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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Box

Copyright, Jim Lane
Wright's Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona, ca. 1935-55. At first glance,                 
it would that there are no "boxes" here; but if one looks closely,                
they're present, just heavily disguised.             
Fallingwater, a good place to begin.
One of the goals in our recent cross-country jaunt this spring was to see this country at something less than 30,000 feet (at times we got almost that high, though). For me personally, it was to immerse myself in the work of my favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Before, I'd only seen his Fallingwater on Bear Run in southwestern Pennsylvania, and that had been thirty-some years ago (probably time to go back and see if it's still there). Although his 1935-37 architectural masterpiece was an excellent place to start in the pursuit of Wright and his theories, it was, nonetheless, only a beginning. My son is stationed in the U.S. Air Force just outside Phoenix, which is just outside Scottsdale, which is just outside Wright's winter home, Taliesin West. I bored him to death as he accompanied me on a two or three hour exploration of the place. Then, passing through Wisconsin on the way home a few weeks later, I spent most of another day getting to know the original Taliesin just outside Spring Green in the southeastern quadrant of that state. And finally a few days later amid Wright's old "stomping ground" in Chicago's Oak Park, I toured the iconic Robie House.
The  Winslow House floor plan,
1893, arranging boxes.
The Winslow House, Oak Park,
Illinois, rectangles upon rectangles.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than a thousand structures during his career spanning more than seventy years, of which some some 532 were built. Of those, about 480 still survive in one form or another; so I have my work cut out for me in any future exploration of Wright's work. I hesitate to call myself an "expert" on Wright, but I've gotten to the point of sometimes adding commentary to the memorized spiel of tour guides, sometimes even almost to the point of correcting them (or wishing to). I guess it could be said I've reached the level of being able to ask intelligent questions of the tour guides, ones they very often are unprepared to answer.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Hillside House, Spring Green, Wisconsin, ca. 1902, at best, a compromise with the "box."
The drafting studio is on the upper level to the left, the dining hall and
auditorium are on the lower level on the right.
My most persistent question in touring Wright's architectural artifacts was this: "Why did it take Wright so long to discover the curve?" As early as 1902, with his design for what's come to be known as "Hillside House" (or home or school) Wright claimed to have "broken free of the box." While at Taliesin I visited Hillside House (below). It's currently the home of the Taliesin Fellowship when they're in town during the summer. It now featuress a large drafting hall, a dining room, kitchen, and small auditorium. It is an important Wright structure, much modified and enlarged since 1902; and one can easily see how Wright might have considered himself liberated from the proverbial "box" when one compares it to his 1890 vintage Winslow House (above). Yet despite his boast, any "freedom" Wright may have felt in escaping the box was more on the order of a compromise rather than an escape. In looking over the vast array of Wright's structures from that time on, until shortly after WW II when the Guggenheim first began taking shape in Wright's fertile mind, he shows little or no evidence of "box rejection" in any of his designs.

The origin of Wright's captivity within the box? Taliesin West suggests it may
have started in his childhood with a set of toy blocks like these.
I used the word "compromise" above with respect to the fact that Wright, with his love of diagonals and soaring interior spaces, could easily be said to have very much modified the traditional architectural box, for the most part making it longer, lower, and flatter, emphasizing the horizontal over the vertical. However, outright rejection or "escape" was more a figment of Wright's massive imagination and ego than reality. It's hard to escape from a mindset embedded in one's psyche from childhood when Wright's mother is said to have provided him with a set of toy building blocks (virtually all cubical in shape). Taliesin West displays a set of such blocks (above) from the 1870s, suggesting the seminal influence they played in Wright's decision to study architecture.

The Robie House, 1912, Oak Park, Illinois, the creative use of cubes.
It's little wonder their gift shop sells a Lego version of the house.
The "box" has been a mainstay of human habitation for so many thousands of years for one overriding reason. It is the most stable, the most economical, the most practical interior space known to man. The human mind (if not the human feet as well) prefer a flat, level surface upon which to walk. Likewise, the human mind, gravity, and that flat walking surface, indeed the basic human anatomy, tends to prefer vertical walls. That pretty much eliminates all shapes besides cubes and cylinders. However, cylinders have no corners and thus tend to waste space needed for out-of-the-way storage of the "stuff" human beings build structures to protect in the first place. So, the box it is. As it evolved, architecture became the art and science of arranging, stacking, lighting, waterproofing, fireproofing, and decorating structurally sound amalgamations of varying numbers of cubes--boxes.

The Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, Tempe, Arizona,
designed, 1959, completed 1962-64. Freedom from the box, the luxury of  the curve.
The Guggenheim Museum, 1959, New York,
Wright's cyclonic escape from the box.
That's not to say architects never thought "outside the box," as indeed, Wright finally did during the last decade or so of his career. But before Wright, seldom were such mental meanderings much more than attempts to break the monotony of the cube or provide a much-needed pivotal center of interest. Such shapes included the aforementioned cylinder, the dome, the pyramid, and the cone, all of which have had brief supporting or decorative roles in the history of architecture. Yet they only serve to underline what a startling departure New York's Guggenheim Museum (left) was for Wright personally and modern architecture in general. From that point on, Wright began to employ curves of varying degrees of "radicality" in structures such as Milwaukee's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (below), the Marin County Civic Center, Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium (above), Tempe, Arizona, and the Monona Terrace Community Center in Madison, Wisconsin. All were completed shortly before and some well after Wright's death in 1959. However in all my travels, in all my intimate explorations of Wright's persistent boxes, I've never once come upon anyone who could explain why Wright took so long to discover the curve.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
designed 1956, built, 1959-61. Hardly a box in sight.

Goodbye Bauhaus, goodbye FLW; hello Frank Gehry.


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