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Frank Lloyd Wright: Literary and Architectural Legacy

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Published: Tue, 01 May 2018

Introduction:

There is a depth in each building that surpasses the visible physical characteristics of its structure. The philosophy that derives the experiences created within is an essential element in understanding each building or structure. It is this philosophy that differentiates an architect from another. And it was the organic philosophy in architecture that lifted Frank Lloyd wright’s status to be called the greatest American Architect of all times. Through the study of his various writings, this paper explores his philosophy and analyses it in light of his design process and some of his constructed works.

The Principles of the Organic:

“It was Lao Tze, five hundred years before Jesus who declared, that the reality of the building consisted not of the walls and roof but inhered in the space within, the space to be lived in”.[1]

For Frank Lloyd Wright, the center line of organic architecture was “form and function are one.” They become one, they are integral. He conceived this integrity, from within outward, as the modern architect’s guide and opportunity. “Out of the ground and into the light” was an opportunity. The nature of material was also an opportunities. All three opportunities were limitations but they were also a condition of success. Human nature was one of these materials, as well, served by the building and serving it.[2]

In his various writings Frank Lloyd Wright explained the principles guiding and driving his organic architecture. He believed that the knowledge of the relations between form and function was essential for the practice of architecture and could only be achieved by studying nature and its principles.[3]

From the simplicity inhered in nature he deducted certain ideals for organic architecture. First, that a building should contain as few rooms as possible. The ensemble of these rooms should be considered for comfort, utility and go hand in hand with beauty. Second, the openings should be integral features of the structure and form, providing it with natural ornamentation, instead of rich looking decoration. He also argued that the appliances, furniture and fixtures should be should incorporated in the general scheme of the structure. [4]

For Wright simplicity was not in itself an end but it was a means to an end. The reticence in ornamentation in these structures is mainly for two reasons: first, they are the expression of an idea that ornamentation should constitutional, a matter of the nature of the structure, beginning with the ground plan. Second, because buildings perform their functions in relation to human life within, to develop and maintain the harmony of a true chord, broad simple surfaces and highly conventionalized forms are inevitable. According to him, these ideas take the building out of school and marry them to the ground, make them intimate expressions or revelations of the exteriors; individualize them regardless of previous notions of style.[5]

Nature’s principles also formulated other ideals in organic architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright maintained that the individuality of a person should be reflected in the style of the house he inhabits, therefore there should be as many styles of houses as there are kinds of people. He also asserted that a building should grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings, making it quiet, substantial and organic. The use of colors was also an important aspect, for they had to fit to live with the natural forms they do. Therefore he encouraged the use of soft, warm tones of earth and autumn leaves in preference to the blues, purples or greens and greys. Bringing out the nature of material was an essential ideal to organic architecture, describing them as friendly and beautiful. He believed that following the prevalent traditions leads to structures that become soon out of fashion, stale and profitable, insisting that each house should have character of its own.[6] Therefore organic principles grew out of nature and its principles; however there are other aspects that have partially led to its growth.

Rejection of Classical and Renaissance Architecture:

“I deliberately chose to break with traditions in order to be more true to tradition than current conventions and ideals in architecture would permit.” [7]

The principles of organic architecture, though they seemingly developed out of nature’s principles were also partially born from Wright’s critique of previous classical and renaissance styles. In the First evening of his London lectures in 1939,Wright declared that the classic was “more of a mask for life to wear rather than an expression of life itself.” [8]He strongly critiqued the view of architecture as a fashionable aesthetic, arguing that modern architecture rejects all grando-mania, every building that would stand in a military fashion. [9]He encouraged architectsto abandon the cherishing of preconceived form fixed upon them, and to exhale to the laws of common sense to determine from them the form and material of the building in light of its purpose, resulting in a differentiation between the different forms of the building due to their varying function, asserting that Form and Function are one.[10]

Wright criticized the tall interiors that were divided into box like compartments, where the architecture mainly involved “healing over the edges of the curious collection of holes that had to be cut in the walls for light and air to permit the occupant to get in or out”. [11]

Wright observed that, in nature, the individuality of its attributes are seldom scarified. Unlike the classical buildings in which an order is establishes, for example a colonnade, then walls are added between them, reducing them to pilasters, with the result that every form is outraged, the whole an abominable mutation.

