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Down the long avenue of time, there have been few artists who have been able to express through the written word ideas about their art. Among them Frank Lloyd Wright stands at the pinnacle not only in his architectural work but also in his writings, the output of which was enormous. It is astonishing that in addition to all of the architectural work he found the time and energy to write so prodigiously.
From the very start of his career he was concerned with explaining his work and the principles underlying it. He wrote sixteen books and hundreds of articles and lectures over the seven decades of his career. The manuscript collection in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives numbers over six hundred documents.
The most significant of all his writings deal, as one would expect, with architecture and all its aspects—from discussions of building materials themselves to the broader subject of urban and suburban planning. In 1894, one year after he opened his architectural practice, he lectured to various clubs and organizations in and around Chicago. He focused mainly on residential architecture in the early years of his practice, and noted his own refusal to accept the confusion of eclectic styles, many of European import that were rising throughout the Midwest where he lived and work. He urged his audiences to likewise abandon these clichés of the past and subscribe to an architecture more suited to its time and place.
It was his habit to write all of his first drafts by hand. Of the creation of his architectural designs he once remarked, “I never put anything down on paper until I have it pretty clean in mind. That is the habit of a life time, a long time. To see it definitely and correctly, imagine the thing completely, is no small feat.” From the study of his first drafts that remain today, the same creative process is evident.1 His thoughts, on whatever subject he chose to write about, were clear right from the start. As he continued to develop his architectural projects from conceptual sketches to final working drawings, he also worked on his texts from early draft through final manuscript ready for publication.
Of this enormous body of written work, the selection for this publication was made initially from the published material where he was trying to reach an audience beyond his clients. Wright’s autobiography, first published in 1932 and then revised in 1943, is certainly among the most important writings. However, it has been reprinted recently and for that reason it has not been included in this book. With that exception, those that were chosen for inclusion are the most critical to understanding the philosophy that drove his architectural mission, which he defined as: “The mission of an architect—of architecture—is to help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one for living in, and to give reason, rhyme, and meaning to life.”2
The writings in this publication begin in 1901 with The Art and Craft of the Machine and end with A Testament in 1957, two years before his death. The former was an important lecture he delivered at Chicago’s Hull House and so captured his thoughts that he revised it several times over his lifetime and even included part of it in his Princeton Lectures of 1930. A Testament, as its title implies, was his final word on his life and his principles of organic architecture.
From the beginning Wright exuded confidence, choosing the direction he wanted to take and from which he did not detour. That path continued in an uninterrupted line throughout a career that spanned close to three-quarters of a century, as these writings clearly demonstrate.
Wright read “The Art and Craft of the Machine” at Chicago’s Hull House in March 1901. It was a reactionary and significant address given as it was at a time when the English Arts and Crafts movement was beginning to sweep across the nation. There is no doubt that Wright admired the hand-crafted work of designers such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Greene & Greene. He believed, however, that the work of these artists was not for the average American family, but rather for a more well-to-do clientele. To Wright’s way of thinking, the role of the machine needed to be re-examined. He believed in the potential of the machine as a valuable tool in the hand of the creative artist, freeing him from laborious and expensive handiwork no longer relevant to twentieth-century machine technology. Geometrically patterned concrete block, stamped metal facia, and stamped copper panels are all examples of the machine at work rendering beautiful designs in materials readily available to architects. “The machine, by its wonderful cutting, shaping, smoothing and repetitive capacity, has made it possible to so use it without waste that the poor as well as the rich may enjoy today beautiful surface treatments of clean, strong forms that the branch veneers of Sheraton and Chippendale only hinted at, with dire extravagance, and which the Middle Ages utterly ignored.”3
He also qualified what he meant by “simplicity” in an era—the Victorian— where simplicity was the last element to be found in art and architecture. He stressed that simplicity was not merely “a neutral of a negative quality.” “Simplicity in art, rightly understood, is a synthetic, positive quality, in which we may see evidence of mind, breadth of scheme, wealth of detail, and withal a sense of completeness found in a tree or a flower. A work may have the delicacies of a rare orchid or the stanch fortitude of the oak, and still be simple. A thing to be simple needs only to be true to itself in organic sense.”4
“In the Cause of Architecture,” an article published in The Architectural Record in March 1908 and lavishly illustrated with photographs of his buildings, showed the public for the first time the scope of Wright’s work with a detailed explanation of what it was, why it was, and how it came into being. This was during the so-called Prairie years and the article included several prairie style houses along with the Larkin Building and Unity Temple, buildings that would significantly influence the direction of modern architecture. The article ends with the prophetic statement: “As for the future—the work shall grow more truly simple; more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic.”5
Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright was a massive publication, a two-volume monograph, containing one hundred plates of drawings made specifically for this work. Published in Berlin by Ernst Wasmuth in 1910, it exerted a strong impact on the young architects of Germany and Holland. Lloyd, Wright’s son who accompanied his father to Italy to prepare the plates for the monograph, explained the significance of the publication in a letter: “Soon after the work was published in Germany, we found they were using the folio and drawings in schools and universities for textbooks. There men like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were students of my age, i.e. 19 and 20, and were greatly impressed and I heard later that Gropius’ mother gave him one of the collections, he claimed he made it his Bible.”6
In the introduction Wright opened with a glowing tribute to the Gothic and the early Renaissance artists and architects of Italy, no doubt a result of his living in Florence and neighboring Fiesole while preparing the Wasmuth plates.
