Richard Nisley


Frank Lloyd Wright Has The Last Word
History - World Released - Mar 03, 2014

It was anything but a meeting of the minds. World renowned architect Walter Gropius -- a.k.a. “The Silver Prince” -- was from the new school of the “International Style,” which is to say, unadorned glass-and-steel box buildings, while Frank Lloyd Wright -- “Daddy Frank” to the people at the office -- was from the old school, in Wright’s case the Chicago School of Louis Sullivan and the traditional Beaux-Arts style. The only thing the two men had in common -- besides being architects -- was their distain for clients.

Gropius was German and new to America, teaching at Harvard and already causing a stir among those in the know, while Wright’s career had been slumping for the better part of a decade. And here was Gropius, who had come to the University of Wisconsin to lecture -- out in the hinterlands so to speak -- anxious to see some of Wright’s work, in this case the first of his “Usonian” houses, medium-priced versions of the Prairie School manor houses. Gropius arrives with his aides and several students in tow, and who should show up in his red Lincoln Zephyr? Frank Lloyd Wright.

Gropius comes over and puts face at the window and says, “Mr. Wright, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I have always admired your work.”

Is Wright honored by the visit? Absolutely not. He does not smile or offer his hand or even get out of the car. He merely turns his head ever so slightly toward the face at the window and says out of the side of his mouth, “Herr Gropius, you’re a guest of the university here. I just want to tell you that they’re as snobbish here as thy are at Harvard, only they don’t have a New England accent.” That said, he turns to his driver and says, “Well, we have to get on, Edgar.” Wright settles back, and the red Zephyr speeds off, leaving Gropius and his entourage in a cloud of dust.

LESS IS A BORE

To say that Wright was put off by Walter Gropius and his minions -- Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Josef Albers, Jacobus Oud and the like -- would be putting it mildly. What were they but world famous architects who did little or no building (outside of government work), while Wright, a working stiff with a family to feed, had been building structures since before the turn of the century?

The guiding philosophy behind the International Style was “less is more.” But as Wright saw it, “less is a bore.” Wright liked “more” -- more cornices, pilasters, spindles, stained glass, carved glass, friezes, custom iron work, carved woodwork, stone work, fire places, pedestal lamps, chandeliers, sconces, recessed ceilings, and arches.

The International Style, on the other hand, was about simple lines, right angles (nothing curvilinear), simple materials (concrete, aluminum, glass, stucco), nothing handcrafted, everything machine made. Colors were confined to white, beige, gray and black. At its heart, the International Style was anti-bourgeois. Anything remotely ornate was bourgeois and therefore to be avoided at all costs. For example, since pitched roofs and cornices represented “crowns” of the old nobility, which the bourgeois imitated, they had to go. Therefore, there would be only flat roofs; flat roofs making clean right angles with the building facades. Everything was done in the name of “functionalism” which was the code word for anti-bourgeois.

The bourgeois was, of course, the middle-class and therefore the capitalists, the traditional financiers of great European building projects for a millennium at the very least. In the immediate post-World War I years, with Germany in shambles and inflation rampant, the German middle-class was saddled with the blame. Walter Gropius spoke for many when he said, “The intellectual bourgeois . . . has proved himself unfit to be the bearer of a German Culture.” What was the alternative? Socialism: elite, self-appointed leadership that does all the thinking for you, including the design and build of your house. Its influence was particularly felt in the universities and in the arts including “modern art,” chamber music, and architecture, not only in Germany but throughout the western world. The socialist elite, as Joseph Stalin put it, are the engineers of your soul. They know what’s best for you.

Architects with this mind-set gathered in compounds across Europe, like Gropius’s Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. Cut-off from the outside world, they lived like medieval monks while developing new habitats called “worker housing.” Plain, simple, relatively inexpensive, and impersonal as a prison cell. Ugly, yes, but inexpensive, and therein lay the attraction. A few governments in need of new buildings to replace those destroyed in the war, signed on. Other than that, International Style architects lived the life of starving artists. Were they discouraged? Not at all. They lectured, designed buildings that were rarely built, and wrote books, lots of books. Some, like Le Corbusier, became world famous despite building nothing at all. Le Corbusier, it was said, built radiant cities in his skull.