The Approach to Design:

“All architecture must begin there where they stand”[12]

Out of the principles of the organic, Frank Lloyd Wright maintained a design process throughout his career that he describes in his book the Future of Architecture. He strongly believed in building from within outward. To achieve this vision he started by determining which consideration came first in the design process. The first determinant was the ground. By this he meant the nature of site, soil and climate. The next consideration was the choice of available materials taking into account the financial cost. The third was the choice of means of power for construction. Man, machine or both? He believed that what rendered his buildings as creative was this process of from within outward, giving life the whole, and giving life to the structure by adopting the ideal of form and function are one, or organic.[13]

Wright believed that the character of the site is the beginning of any building which aspires to architecture. He argued that architects ought to accept the fact that the ground already has form.  This to him was a gift from nature to be cherished and accepted.[14] Therefore, in designing his domestic architecture he was careful about considering and incorporating certain elements. First was free association with the ground. Second, sunlight, vista and a spaciousness that conforms to a modern sense of demanded space.  The third element was privacy. Fourth was a free pattern for the arrangement of rooms to be occupied by the families. He argued that as families vary so must the houses. However, he affirmed that these requirements should be incorporated in the architecture of the building in an integral harmony of proportion to the human figure, so that the building protects and cherishes the individual’s vital necessities and fine sentiments.[15]

The Logic behind the Plan:

“I have great faith that if the thing rightfully put together in true organic senses with proportions actually right the picturesque will take care of itself”.[16]

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that all the forms in his plans are complete in themselves and frequently do duty at the same time from within and without as attributes of the whole. There was a tendency towards a greater individuality of the parts emphasized by more and more complete articulation. Moreover, the ground plans were the actual projection of a carefully considered whole.  The architecture wasn’t thrown up as an artistic exercise, a matter of elevation from a preconceived ground plan. The schemes were conceived in three dimensions as organic entities. Wright ventured to let the picturesque perspective fall how it will. With a sense of the incidental perspectives, he believed the design will develop. [17]

In the Future of Architecture and in an article in the architectural record he describes the logic behind the plans in his architecture. He mentions the most important factors in designing the plan which are materials, building methods, scale, articulation, expression or style. The logical norm for the scale of the building was the human scale. He believed that the unit of size of the building varies with the purpose and material of it, therefore he adopted a unit system for the plan, establishing a certain standardization. By adopting the human scale, he trusted nature to give the proper values to a proper whole. Materials also affected scale. He used the most natural material suiting the purpose. Using wood led to a slender plan, light in texture narrow in spacing. A stone or brick plan was heavy, black in masses and wider in spacing. In cast block building, the scale was done to be adequate to the sense of block, box and slab and there was more freedom in spacing.[18]

In his domestic architecture, he designed that house with a garden that arranges itself about and within it so that the individual can enjoy the sun and view while keeping privacy. He gave priority to the living room, given its status as the room common to all, adding a fireplace to it. The modern industrial developments allowed him to make the kitchen a part of the living room relating it to another part of the same. He occasionally added an extra space for reading or studying. By creating this association between living and dining he ensured the convenience and the privacy of the members of the family. Wright gave importance to the bathrooms making them large enough to accommodate for dressing rooms, closets for linen, occasionally a wardrobe with perhaps a couch in each. He made the bedrooms adjacent to the bathroom unit, designing them to be small, airy and easily accessible from the living room. [19] His logic is derived from the ideal of form and function are one.

The inspiration of his ideal grew from nature, not its form but its principles. In nature, an organism is a living one when all is part to the whole and whole is to the part.  Wright argued that this correlation which is found any plant or animal is a fundamental principle in organic architecture. He also maintained that any building should come to terms with the living human spirit.[20] Considering the individuality of the owner in the design process, led to certain puzzlement regarding the notion of style.

