Rethinking Frank Lloyd Wright in the 21st Century
When I moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison sixteen years ago to teach the history of American vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes, Frank Lloyd Wright was the furthest thing from my mind. I had visited Taliesin, Wright’s home and school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and I had studied Wright’s architecture as a graduate student, but I never considered bringing Wright into my research or teaching in a serious way. My resistance stemmed largely from my identity as a scholar of common buildings, and the exceptionalism of Wright’s architecture coupled with his arrogance in naming himself the “greatest living architect” simply didn’t interest me.
Yet the longer I lived in the dairy state, the more curious I became about public interest in his work, especially in Wisconsin, Wright’s birthplace and the site of nearly 150 of his buildings. It has been the nature of my research to immerse myself in my immediate environment, so perhaps it is not surprising that, over time, Wright’s buildings became more central to my thinking. One student’s research led to a collaborative project on a line of 1950s prefabricated houses Wright designed with local builder-developer Marshall Erdman.1 I was also appointed by the mayor of Madison to a committee charged with crafting a special area plan for a local Wright building. And this past semester, I taught my first class on Wright at UW-Madison.
Teaching “Frank Lloyd Wright” (Art History 468) was as educational for me as it was for the seventeen students because we all committed to thinking about Wright’s buildings in fresh ways. I taught the class essentially as a “flipped classroom,” where students completed lecture material online. This freed us to devote class sessions to visiting buildings designed by Wright and his followers in the Madison area. Repeatedly, we found ourselves confronting an interesting paradox. At one level, Wright was the promulgator of site-specific organic design, while at another, he was progenitor of American domestic suburbia—seen today as the epitome of placeless, mass production. At base, it seems Wright struggled with a quintessentially contemporary dilemma: a desire to respect the natural world while simultaneously embracing technology and modernization. This seemingly contradictory impulse is what has come to matter to me most about Wright’s buildings.
Wright’s Organic Philosophy
Wright was born about an hour west of Madison, and throughout his life he maintained a close connection with the region. Wright’s ancestral farm became his permanent home in 1911, and eventually also the site of his school, founded in 1932. Named Taliesin (which means “shining brow” in Welsh), the buildings Wright designed in Spring Green relied on local materials, especially the soft limestone found throughout southwestern Wisconsin’s driftless area (Fig. 1). The home and school, situated amongst the rolling slopes of the Wisconsin River valley, reflect Wright’s intimate connection to place. One of my students remarked during our class discussion in Wright’s living room at Taliesin that the windows acted not as barriers but as frames for viewing the landscape.
“Organic architecture,” as Wright used the term, is deeply complex. In addition to wedding a building to its site and using materials that respond to their immediate context, as in the case of Taliesin, Wright saw designing around function as integral to his organic approach. Building on the philosophy of form follows function espoused by his mentor, Louis Sullivan, Wright designed buildings which derived their appearance from their specific uses rather than a predetermined aesthetic. Early on in Wright’s career, such a notion would have been considered sacrilege; prior to 1900, many, if not most, architects in Europe and the U.S. learned architecture on the basis of the classical tradition as promoted by the Ecole des Beaux Arts. By the mid-twentieth century, international style modernism dictated an aesthetic of reduction and simplicity, epitomized by Mies Van der Rohe’s dictum “less is more.” Wright stood out from his colleagues because he never followed a “one size fits all” model, whether Beaux Arts, modernist, or otherwise.
During our field visits this past semester, we found ourselves walking around the buildings and asking how they responded to their sites—now and in the past. At the Robert Lamp House (1903) in Madison, we examined how Wright created a “suburban” refuge in an urban context through the dwelling’s positioning at the center of an urban block and its entire decorative program. Most obvious was how Wright brought in the natural landscape through the third floor roof garden, which originally afforded commanding views of Lakes Mendota and Monona (Fig. 2). We also considered how this has changed as recent construction now threatens to dwarf the house and dramatically affects its setting (Fig. 3).
At the Herb and Katherine Jacobs House (1936), also in Madison, we studied the house’s orientation away from the street and surrounding suburban dwellings, focusing inward toward the back yard as if to symbolically emphasize the family unit rather than the community. Students commented that the intimate scale of the home’s proportions gave it a “coziness” that carried through from the door openings to the trim to the lighting fixtures (Fig. 4). The current owner’s respect for Wright led him to respond himself “organically” to the building, from a 1980s restoration of the home around Wright’s original specifications to his commissioning of furniture in keeping with the house’s aesthetic.
Wright’s organic philosophy came up repeatedly in class discussions. The architect’s commitment—albeit not always consistently—to using local materials resonated with contemporary concerns about sustainability. And indeed, Wright has been heralded by some as the progenitor of so-called green building. We found Wright’s interest in site-specific design—for us epitomized best in the Pew House (1937), built over a ravine for a stream running into Madison’s Lake Mendota—compelling. We felt Wright’s commitment to organic design—in which an entire project is considered a unified whole—refreshing and powerful. And yet, Wright’s simultaneous embrace of twentieth-century materials and technology often seemed to fly in the face of his organic philosophy.