Of this joy in living, there is greater proof in Italy than elsewhere. Buildings, pictures, and sculptures seem to be born, like the flowers by the roadside, to sing themselves into being. Approached in the spirit of their conception, they inspire us with the very music of life.
No really Italian building seems ill at ease in Italy. All are happily content with what ornament and color they carry, as naturally as the rocks and trees and garden slopes which are one with them.7
The introduction explained the drawings in a manner similar to the presentation in “In the Cause of Architecture” two years earlier. Here, though, he emphasized the role of an architect: “An architect, then, in this revived sense, is a man disciplined from within by a conception of the organic nature of his task, knowing his tools and his opportunity, working out his problems with what sense of beauty the gods gave him.”8
The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, published in 1912, does not deal with architecture per se, however it is an important example of Wright’s writings in light of the great debt he owed to the Japanese print—of which he was an avid collector. He wrote: “I have never confided to you the extent to which the Japanese print, as such, has inspired me. I never got over my first experience with it and I shall probably never recover. I hope I shan’t. It was the great gospel of simplification that came over. The elimination of all that was insignificant . . .”9
His writing not only explained the beauty and quality of the Japanese print, but also of the very nature of the culture of Japan.
The first prerequisite for the successful study of this strange art is to fix the fact in mind at the beginning that it is the sentiment of Nature alone which concerns the Japanese artist; the sentiment of Nature as beheld by him in those vital meanings which he alone seems to see and alone therefore endeavors to portray.
The Japanese, by means of this process—to him by this habit of such study almost instinctive—casts a glamour over everything. He is a poet. Surely life in old Japan must have been a perpetual communion with the divine heart of Nature.10
“Louis Henry Sullivan: His Work” is a tribute to the man Wright affectionately and reverently called “Lieber Meister” (Dear Master), written three months after Sullivan’s death on April 14, 1924:
Louis Sullivan’s great value as an Artist-Architect—alive or dead—lies in his firm grasp of principle. He knew the truths of Architecture as I believe no one before him knew them. And profoundly he realized them.
This illumination of his was the more remarkable a vision when all around him cultural mists hung low to obscure or blight every dawning hope of a finer beauty in the matter of this world. . . .
The names, attributes, and passions of earth’s creatures change, but— that creation changes never; his sane and passionate vision leaves testimony here on earth in fragments of his dreams—his work.11
Wright then proceeded to describe certain of Sullivan’s works, pointing out that he was challenged by the obsession with classical architecture, which was the result of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In particular, as Wright reviewed Sullivan’s buildings, he wrote of the Wainwright Building:
When he brought in the board with the motive of the Wainwright Building outlined in profile and in scheme upon it and threw it down on my table, I was perfectly aware of what had happened. This was Louis Sullivan’s greatest moment—his greatest effort. The “skyscraper” as a new thing beneath the sun, an entity with virtue, individuality and beauty all its own, was born. . . .
The Wainwright Building cleared the way, and to this day remains the master key to the skyscraper as a matter of Architecture in the work of the world.12
“In the Cause of Architecture: The Third Dimension” was first published in the Dutch magazine Wendingen in 1925. Wendingen devoted seven issues to Wright’s work, and then bound them together in a book. Along with texts by Wright, the other contributors included Lewis Mumford, H. P. Berlage, J.J.P. Oud, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Erich Mendelsohn, and Louis H. Sullivan. Wright’s texts included reprints of “In the Cause of Architecture: First Paper” (March 1908), “In the Cause of Architecture: Second Paper” (May 1914), and as printed here, “In the Cause of Architecture: The Third Dimension.” The final essay, by Wright, as requested by the editor H. Th. Wijdeveld, was “To My European Co-Workers.”
The 1925 paper opens with a recounting of the negative reaction in 1901 to the reading of his essay, “The Art and Craft of the Machine.” As stated earlier, in 1901 the Arts and Crafts Movement was exerting a strong influence on American designers and their clients. However, in protest of this trend, he explained, “In all the crafts, the nature of materials is emancipated by the Machine and the artist is freed from bondage to the old post-and-lintel form. . . . A modern building may reasonably be a plastic whole—an integral matter of three dimensions: a child of the imagination more free than of yore, owing nothing to ‘orders’ or ‘styles.’”13 He further clarified this term “plastic”: “Plastic treatments are always out of the thing, never something put on it. The quality of the third dimension is found in this sense of depth that enters into the thing to develop into an expression of its nature. . . . In this architecture of the third dimension ‘plastic’ effects are usually produced from this sense of the within.”14 As a result, he wrote:
. . . we may now, from the vision opened by the ideal of a plastic architecture, look down upon the limitations of the antique world with less respect and no regret. We have wings where they had only feet, usually in leaden shoes. We may soar in individual freedom of expression where they were wont to crawl—and we are the many where they were the few. A superior breadth and beauty in unity and variety is a universal possibility to us—if we master the Machine and are not, as now, mastered by it.15
The 1927–28 “In the Cause of Architecture” articles were commissioned by editor M. A. Mikkelson for The Architectural Record. He had long admired what Frank Lloyd Wright had built as well as written, and in 1926 he proposed that Wright write a series of fourteen essays, all under the general heading of “In the Cause of Architecture.” Seven of these dealt with “The Meaning of Materials.” Nothing of much significance had been written on “the nature of materials,” least of all by an architect. Here were the tools, the very substance and backbone of an architect’s work, and yet the subject remained unexamined. Wright’s approach to materials began with steel, and continued with stone, wood, brick, glass, concrete, and sheet metal. His comments on these materials, as well as descriptions of their potential characteristics for architectural construction, are often eloquently poetic. “Materials! What a resource! With his ‘materials’—the architect can do whatever masters have done with pigments or with sound—in shadings as subtle, with combinations as expressive—perhaps outlasting man himself. . . . These materials are human-riches. They are Nature-gifts to the sensibilities that are, again, gifts of Nature. . . . Each material has its own message and, to the creative artist, its own song.”16
Now, ductile, tensile, dense to any degree, uniform and calculable to any standard, steel in a known quantity to be dealt with mathematically to a certainty to the last pound; a miracle of strength to be counted upon!17
Steel is most economical in tension; the steel strand is a marvel, let us say, as compared to anything the ancients knew, a miracle of strength for its weight and cost. We have found now how to combine it with a mass material, concrete, which has great strength in compression. The coefficient of expansion and contraction of both materials is the same in changes of temperature. . . .
