A Brief Look at Themes in
Frank Lloyd Wright’s
Writings and Buildings
By Eric Williams
HUX 550: Key Individuals
Dr. Louise Ivers
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Writings and Buildings is an entertaining though somewhat daunting read. The text deals with Wright’s own musings as to his architectural roots and how his own unique vision of organic architecture came to be. Peppered liberally with drawings and pictures of his architectural plans and feats, the text offers a very straightforward look into the life and times of one of the most celebrated architects of any century. Throughout Writings and Buildings, Wright offers us a unique look into the various themes which dictated his life and his work.
To begin, Wright’s parents and especially his mother played a key role in the development of his particular architectural vision. His mother introduced him to the philosopher Froebel’s Kindergarten Method which stressed that children should not be allowed to draw from merely casual appearances of nature until they first mastered some of the basic geometric elements (Wright 19). These self-same geometric elements would teach young Wright the importance of the square, the circle, and the triangle. These shapes represented something deeper to Wright. The square was significant of integrity, the circle significant of infinity, and the triangle significant of inspiration (Ibid.). The introduction of toys of the same shape encouraged Wright to understand 3 dimensional composition while geometrically shaped paper could be folded and refolded to encourage and understanding of planar elements (Ivers 6).
This fascinating understanding of space within space was of paramount importance to young Wright. Arguably, through an understanding and a fascination with the blocks of building Wright was compelled to aspire to be an architect and execute, on a large scale, the very principle he learned from Froebel’s methods. He apprenticed under a number of different architects as a young man, including J. Lyman Silsbee, Louis Sullivan, and Henry Richardson. In every case, all of these employers and mentors of young Wright approached architecture in a somewhat non-traditional fashion. Silsbee didn’t cling to the Neo-Classical styles that were prevalent at the time and his works were very free and picturesque (Ivers 6). His designs frequently utilized irregular structures and he fostered within young Wright the freedom and desire to experiment with his own designs (Ibid.). Sullivan was even more influential in his rejection of classical Greek and Roman architecture all the while musing on the potential for skyscrapers (Ibid.). Perhaps even more important was Sullivan’s creation of rich surface textures which gave his creations the look of a living organism with the decoration attempting to mimic the motion of unfolding plants (Ibid.). Finally, Richardson’s works were free interpretations of Romanesque style with a flair for geometric design (Ibid.). This, too, was influential in shaping the mind and skills of Frank Lloyd Wright. But, the one thing they taught Wright more than anything else was a rejection of established forms and a desire to strive for the organic.
Writings and Buildings stresses over and over Wright’s passion for Organic Architecture and his disillusionment with the established norms. The theme of rebellion in the face of established trends weighs heavily throughout the book and Wright’s life. This was no more evident than in the disaster of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Here, in the cradle of Wright’s architectural vision, arose an opportunity for the world to see the progressive/rebellious designs of Wright’s mentors and others. Yet, in the face of their optimism, Classical architectural style still won the day (Wright 29). But it was not a total loss. Even though the budding organic style that Wright loved so much lost in the face of Classical tradition, Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building was the only picture building to win the coveted gold medal awarded by the highly distinguished Paris Beaux Arts (Wright 29). In the short term, a minor victory was won. But in Wright’s estimation, the loss was a crippling reversion – “a blight on progress” (Wright 29). It would push back the progress of modern architecture by 50 years.
The catastrophe of the World’s Fair would not dampen Wright’s saucy nature for very long. Eventually his architectural visions would take root and his rejection of established norms in favor of organic style would gain more support. Among his more radical ideas was the call for the abolition of symbolic forms in architecture. For Wright, symbolic forms were too literal – a tool used by literature that should not be used by architects. Wright states, “Let us abolish, in the art and craft of architecture, literature in any ‘symbolic’ form whatsoever. The sense of inner rhythm, deep planted in human sensibility, lives far above other considerations in Art” (Wright 75). This credo was significant to Wright in the execution of the Unity Temple, a temple like no other in its time. The Unity Temple introduced an H-Block patter that would become famous (Ivers 13). In this design, one ‘block’ was used for church service and worship while the other ‘block’ was used for Sunday School and administration needs (Ibid.). There was no steeple, no Gothic windows, and no cruciform floor design, the typical norm for churches for nearly 1000 years. Wright also introduced a skylight into the mix, adding a sense of openness to the Temple and offering more illumination and warmth. Furthermore, cheaper, but no less reliable materials like concrete were used to create a strong and fireproof building with an unorthodox, but equally effective flat roof (Wright 76).