The Question of Style:

“Styles once developed soon become yardsticks for the blind, crushes for the lame, and resources for the impotent”.[21]

Frank Lloyd Wright asserted that he had enough types and forms my work to characterize the work of an architect but certainly not enough to characterize an architecture. To him there was no worse of an “imposition than to have some individual deliberately fix the outward forms of his concept of beauty upon the future of a free people or even a growing city”.[22]

The form may differ, he asserted, but in every case the motif is adhered to throughout so that it is not too much to say that each building aesthetically is cut from one piece of goods and consistently hangs together with an integrity impossible otherwise. In a fine art sense the designs grew as natural plants grow, the individuality of each is integral and is as complete as skill, time, strength, and circumstances would permit. The method in itself does not necessarily produce a beautiful building, but it does provide a framework as a basic which has an organic integrity.[23]

Wright believed that style came as a byproduct of the process he maintained in his design. The way an architect achieves an integrity in his design came, first, by studying nature’s material to find the properties most suited for the purpose, then, by using organic architecture as guide, to unite these qualities to serve that purpose.[24]

In his plan Wright did use a form of standardization, a unit of size for the building. However, he warned against the tendency in the human mind to standardize. He viewed standardization as a mere tool, though indispensable, should be used to the extent that it leave the architect free to destroy it at will, to the extent only that it does not become a style, or an inflexible rule-is it desirable to the architect. It is desirable only to the extent that it is capable of new forms and remains the servant of those forms. He believed that standardization should be allowed to work, but never to master the process that yields the form.[25]

In his various designs Wright took into consideration the individuality of the occupant and his needs. Wright responded to the critics who suspected that individuality of the owner and occupant of the building is sacrificed to that of the architect who imposes his own upon everyone alike, by saying “An architect worthy of the name has individuality, it is true, his work will and should reflect it and his buildings will bear a family resemblance one to another. The individuality of the owner is first manifest in his choice of his architect, the individual to whom he entrusts his characterization. He sympathizes with his work; its expression suits him and this furnishes the common ground upon which client and architect may come together. Then, the architect with his ready technique, he conscientiously works for the client, idealizes his clients character and taste and makes him feel the building is his as it really to such an extent that he can truly say that he would rather have his own house than any other he has ever seen”[26]

In order to fully understand wright’s methodology, it is essential to look at how his principles have formed his designs and buildings. Looking at the Prairie house style and Taliesin, the examples show how Wright succeeded in maintaining his philosophy, while providing diversity of forms.

Prairie Houses:

In his book An American Architecture, Wright describes his love and fascination with prairie, along with the elements of the prairie that guided his designs.

I loved the prairie as great simplicity. And I saw that a little of height on the prairie was enough to look like much more. The natural tendency of every ill- considered thing on the prairie is to detach itself and stick out like a sore thumb in surrounding by nature perfectly quiet. All unnecessary heights have for that reason and the human scale, (other reasons, economic too) been eliminated. More intimate relation with outdoor environment and far-reaching vista is sought to balance the desired lessening of height.[27]

The Prairie style was an attempt by Wright to create an architecture that suited the American lifestyle and landscape. Strongly horizontal plan of house with a low sheltering roof, bands of art glass windows, stucco walls with wood banding, and outreaching garden walls had many of the features that characterized this version of Wright’s organic architecture.[28]

The Little house on Lake Minnetonka (figure1) is an example of how organic architecture is reflected in the house. The living room is the dominant space in the house. Mrs. Little was an accomplished musician and wanted the room to double as recital space. The height of the ceiling adds to the room’s grandeur. Flanked by two long walls with more than a dozen art glass windows on two levels, the room has the lightness of an outdoor pavilion. Clear glass was used in the leaded panels so that the views, the lake to one side and the forest to another, would not be obstructed. The delicate designs of lines and triangles, concentrated on the outer edges of the window, reach across several panels, creating a larger composition than on just the one window. The art glass skylight, an intricate checkerboard of tiny squares and triangles, are framed by heavy wood moldings.[29]

Wright focused on using an appropriate kind of furniture. The rectilinear Prairie Style furniture with the sturdy oak shapes of tables, cabinets, and chairs adapted easily to the houses scale. The vertical spindles of the radiator covers are repeated in the base of the print table and seem to capture the rhythm of the wood marking strips across the ceiling. The strong horizontality of the entire house and the room itself pulls the scale back down to a more human level.[30]

The Taliesin:

“No house should be a hill or anything or anything. It should be of the hill. Hill and house should live together, each happier for the other.”[31]

This is Wright famous quote regarding the Taliesin in Wisconsin (figure2). In studying Wright’s architecture it seems interesting to look at building he designed for him personally. This specific house is consistent, rich and appropriate in its management of prospect and refuge. It is also a gentler, more intimate, and more freely composed house than any others of wright’s works.[32]

In designing domestic architecture Wright regarded the house as refuge from two generalized and impersonal threats. One is climate the other is the social intrusion by the community.[33] When Wright built the Taliesin, he considered these two universal threats along with two personal threats, one external from his feeling of societal hostility for leaving his wife, the other internal from an inner sense of disorientation and confusion. [34] This attests to the individuality in his design.

