In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright 1908

Posted by George Pudlo on January 7, 2012 at 6:25 PM Comments comments (2)

Ward Willits House, Frank Lloyd Wright 1901

In 1908, The Architectural Record published a manifesto authored by Frank Lloyd Wright, which he titled In the Cause of Architecture. In this declaration, Wright divulges a contemporary analysis of the Prairie School, what he referred to as the "New School of the Middle West". Wright's architectural theories are outlined through personal anecdotes of various commissions and clients. Twenty years later, in 1928, Wright would publish eight more articles of architectural declaration under the name In the Cause of Architecture in The Architectural Record. The following analysis concerns the first installation. 

Wright opens In the Cause of Architecture with a testament to the importance of nature in architecture, saying "there is no source so fertile, so suggestive, so helpful aesthetically for the architect as a comprehension of natural law."  We begin to see Wright using words like "organic" to describe his theories. Wright then refers back to an essay he wrote in 1894 with a number of "propositions" as he called them. These include Wright's truths of architecture, and a little bit of interior design advice. In summary:

I Simplicity and Repose are qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

II There should be as many kinds (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals. A man who has individuality has a right to its expression in his own environment.

III A Building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings if Nature is manifest there.

IV Use the soft warm, optimistic tones of earths and autumn leaves in preference to the pessimistic blues, purples, or cold greens and grays of the ribbon counter.

V Bring out the nature of materials, let their nature intimately into your scheme. Reveal the nature of the wood, plaster, brick, or stone in your designs, they are all by nature friendly and beautiful.

VI A house that has character stands a good chance of growing more valuable as it grows older while a house in the prevailing mode, whatever that mode may be, is soon out of fashion, stale, and unprofitable. Above all, integrity.

Wright goes on to explain how these ideals have been put into use as of late ( 1908 ) but explains how Americans got into the mess of poor architecture in the first place:

Then the skylines of our domestic architecture were fantastic abortions, tortured by features that disrupted the distorted roof surfaces from which attenuated chimneys like lean fingers threatened the sky; the invariably tall interiors were cut up into box-like compartments, the more boxes the finer the house.....Even cultured men and women care so little for the spiritual integrity of their environment; except in rare cases they are not touched, they simply do not care for the matter as long as their dwellings are fashionable or as good as those of their neighbors and keep them dry and warm.

In other words, people do not care about Principle (Wright spelled it with a capital P), they care about fashion. If it is trendy, it will do. But fashions come and go, and if houses are not built out of principle, then they contain no truth and find no organization in chaos. Wright asserts that it is his intention to create an American domestic architecture by establishing an organic integrity through the ideal of Democracy," the highest possible expression of the individual as a unit not inconsistent with a harmonious whole."

And that is the secret of Wright's architecture. It is Democratic in his sense of the word. Wright executed more than 500 buildings, and rarely did he identically replicate any given design, but there is something about a building that consistently evokes the architect.  One may see a building and say it has a Frank Lloyd Wright "look". Wright did not develop his own style, he developed his own order by stripping down an idea until all that was left was Principle. All of his buildings are individuals, with individuals characteristics, but only so far that they do not disrupt the organic whole.

In Frank Lloyd Wright's In the Cause of Architecture, the architect-author describes the organic design process of his Prairie School Houses, though the specific  term  "Prairie School" would not be coined until later in the century. WIth 87 photographs published in The Architectural Record to accompany the article, Wright identifies three different Prairie expressions based on roof composition,  and cites examples of his then existing inventory of buildings:

a. The low-pitched hip roofs, heaped together in pyramidal fashion or presenting quiet, unbroken skylines (Winslow House, Henderson House, Willits House, Thomas House,  Heurtley House, Heath House, Cheney House, Martin House, Little House, Gridley House, Millard House, Tomek House, Coonley House, Westcott House, Hillside Home School, and Pettit Memorial Chapel),

b. The low roofs with simple pediments countering on long ridges (Bradley House, Hickox House, Davenport House, and Dana House), and

c. Those topped with a simple slab (Unity Church, the concrete house of The Ladies' Home Journal, and other designs in process of execution).

