The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses

The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses

The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses

The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses

Excerpt

This book comes from the chance meeting of two thoughts. The first has to do with a problem-- a lingering question, really--about Frank Lloyd Wright's houses.

In both early and late life Wright had an enormous number of domestic clients; among noted architects almost certainly a record number by a wide margin. They came to his drawing board in droves, and, having seen through to completion their adventure with him, they were, by and large, ecstatic about what they got. Evidence of this, and not the sole evidence, is that many of these clients subsequently returned to Wright for another house, and sometimes more than one. In An Autobiography Wright even tells of two houses that "were bought back again by the same people who had built them and sold them, because they said they could not feel at home in any other." Given the source, one might approach the comment with caution, yet Robert Twombly, a careful and balanced biographer of Wright, notes that "as questionnaires and interviews establish again and again, his clients love their homes, indeed, are more than ordinarily enthusiastic, and leave, if they have to, with considerable reluctance."

And then there is the response of the general public, harder to document but sometimes brought home with dramatic clarity. Anyone who has taught or attended an introductory class in modern architectural history for a lay audience will know that when a slide of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye or Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat House goes on the screen, some explaining is in store, but when Fallingwater appears, the class is all attention within, quite literally, one second. The appeal is immediate and pervasive, and the same observation can be made of on-site responses to this house, as is suggested by Edgar Kaufmann Jr.'s query: "Why does a house designed by an architectural individualist for the special purposes of a special client appeal so much to the public in general?"

And there is, of course, an enormous body of attention to Wright at the professional and critical level. The literature on his houses is voluminous, and almost without exception it gives them a monumental place in the story of architecture, both for their revolutionary formal, spatial, and technical inventiveness, and for their sheer evocative magic.

Yet few houses of equal fame have embodied more conspicuous faults. Many of Wright's plans defy reasonable furniture arrangements, many frustrate even the storage of reasonable and treasured possessions. In many cases, severe problems afflict the architectural fabric: leaking roofs, unserviceable detailing, even structural inadequacies. A number of the houses were over budget to a degree that challenges belief. And, one must add, there were problems of personality as well: it is a matter of record that many of Wright's clients found him arrogant, careless, slow, and misleading, and were not by any means always amused by his temperament. And there are more vague and subjective difficulties, for the sheer power of these houses as dramatic exercises in space and form can intimidate the more varied and spontaneous acts of ordinary daily life: how does one have a casual conversation in the Robie house dining room, or hang a cherished delicate picture in a Usonian?

Normally such pervasive problems would finish an architect's career almost before it started. Yet Wright's houses have offered some quality capable not only of transcending their formidable shortcomings but of engendering a uniquely widespread devotion. Something about them, obviously, has more than redeemed their multitudes of sins.

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