Here we have reinforced concrete, a new dispensation. A new medium for the new world of thought and feeling that seems ideal.18
The rock ledges of a stone quarry are a story and a longing to me. There is suggestion in the strata and character in the formations. I like to sit and feel it, as it is. Often I have thought, were great monumental buildings ever given me to build, I would go to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to ponder them.19
The character of the wall surface will be determined also by the kind of stone, by the kind of mason, the kind of architect. Probably by the kind of building. But, most of all, by the nature of the stone itself, if the work is good stonework. . . .
But most building stone—as Caen-stone, say—is a clear negative substance, like a sheet of soft beautiful paper, on which it is appropriate to cut images, by wasting away the surface to sink or raise traces of the imagination like a kind of human writing, carrying the ideology of the human race down the ages from the primitive to the decadent.20
It is the most humanly intimate of all materials. Man loves his association with it, likes to feel it under his hand, sympathetic to his touch and to his eye. Wood is universally beautiful to Man. And yet, among higher civilizations, the Japanese understood it best. . . .
No Western peoples ever used wood with such understanding as the Japanese did in their construction—where wood always came up and came out as nobly beautiful.21
Wood can never be wrought by the machine as it was lovingly wrought by the hand into a violin, for instance, except as a lifeless imitation. But the beautiful properties of wood may be released by the Machine to the hand of the architect. His imagination must use it in true ways—worthy of its beauty.22
Of the kiln:
We have hitherto been speaking of “natural” materials. The natural material here is of earth itself. But to produce this material known as ceramics, another element, that of the artificer, has entered with Fire. . . .
What has man to show for the Brick? I should offer the brick buildings of Asia Minor—Persia.
What has he to show for his Tile? Wherever Persian or Mohammedan influence was supreme.
What has he to show for the Pot or Bowl? Chinese pottery.
What has he to show for his Vase? The Grecian urn.
To show for his Image? Those of Egypt, Greece, and China.23
Perhaps the greatest difference eventually between ancient and modern buildings will be due to our modern machine-made glass. Glass, in any wide utilitarian sense, is new.
Once a precious substance limited in quantity and size, glass and its making have grown so that a perfect clarity of any thickness, quality, or dimension is so cheap and desirable that our modern world is drifting toward structures of glass and steel.24
Aesthetically it has neither song nor story. . . .
Concrete would be better named “conglomerate,” as concrete is a noble word which this material fails to live up to. It is a mixture that has little quality in itself.
If this material is to have either form, texture, or color in itself, each must artificially be given to it, by human imagination.25
Of sheet metal he wrote:
The machinery at work in the sheet-metal trades easily crimps, folds, trims, and stamps sheets of metal as an ingenious child might his sheets of paper.26
Copper is easily the king of this field, and what is true of copper will be true of the other metals in some degree, with certain special aptitudes and properties added or subtracted in the case of each.27
This series included additional articles such as “The Architect and the Machine”; “Standardization, the Soul of the Machine”; “Fabrication and Imagination”; and “The Logic of the Plan.” These articles covered a wide range of topics never before explored by architects. They are as valuable today as they were when published and will continue to be so into the future.
If one had to choose just one of Wright’s publications for posterity, it would be difficult to choose between his autobiography and Modern Architecture, Being the Kahn Lectures, six lectures delivered at Princeton University in May 1930. The lectures covered a wide range of topics: “Machinery, Materials, and Men” was followed by “Style in Industry.” Wright then continues with a description of the early years of his own work in residential architecture with “The Passing of the Cornice” and “Cardboard House.” He ends with a discussion of urban problems in “The Tyranny of the Skyscraper” and “The City.” In these he projects his city planning vision, which four years later emerges as Broadacre City.
He opens the lectures with this:
An architecture for these United States will be born “modern,” as were all the architectures of the peoples of all the world. Perhaps this is the deep-seated reason why the young man in architecture grieves his parents, academic and familiar, by yielding to the fascination of creation, instead of persisting as the creature of ancient circumstance. This, his rational surrender to instinct, is known, I believe, as “rebellion.”
I am here to aid and comfort rebellion insofar as rebellion has this honorable instinct—even though purpose may not yet be clearly defined—nor any fruits, but only ists, isms, and istics be in sight. Certainly we may now see the dawning of a deeper insight than has for the past thirty years characterized so-called American architecture. In that length of time, American architecture has been neither American nor architecture. We have had instead merely a bad form of surface-decoration.