When Hitler and the fascists took over, architects like Gropius were suddenly persona non grata, and made a hasty beeline for safety which for many was the United States. And wouldn’t you know it? In the U.S. they found employment immediately. Gropius was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design. Josef Albers opened a rural Bauhaus in the hills of North Carolina, at Black Mountain College. And Mies van der Rohe was installed as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago. And not just dean; master builder also. He was given a campus to create, twenty-one buildings in all, in the middle of the Depression, at a time when building had come almost to a halt in the United States -- for an architect who had completed only seventeen buildings in his career.

Within three years the proponents of the International Style changed the course of American architecture. It was not so much the buildings they designed, it was more the system -- glass and steel, machine age materials that were easily mass-produced, erecting buildings the way Henry Ford built the Model T (you can have any color you want so long as it’s black -- or white, beige, or gray). It was after all, “worker housing” they were erecting, thrown up 30, 40 and 50 stories high, in the heart of Manhattan, in Chicago and Los Angeles, in Atlanta and Dallas, too, you name it. While the building exterior was socialist-austere, the people who worked inside hired interior decorators who transformed their office suites into richly paneled, carpeted, comfy and decidedly bourgeois living spaces.

And where was Frank Lloyd Wright while the Germans were moving in on his territory? Why, building houses the way he always had--expensively, for wealthy clients. Like the International Style architects, he ignored the clients’ wishes, but he did give them something the Germans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give them--taste. And there was always a market for that. In the end, taste would win out and, as we shall see, Wright would have the last word.

BUILDING FOR DEMOCRACY

If the International Style was socialistic at heart, Wright’s was democratic. In his biography of Wright, “Many Masks,” Brendan Gill writes: “If the Prairie House had little to do with an actual prairie, it had a great deal to do with how Wright believed people should live, not only as members of a family, but as citizens of democracy … Over the years, he managed to convince many people that his wide-eaved low roofs and massive chimneys, his open porches and garden walls running out from the house proper in order to marry it to the ground, were outward and visible signs of the principles upon which the nation was founded. It was these principles that he saw his floor plans as reflecting: rooms opened into one another without the usual peremptory boundaries of walls and doors, and a family was united by sharing spaces as well as activities.” Wright called it “building for democracy.”

While Gropius and Mies were putting their stamp on American architecture, Wright’s career took off as never before. He was sixty-eight years old and his best years were ahead. What started it? Fallingwater. Wright designed this house in 1935, when his career was in decline. Completed in 1939, this structure of concrete slabs, anchored in rock and cantilevered out over a waterfall in the Pennsylvania highlands, began the final phase of his career. In the next twenty-three years, until his death at the age of ninety-one in 1959, he did more than half of his life’s work, more than 180 buildings, including these widely acclaimed public buildings: the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, the Florida Southern campus, the Unitarian Meeting House, the Price Company Tower, the Beth Sholom Synagogue, the mind-boggling Guggenheim Museum, and the Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University.

The greatest of these was the Johnson Wax Building. “It may be argued that Wright’s Administration Building for Johnson Wax is not only the greatest piece of twentieth century architecture to date but also possibly the most profound work of art that America has ever produced.” (Kenneth Frampton in “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Building,” 1986).

You might say Wright’s buildings mirror democracy in other ways as well. With the Johnson Wax Building, there were missed deadlines, cost overruns, water leaks, structural problems, and a client who swore he would never hire Wright again. After the bugs were worked out and the bills paid, the client hired Wright twice more, and in the end the Johnson Wax Building was acclaimed as the greatest of Wright’s masterpieces.

One can always pick out a Frank Lloyd Wright building from the pack. They have distinction, flair, personality. Not so with the glass-and-steel box buildings. Is that one on the left designed by Walter Gropius or Mies van der rohe? Can’t tell. They all look alike.

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For more about Walter Gropius and the International Style, see “From Bauhaus to our House” by Tom Wolf. For a summary of Wright’s public buildings, including the Johnson Wax Building, see “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Public Buildings” by Carla Lind.

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