Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

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DavidC
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Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by DavidC »

(article is from 1959)

The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright


David
Last edited by DavidC on Fri May 27, 2022 2:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Roderick Grant
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Joined: Wed Mar 29, 2006 7:48 am

Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by Roderick Grant »

Very purple

SDR
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Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by SDR »

Ah--Albert Bush-Brown. When he arrived at my art-school alma mater midway through my formal (or rather, rather informal) education there, he became before long an object of derision, so out-of-place did he seem: we were all but Bohemian, while he seemed to have dropped in from some far corner of strait-laced and hide-bound academia. We and he viewed each other askance.

I wish I still had my yearbooks; a witty inclusion in one year's edition contained end-papers featuring photos of the President peering down his nose at a student at her outdoor easel, perfectly capturing the man, we thought. (To be fair, his accomplishments while at RISD seem worthy of note, as noted in an appreciation found on an online page devoted to school personnel: https://www.risd.edu/about/history-and-tradition )


This Atlantic piece assaults the senses almost immediately with its florid prose, so dense with poetic allusion and choice vocabulary that one gasps for breath, suffocating. Eventually it evens out, and begins a long march composed of equal parts offense against, and defense of, any- and everything Wright. Late in the game he seems to go off the rails when it comes to describing Wright's aesthetic accomplishment---after spending many paragraphs leading the reader to the conclusion that the art of architecture was all that Mr Wright had to offer.

A few facts are surprising or even misplaced: this is the first I've heard of the AIA withholding rather than bestowing honors, late in his life---and it is hardly true that the architect produced no designs for factories or government buildings. And isn't the Johnson quote "little boxes" left out in the rain ?

Still, Bush-Brown gets a lot of Wright right, and if I had been aware of this piece when it was published, I might have had more of a head start in my fledgling exploration of the man and the buildings.

Finally, the essay is disfigured by at least a dozen silly typographic errors. I am forever bemoaning the loss of decent editing in the publishing world---but it seems the Atlantic Monthly was ahead of the game by decades in that regard, if this piece is typical of their output, then.

Thanks for finding this piece, David.

S

jay
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Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by jay »

Yeah, that was overwrought.

Wright clearly did a disservice to his legacy with his antics. Perhaps it gave him publicity, but it also made 'Wright the man' the focus more often than the work itself. And worse, the very narrative of 'Wright the man' so often bleeds into the commentary of the architecture itself.

For example, this quote, which is hardly uncommon:

"Faced with requests to alter a design for reasons of economy, he treated compromise as an insult and stormed off the job broadcasting accolades to an artist’s integrity while forgetting that a client too has his right."

Surely this fits the narrative. Yet in the study of Wright's archives, there are so many examples of Wright both giving multiple sets of designs for clients, and also numerous instances of project compromises for his client's needs. (And in nearly every case of alterations, I'm usually of the conclusion: "wow, the initial design was the best....shame it got changed".)

But surely... the grand narratives are catchy.... and nuance is inconvenient.

Roderick Grant
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Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by Roderick Grant »

If one must grade FLW Man vs Architect, it is better and more to the point to watch his interviews with Mike Wallace and Hugh Downs wherein each question tossed his way was answered immediately and reasonably. Although he did hem and haw a bit when the subject of the Illinois Project was brought up.

As a writer of books, he had the advantage of time to burnish and expand, not to say twist and turn. There is one story in "An Autobiography" about a stormy night at Taliesin that Longmans Green & Co. should have insisted be excised.

Rood
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Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by Rood »

Roderick Grant wrote:
Sat May 28, 2022 11:50 am
If one must grade FLW Man vs Architect, it is better and more to the point to watch his interviews with Mike Wallace and Hugh Downs wherein each question tossed his way was answered immediately and reasonably. Although he did hem and haw a bit when the subject of the Illinois Project was brought up.

As a writer of books, he had the advantage of time to burnish and expand, not to say twist and turn. There is one story in "An Autobiography" about a stormy night at Taliesin that Longmans Green & Co. should have insisted be excised.
We were given to understand that some or all of the questions presented to Mr. Wright were given to him, before the actual interviews. If that is true ... Mr. Wright's manner of responding might not have been quite so off the cuff.

SDR
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Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by SDR »

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that, at the least, Bush-Brown had done his reading. He seems to have become familiar with the "Autobiography" and with the buildings, some of them at least. The breadth of his observation suggests that he had been watching Wright for some time. As an American architectural historian, perhaps he saw that as his duty--or he may simply have found the man interesting. Many do . . .

The following sentences or parts of paragraphs caught my attention, earned my admiration, or presented a novel take on a societal or a cultural subject. Taking them out of their context inevitably robs some of their full meaning, yet I think they can stand on their own as useful. They are presented in the order in which they appear in the essay.


The irrelevancy stood precisely in the fact that architectural beauty owes nothing to economy, truth, and goodness.

I like that as a statement of where the writer is coming from; it suggests that he will be at least tolerant of Wright's claim to poetry in his work, at the possible expense of other qualities a building might offer or a client deserve.


Perhaps one does not expect the finest judge or the finest surgeon to lead his professional association, but the many-sided aspects of architecture have meant almost inevitably that the architect who is a businessman and promoter, not an artist and certainly never a pioneer artist, would dominate the professional society and, unable to set a standard for quality, would aim the society at becoming a lobby for conservatism.