This “dawn” is the essential concern of this moment and the occasion for this series of “lectures.” We, here at Princeton, are to guard this dawning insight and help to guide its courage, passion, and patience into channels where depth and flow is adequate, instead of allowing youthful adventure to ground in shallows all there beneath the surface in the offing, ready to hinder and betray native progress.28
The lectures were published the following year by Princeton University Press. They were published again in 1953 in The Future of Architecture, which contained a selection of those of his writings that Wright himself believed to be of special significance.
In October of 1930 Wright delivered two lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago, which were published the next year as Two Lectures on Architecture. The first, “In the Realms of Ideas,” was addressed to a more general audience than that for the Princeton lectures. In this lecture he presented the concept of the modern home, that had driven his practice some thirty years earlier:
I had an idea that the planes parallel to earth in buildings identify themselves with the ground—make the building belong to the ground. . . . I had an idea that every house in that low region [the Midwest prairie] should begin on the ground—not in it, as they then began, with damp cellars. This idea put the house up on the “prairie basement” I devised, entirely above the ground. And an idea that the house should look as though it began there at the ground put a projecting base-course as a visible edge to this foundation, where as a platform it was seen as evident preparation for the building itself.
An idea that shelter should be the essential look of any dwelling put the spreading roof with generously projecting eaves over the whole; I saw the building primarily not as a cave, but as shelter in the open.29
Continuing his fascination with the “nature of materials,” he further elaborated on how he had learned to see all materials as they were—“each for itself and all for themselves”—in the modern house and to value the machine in creative endeavors: “Mankind is only now waking to visions of the machine as the true emancipator of the individual as individual.”30 He summed it up thus: “A new integrity then? Yes, integrity new to us in America—and yet so ancient! A new integrity alive and working with new means—greater means than ever worked before. A new integrity working for freedom—yours and mine and our children’s freedom—in this realm, we have called, for the purpose of this hour together, ‘the realm of ideas.’”31
While the first lecture was directed to an mixed audience of nonprofessionals, his second lecture, “To the Young Man in Architecture,” as its title implies, was clearly directed to students:
I am here to assure you that the circumference of architecture is changing with astonishing rapidity, but that its center remains unchanged. . . . The circumference is shifting because hunger for reality is not yet dead, and because human vision widens with science as human nature deepens with inner experience.
The center of architecture remains unchanged because—though all unconfessed or ill-concealed—beauty is no less the true purpose of rational modern architectural endeavor than ever, just as beauty remains the essential characteristic of architecture itself.32
And he cautioned, “Young man in architecture—wherever you are and whatever your age, or whatever your job, we—the youth of America—should be the psychological shock-troops thrown into action against corruption of this supreme American ideal. It will be for youth, in this sense, to win the day for freedom in architecture.”33
These two lectures, together with the six Princeton lectures, form a magnificent body of written work. One finds the substance of Wright’s thoughts on many levels. They are remarkable testimony that his genius with words and thought matched his genius with brick, concrete, and glass.
The Disappearing City was published in 1932, the same year Wright’s autobiography was published. It was revised in 1945 as When Democracy Builds and again as The Living City in 1958. However it is the 1932 text, The Disappearing City, that has been included here because of its proximity in time with the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. It was a time when American values made an enormous shift. The opulent era of the 1920s was gone forever. The nation faced lean years and then the promise of a growing economy. The American city experienced this same shock and then growth potential, but Wright believed the new shape of the city was developing in the wrong direction. The Disappearing City presented Wright’s vision of what urban and suburban life in the United States could be, if not drowned by cheap commercialization and the grasping pursuit of profit and wealth at the expense of the American family.
The value of this earth, as man’s heritage, is pretty far gone from him now in the cities centralization has built. And centralization has over-built them all. . . .
The properly citified citizen has become a broker dealing, chiefly, in human frailties or the ideas and inventions of others: a puller of levers, a presser of the buttons of a vicarious power, his by way of machine craft.
A parasite of the spirit is here, a whirling dervish in a whirling vortex.
Perpetual to and fro excites and robs the urban individual of meditation, imaginative reflection and projection once his as he lived and walked under clean sky among the growing greenery to which he was born companion.34
In describing the evils of the current city—the problem of rent contributing to poverty, inflated land values, salesmanship and selling by financing, collecting, threatening foreclosure or repossession—he pointed to the act of capitalistic centralization:
Now, to maintain in due force and legal effect all these various white-collar armies deriving from the three artificial “economic” factors and keep all dove-tailing together smoothly, has inevitably exaggerated a simple natural human benefit. Government.35
Meantime, what of the subject, or object or living man-unit upon whom, by his voluntary subordination this extraordinarily complicated economic superstructure, has been imposed, erected, and functions as government and “business”? What about the man himself?36
All of his concerns come together in a solution for the city of the future: “We are going to call this city for the individual the Broadacre City because it is based upon a minimum of an acre to the family.”37
The architectural features of the Broadacre City will arise naturally out of the nature and the character of the ground on which it stands and of which it is a component if not an organic feature.
The individual architectural features themselves would naturally harmonize with the nature features. . . .
