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In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright 1908

Posted by George Pudlo on January 7, 2012 at 6:25 PM


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."



Categories: Frank Lloyd Wright Philosophy

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2 Comments

Reply fag
9:35 PM on March 9, 2014 
this was just beautiful!!!!!
Reply got
9:38 PM on March 9, 2014 
fag says...
this was just beautiful!!!!!

Twas not beautiful
it was average

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