Wright consistently challenged the status quo across his long career, from his prairie style houses of the early 1900s through his experiments with affordable Usonian houses in the mid-twentieth century. And while he enlisted local materials, he also was not afraid to experiment with steel-reinforced concrete or import exotic woods. Whereas other architects and designers associated with the Arts and Crafts movement espoused a return to craft rooted in the past, Wright famously declared in a 1901 speech, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” that, in an age of modernization, the designer should exploit the potential of the machine as a powerful tool. Even more shocking may have been Wright’s innovative conception of the mile-high skyscraper. Wright championed the “densification” of urban design largely so he could promote his concept of “Broadacre City,“ which he defined in his 1932 book The Disappearing City. Wright felt that if commerce and industry were concentrated in dense urban centers, the single-family home could be given the space it needs. Families could be distributed in homes on what amounted to a suburban grid, dependent on the automobile, with ample land provided for self-sufficient cultivation and green space for all. Although Broadacre City was never realized, Wright consistently promoted the suburban model of living that became the hallmark of post-World War II middle-class America.
We encountered Wright’s modernism throughout the semester. One of the most tantalizing examples was his vision of “mass-produced housing,” evident in the Walter and Mary Ellen Rudin House (1959), a prefabricated home built by Marshall Erdman but based on a design by Wright. Architect and builder teamed up in 1955 to design a line of prefabricated houses intended for the aspiring middle class, who wanted “good design” in an affordable package (Fig. 5). The fact that Wright—at the tail end of his career—returned to his lifelong ambition to use the “machine” to build for the masses suggests both his appreciation for modern technology (prefabrication) as well as his scheme to bring modern taste outside of the elite realm. If Wright’s vision seems somehow special because it was the product of an architect rather than a builder-developer, it was also part-and-parcel of myriad other schemes of the 1950s. This humanized Wright for my students as much as it also showed that we cannot see Wright outside the historical moment of which he was part.
The Rudin House in many ways grew out of Wright’s hallmark Usonian houses, of which the first was the Jacobs House (1936). While the Jacobs House adheres to Wright’s organic philosophy, it also embodies Wright’s modernism given that it contains all of the features that would become characteristic of the postwar, suburban middle-class house: one-story height, L-shaped plan with separate bedroom “wing,” and orientation away from the street. That it was built in an automobile-dependent suburb is strongly conveyed with its prominent carport (Fig. 6). Wright firmly believed in the role of the car in everyday modern life. He planned for parking in the single-family home as well as in his other commissions (even as early as the three-car garage for the prairie style Robie House in Chicago of 1909). For Madison’s convention center, Monona Terrace, prominent parking ramps were envisioned in each iteration of the project; Wright expected the center’s patrons all to come by car. His lifelong love of cars, as well as his obsession with prefabrication and experimentation with steel-reinforced concrete, suggest Wright was a child of modernity.
Wright and the Twenty-First Century Environment
After reflecting on Wright’s ideas, buildings, and legacy with my students for fifteen weeks, I have realized that Wright’s uneasy and contradictory maneuvering between respect for sites and materials, on the one hand, and his embrace of modernization, on the other, are part of what continues to attract interest in his buildings on the part of owners, scholars, and aficionados. Our conversations with homeowners revealed this. They spoke of Wright’s innovations while also commenting on his respect for the landscape. Stewards at the buildings we visited were comfortable in embracing Wright’s penchant for novelty but also insisted on his utter respect for nature. In their weekly journal entries, students wondered what Wright would do today—would he follow the green bandwagon or chart his own course? Would he appreciate preservation and restoration of his buildings (arguably “sustainability” of a sort) or would he argue for an organic architecture more responsive to present-day needs?
Rather than dismiss these questions as idle speculation, I instead see them as evidence of the power of Wright’s buildings to prompt them in the first place. What I took away from this immersive course on Wright lay within the material fabric we examined every class session. Wright’s lifelong goal was to prompt viewers to fully integrate life and art, and part of this—for the architect—lay in reimagining our fundamental relationship with the environment. His organic philosophy led Wright to constantly rethink the ways that buildings respond to their site as well as to their present moment. His refusal to accept past solutions—indeed, his modernism—and his aspiration to create buildings that embraced technology and modern culture encouraged people to live in fresh ways that were in step, if not ahead, of the times.
In their very contradictions, these buildings offer us a way of meditating on our continuing fraught relationship with our environment and our contemporary condition. They prompt questions as much as answers, and in doing so continue to stimulate our curiosity and imagination in the twenty-first century.
Featured image: Exterior view of Wright’s first Usonian house, the first Herb and Katherine Jacobs House (1936) in Madison. Photo by author, April, 2012.
Anna Vemer Andrzejewski is Professor of American Art, Architecture, and Material Culture in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also co-directs the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Ph.D. Companion Program and serves on CHE’s steering committee. Anna currently serves as co-editor of Buildings and Landscapes, the journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Website. Contact.
Wright’s collaboration with Erdman now forms part of the book I am writing on the postwar building industry. ↩