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The Frontiersman: appraisal of Wright's work and Taliesin West

Philip Johnson argues that the spatial complexity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture far outplays Le Corbusier’s purist concepts

Originally published in August 1949

In my opinion, Frank Lloyd Wright is the greatest living architect, and for many reasons. He is the founder of modern architecture as we know it in the West, the originator of so many styles that his emulators are invariably a decade or so behind. All younger moderns-except perhaps Le Corbusier acknowledge Wright’s influence, though some may forget the debt in their later years. There can be no disagreement, however, that he is the most influential architect of our century. In the 1900’s he originated the Prairie House, with its open plan, which through the Wasmuth publication of 1911 became the prototype of so much modern design. In the 20’s he outdid the massiveness of the Mayan with a new kind of ferro-concrete structure. In the 30’s and 40’s he has been and still is inventing new shapes: using circles, hexagons, and triangles to articulate space in new ways.

But he is more than an inventor. No one understands the third dimension as well as he, the capacity of architecture to be an experience in depth, rather than a mere facade. His buildings can rarely be appreciated correctly except at first hand. A photograph can never relay the experience of being surrounded by one of them. Nor can a camera record the ’cumulative impact of moving through his organized spaces, the effect of passing through low space into high, from narrow to wide, from dark to light. (Taliesin, Taliesin West, Johnson Wax Co.)

 ‘Wright is the founder of modern architecture as we know it in the West, the originator of so many styles that his emulators are invariably a decade or so behind’

Wright is also unique in his ability to adjust buildings to natural surroundings. Whether they rise from a hill (Pauson House, Loeb House, Hartford Tower) or hug the slopes (Taliesin, Taliesin West and Jacobs House) his structures always look rooted to the soil, in his words ‘organic.’ 

It is of great importance, therefore, to listen to Mr. Wright’s opinions especially when expressed so violently-on the work of the architects whom he calls here ‘internationalists,’ ‘stencillists,’ ‘functionalists.’ Since he refers twice to the exhibition which I organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932 as the agent responsible for the introduction of these foreign ‘isms’ perhaps a few notes on the intervening years would be appropriate. 

Mr. Wright would undoubtedly include in his list of ‘stencillists’ most of the architects in our 1932 catalogue. Besides himself, there were men like Le Corbusier, Mies van de Rohe, Gropius, Oud, Mendelssohn, Aalto, Neutra, Lescaze and Stonorov. According to Wright these are fascist inspired, cliche artists, many of whom design two-dimensional flat facade buildings because they are more interested in painting than architecture. Furthermore, they do not understand Nature; in fact, they are anti-Nature.

There is a lot of meat in Mr. Wright’s castigations, but he is wrong in attributing functionalist leanings to us at the Museum who have fought it for 20 years. There is also much doubt how many of these artists really believed in functionalism even though they sometimes gave it lip-service. Mr. Wright, for example, might better have remembered not only Le Corbusier’s unfortunate propagandist machine a habiter but his beautiful definition ‘L’architecture, c’est, avec des materiaux bruts, etablir des rapports emouvants’ (The business of architecture is to establish emotional relationships by means of raw materials) to which most architects including Mr. Wright would subscribe.

When he writes that international architecture is ‘stencillist,’ and able to be repeated, taught and learned so easily that our universities have adopted it rather than Wright’s own ‘organic’ architecture, he is correct. Le Corbusier, and perhaps latterly Mies van de Rohe, have indeed been too superficially adapted for teaching; Wright’s principles, on the other hand, are impossible to teach in the conventional, institutional way.

‘Le Corbusier facades are often flat, those of his followers flatter’

Again when he cites Le Corbusier for being two dimensional in his approach he has a point. Le Corbusier facades are often flat, those of his followers flatter. And certainly the group as a whole has been distinguished by its extraordinary interest in painting. Le Corbusier, himself, is an active and accomplished practitioner of the art but it does not necessarily follow, as Mr. Wright implies, that because he is capable of creating in two dimensions that he cannot create in three. A cube is undeniably three dimensional. To raise it on stilts only serves to emphasize that fact. Such a purist concept is, of course, a far cry from the spatial complexity of a building by Wright, but the one does not necessarily negate the value of the other.