So, in the Broadacre City the entire American scene becomes an organic architectural expression of the nature of man himself and of his life here upon the earth.38
He listed the various individual components as he envisioned them incorporated into the Broadacre City: the highway and roadway systems, the farmer on his land, the employee on his acre, the office building, the new store or distributor of merchandise, the hotel, the hospital, the university, the community center, the theater, the church, the design center, the school, and the modern home: “Therefore it is time not to dream of the future but to realize that future as now and here. It is time to go to work with it, no longer foolishly trying to stand up against it for an eleventh hour retrenchment.”39
Architecture and Modern Life was a book coauthored by Frank Lloyd Wright and Baker Brownell and published in 1937. While some of the chapters were cowritten, the chapters “Some Aspects of the Past and Present of Architecture” and “Some Aspects of the Future of Architecture” are solely by Wright. The former, a discussion of the historical structures of architecture is almost unrivaled in beauty of language and insight. (The latter, a discussion on the design and building of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, repeats much that can be found in his autobiography.) In the first he wrote:
Building upon the land is as natural to man as to other animals, birds or insects. In so far as he was more than an animal his buildings became what we call architecture.
In ancient times his limitations served to keep his buildings architecture. Splendid examples: Mayan, Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine, Persian, Gothic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese.
Looking back at these, what then is architecture?
It is man and more.
It is man in possession of his earth. It is the only true record of him where his possession of earth is concerned.
While he was true to earth his architecture was creative.40
Man takes a positive hand in creation whenever he puts a building upon the earth beneath the sun.41
. . . Perhaps architecture is man’s most obvious realization of this persistent dream he calls immortality.42
Speaking of the various buildings built down the avenue of time, he wrote:
Let us now go nearer to the grand wreckage left by this tremendous energy poured forth by man in quest of his ideal, these various ruined cities and buildings built by the various races to survive the race. Let us go nearer to see how and why different races built the different buildings and what essential difference the buildings recorded.43
In all buildings that man has built out of earth and upon the earth, his spirit, the pattern of him, rose great or small. It lived in his buildings. It still shows there. But common to all these workmanlike endeavors in buildings great or small, another spirit lived. Let us call this spirit, common to all buildings, the great spirit, architecture. . . . Any building is a by-product of eternal living force, a spiritual force taking form in time and place appropriate to man.44
The January 1938 issue of The Architectural Forum on Wright’s work was a landmark publication. In 1937 the Johnson Building (formally the Administration Building for the S. C. Johnson & Son Company, Racine, Wisconsin) was still under construction and would not be complete until the spring of 1939. Nevertheless, it was clear that the structure would set a new standard for innovative American office design, and it piqued world interest. Both of the two prominent architectural magazines, The Architectural Record and The Architectural Forum, were anxious to publish it. The Record had historically been Wright’s journal of choice, but the editorial direction had changed by 1937 and this new direction, favoring European modernism, did not please him. So, when The Forum approached him asking not only to publish the building, but that Wright compose the story, the architect chose to abandon his long allegiance to The Record in favor of their rival.
As Wright began making preparations for the publication, Howard Myers, the Forum’s editor, suggested that Fallingwater, the country home for Edgar J. Kaufmann, and the Herbert Jacobs and Paul Hanna houses should also be included in the issue with the intent of making it a monograph devoted to Wright’s work. Other buildings and projects would be included, according to Wright’s selection. He was given a free hand in the layout of the pages and the content of his own texts. Quotes from the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the poems of Walt Whitman were also incorporated into the design layout.
Many drawings were included and in his opening statement, Wright explains why: “I have always considered plans most essential in the presentation or consideration of any building. There is more beauty in a fine ground plan itself than in almost any of its consequences. So plot-plans and structural plans have been given due place in this issue as of first importance.”45
The issue began with a long foldout plan of his home, Taliesin, along with accompanying photographs.
. . . Taliesin is a natural building, in love with the ground, built of native limestone quarried nearby. Sand from the river below was the body of its plastered surfaces, plain wood slabs and marking strips of red cypress finish the edges, mark the ceilings, and make the doors and sash. . . .
Perhaps this house should stand as a proper example of the sense of the ground in the category of sensitiveness mentioned in the foreword.
It is also a good example of the use of materials and the play of space relations, the long stretches of low ceilings extending outside over and beyond the windows, related in direction to some feature of the landscape.46
Edgar Kaufmann’s home Fallingwater was barely finished in time to be photographed for the issue. Although lacking interior furnishings, the exterior of the house was strikingly dramatic, and revealed Wright’s first use of reinforced concrete in a residence: “For the first time in my practice, where residence work is concerned in recent years, reinforced concrete was actually needed to construct the cantilever system of this extension of the cliff beside a mountain stream, making living space over and above the stream upon several terraces upon which a man who loved the place sincerely, one who liked to listen to the waterfall, might well live.”47
At the time that the Forum issue went to print, Wright’s design for Herbert Johnson’s country home Wingspread was under construction and was also included along with early construction photos, a plan, and perspective drawings.
“Wingspread,” the Herbert Johnson prairie house, now being built, is another experiment in the articulation which began with the Coon-ley House at Riverside, built 1909, wherein Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, Family sleeping rooms, Guest Rooms were each separate units grouped together and connected by corridor. . . .
At the center of the four zones the spacious Living Room stands. A tall central chimneystack with five fireplaces divides this vertical space into spaces for the various domestic functions: Entrance Hall, Family Living Room, Library Living Room, and Dining Room. Extending from this lofty central room are four wings—three low and one with mezzanine. . . .
