haiku for the book “In the Cause of Architecture” by Frank Lloyd Wright

a new way to build
of the hill not on the hill
Usonian dreams...

This book, a Christmas present from my bride, is a collection of essays Wright wrote for the Architectural Record under the title “In the Cause of Architecture” plus an essay, his last for the Record, titled “Organic Architecture Looks at Modern Architecture”. In addition, there are essays, written by former students, contemporaries, and historians, attempting to locate Wright's place in history 15 years after his death. Wright, of course, had no hesitation about his place: “It’s been 500 years since there was an Architect. After me, it will be 500 years before there is another.”

Most interesting (to me at least) are his first and last essays. The first, published in March 1908, describes his six “Propositions” (first sentences extruded below):

I. Simplicity and Repose are qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

II. There should be as many kinds (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals.

III. A building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings if Nature is manifest there, and if not try to make it as quiet, substantial and organic as She would have been were the opportunity Hers.

IV. Colors require the same conventionalizing process to make them fit to live with that natural forms do; so go to the woods and fields for color schemes.

V. Bring out the nature of the materials, let their nature intimately into your scheme.

VI. A house that has character stands a good chance of growing more valuable as it grows older while a house in the prevailing mode, whatever that prevailing mode may be, is soon out of fashion, stale and unprofitable.

Wright claims he first wrote these down in 1894, which strikes me as believable (and not revisionist) since his work from that point on appears to adhere to these propositions.

In support of simplicity, he notes that “An excessive love of detail has ruined more fine things from the standpoint of fine art or fine living than any one human shortcoming--it is hopelessly vulgar.” He goes on to note that contemporary “...interiors were always slaughtered with the butt and slash of the old plinth and corner block trim, of dubious origin and finally smothered with horrible millinery.” Finally, it appears Frank doesn't like your wedding and pet photos: “Pictures deface walls oftener than they decorate them.”

The timing of his diatribe against decoration in 1908, a central tenant of modernism, is interesting. Adolf Loos is credited with writing his essay, “Ornament and Crime”, in 1908. However, evidence shows that “Ornament and Crime” didn't actually appear until 1910, and it was a speech rather than an essay. In fact, his essay of the same title wasn’t published until much later, in 1927. It’s unclear to me how much architects of the world back then read journals from other countries, but I suspect they did. I’m sure there’s a dissertation somewhere about this and how Wright’s writings influenced what was happening in Europe.

Wright also discusses his belief in the 1908 essay that architecture needs to be organic and respectful of Nature. This carries from how a structure is placed on the landscape (“of the hill, not on the hill”), colors, and the use of materials (“Reveal the nature of the wood, plaster, brick or stone in your designs; they are all by nature friendly and beautiful.”).

Although Wright was sparse with complements of his colleagues and students who later entered the world on their own, he had kind words for Louis Sullivan, crediting him with emphasizing function over form and states that all he, Wright, did was take what Sullivan taught him and apply it to homes.

Later essays in the series are hard almost stream-of-conscience reads (like posts in this blog!). In one, he rails against former students and imitators, noting that “The sins of the Architect are permanent sins.” Others are detailed treatises on various aspects of architecture and materials.

His last essay, titled “Organic Architecture looks at Modern Architecture” and published in May 1952, focuses on Wright’s perception of Modern architecture. And it’s an entertaining read.

In short, Wright pretty much thinks Modern architecture is a turd in the architectural punch bowl. He notes that Modern architecture came out of Organic architecture but states that “...here came a kind of tapeworm into the entrails of Organic-architecture.”

Wright notes that Organic architecture came wholly out of the United States “...entirely free of European influences.” Wright describes the traits of Organic architecture as:
  - variety of roofs;
  - ornament non-existant unless integral;
  - open plans;
  - walls become screens, often glass screens;
  - gravity heating (his term for “radiant heating”);
  - slab on grade; and
  - startlingly clean, streamlined effects.
He notes that the Machine is dedicated to Organic architecture but that Modern architecture is dedicated to the Machine and that “Modern-architecture is Organic-architecture deprived of a soul.”

Wright lashes out at the heros of Modern architecture (the “white-paint-men”) without naming names, but the targets are obvious: “On came the nude box cut open or set up in the air without pants.” (Le Corbusier). “By maintaining a white sepulture for unthinking mass-life, individuality was soon leeched from the performance.” (Le Corbusier, Bauhausers). “’Less is more, unless less, already little, becomes less than nothing at all and ’much ado about nothing.’” (Mies van der Rohe).

Finally, as a parting blow, he equates the International Style with fascism and Organic architecture with democracy. A strong statement considering the date (1952) as well as inaccurate considering that the Nazis ran the Bauhaus out of Germany.

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