect water and leak, and the water drips down into the walls, and ....

The buildings work as they're supposed to only if you first submit to FLW -- and submit totally. Give over to his genius, and then you'll have earned the right to experience the full, transcendent FLW experience. What if, on the other hand, you prefer to live by your own rules and you expect your house to play along? You may find yourself wrestling with a nightmare as well as courting bankruptcy.
-Frank Lloyd Wright isn't God
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:36 PM on January 22, 2013

He's become a kind of pop icon

Makes you wonder if he would have been quite so patronized if he hadn't been so patronizing, or photogenic, or gossip-worthy himself.
posted by BWA at 4:29 AM on January 23, 2013

My mother met Wright when she was a teenager in Bartlesville, OK. He was in town for the construction of his only skyscraper, the Price Tower. She was fascinated by him; apparently a lot of women felt that way. Her father was an engineer and was not very impressed with his work. Other engineers would agree; see Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey's comment linking to this article. From the article:
...Wright ignored advice from the engineering firm that supplied the slabs for Fallingwater. Engineers told him there weren’t enough steel bars in the beams to balance the tension. Scientific American reported in January that load tests indicate stress in the slabs are past margins of safety—something Wright was told from the start. Given to ignoring thinking that wasn’t his, he also pooh-poohed building codes.

I have toured another Wright property that is also unique. His only southern plantation is Auldbrass in Yemassee, SC. It was never fully completed and had fallen into disrepair until producer Joel Silver purchased it in 1986 and poured millions of dollars into it (there are still portions of Wright's original design that have not been completed). It is only open to the public once or twice a year for tours, so if you are interested in Wright and get a chance to go, don't miss it. It looks like the next tour is in fall, 2013. Things I learned while there are that almost all the angles in the buildings are at 80 degrees, which must have driven the carpenters nuts, and all the cedar boards used in construction are held together with brass screws that have their slots lined up to match the angle of the boards. This includes all the boards in the very long wooden fence at the front of the property.
posted by TedW at 6:18 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's all true, he was terrible, terrible. I guess it's an inevitable flip side of lionization, but it does strike me as a shame that we always end up talking about the failures of his work at a technical level, or his incredibly real persosality flaws, we never talk about what was so great and influential about his work that he's one of a very small group of architects who, because of his art, is a household name. Both existed in one person, but the tendency to want to pop the balloon detracts from what is a truly astounding vision, even if parts of it were better off adapted and technically executed by others. He was an iconoclast, a world-changer, and that fact shouldn't be lost.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on January 23, 2013

Both existed in one person, but the tendency to want to pop the balloon detracts from what is a truly astounding vision, even if parts of it were better off adapted and technically executed by others.
Ken Burns' documentary about Wright came out right around the time I was getting involved with the houses in L.A., and I found it pretty disappointing for that reason; it's been a long time since I watched it, but I remember it spent a lot of time talking about what a cad he was (and he certainly was; I don't mean to defend or excuse him for it) and less about his work.

Architecture, like any other art form, is ultimately pretty subjective as far as what moves us individually. For me personally, Wright is only one of three architects (the other two being Greene & Greene) whose work affect me viscerally, that give me that awe-inspired, chest-tightening feeling. I'll never forget coming up the stairs into the great room of the Ennis House for the first time.

The author of the post P-B-Z-M linked to above criticizes the iconic approach to Fallingwater for being "wildly over art-directed," and would probably make the same gripe against the way you enter the Ennis House, through a small front door that's recessed into a cave-like entryway. The ceilings are low, and yes, the space feels compressed even if you're not particularly tall. It's fairly dim; light comes from fixtures inside several perforated concrete blocks, in the same motif repeated throughout the house. Once inside you're still in a fairly small space, with a door to the billiard room to the right of an unassuming-looking staircase into the rest of the house. Halfway up the stairs the ceiling jumps up something like 20 feet and huge artglass windows on either side of the house let in lots and lots of light. Once you reach the top of the stairs the whole room opens before you, and you're looking out the front windows at the whole Los Angeles basin. It's breathtaking, and of course it's "art-directed."

Going through Wright's buildings there are often moments like that, where you're keenly aware that you're looking at exactly what he wanted you to be looking at, and in that way it's almost like getting a private tour from the man himself. So yes, it's a controlled experience, right down to the placement of the furniture and, when he could get the client to pay for it, the designs of that furniture, the carpets, drapes, light fixtures, and china. Would I want to live in an environment like that? I don't know, but I'd certainly like to spend a few nights in one.

I can't defend the man's behavior in life, but I can't pretend to like his work any less because of it.
posted by usonian at 8:33 PM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

People often complain about this or that practical objection to his buildings, but if you go too far in satisfying practical objections you get a bland box. His vision of the Prairie Style is one thing above all, and I think that is often forgotten: It is an authentically American architecture, when practically everything else derives from either Greco-Roman forms or at the more naturalistic end ethnic European forms. Prairie derives, and in many cases specifically rejects, both those influences.

The Auldbrass photographs -- I had only ever seen a small illustration or two before now -- are quite fascinating to me. I recently spent some time working through season ("day") 5 of 24, much of which is set in a mytho-fictional Western White House whose exteriors were a ranch called Ventura Farms, but whose interiors -- as far as I know -- are a bravura set strongly resembling a Wrightian Prairie Style vision. (If anyone knows differently, speak up.) I tried to think of a context in which we would get an official Presidential building using American architectural forms and I couldn't imagine it would really happen. (Note, many Presidents have alternative retreats such as Bush's Crawford Ranch, but I'm talking about something that would have official 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue credentials.) I feel often that people are in some sense dishonoring this bespoke American tradition when they criticize Wright -- not that we need to reject practicality, but that the alternative is often the most familiar, nostalgic form rather than something invigorating and new. (It's a great disappointment to me to watch, say, Blue Murder, set in Manchester, decidedly not a global tourist destination, and see fantastic new architecture that puts almost anything being raised in an American city to shame.) Anyway, the general point is that Wright saw architecture as much as experiment as anything else, and even with his extravagances at one end you had things like the Usonian Homes at the other, an explicitly socialist/social-democratic attempt at creating mass housing for the working classes that wasn't made of ticky-tacky. In other words, let's view his architecture as both political and artistic, not just as buildings.
posted by dhartung at 11:50 PM on January 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

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