He built the Taliesin encircling the side of the hill, with its back to wall, making it seem as if it was of the hill. However this placement and his famous quotation about this house don’t apply to previous prairie houses like the Hardy, Little, Ennis and Morris houses. Perhaps this placement was more related to the nature of the site, since in Taliesin the hill was inappropriate, partly because of Wright’s sense of it sanctity, but partly because he needed to have his the therefore, its back against the wall, for which purpose the hilltop could not work. Therefore he chose the hillside around which the living spaces were arranged.[35]

The dominant image was that of roofs which emerged randomly from the hillside vegetation, with a repetition of gentled shingled spaces, taking the slopes of the hills as their slopes. The deep overhanging eaves were all at uniform level, forming a continuous eave line.[36]

Wright argued on many occasions that he was trying to destroy the box, by which he meant the self-contained room of traditional domestic architecture. He used the open plans in the prairie houses. However in Taliesin, in spite of the fluid disposition of the rooms, there is no sense of an open plan, rich and complex but a box nevertheless. Unlike prairie, this living space did not open through articulating devices to any contiguous space, nor did any other rooms. This was appropriate at Taliesin where containment was deliberately sought and consistency developed in so many other ways.  Also, the terrace did not extend from either range of windows that released the view. It lay rather behind the scenes. Probably this issue was a provision of view downward to the valley from the living room. This view would have been frustrated by a terrace, especially by one with a solid plastered rail.[37]

The way Wright treated Taliesin in its particularity, attests to his claim that he didn’t adopt a style. The particularity of the site, the nature of materials, individuality and function were the determinants of the form of the building.

Conclusion:

Wright’s philosophy revolved around the organic. He articulated his philosophy clearly in his various writings that totaled to more than one and half million words. He defined the word organic as an entity, part-to whole- as whole- is to part, intrinsic.[38] The ideal of the organic was form and function are one. This ideal guided his design process, the logic behind his revolutionary open plans and is reflected in his different works. And despite the differences in his works, he managed to maintain an organic integrity in his designs.

Image index:

Figure 1 [39]

Figure2

Bibliography:

Hildebrand, Grant. The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses. Seattle: U of Washington, 1991.

Lind, Carla. The Wright Style. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Frank Lloyd Wright and His Manner of Thought. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin, 2014.

Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Future of Architecture. New York: Horizon, 1953.

Wright, Frank Lloyd, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. New York: Architectural Record, 1975.

Wright, Frank Lloyd, and Donald D. Walker. An American Architecture. New York: Horizon, 1955.


[1] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1953, p 226

[2] ibid, p 297

[3] Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. (New York: Architectural Record) 1975, p54

[4] ibid

[5] Ibid, p60

[6] ibid, p55

[7] ibid, p123

[8] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1953, p 225

[9] ibid , p226

[10] ibid, p227

[11] Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. (New York: Architectural Record) 1975, p55

[12] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1953,p299

[13] ibid, p297

[14] ibid, p299

[15] ibid, p315

[16] Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. (New York: Architectural Record) 1975, p59

[17] ibid

[18] ibid, p154

[19] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1953, p 316

[20] ibid, p 298

[21] Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. (New York: Architectural Record) 1975, p163

[22] ibid, p 124

[23] ibid, p59

[24] ibid, p124

[25] ibid, p 163

[26] ibid, p60

[27] Frank Lloyd wright and Donald D. Walker, An American Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1955, p193

[28] Carla Lind, The Wright Style. (New York: Simon & Schuster) 1992, p 72

[29] ibid, p84

[30] ibid

[31] Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andrew Devane. In the Cause of Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright: Essays. (New York: Architectural Record) 1975, p11

[32] Grant Hildebrand, The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses. (Seattle: U of Washington) 1991, p 64

[33] ibid, p62

[34] ibid, p63

[35] ibid, p64

[36] ibid

[37] ibid, p72

[38] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture. (New York: Horizon) 1953, p 323

[39] Carla Lind, The Wright Style. (New York: Simon & Schuster) 1992, p 72


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