His desire for innovative and progressive change can be seen in Japan with the creation of the Imperial Hotel. Again, Wright railed against the norm when mentions that foreign architects in Japan paid no heed to Japanese aesthetic tastes and customs. Wright wanted to design a hotel that would not insult the traditions of the Japanese in the ways other architects had (Wright 198). In doing this, he created an innovative new structure that was sympathetic to Japanese style but still benefited from the progress of modern industry. Foremost, he wished to make the building earthquake proof and desired to build the structure over a lake of mud (Wright 199-200). Wright thought that the mud foundation would offer buoyancy and stability to the structure, allowing it to ‘float’ much the same way a battleship floats on water (Wright 200). Further, he desired to make a great leap for the Japanese away from traditional wood and paper edifices to masonry constructs (Wright 199). The structure was erected in 60’ increments to make it light and flexible, and the cantilever design allowed for the building to balance rather than held in place (Wright 201). The flexible pipes and mixing of travertine oya to the cement walls created a sturdy edifice that would rattle but not break (in theory) in the face of an earthquake (Wright 202).
While the Unity Temple and the Imperial Hotel are admirable examples of Wright’s tendency to break from tradition, they do not illustrate his desire for organic architecture very well. Organic architecture was of itself a radical break from the norm. Wright rejected the architectural style of the Renaissance because he felt it was made beautiful for the purpose of being beautiful. Further, Wright hated decoration and rails against its use throughout Writings and Buildings. The Beaux Arts buildings were hand-me-downs of Renaissance architecture as they consciously sought to be beautiful (Wright 85). Organic architecture had its roots in folk buildings and in Pre-Columbian art. The architecture of the Mayans and Toltecs and Aztecs stirred the imagination of Wright as a boy, and he felt their works were constructed by earth-architects who planned the buildings and where it rests as one object (Wright 21). Architecture was beyond human need and truly monumental here, but nonetheless was an ever-present reminder of the strength of men’s will (Wright 22). Wright thought of this concept as key; that architecture should be married to its surroundings. He felt it was quite impossible to consider the building as one thing and the furnishings within it another thing and its setting and environment yet another (Wright 102). Organic architecture was designed to see all these elements as one working together as one (Ibid.). Wright saw this in folk dwellings, which he considered, as being of the soil of Nature. Folk dwellings are natural in color and are unburdened by heavy handed philosophy; these are dwelling not concerned with fine arts or fine living…these are structures that grew in actual proportion to actual needs and affixed environment to inhabitant (Wright 89). Folk dwellings are more valuable in their inherent beauty than those creations which purposely strove to be beautiful.
We can see the idea of organic architecture at work in the Wright’s own home of Taliesen. Wright felt that buildings should appear as though they were born as a flower is born on the roadside and that the natural order of the thing would create a finished grace and beauty inherently natural to the structure (Wright 86). This entered into Wright’s proclamation that his house, indeed no house, should be put ON any hill (Wright 175). Taliesen was to be OF the hill and given a natural appearance and grace that affix it as organic. The home is a marriage of wood and stone like the surrounding environment. The finished wood outside the home had a gray pallor like tree trunks and the roof tiles were left to weather to a silvery gray color not unlike the tree branches below it (Wright 177). There would be no gutters to impede the progress of icicles and the house sits very low, wide, and snug in an intensely human fashion (Wright 180).
In his designs for houses, Wright also pressed for more organic style while pressing for even more rejection of established norms. The basic house design used by Wright eliminated decades old components like attics and basements. He also proposed the use of flat or low steeped roofs and the inclusion of a single, functional fireplace (Wright 42). He also desired to bring the house down to human height, eliminating tall ceilings and vertically spontaneous rooms (Ibid.). Lowering the levels of ceilings and the like created a true human scale in architecture, a design which ushered in homes that were created to fit the needs of a human scaled figure (Wright 305). This also served to create a low slung home that was more natural to the ground and hence, more organic. This is part of Wright’s First Principle of Design where the building should have a kinship to the ground it is a part of (Wright 305). This is also related to the horizontal line of domesticity in where Wright contends that vertical inches added to a structure gains much more tremendous force in appearance than horizontal or planar inches (Wright 104). Horizontal, in Wright’s opinion, is the preferred idea and by scaling down structures to better serve human height, he helps to stimulate the horizontal axis of the structure.
Wright, understandably, imposes his own radical and rebellious nature to his students. He states that all architects should be radical by nature because it is not enough for them to pick up where others have left off in architecture (Ibid.). He and his contemporaries have proved traditions in architecture vulnerable. Further, modern architecture is no good as it is simply not in touch with nature and hence not organic. Wright also warns his young charges away from architectural schools as he feels they are full of critics who would not judge their experiments with kindness or good sense (Wright 240).
There is another theme that is evident throughout Writings and Buildings. Wright mentions the idea of open spaces in architecture on many occasions. Wright contends that there is indeed a 4th dimension available to the architect. For an architect, the 3rd dimension is never weight or thickness but always depth, and depth is an element of space. Thus, the 3rd dimension is spatial depth that penetrates the inner depths of space. Walls can differentiate space but never obliterate it. If transparent screens or glass is used to allow the space from one “area” to mix with another “area” (as in space from outside the structure mingling through screen or glass with interior space), you create a 4th dimension unique to architecture (Wright 313). Hence, a new sense of reality in building construction is born.