Wright then describes the design process from the ground up. "There is good, substantial preparation at the ground for all the buildings and it is the first grammatical expression of all the types. This preparation, or water table, is to these buildings, what the stylobate was to the ancient Greek temple." A simplification of wall surfaces creates a greater emphasis on window composition, and Wright defines fenestration "as elementary constituents of the structure grouped in rhythmical fashion". This is accomplished through use of ribbons of casement windows. Wright declares his disdain for double hung windows, referring to them as "guillotine windows", and emphasizes his determination to make the casement window prominent.  Wright claimed that a great source of conflict between client and architect often resulted from client refusal of casement windows, in which the architect essentially says take the house with casement windows, or leave it all. 

In regard to floor plan and spatial composition, Wright asserts "although the symmetry may not be obvious, always the balance is usually maintained". A more thoughtful, and personalized ground plan sets these homes apart from the Beaux-Arts, but while a complexity of individual characteristics articulates the buildings, again it is only so far as they do not disrupt the organic whole. 

Decorating the houses naturally takes its form by "providing certain architectural preparation for natural foliage or flowers" and Wright further promotes that "what architectural decoration the buildings carry is not only conventionalized to the point where it is quiet and stays as a sure foil for the nature forms from which it is derived and with which it must intimately associate, but it is always of the surface, never on it." This is a notion conceived by Louis Sullivan, whose captivating ornament was  floral, and free flowing, often inspired by geometric intricacies found in nature. Importantly, it doesn't look like it is pasted to the outside of the facade, but rather it appears to rise organically from the structure. This not only links Wright to Sullivan, but also separates Wright from his later rival, Mies van der Rohe, who did not simplify ornament, but rather eliminated it entirely. At the time of In the Cause of Architecture's publication, no ornamentation was not yet a factor as it would be decades before the European modernists eliminated the use of ornament, but rather the opposite -there was too much ornament in the general scheme of domestic and commercial architecture. Wright explains "To let individual elements arise and shine at the expense of final repose is, for the architect, a betrayal of trust for buildings are the background or framework for the human life within their walls and a foil for the nature efflorescence without."

Wright includes in his first installation of In the Cause of Architecture an urgent message for American architects to stop "reproducing with murderous ubiquity forms born of other times and other conditions". Wright calls for the establishment of a new, modern American (Democratic) architecture, sympathetic to and in collaboration with the machine,  through the respectful representation of the nature of materials, particularly the new, industrial materials. "...steel and concrete and terra-cotta in particular, are prophesying a more plastic art wherein as the flesh is to our bones so will the covering be to the structure, but more truly and beautifully expressive than ever".

Wright  also touches on the apprentices in his office, calling it a "little university", then comprised of Marion Mahony, William Drummond, Francis Byrne, Isabel Roberts, George Willis, Walter Burley Griffin, Andrew Willatzen, Harry Robinson, Charles E White, Jr, Erwin Barglebaugh, Robert Hardin, and Albert McArthur. He notes how some stay for years to develop a necessary, sympathetic grasp of detail, and some stay only long enough "to acquire a smattering of form, then departing to sell a superficial proficiency elsewhere."

Frank Lloyd Wright was still living and working out of Oak Park when he wrote In the Cause of Architecture, and was beginning to see other houses similar in concept to his own emerging through out his neighborhood. To this day, Oak Park boasts one of the largest concentrations of Prairie School Architecture in the world. Visitors often query Wright's reaction to houses of similar "style" to his own, and the answer is revealed in the final paragraphs of In the Cause of Architecture. If an architect creates a structure based merely on the replication of a "style", then it is what it is - a building with no soul or individuality. Wright stresses the importance of the individuality of architects. There should be no large architectural firms, for the artistic vision is lost in translation from the architect to the draftsman, no matter the competency of the draftsman,  in a way that a painter would never "entrust the painting in or the details to a pupil". 

Wright concludes In the Cause of Architecture with a prediction for the future, that "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."

Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright

Posted by George Pudlo on December 20, 2011 at 11:45 PM Comments comments (1)

Broadacre City Model

In 1932, Frank Lloyd Wright authored an essay entitled The Disappearing City in which he proposed a solution that he called the Broadacre City. This utopian concept was not a formal commission, but rather one of Frank Lloyd Wright's many organic concepts of architecture that he envisioned.

