Frank Lloyd Wright

flw-standing-installations.gifI always liked Frank Lloyd Wright. I have a theory that lots of ideas somehow get converted into their opposite as they propagate through the community. Thus for instance the theory of the second best in economics was a theory which showed that if you were in a second best situation, then following policies that looked like what we now call first best policies actually makes things worse.

Yet the way the language of first and second best is used in a lot of policy analysis now, second best is generally a pejorative. One can argue that there is some wisdom in this. But it also traduces the original theoretical work on the theory of the second best. (I wonder why they call it the theory of the second best, since it’s a theorem. But I digress.)

I think something similar has happened with Frank Lloyd Wright. Hes regarded as the father of modernism by many. Thats how I learned of him when I did him in years eleven and twelve art history in school.

Then I recall going and visiting the Robie House in Chicago. (If youre ever in Chicago whatever you do try to visit as much FLW architecture as you can. Theres a whole suburb Oak Park I think its called with about twenty FLW houses in it all magnificent. PS. It is called Oak Park and here’s a link to some pictures).

Anyway, when I walked into the Robbie House I was completely blown away. I guess I had thought of Wright as a cool dude whod fallen in love with the nice clean lines that became modernism. Well they are nice clean lines, nice low slung prairie homes.

But the first thing that strikes you is the vestibule which is on a different scale from the rest of the house. Thats because it was a kind of decomression chamber between the outside and the inside. Something that comes immediately down to a human scale to intimate the human scale of the house.hanging-flw-light.gif

I’d thought all Wrights obsession with spheres and cubes and other geometric shapes was of a piece with what became modernism. Perhaps. But what struck me was the passion with which the place was designed. Everything considered with a view to its effect on the person in the room. All the materials, all the shapes so intimately bound up with each other and with the viewer.

Childrens rooms too. They were high enough to be functional for adults to enter, but they were built on the scale of children. Anyway, I’m aware Ive not been too eloquent here just giving vent to an enthusiasm. But if you get a chance to see FLWs buildings, take it up.

In the meantime, one of the things that I always marvel at is the amount of original architects work that gets taken up designing things that are no damn good not functional, not pleasant and often not even particularly cheap. I wonder in my naiveté why its so incredibly rare for people to build facsimiles. I’d be happy to live in a copy of a FLW house any day. I’d be happy if Mirvac rolled them out around the suburbs and developments. Walter Burley Griffin houses and those of others would be welcome. Perhaps there are copyright issues. But I guess the demand just isnt there. Its too bold a declaration of ones own inability to do any better.

In any event, I was in town on Friday checking out a lighting shop when my eye fell upon an early modernist construction. I wasnt quite sure what it was. Anyway I asked the attendant in the shop who designed it and she said Frank Lloyd Wright.

The pictures above show the three designs you can buy in Australia from Euroluce of Frank Lloyd Wright. The two freestanding items are lights of a sort, but the lighting is not very functional theyre more like light sculptures. Theyre quite magnificent and made from Japanese cherrywood in Japan by a firm that used to make lights for FLW himself.

The downlight was lovely too. You can see them firsthand in Euroluce’s catalogue (pdf 20 megs!)

PS: with a little perseverance on the net, there is no shortage of facsimiles of Wright’s designs for instance lamps, home accessories and furniture. Now for some facsimile houses.

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Daniel
14 years ago

I would suspect that the costs of building in FLW’s style would be large. His sprite seems to indicate his approach to architecture. It’s interesting, angular, confronting, though hardly appealing.

Thanks for the post!

stephen bartos
stephen bartos
14 years ago

It’s hard to get a feel today for what FLW was getting at in the prarie style because in the intervening years the interiors of many of his houses have been remodelled out of all sympathy with the original. But as with Nick, once you do start to feel what these houses were like, you can’t help but be blown away by how marvellous they were. Chicago does lead – but one of the best instances of his interiors is actually a recreation, inside the Metropolitan in New York – because it has preserved all the original elements. Despite looking ultra modern from the exterior, the inside of a FLW prarie house is warm, welcoming, human in scale and comfortable in style: partly because of extensive and clever use of timber to give a warmth and texture to the living space. If Australians want to get an impression of this style, there’s a number of examples in the 1920s and 1930s architecture of Canberra. Architects like Oliphant (and others of the large group of semi private semi government architects at the time) were keen students of FLW and incorporate much of his approach into their own houses: although nothing of the scale of the Robbie house, because nobody in this country at the time had the sort of cash needed to get it really perfect. incidentally, although walter burley griffin was influentual in bringing this thinking to Australia, there’s not many examples of his own work extant – the work of Australian disciples is far more likely to be evident.

Aidan
Aidan
14 years ago

Nicholas,

If you (or any other interested Troppodillians) are in Canberra this weekend you can see inside the Primary School at Giralang. This is considered to be one of Enrico Taglietti’s finest designs. There is a 30th birthday celebration this Friday and a fete on Saturday the 25th. There will be an architecture tour (at 1.00pm) on the Saturday.

This birthday celebration is particularly poignant for the students, parents and teachers at the school as the ACT Government had proposed to close it at the end of last year as part of a radical plan to close 39 schools across the territory.

It is fabulous that it is still being used for the purpose for which is was designed.

Cheerio

Aidan

Jim Farrell
13 years ago

I live in Oak Park, IL, USA which does have 25 structures built by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1899 and 1913, including a sculpted the Unity Temple, a horse trough (now a water fountain) in a local park and the architect’s home and studio.

Wright was an innovator, in the sense that he brought new ideas to form. However, Charles Rennie MacIntosh of Glasgow and others from the Arts and Crafts movement seem to have highly influenced Wright’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his earliest home designs, called the “bootleg houses” because they were done while Wright was moonlighting after hours at his job with the firm of Adler & Sullivan, feature functional, pitched roofs. The flat and ultimately leaky roofs that came to characterize the prairie style appeared about the turn of the century.

See also: The Frank Lloyd Wright legacy: an expensive taste in buildings on the Gabion website for an interesting account of the innovation challenge posed by an architect’s unwillingness to collaborate. Fallingwater House, arguably Wright’s most famous home design, was not structurally sound.

Contrast Wright’s stubborn deification of personal style with the approach of Eero Saarinen, architect of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, pictured above. Saarinen was loved by his patrons and ridiculed by contemporary architectural critics, notably Vincent Scully of Yale, for refusing to elevate a signature style over functional design requirements.
See Saarinen Rising: a much-maligned modernist finally gets his due, by Clay Risen, The Boston Globe, November 7, 2004.

See also: Building Respect at Yale, New York Times, December 16, 2007

See also our post, Best Practices in Architecture, for a fuller treatment of the approach of Eero Saarinen.

Jim Farrell
13 years ago

Nicholas,

My thanks to you for all your contributions here and to my namesake for leading me to this excellent site. Characteristically, I found it by googling my own name.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

What does the ‘P’ stand for?

Jim Farrell
13 years ago

Patrick. I started using the initial when I realized how many of us are out there. I was one of three james farrells at my college graduation (among 400 total graduates that day).

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

My middle name is Patrick too. There are 45,000 Farrells in the US according to this site. James is the most common male name, with a frequency of 3.1% for the general population, but we can presumably double that for the Anglo-Irish population. That would give us about 2,700 James Farrells in the US as a whole. Given the tendency to be sentimental about Irish roots, I speculate that as many as five percent of those have Patrick as a middle name. Do you think 200 might be a reasonable rough estimate for the number of JPFs worldwide?

Your blog looks interesting, even to a godless communist such as myself. The Louis Black Satrbucks video was hilarious — I’d never even heard of him before.