This sentence simultaneously describes the inevitable state of affairs in any society of professionals, and makes a point about conservatism that is thought-provoking.


There are no great rewards to be had from Frank Lloyd Wright’s writing, where the pages contain mawkish paeans to democracy and the “organic” life, an occasional sensitive tribute to the Arizona desert or the Badlands of the Dakotas, and many ranting and frequently undeserved attacks upon people, institutions, and history, in a patent rewrite intended to bolster his autobiographical position. No student can learn about architectural design from Wright’s pages, for he never spoke of it, though he claimed to talk of nothing else.

Until the final eight words the writer seems to have nailed the situation nicely. One looks in vain for much about how to design, though certain passage in the earlier part of the Autobiography, or an enumerated recipe added to a magazine article in the 'fifties, would be notable exceptions.


Nor will you find Wright in the vanguard of liberal social reformers in any of the great movements of recent history, whether associated with labor, world government, or education. He believed his social mission was to build beautifully, and when the centers of power failed to seek him, they became in his mind the strongholds of reaction. He clung to an idea of primitive democracy at a time when decisions were more commonly made by officials appointed to dole out patronage and organize graft and when state legislators were as often as not also real-estate speculators whose investments determined where the new highway or public building would go and who would build it.

A shrewd look at how the world works, at least ? "He believed his social mission was to build beautifully . . ."


You cannot ask too much of his buildings, either. You cannot be satisfied if you require that they be perfect in detail and full of wonderful joinery and refinement; for he was the strongest devotee of the cult of originality that has driven the post-Renaissance artist into frenzied innovation at the loss of perfection. You cannot expect to find satisfaction either in his innovations, for the inventions, whether split-level living rooms, the corner picture window, the carport, radiant heating, all-steel office furniture, or air conditioning, were technical answers to demands for a mechanically controlled environment and gained no aesthetic quality by being first. You cannot delight in finding an isolated form so powerfully distinctive that it remains an emblem for the institution it houses, for Wright, like all artists in the twentieth century, found it impossible to reserve the strong structural forms made available by modern technology, because society continuously robs the architect of his best language, using it for tawdry gas stations, hamburger stands, and motels, so that he can no longer speak the speech he should make for the important centers of culture. In all this, society piped the tune, and if it was satisfied with the crude, the gadget, the blatant, the misappropriated, even the strongest artist might not survive the dance.

More commentary on the state of affairs in a world---or a nation---driven by commercial interests. But he errs, doesn't he, in robbing Wright of the refinement of detail to be found in the work both early and late ? And what in Wright would a "corner picture window" be, exactly ? And is there in fact a split-level living room ?


But once you have picked all the cracked calking from the leaky joints between the glass tubes around the Johnson Wax Building, once you have stood by silently as the Robie House, Coonley House, and other great heirlooms die a slow death on the altar of functionalism or meet the cleaner stroke of the wrecker’s ball and bulldozer’s blade, joining the rubble made of the Larkin Building and Midway Gardens and soon to be made by the hotel owner in Tokyo, there is still a greater, deeper sense of function to be remembered, the one that has kept the scaffold-borne masons and glaziers repairing the Gothic cathedrals and Byzantine basilicas for centuries in spite of their manifest inefficiencies and physical shortcomings.

We have to remember that this was written immediately following Wright's death, well before most serious efforts at conservation had begun.

His work often retained much primitive, rugged, earthy vitality, even peasant crudeness, and his geometry boldly sprang long continuous horizontal masses, penetrated them with rhythmic sequences of interrupted verticals, phrased the statements with bracketing chimneys and punctuating towers, took a deep breath at the void of a door, then ended the statement with a flourish of roof planes floated in air.

At last we come to the undiluted praise that we hoped for, and were given hints of, in earlier passages.

What was truly essential in Wright’s work was his capacity to capture space within eccentrically disposed masses; to describe planes that come forward and planes in recession, projections and hollowed places; to balance these as no previous architect had; to make them become rhythmic patterns revealed by light and shade. From the exterior we anticipate his interiors, but once inside we find consonant, rich developments of his themes, as space is trapped at an entrance, drawn out thin under a porte-cochere, revolved through a door, released to pirouette in the cylindrical recesses of a Johnson Wax lobby, then set free to soar over the bridge or glide beneath it into the main secretarial room, where the space eddies around ballerinas poised delicately on tiptoe as only Degas might have recorded.

You will find architects now working in Detroit, in Chicago, in New Haven---a Yamasaki, a Netsch, a Rudolph---for whom that marvelous development of spatial themes taught the lesson that a building’s only memorable function is to be a satisfying work of art. Wright showed that such art might arrive on American soil. Could a lesser arrogance or a dishonesty have taught as much?


S

Roderick Grant
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Joined: Wed Mar 29, 2006 7:48 am

Re: Article: "The Honest Arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright"

Post by Roderick Grant »

Rood, I'm not sure about Downs, but I am sure that Wallace never provided an interviewee with the subjects ahead of time. I doubt Downs did either. I have heard a recording of a lecture FLW gave at a RIBA event, and his responses were as readily forthcoming to questions from the audience as with Downs and Wallace.

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