The Other Tradition of American Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn

By McCarter, Robert | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Other Tradition of American Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn


McCarter, Robert, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


What is the American tradition in architecture? Judging from what may be seen in the vast majority of suburban residential developments, office parks, or university campuses, the "traditional" American architecture that we have inherited exhibits a kind of schizophrenia, presenting to the street a thin veneer of "Victorian," or "Mediterranean," or some other cannibalized "historical" style (creating what is called "curb appeal"), which is totally unrelated to the thoroughly modern open-plan residential or office spaces to be found inside. What has happened to our traditional concept of American character and integrity, to "what you see is what you get," to the idea that internal values are more important than external appearances?

While this ideal of integrity has disappeared from the vast majority of our buildings today, it lies at the very heart of the uniquely American tradition of modern architecture embodied in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Louis Isidore Kahn (1901-1974). Wright and Kahn are arguably the greatest of all American architects, and they are without question the only ones ever to reverse the traditional "trade deficit" with Europe and the world with respect to architectural ideas of consequence.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

AS Horatio Greenough noted even as early as 1852, fifteen years before Wright's birth, Americans tend to accept all their styles - of clothing, entertainment, and architecture - from Europe. Yet Frank Lloyd Wright's early work was without question the first true manifestation of what has come to be called Modern architecture, and Wright's architecture had enormous and far-reaching influence on architects and artists all over the world, from the emergence of the Prairie House in 1900 until his death in 1959. Today, forty-four years after his death, Wright is the only architect who can be named by virtually every first-year student entering American universities, and the number of books published on Wright and his work continues to escalate. In today's newspaper, Jeff MacNelly's nationally-syndicated cartoon "Shoe," depicted a young schoolboy answering the exam question "Name the Wright brothers," with "Frank and Lloyd." Wright's influence also extends to his own profession, American architects having named Wright's 1936 Kaufmann House, called "Fallingwater," the most important building in the United States of the last 150 years.

But what exactly is it that we "know" about Wright? The vast majority of us know Wright's work only from photographs, usually showing the exterior of a building. What is perhaps the most famous photograph of a house, the one showing Wright's Fallingwater as seen from outside and below, is taken from a viewpoint that can be obtained only by standing in the middle of the stream! In fact, of those who claim to "know" the architecture of Wright, only a minuscule minority has ever actually been inside any building that he designed.

Yet for both Wright and Kahn, the concept of inhabiting a building, our experience of its interior space, of the rooms within, was the beginning of all architecture - and it was only from this interior spatial experience that a building's external form was to be unfolded or projected. Through our contemporary insistence on engaging architecture only from the exterior view, as an object in the landscape, the tradition of Wright and Kahn has become almost totally divorced from the typical notions of what is traditional architecture in America today. The idea that we can know a building from simply driving by and peering at whatever exterior forms can be seen from the street runs counter to everything that Wright and Kahn believed about architecture. If we are to engage their work, we must reject any suggestion that what is today called "traditional" has anything at all to do with the American tradition of architecture.

In 1914 Wright wrote, "I deliberately chose to break with traditions in order to be more true to Tradition than current conventions in architecture would permit," distinguishing between plural traditions (the ever-changing styles in vogue during his day), and singular Tradition (the great monuments of the past). …

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