This house, while resembling the Coonley House, is much more bold, masculine and direct in form and treatment—executed in more permanent materials.48
He also published the plan and perspective of the Arizona resort inn of 1927, San Marcos-in-the-Desert.
Concrete block construction was on my mind at the time having just seen it through with Albert McArthur in the Arizona Biltmore. I used the surrounding giant growth, Sahuaro, as motive for the building . . . thus getting dotted lines throughout the construction. Here is another secret—the dotted line is outline in all desert creations. . . .
. . . I have found that when a scheme develops beyond a normal pitch of excellence the hand of fate strikes it down. The Japanese made a superstition of the circumstance. Purposefully they leave some imperfection somewhere to appease the jealousy of the gods. I neglected the precaution. San Marcos was not built.
In the vault at Taliesin is this completely developed set of plans, every block scheduled as to quantity and place. These plans are one of our prize possessions.49
The house for Dr. Paul Hanna of Stanford University had also recently been completed. The house still lacked furnishings and landscaping, but since the work introduced an innovative plan, using the hexagon as the basic unit, Wright and Myers elected to include it.
. . . I am convinced that a cross-section of honeycomb has more fertility and flexibility where human movement is concerned than the square.
. . . Glass? Yes, the modern house must use glass liberally. Otherwise this house is a simple wood house under a sheet of copper—thin as paper, enough material in the whole construction only to make it substantial. Not a pound to waste. It might be said of this building that it is a plywood house, plywood furnished.50
A substantial portion of text was devoted to the Herbert Jacobs house, which was the first constructed Usonian house. As Wright described it:
The house of moderate cost is not only America’s major architectural problem but the problem most difficult for her major architects. As for me, I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself and Usonia than build anything I can think of at the moment.51
I am certain that any approach to the new house needed by indigenous culture—why worry about the house wanted by provincial ignorance— is fundamentally different. That house must be a pattern for more simple and, at the same time, more gracious living: new, but suitable to living conditions as they might so well be in the country we live in today.52
These drawings represent a modest house that has no feeling at all for the “grand” except as the house extends itself parallel to the ground, companion to the horizon.
. . . Withal, it seems a thing loving the ground with the new sense of space—light—and freedom to which our U.S.A. is entitled.53
The final building text was for the S. C. Johnson & Son Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. Still in construction in 1937–38, the building was illustrated with perspective drawings, plans, sections, and several construction photographs. Opening his text, Wright wrote:
Architectural interpretation of modern business at its best, this building is designed to be as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was in which to worship. . . . Main feature of construction is the simple repetition of hollow slender monolithic dendriform shafts or stems—stems standing on metal tips bedded at the floor level. The structure is light and plastic—reenforcing being mostly by steel mesh—welded. The structure is earthquake proof and fireproof, cold and sound proof. Weight, here by way of steel in tension, appears to float in light and air, the “column” taking on integral character as a plastic unit of a plastic building-construction instead 54
Wright’s comment about the building as an inspired place to work was a simple, meaningful, and humane statement. In the office building for the Larkin Company in 1903, photos of which accompanied this article, he was also concerned about the well-being of all who worked within the building. John Larkin, the client for the Larkin Building, and Herbert Johnson, the client for the Johnson building, shared this commitment—believing that a good, clean, well-lit, and harmonious workplace was an incentive to fine work; that respect for the place itself was an integral component of the daily work-life. The Larkin building was sadly demolished in 1950 in the guise of “progress.” But the Johnson building goes on to this day to continually fulfill its role as originally conceived by its architect and carried to fruition by its client.
Wright concluded this monograph with: “We speak of genius as though it were the extrusion of some specialty or other. No, the quality is not there. Find genius and you will find a poet. What is a poet?”
In response to his own question, he turned to the words of Walt Whitman:
If he is a poet he bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion— neither more nor less.
He is the arbiter of the diverse—the equalizer of his age and land.
He judges not as a judge judges, but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.
How America needs poets! God knows—she has enough profit takers, enough garage mechanics, enough journalists, enough teachers of only what has been taught, enough wage slaves. Without the poet—man of vision wherever he stands—the Soul of this people is a dead Soul. One must be insensible not to feel the chill creeping over ours. . . .
Having myself had the best and the worst of everything as preliminary to the ten years next to come, I hope none of those years will be wasted or thwarted where architecture, in what remains to us all of life, is concerned.55
The Natural House, a book about house construction, was inspired by a request from Wright’s publisher, Ben Raeburn of Horizon Press, and evolved from Wright’s responses to a series of questions his wife distributed to the Taliesin Fellowship as part of a traditional Sunday morning talk. However, he opened the book with passages from his autobiography that described his early residential work.
An idea [I had] (probably rooted deep in racial instinct) that shelter should be the essential look of any dwelling, put the low spreading roof, flat or hipped or low gabled, with generously projecting eaves over the whole. I began to see a building primarily not as a cave but as a broad shelter in the open, related to vista; vista without and vista within.56
Plasticity may be seen in the expressive flesh-covering of the skeleton as contrasted with the articulation of the skeleton itself.57
Proceeding, then, step by step from generals to particulars, plasticity as a large means in architecture began to grip me and to work its own will. Fascinated I would watch its sequences already in evidence: as in the Heurtley, Martin, Heath, Thomas, Coonley and dozens of other houses.