It is widely known that Frank Lloyd Wright loathed classical architecture and its repetition on American soil. That is what lead him to develop the Prairie mode of domestic architecture in the Midwest. Beyond his distaste of European revival was the modern day city. When Wright first arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1887, he lamented on the squalor like conditions of the city. The pollution bothered him. The traffic irritated him. The advertisements annoyed him. And man was not entitled to any freedom of space, or subsequently individuality. This lead him to develop a concept for a new way of living entirely, with the central notion being decentralization, known as the Broadacre City.


The core idea of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City is that every man has one acre of land for living. An acre of land for a man and his family was sufficient enough for them to live by the sovereignty of the individual, a truly democratic idea, in Frank Lloyd Wright's plan. This would be accomplished by the decentralization of cities over spans of hundreds of miles. Rather than one large city crammed with millions of people, there would now be dozens of sprawling cities with those millions evenly distributed. An idealistic merge of urban and rural, though not suburban. The Broadacre City is a prototype of what this would look like. Here would be self sufficient cities covering broad spans, offering the comforts and conveniences of the city and the open space of the rural. What makes this different from a suburb? Suburbs are the (sometimes messy) fusion of the urban area and rural area. But suburbs cannot exist without a large city to bud off of, often times providing work for those in the suburbs. In Broadacre City, it exists independently of any major city, though there may be dozens of Broadacre Cities clustered together, comparable in idea to a metropolitan area. 

By 1935, Frank Lloyd Wright had established the Taliesin Fellowship, and therefore had free labor to assist in building a large model of Broadacre City. That year the Broadacre City toured the United States, ironically beginning in New York City, the most congested of the states, and Frank Lloyd Wright's mind, the one that could benefit from decentralization. In the official description of the Broadacre City, seen below, Frank Lloyd Wright begins with a basic explanation or organic architecture and then lists the components of the model:

ORGANIC ARCHITECTURE: All forms integral, natural to site, materials, process of construction and purpose

Among some of the features of the Broadacre City, too numerous to list in full include little farms,music gardens, flight service, vineyards and orchards, schools, cinemas, gas stations, general merchandising and markets, little factories and so forth.

Also listed in the Broadacre City's official description are general guidelines or rules. Among the more relevant are: No private ownership of public needs, no landlord or tenant, no traffic problems, an acre of ground minimum for the individual, Broadacre City makes no change in existing system of land surveys, has a single seat of government for each county, and architectural features determined by the character and topography of region. 

Frank Lloyd Wright saw cities and their centralized natures as unnecessary and primitive. As was he in favor of the use of the machine in the Arts & Crafts, he also favored the machine, by way of new means of communication via the telephone and new speeds of transportation via the automobile. In the ancient cities, it was necessary to live in such close confines because there was no other means of communication than by personal contact, and the slow transport available to move between great distances hindered decentralization. In the modern city there is no need to be so close together. 

As with any utopian idea, there always issues that need to be addressed. In the Broadacre City, one might question if everyone would actually want to have an acre to himself. Some people could not handle the transition from the comforts of luxury living and communal living. For those people, there would be apartment buildings: tall skyscrapers of steel and glass in the middle of wide open parks. 

Frank Lloyd Wright would refine the concept of the Broadacre City for the remainder of his life. In 1945, Wright revised The Disappearing City essay and published it as When Democracy Builds, and in 1958 he published The Living City. All three essays relate to the concept of decentralization.


Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Organic Architecture: What is Organic Architecture?

Posted by George Pudlo on December 4, 2011 at 10:40 AM Comments comments (0)

What is Organic Architecture? 

It's not a simple answer. As with most ideas, Organic Architecture is not a black and white concept. A building may have organic features, but unless those organic features work together to create an organic whole, it is not Organic Architecture. 

In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright was formally interviewed by Mike Wallace. It was so controversial and drama filled, that a second interview was conducted shortly after. During these interviews, Frank Lloyd Wright frequently throws in the term "Organic Architecture".