The idea of understanding and liberating interior space was a concept used by the Asians in their structure designs for generations. Wright, unfortunately, thought he had discovered this unique principle, but his eyes were open during his work on the Imperial Hotel (Wright 300). Yet, he knew something of this very principle long before he visited Asia.
What Wright was attempting to do through 4th dimensional space was to “beat the box” By this, Wright meant defeat the age-old box-like style of architectural design that was so popular during his time. 19th Century domestic architecture featured homes that were all built of the same mode and looked almost identical, and while the idea of radically changing the exterior has already been addressed, what Wright also thought needed changing was the interior. Living in a home of this style, Wright muses, is like living in a prison cell with all the rooms blocked/boxed off (Wright 43). Wright hated the vertical, box-structure and he began to make a concerted effort to beat the box in 1904 with the construction of the Larkin Building. Here he made the staircases freestanding and liberated from the box form (Wright 284). But it was the Unity Temple where Wright finally broke through. Unity Temple is where walls seem to disappear and enclosure ceases to be – where interior space opens to the outside and free related features replace the enclosing walls (Wright 284). A semblance of visual and spatial freedom is created and the enclosure of the box is no more. This idea of opening interior space can be found d in both Wright’s theories on theatre design and the execution of the Johnson Wax Laboratory.
The theory of the theatre called for a stage in the round with no screening walls on a revolving platform. The stage could revolve and a whole new sense of deep space could be created by not having a dividing screen. Further, the theatre could have flair for the organic by allowing staging to be like sculpture than like painting (Wright 290). With Johnson Laboratory, Wright offered no sense of enclosure and the supporting columns would stand up and be made part of the ceiling – hence continuity (Wright 286). There was a heavy use of clear light and space to help open up the lab floors and the departments would be segregated vertically via location rather than interior walls (Wright 291). Further, double panes of glass provide a window to the outside and allow for much needed sunlight to filter in to the structure (Wright 291).
Wright speaks also about modern materials and their place in architecture. Materials such as sheet-metal glass await a creative interpretation in Wright’s opinion (Wright 28). These same materials would become a viable part of the democratic world we live in and furthermore were a new potential needed in the culture of modern life (Wright 28). Insofar that Wright rejects traditional forms and means, he must accept new forms and means made available by technology. Despite the limitations of an artificial society, a new beauty could be created through modern materials and Wright believes that American architecture and its innovations could save the world from mediocrity and banality (Wright 28). These new materials, to the architect, are like a new palette of colors to the artist and the standard use of these new elements is merely a means to an end. New materials should only be used so long as it is desirable to the architect and so long as it remains the servant to new forms – never the master of the process that yields the form (Wright 229). That is the will of the Machine and the last major theme addressed by Wright.
The Machine endangers human life in the eyes of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Machine that was uncontrolled lived off the misery of and the abuse of humanity. Wright warns against becoming a slave the machine, letting the Machine rule Man’s fate. Wright contends that the nature of the Machine is to use power tools to create banality and to infect man’s spirit (Wright 26). Men were becoming no different than the assembly lines they worked on and this slavery to the Machine in the modern age was more deadly than slavery prior (Wright 27). The Machine should be used as a tool only for otherwise it will deny one’s humanity by “abetting the impotence of artists and architects already blind to fresh opportunity” (Wright 35). One need look no further than big cities like New York to see what, in Wright’s opinion, slavery to the Machine would produce. Cities are built by common greed and they grind people against one another, wearing them down in the name of profit (Wright 255). Cities are prisons of glass that forces anxiety on modern life and serve to defeat all the aspirations of the human heart by dehumanizing and demoralizing humanity (Wright 258-260).
In all, Wright speaks volumes to the initiate and the master of architectural study in Writings and Buildings. He offers us a unique look into the themes that dominated his life and craft decades. The book is no easy read and the language is at times obtuse and archaic, but the diction he uses speaks directly to the reader’s sense of understanding who he is. Obtuse and archaic he may be, but his radical and rebellious nature that manifests throughout the course of the text would likely have it no other way. Indeed, much can be learned from Writings and Buildings, not least of which is the tone of Wright himself. You can feel his anger at times in the face of mediocrity and you can sense his excitement when he speaks of he designed Fallingwater or Taliesen. Wright illustrates his points succinctly and one can easily pick up on the themes of space, slavery to the Machine, organic architecture, and rebellion contained within.
Ivers, Dr. Louise. Humanities 550. “Key Individuals, Art: Frank Lloyd Wright”. Course Guide.
California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1997.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. Writings and Buildings. Selections by Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn.Meridian Books: New American Library, New York, 1960.