Mr. Wright has often attacked the slick boxlike ‘negativities’ of international work, the painted stucco, the boredom of repeated columns. But these objections have long since been met by the Internationalists themselves. They no longer use stucco, nor rely on paint. The smooth flatness is gone. Mies projects his windbraces and columns to get shadow; Le Corbuster complicates his facades with Mondrian-shaped mullion patterns and brises soleils; Gropius, Breuer and Neutra now use native wood, pitched roofs and deep ’porch-like overhangs; Aalto curves entire buildings. The movement away from the ‘boxes’ that Mr. Wright attacks brings the internationalists nearer to Wright’s position and further from their own position of 20 years ago. How much of this enrichment is caused by a reappreciation of Wright and how much to a natural reaction against bad material and lonely cubes would be hard to say.

‘Mr. Wright has often attacked the slick boxlike ‘negativities’ of international work, the painted stucco, the boredom of repeated columns’

When Mr. Wright claims that the international movement is fascist-inspired he uses the word in two senses. He argues first that the ‘provincial art elite,’ the trustees and visitors of the Museum of Modern Art, being rich are fascistinclined because rich, and second that because Mussolini favoured the stile razionale, therefore modern architects admired Mussolini.

The New York rich, however, are demonstrably Republican and as a class are the best clients for Georgian and Elizabethan mansions in the world. But more important, a large percentage of Mr. Wright’s ‘foreigners’ are refugees from Nazism and Fascism. It is hard to understand his argument. As a matter of fact modern architecture has never flourished in any totalitarian country whether Communist or Fascist. It is a true child of social democracy.

It is on the question of Nature and its relation to architecture that Mr. Wright is clearest. ‘We must learn to use the word Nature in its proper romantic (i.e. integral) sense’ he writes (italics mine) and he is indeed romantic about Nature. He has proposed elsewhere that ’the Tree should be the inspiration for American architecture of the Machine Age.’ He speaks of his new Johnson Laboratory Tower as having a tap-root and branches. His greatest objection to the ‘internationalists’ is their anti-Nature stand.

‘His greatest objection to the ‘internationalists’ is their anti-Nature stand’

In his eyes Japanese and Mayan work are ‘organic’ while Greek and Renaissance architecture are inorganic, opposed to Nature. The internationalists, he correctly points out, admire the Greeks and consequently conceive their work as a contrast to Nature rather than a part of it. Like the Parthenon their buildings are placed against Nature.

Mr. Wright’s preference for regarding his buildings as identified with Nature has inspired him to produce the most remarkable architectural creations of our time, but does this in itself invalidate the other point of view? Rather, is not the contrast between Le Corbusier’s prisme pur and Wright’s luxuriant forms but another manifestation of the Classic-Romantic dichotomy? Does not Le Corbusier’s work symbolize Mediterranean culture today: the bright tight shapes of a static civilization, against a blue sky. And does not Wright’s work typify the exuberant individualism of an ever-expanding frontier?

 

Taliesin West

Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter camp in the Arizona desert was begun in 1938. The only permanent structural elements are the heavy walls and plinth, made of concrete in which have been set large many-coloured rocks taken from the desert. Shelter, with a variable and controlled quality of light, is provided by the superstructure of rough lumber and canvas, and by louvres. Here, during the winter months, apprentices make drawings and models of the work which Frank Lloyd Wright has in commission. They also continue, with no outside assistance, to build on to the camp, to enlarge and improve it, as part of their training in ‘organic’ architecture. A theatre is now being built, near the camp workshop (see plan).

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Top: The new tower, which houses the air-cooling apparatus for Frank Lloyd Wright’s own living quarters; the entrance to the playing area is on the left; connecting the main buildings and the roof of the playing area is a bridge, which leads to a roof garden and spectator gallery for the playcourt beyond.

Middle and bottom: exterior and interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s own study, the interior shows a corner of his drawing-board. The colour photographs are by David Pleydell-Bouverie.

 

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The workroom, from the paved entrance court; in the middle foreground is the fireproof plan file.

 

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Top and middle: Characteristic views of the camp at Talisien West, showing the relationship of the solid base of stone and concrete to the wood and canvas superstructure. 

Bottom: The loggia with the guest terrace above it; in the background is the bell tower, by which the fifty or sixty members of the Taliesin Fellowship are summoned to an assembly or to the various tasks into which a day may be divided.

 

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Top: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip C. Johnson.

Bottom Left: Looking down into the partly open kitchen, where every apprentice of the Fellow-ship takes his turn at preparing and cooking food. Square blocks of rough wood are nailed to the fascia, creating the ‘pin-point’ shadows which are characteristic of the Arizona desert.

Bottom Right: The pool, with its reflection of masonry wall and the cantilevered awning over the dining-room.

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Left: The Pauson House, near Taliesin West, on completion.

Right: As it appeared in 1949 after it was burned down.