The old architecture, so far as its grammar went, for me began literally, to disappear.58
Digressing for a moment, there followed in his text a description of the deeper meaning of organic architecture:
If you will yet be patient for a little while—a scientist, Einstein, asked for three days to explain the far less pressing and practical matter of “Relativity”—we will take each of the five new resources in order, as with the five fingers of the hand. All are new integrities to be used if we will to make living easier and better today.
The first great integrity is a deeper, more intimate sense of reality in building than was ever pagan—that is to say, than was ever “Classic.” More human than was any building ever realized in the Christian Middle Ages.59
The second of the five resources he listed as glass: “By means of glass, then, the first great integrity may find prime means of realization. Open reaches of the ground may enter as the building and the building interior may reach out to associate with these vistas of the ground.”60
The third resource is somewhat more complicated to explain. He called it “the principle of continuity. . . . Steel is its prophet and master.”61 His explanation deals with the old concept of the post and beam.
Of course this primitive post-and-beam construction will always be valid, but both support and supported may now by means of inserted and welded steel strands or especially woven filaments of steel and modern concrete castings be plaited and united as one physical body: ceilings and walls made one with floors and reinforcing each other by making them continue into one another. This Continuity is made possible by the tenuity of steel.62
[The] potent fourth new resource—the Nature of Materials—gets at the common center of every material in relation to the work it is required to do. This means that the architect must again begin at the very beginning. Proceeding according to Nature now he must sensibly go through with whatever material may be at hand for this purpose according to the methods and sensibilities of a man in this age.63
At last, is this fifth resource, so old yet now demanding fresh significance. We have arrived at integral ornament—the nature-pattern of actual construction.64
What I am here calling integral ornament is founded upon the same organic simplicities as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, that amazing revolution in tumult and splendor of sound built on four tones based upon a rhythm a child could play on the piano with one finger. Supreme imagination reared the four repeated tones, simple rhythms, into a great symphonic poem that is probably the noblest thought-built edifice in our world.65
At this point in his text, Wright finally arrived at “The Usonian House I.” Here he included, in its entirety, his writings about the Herbert Jacobs house in Madison, Wisconsin, first published in the 1938 Forum. Since the Critical Writings includes The Natural House, it seemed prudent to include it exactly as Wright had written it.
Concluding the section on the Usonian I house, he wrote: “In designing the Usonian house, as I have said, I have always proportioned it to the human figure in point of scale; that is, to the scale of the human figure to occupy it. . . . The Usonian house, then, aims to be a natural performance, one that is integral to the site; integral to the environment; integral to the life of the inhabitants.”66
A substantial section of the book contains the answers to the questions that he was asked in the Sunday morning talk to his apprentices. The responding remarks were edited and then grouped together under numerous headings. In the chapter entitled “The ‘Usonian Automatic,’” he described a new system of construction that he was creating at the time this book was written. Realizing that the building system he first employed after the Depression in the Usonian houses was no longer cost-effective—labor costs had risen so—he then sought to create another system for the moderate-cost residence. He turned once more to the use of concrete block, as he had years earlier in California. But this time the blocks were substantially simpler.
. . . To build a low cost house you must eliminate, so far as possible, the use of skilled labor, now so expensive. The Usonian Automatic house therefore is built of shells made up of pre-cast concrete blocks about 1’0” × 2’0” or larger and so designed that, grooved as they are on the edges, they can be made and also set up with small steel horizontal and vertical reinforcing rods in the joints, by the owners themselves, each course being grouted (poured) as it is laid upon the one beneath; the rods meantime projecting above for the next course.67
“How the ‘Usonian Automatic’ Is Built” contained further instructions as to the method for building the house, the various types of blocks required, including the construction of the ceiling and roof, and installation of tract lighting systems, and furnishings. “Here then, within moderate means for the free man of our democracy, with some intelligence and by his own energy, comes a natural house designed in accordance with the principles of organic architecture.”68
The following chapter, “Organic Architecture and the Orient,” described his work on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Why this digression from the central theme of the book remains enigmatic. His final chapter, “The Philosophy and the Deed,” digresses even further, but contains an interesting “confession”:
Many people have wondered about an Oriental quality they see in my work. I suppose it is true that when we speak of organic architecture, we are speaking of something that is more Oriental than Western. The answer is: my work is, in that deeper philosophical sense, Oriental.69
It cannot truthfully be said, however, that organic architecture was derived from the Orient. We have our own way of putting these elemental (so ancient) ideals into practical effect. . . . The idea of organic architecture that the reality of the building lies in the space within to be lived in, the feeling that we must not enclose ourselves in an envelope which is the building, is not alone Oriental. Democracy, proclaiming the integrity of the individual per se, had the feeling if not the words.70
Letters in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives reveal that Wright was working on a manuscript entitled A Testament as early as 1955, although the work was not completed and published until two years later. Of all his books, it has the broadest scope of topics, ranging from his beliefs, ideas, and principles to a vivid account of his childhood years, the years with Adler and Sullivan, and the beginning of his own architectural practice. By the time the book was finished he was ninety years old, and its very title suggests a final accounting of his life and his work.
The book is divided into two sections. In Book One he reflects on his early years:
Mother was a great teacher who loved teaching; Father a preacher who loved and taught music. He taught me to see a great symphony as a master’s edifice of sound. Mother learned that Friedrich Froebel taught that children should not be allowed to draw from casual appearances of Nature until they had first mastered the basic forms lying hidden behind appearances. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should first be made visible to the child-mind.
