Magazine article National Forum

Frank Lloyd Wright in the Twenty-First Century

Magazine article National Forum

Frank Lloyd Wright in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

At the dawn of a new millennium, why should we care about Frank Lloyd Wright? This world-famous architect's sevendecade career ended more than forty years ago. What could this distant, flamboyant figure reveal to us that today's technologically sophisticated architects could not easily surpass or simply dismiss as passe?

It is true that he created a large number of architectural masterpieces, many of which survive and are eagerly visited by enthusiastic architects, students, and lay admirers. It is also true that Wright's personal life was filled with colorful and tragic events, making him an ideal subject for television biographies, such as Ken Burns' recent film presented on PBS. But the question remains: is this man and his architectural oeuvre of merely historical interest, or are there concepts of current importance to be learned from a critical assessment of his contributions?

Aside from the profound esthetic pleasures that can he gained by personally experiencing his buildings, there are, I believe, at least three compelling reasons to care about and to learn anew from Frank Lloyd Wright.

THE FIRST "GREEN" ARCHITECT

First, Wright's eloquent advocacy of an architecture in harmony with nature has never been more critical to our future survival. The most potent current movement in world architecture is "sustainability" or what has been termed "Green Architecture." Growing awareness of the planet's limited capacity to sustain its voracious, rapidly multiplying inhabitants has made ecological sensitivity a global priority. Wright defined his architecture as "organic," which he saw as a principle of order, structure, and form inherent in the processes of nature, and he demonstrated its intensely practical and psychological benefits over and over in such exemplary works as the dramatic Kaufman house, Fallingwater; his own Wisconsin homeplace, Taliesin; and the remarkable solar hemicycle Jacobs II House in Madison. His suburban and rural houses, built of natural, renewable materials, facing onto living gardens, and warmed by the sun's rays, have been described as "the best prototypes of true environmental houses."

Frank Lloyd Wright is increasingly recognized as the one architect of the previous era why intuitively sensed the essential interdependence of architecture and the natural environment. As Columbia University Professor Gwendolyn Wright (no relation to the architect) saw it, "He envisioned nothing less than perfect harmony where nature would flourish and individuals thrive."

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Second, an essential contribution on which Wright's continuing significance rests will likely prove surprising to many. Wright is sometimes unfairly criticized as having been merely an architect for the rich. While it is true that he designed a number of luxurious homes for upper-middle-class families made prosperous by the nation's robust economy, none of these designs were deliberately ostentatious or wasteful. At the same time, according to Wright authority Robert McCarter, "Only one American architect constantly insisted on the importance of the conception and design of affordable housing for the American middle class." He was, of course, referring to Wright, who had stated, "The house of moderate cost is not only America's major architectural problem but the most difficult for her major architects."

From the very beginning of his career, Wright presented numerous innovative concepts for urban and suburban housing. He consistently employed the latest technologies and imaginative spatial strategies to achieve economical but humane residential environments. …

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