Frank Lloyd Wright: We make shift in what we're in now, we don't really live in it. We don't understand what it is to live in an organic building with organic character-

Mike Wallace: Well, now organic character...These are words which the mobocra- a mobocracy, perhaps, would have difficulty understanding-

Frank Lloyd Wright: Well let's say natural, does that suit you better?

Mike Wallace: I'm still not -I would like specifically to know what you mean, how would you change the way we live?

Frank Lloyd Wright: I would like to make it appropriate to the Declaration of Independence, to the center line of our freedom, I'd like to have a free architecture. I'd like to have an architecture that belonged where you see it standing, and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace. And the letters we receive from our clients, tell us how those buildings we built for them have changed the character of their whole life, and their whole existence. And it's different now, than it was before. Well. I'd like to do that for the country.

That still leaves a lot to the imagination. It's sometimes easier to announce what is Organic Architecture, rather than what isn't. There are several different ways to express Organic Architecture -through site; through materials; through construction. Frank Lloyd Wright said it is all based on principle. "Now what are the principles behind this thing we call Organic Architecture.....very simple, the nature of the thing." What is the "nature of the thing"? 

The first, and most basic idea Frank Lloyd Wright would consider in designing the structure, is the site. Frank Lloyd Wright was very much a regional architect in the sense that he built according to the land. The Frank Lloyd Wright structures one would see in Los Angeles are dramatically different than the structures he designed in Illinois, which are in turn, dramatically different from the structures he designed in Arizona. It's all according to the land. Why did Frank Lloyd Wright vault to national attention when he developed the Prairie School Style? Because it was the first time we had a regional domestic architecture in America, an architecture where the buildings are built to complement the natural terrain.

That is perhaps the greatest difference between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, contemporary "frenemies". One can easily recognize a Mies building anywhere, because they look the same all over - the giant steel and glass box. One can easily recognize Mies' style as it consistently remains the same from Chicago to New York to Berlin. There is no differentiation between the selected sites for construction. The architectural philosophies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe overlap often, particularly in conceptions of space and proportion, but  are clearly on opposite ends of the spectrum when considering site. 

Frank Lloyd Wright said, when speaking of his home in Wisconsin, Taliesin:

And of course the countryside is Southern Wisconsin. Low hills. Protruding rock ledges. Wooded site. And the same thing applied to Taliesin, that applied to, later on to Bear Run (Fallingwater). The site determined the features and character of the house. Taliesin really is a stone house. And it is a house of the north. And it was built for the north. I loved the icecicles that came on the eves. And in winter, the snow would sweep up over it, and it looked like the hill itself, or one of the I chose Taliesin as a name, it means "Shining Brow". And Taliesin is built like a brow on the edge of the hill, not on top of the hill, because I believe you should never build on top of anything directly. If you build on top of the hill, you lose the hill. If you build one on the side of the top, you have the hill and the eminence that you desire, you see. Well, Taliesin's like that.

The terrain of the United States varies dramatically, perhaps one of the reasons Frank Lloyd Wright so loved America. The Prairie Houses in the midwest, particularly Chicago, were built according to its flat landscape. The low profiles and horizontal lines of these houses were exacerbated by the prairie, and vice versa. The concrete textile block homes of the Los Angeles area are neatly tucked in to the Hollywood hills, so you know neither where the house ends nor where the hills begin. It is an integration of architecture and nature. The most dramatic example of this is the Bear Run house, Fallingwater. Located in the mountainous region of southwestern Pennsylvania, Fallingwater is built not only into the side of the mountain, using materials excavated from the mountain, but additionally over a stream and waterfall. The waterfall appears to flow out of the house. One could not replicate such a drama filled site. When the Edgar Kaufmann's commissioned Wright to design their weekend home at Bear Run, they wanted it near the waterfall, their favorite spot. They assumed Wright would design the house so that it was oriented toward the waterfall. They had no idea Wright planned to build the house on top of the waterfall. 

Once the site had been selected, usually by the client, Wright would then need to decide in which materials to build. The Prairie houses saw the use of many materials, often in mixed media. It is common to find a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie house built with wood, concrete, stucco, brick, or any combination of those materials. This brings us to the next concept of Organic Architecture: the nature of materials. 

