Sunday, March 15, 2009

Influences: Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, November 1937 (photo by Bill Hedrich)

My February 15 blog entry, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who've been most influential upon my architectural world view. This is the first such post:

I’m currently reading Fallingwater Rising, by Franklin Toker, which recounts the genesis of what many regard as Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Kaufmann House in southwestern Pennsylvania. Much of Toker’s book is an analysis of the relationship between Wright and his client, Pittsburgh department store mogul Edgar J. Kaufmann. Neither Wright nor Kaufmann feared the other – Kaufmann elicited the best possible from Wright without meddling, not because EJ was weak but because he was strong. His patronage would rejuvenate Wright’s career. The great architect’s design for Fallingwater would surpass in brilliance anything his European contemporaries were producing, while still hewing to his idiosyncratic brand of organic modernism. It is arguable that it was this single commission that cemented Wright’s claim to being the greatest American architect of the twentieth century.

I well remember my first impression of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Bill Hedrich’s iconic 1937 photograph of Fallingwater immediately caught my attention as I turned to the first page about architecture in a well-worn encyclopedia at the local public library. My assignment was to prepare a report on the subject for a fifth grade class. I’d never seen a house like Fallingwater before. Its dynamism and integration into its setting, particularly the dramatically cantilevered balconies, were remarkable to my young eyes. So too was the striking contrast between the rugged stone masonry of the vertical elements and the smooth plaster of the horizontal planes. But what I really found astonishing was when I read the photo’s caption and realized how old it was. “Holy cow!” I thought to myself. “This was designed in 1934?” The house looked so . . . modern. This couldn’t be right; after all, that would have made Fallingwater almost as old as my mom and dad, and they were really old. The encyclopedia must have gotten the date wrong.

Of course, the date wasn’t wrong. Once I had resolved this cognitive dissonance, I would learn that Fallingwater was designed by the most famous architect of all, and that he was the creative genius and ego behind many other amazing examples of modern architecture. I became enthralled with the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in turn with the idea of growing up to be an architect. The heroic image of the crusading master builder appealed to me, in much the same way that the cocksure arrogance of an astronaut or fighter pilot with the “right stuff” did before I discovered architecture(1). Heck, I could be Wright’s spiritual successor(2), or maybe the next Howard Roark (not that I knew at the age of eleven who Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead protagonist was). I would soon read Wright’s An Autobiography and The Living City, as well as books by other authors about Wright and architecture in general. I was hooked.
Wright was larger than life, an artistic iconoclast and heroic individualist. He left behind a rich legacy of beautiful architecture derived from his personal passions and convictions. He believed that an organic architecture must serve the principles that give order to nature and meaning to the human spirit. He exercised a high-blown romanticism and a mutability that ensured the relevance of his philosophy even as the world changed rapidly around him. His was the promise of a utopian future. He seemed the embodiment of modernity to me.

So, in addition to giving form to a genuinely American modern architecture, Wright also inspired a particular young boy to follow in his footsteps. Of course, he should be heaped upon with praise for likewise turning generations of countless other disciples toward lives in architecture but – hey – we’re talking about me here.

A framed copy of this 1994 MOMA poster hangs on the wall of our guest bedroom.
I have yet to make the pilgrimage to Bear Run to see Fallingwater in person. Of Wright’s projects, I’ve visited Taliesen West in Arizona, the Hollyhock and Ennis houses in Los Angeles, and the Gordon House in Silverton, Oregon. A trip to see Fallingwater is definitely on my “bucket list” of things to do before I die. Given that it was a seminal image of the Kaufmanns’ famous country retreat that set me on my life’s path, it only seems natural that I should someday admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated work of architecture from the exact place below the falls where Bill Hedrich set his camera on a sunlit November day in 1937.

(1) Prior to settling upon becoming an architect, I alternately dreamed of being a cowboy, astronaut, fighter pilot (which I quickly gave up when I realized that having superior eyesight was a prerequisite for fighter pilots), professional hockey player, and marine biologist (I imagined embarking upon fantastic voyages of discovery with Jacques Cousteau aboard his ship, the Calypso).

(2) After all, Wright died peacefully on April 9, 1959, perhaps aware and comforted that I had arrived on the scene the very day before to carry the flame (please note tongue firmly planted in cheek).

1 comment:

David Thompson said...

Great story of how a single picture of a building set you on the course to be an architect, But what a building. It is a spectacular in real life as in the pictures. I look forward to reading the post after you've ticked it of you list.