. . . for several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these “unit-lines” with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. Scarlet cardboard triangle (60˚–30˚) two inches on the short side, and one side white, were smooth triangular sections with which to come by pattern—design—by my own imagination. . . .
The virtue of all this lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structure in Nature—giving the child a sense of innate cause-and-effect otherwise beyond child-comprehension. I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to “see” this way and when I did, I did not care to draw causal incidentals of Nature. I wanted to design.71
Let us look back. I remember how as a boy, primitive American architecture—Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca—stirred my wonder, excited my wishful admiration. I wished I might someday have money enough to go to Mexico, Guatemala and Peru to join in excavating those long slumbering remains of lost cultures; mighty, primitive abstractions of man’s nature— ancient arts of the Mayan, the Inca, the Toltec. . . . A grandeur arose in the scale of total building never since excelled, seldom equalled by man either in truth of plan or simple primitive integrity of form. Architecture intrinsic to Time, Place and Man.72
To cut ambiguity short: there never was exterior influence upon my work, either foreign or native, other than that of Lieber Meister, Dankmar Adler and John Roebling, Whitman and Emerson, and the great poets worldwide. My work is original not only in fact but in spiritual fiber. No practice by any European architect to this day has influenced mine in the least.
As for the Incas, the Mayas, even the Japanese—all were to me but
splendid confirmation. . . .
As for inspiration from human nature, there were Laotze, Jesus, Dante, Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi, Palestrina, Mozart. Shakespeare was in my pocket for the many years I rode the morning train to Chicago. I learned, too, from William Blake (all of his work I read), Goethe, Wordsworth, Dr. Johnson, Carlyle (Sartor Resartus at the age of fourteen), George Meredith, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, Cervantes, Nietzsche, Unamuno, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Aristophanes.73
After describing many of the elements and events that constituted his early life in architecture, he then proceeded to Book Two, “The New Architecture.” In Part One he defined its principles:
At last we come to the analysis of the principles that became so solidly basic to my sense and practice of architecture. How do these principles, now beginning to be recognized as the centerline of American democracy, work?
Principle one: kinship of building to ground. This basic inevitability in organic architecture entails an entirely new sense of proportion. The human figure appeared to me, about 1893 or earlier, as the true human scale of architecture. Buildings I myself then designed and built—Midwest— seemed, by means of this new scale, to belong to man and at the moment especially as he lived on rolling Western prairie.74
Principle two: decentralization. The time more for individual spaciousness was long past due. 1893. I saw urban decentralization as inevitable because a growing necessity, seeking more space everywhere, by whatever steps or stages it was obtainable. Space, short of breath, was suffocating in an airless situation, a shameful imposition upon free American life. . . .
To offset the senselessness of this inhuman act, I prepared the Broadacre City models at Taliesin in 1934.75
The third principle he somewhat awkwardly titled “Character is a Natural”: “Appropriate ‘character’ is inevitable to all architecture if organic. . . . This means sane appropriation of imaginative design to specific human purposes, by the natural use of nature-materials or synthetics, and appropriate methods of construction.”76
The fourth principle he identified as “Tenuity Plus Continuity”: “Tenuity is simply a matter of tension (pull), something never before known in the architecture of this world. . . . Push it you might and it would stay together but pull on it and it would fall apart. With tensile strength of steel, this pull permits free use of the cantilever, a projectile and tensile at the same time, in building-design. The outstretched arm with its hand (with its drooping fingers for walls) is a cantilever. So is the branch of a tree.77
For the fifth principle, he wrote: “To sum up, organic architecture sees the third dimension never as weight or mere thickness but always as depth. Depth an element of space; the third (or thickness) dimension transformed to a space dimension.”78
He elaborated further also on the concepts of space, form, shelter, materials, and style, as well as discussing the client and the concept of ownership. He concluded the first book of A Testament with this: “Meanwhile we continue to hope that the Comic Spirit in which we as a people do excel may survive long enough to salt and savor life among us long enough for our civilization to present us to the world as a culture, not merely as an amazing civilization.”79
There followed a short section titled “Part Two: Humanity—The Light of the World”:
Constantly I have referred to a more “humane” architecture, so I will try to explain what humane means to me, as an architect. Like organic architecture, the quality of humanity is interior to man. As the solar system is reckoned in terms of light-years, so may the inner light be what we are calling humanity. . . .
There is nothing higher in human consciousness than beams of this interior light. We call them beauty. . . . From the cradle to the grave his true being craves this reality to assure the continuation of life as Light thereafter.80
Although extremely short, Part Two of Book Two carries an intensely spiritual message. It seems fitting that the closing words of Wright’s personal testament portray him as an individual of devout convictions. We perceive him here as not just a creative architect but as a man of profound faith.
There is no more precious element of immortality than mankind as thus humane. Heaven may be the symbol of this light of lights only insofar as heaven is thus a haven.
Mankind has various names for this interior light, “the soul” for instance. To be truly humane is divinity in the only sense conceivable. There can be no such thing as absolute death or utter evil—all being from light in some form. In any last analysis there is no evil because shadow itself is of the light.81
As his writings clearly demonstrate from first to last, Frank Lloyd Wright’s concern about architecture went beyond mere buildings set on the earth beneath the sun. Rather he perceived architecture as the frame of life, as the beneficent factor making life beautiful and meaningful. “Beautiful buildings are more than scientific. They are true organisms, spiritually conceived.”82
Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Director of Archives
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
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