Wright would work with all materials. His use of the materials relied on the nature of materials. Now what is the nature of a material? It is how any material acts. Wood is sturdy and sturdy and flexible. Glass is transparent and allows light to filter in any number of ways. Concrete is fluid. Brick and stone are solid. The nature of the material determines how to emphasize the simplicity of materials. If you take a piece of wood, and you carve that piece of wood, or you paint that piece of wood, you have lost the simplicity of wood and warped its nature. But if you take a slab of wood, and you neither paint nor carve that piece of wood, but rather relied on its natural grain texture and color, then you have maintained the simplicity of wood. This is how Wright worked. He never abused materials. He allowed them to perform as they would. When Wright built a structure of concrete, for instance, the Unity Temple, he didn't create slabs of concrete and stack them one on top of the other. He poured it. Concrete before it dries is a naturally fluid material. Concrete itself may not be natural or organic in the sense that it came from the earth, but the nature of concrete as a material is to flow. In the Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright had a large, wooden cast built, and allowed the concrete to flow into it and form before it dried. Every feature of that building is concrete poured on site. 

Often, Frank Lloyd Wright would use natural, local materials. If it was possible to use materials excavated from the site, he would do it. Or use materials found in that local region. In Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, his desert camp, the primary building material is what he referred to as desert masonry. The walls of Taliesin West are made from a collection of specially selected stones, large and small, found strewn about the desert floor, which he welded together with concrete -concrete made of cement purchased in Scottsdale, and additional sand from the foundation of Taliesin West. 

The physical construction and structure of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings were also of his principles of Organic Architecture. While buildings had traditionally been constructed with the repetition of posts and beams, Frank Lloyd Wright expanded that constricting idea by opening up spaces. Here, with Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, we begin to see the way modern materials, with the mastering of the machine, can be held together in different ways and new interpretations of space. In his Prairie houses, Frank Lloyd Wright first began to do this by expanding the windows. Instead of having gaps within windows, he positioned them as ribbons of windows, interconnected, separated only by thin partitions. These ribbons of windows began to take up more and more wall space, until eventually, there was no longer wall space, but rather screens of light. The elimination of walls, breaking the box, as Wright called it, allowed for a new form of interior freedom unseen before. 

In the Larkin Administration Building, 1904, Frank Lloyd Wright freed up the interior space with a massive atrium, and a skylight from above, filling the space with natural light. In the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, 1915-23, the construction involved new ways of putting a building together so that a building could pull, be flexible, and as proven, survive a massive earthquake. The Imperial Hotel's method of concrete construction, organically constructed to respect the materials and let them perform as they are intended to, allowed it to survive an 8.3 earthquake in 1923 -the largest Japan had until 2011. Few buildings survived the quake, but days later Wright received a telegram stating that the Imperial Hotel survived as a testament to his genius. In his Los Angeles architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright used his concrete textile block method. He designed hollow blocks of concrete, with geometric patterns, and lined them up, stacked them atop one another, and joined them together with the assistance of steel rods inserted through the hollow insides. Wright had made homes in a manner similar to creating textiles. 

Organic Architecture can take many forms. It can be designed of varied materials. It can be anywhere. With consideration of site, and respect of materials, Wright created masterpiece after masterpiece. These ideas were not originally his, and he never claimed to own them. He simply advocated for upholding principles of Organic Architecture in a cultural climate he felt had lost these principles. Wright had a strong disdain for historical revivalism and was revolted with the previous half a millennium of the world's architecture preceding his career. He was aghast at the reuse and feeble imitation of ancient architecture. Wright said that the architecture of the Renaissance was nothing but a facade -pilasters, arches, this, that, and the other -to paint a picture. But Wright held sacred the architecture of times before that, because ancient architecture was Organic Architecture. Wright so admired the indigenous architecture of the Mayans, Native Americans, Asians, and so on, because they all built by these principles -the nature of the land, the materials of the land. They built shelter that would accommodate their basic needs, without unnecessary ornaments and features, and made them beautiful. Wright loved even the architecture of Greeks and Romans, but because it was their own. He didn't feel it was necessary, or right to take the skins of those buildings and recreate them today, but rather take those principles behind their beauty, and create a natural architecture with modern materials and engineering, without creating a carbon copy.


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