Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Living City
As UK City of Architecture and Design, one of the keynote events in Glasgow this year is the 'Modern Masters'--a series of exhibitions to celebrate three of the greatest architects of the 20th century. The first of these Frank Lloyd Wright and the Living City--has now opened.
Wright was bold, eccentric and controversial. A pioneer of modern architecture and design, the scope of his work is vast--ranging from urban planning to residential, commercial and civic architecture to interior and furniture design. He has helped define modern America. Over a career spanning 70 years, Wright constructed nearly 500 buildings and designed perhaps twice that number.
Wright was a non-conformist who fell foul of the establishment. For a long time his work was largely ignored, and even when he did become famous he was attacked by the conservative art establishment for his designs, and by the moral establishment for his lifestyle. Acclaim only came at the end of his career. His last building--the Guggenheim Museum in New York--was completed in 1960, six months after his death. It opened to bitter criticism from the art establishment. It has since become one of the most popular buildings in the US.
Wright had little time for the establishment in Washington. He thought the architecture of the capital--neo-classical facades--was absurd and better suited to ancient Rome.
Wright's genius was to show that modern architecture could achieve a depth and richness based upon a sense of human values. His houses were immediately appealing and at the same time so radical as to change the course of architecture. The first ones he built in Chicago in the early 1900s are striking in being freely planned internally with large horizontal windows beneath wide overhanging eaves. They are a remarkable contrast to the rigid formal houses of the period. Wright transformed conventional rooms into multipurpose, multi-levelled spaces that cut into each other.
He shared ideas similar to William Morris's Arts and Crafts Movement--but unlike that movement, Wright accepted the arrival of the machine. Taking inspiration from the nature of his materials he evolved new and dramatic forms. Mistrusting academic rules and current fashions he always stressed the close relationship between buildings and landscape. But his sympathetic approach to nature did not make him a traditionalist--on the contrary, he was a bold innovator. Several of his early houses were directly inspired by the new potential of reinforced concrete. The Imperial Hotel, built in Tokyo in 1920 had concrete floor slabs balanced over central supports to minimise the effect of earthquake shocks. It was one of the few large buildings to survive the great earthquake in 1923.
Wright's work never ran parallel with current style and convention. Consequently he spent long periods in the architectural wilderness. But by 1935, in his sixties, Wright engineered his own resurrection as an architect. He began work on the commission for the 'Falling Water House'--which was to become famous and one of the most beautiful houses in the world. Built on a waterfall, this was an instance of climate and site inspiring an architect to whom every problem was a challenge. He produced a work of real originality and power. It was only one of a spectacular series of buildings that would establish him at the leading edge of architecture.
In the 1940s a new interest in Wright's ideas developed. and he achieved the recognition he deserved. His late work of the 1940s and 1950s is remarkable in its range and variety. Indeed, he designed more buildings in the last 20 years of his life than he had done in the previous 50. Wright was more than just an architect. He turned his energy and vision towards what he called 'The Living City', an ideal community which would encompass all aspects of Wright's vision of the future Broadacre City. Based on 16 square miles of rural America, he designed Broadacre to consist of small, low density centres, where all areas of life--residential, work, recreational, educational--would be integrated. Cultivated fields bounded by glistening streams would be populated by many hundreds of Wright's 'Usonian' houses--a house type he'd designed for 'the ordinary citizen'.
Wright believed such an approach could abolish alienation, create a harmonious community and allow human potential to develop. His vision of Broadacre was utopian, and while in many respects it opposed the prevailing society, it could never be developed in a society subordinated to private enterprise and the private ownership of land.
But you can't judge Wright on his utopian schemes. He was a great, imaginative pioneer. The exhibition reveals the refreshing innocence and simplicity of his design and leaves you with the feeling that he had a great zest for life and a hope and confidence in the future of humanity. The exhibition's beautiful models, its original pieces of furniture, along with Wright's drawings and sketches, throw new light on his remarkable contribution.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Living City is at the Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, Glasgow until 11 April