Frank Lloyd Wright – Genius Defined in Volume II “Wright 1917 – 1942”

May 18, 2010 by D. J. Schwartz

A discussion of the modern masters of art wouldn’t be comprehensive without a thorough compilation of Pablo Picasso’s work, life, art, pictures, and a penetrating examination into what and why his art defined an era–and still does.

A similar situation presents similarly stark and exact core issues when the most famous architect of recent times, Frank Lloyd Wright, is thoroughly examined and appreciated. 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy and colossal life’s body of work as expressed through his Architecture includes a plethora of varying subjects and objects. His incredible prodigious body of work includes buildings, renderings, schematics, elevations, conceptual drawings, innovative building techniques, overseas travels, proposals, innumerable clients, artwork in the form of graphics and posters, furniture designs, art, architectural criticism and writing, lecturing, an autobiography, and  a MOMA and other museum retrospectives.

In Wright 1917 – 1942, we become engrossed and become a part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, his life, his writings, his success’ and his failures, with an intellectual honesty that’s documented, studied, and published–without the fanfare and hyperbole that too often consumes art and architectural books or biographies; and retrospectives of art and artists.

Typically, architectural reviews are verbose and idiosyncratic, and none of that is in this book.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Complete Works 1943 – 1959, opens with Wright’s organic architecture introducing ideas for the use of solar energy and curved, open spaces. In addition to the Guggenheim Museum, the postwar era saw other extraordinary projects such as Wright’s plans for a new Baghdad, the only high-rise tower he actually executed, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the crystal figure of the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and many houses.

“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Volume 2 (and the subject of this book review) covers Frank Lloyd Wright’s career, covering everything he did during this time period–his world famous structures, personal history, clients, destroyed or unfinished ideas, and his time spent publishing, lecturing, and retrospectives that lasted as many years when he wasn’t working, as those that he was during this time.

The trilogy of Wright’s three monographs of all his designs and buildings, is painstakingly thorough. Just from the reproductions of his elevations and floor plans–we gain an understanding of his ever-evolving, yet timeless approach to architecture. As this book is huge in scope and size–with all of its hundreds of pictures, drawings, and photographs–it stays true to presenting Lloyd’s work without undue critical reviews of the same. That’s the job of the critics–and there’s no shortage of them.

I find that refreshing because if you’re an artist, designer or an architectural student, a patron or a follower of Lloyd’s work, an urban and building aficionado or professional, a knowledge seeker, or just a book lover–the profound structure of the Complete Works of Wright is eloquently cataloged and summarized with TASCHEN’S trilogy including this 2nd volume.

[It is] “the definitive publication on America’s greatest architect,” in that it leaves architectural criticism aside, and focuses on the myriad of Wright’s legacy as articulated through his work—some completed, some assigned to other architects, some a vision, some never realized, some ravaged by earthquake, some torn down, and some ruined by the great destroyer called time.

But this book wouldn’t have been possible unless it had as its author– Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice at the Taliesin Fellowship in 1949, which lasted with Wright until his death in 1959. Brooks currently remains at Taliesin as director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives–who also was a major contributor toward being able to have these amazing books published–a vice-president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and author of numerous publications on Wright’s life and work.

Wright’s interaction with Taliesin lasted for the rest of his life, and eventually, he purchased the surrounding land, creating an estate of 593 acres (2.4 km²). Over the following decades, Wright used the house as an experiment, continually changing it, often using his apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship (founded in 1932) as the workforce; he also invited artists to stay and work with him in the Deco Decorative movement, and he started and mentored well-known artists such as Santiago Martinez Delgado. This was particularly true once he began a winter home, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona (1937–1959), in 1937. After this, Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship "migrated" between the two homes each year. This allowed Wright the ability to return to each home with a new perspective. To Wright, Taliesin was perfected with each change, yet subject to continual evolution.

Some of the buildings designed at Taliesin were Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, the Johnson Wax Headquarters, and the first Usonian home, the first Herbert and Katherine Jacobs house, in Madison, Wisconsin.(1936).

What particularly strikes me about this edition of Wright, 1917-1942, is its thoroughness and complete examination of everything that Wright did during this period. The painstaking reconstruction and examination of that, makes this book brilliant, eclectic and ultimately deeply satisfying. Wright was a prodigious thinker, architect, author, illustrator, artist, speaker, designer, and innovator.

For example, it was Wright’s use of gridded concrete slabs that integrated a house’s radiant heating system. Wright’s Usonian approach included new approaches to construction including sandwich walls that consist of layers of wood siding, plywood cores and building paper; a significant change from typically framed walls. Usonian houses most commonly feature flat roofs and are mostly constructed without basements, completing the excision of attics and basements from houses, a feat Wright had been attempting since the early 20th century. Designed to efficient and affordable, Usonian houses commonly feature small kitchens—called "workspaces" by Wright—that adjoin the dining spaces.

These spaces in turn flow into the main living areas, which also are characteristically outfitted with built-in seating and tables. As in the Prairie Houses, Usonian living areas focus on the fireplace. Bedrooms are typically isolated and relatively small, encouraging the family to gather in the main living areas. The conception of spaces instead of rooms is a development of the Prairie ideal; as the built-in furnishings relate to the Arts and Crafts principles from which Wright’s early works grew.

Spatially and in terms of their construction, the Usonian houses represent a new model for independent living, and allowed dozens of clients to live in a Wright-designed house at relatively low cost. The diversity of the Usonian ideal can be seen in houses such as the Gregor S. and Elizabeth B. Affleck House (1941) in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which projects over a ravine; and the Hanna-Honeycomb House (1937) in Palo Alto, California, which features a honeycomb planning grid.

His Usonian homes set a new style for suburban design that was a feature of countless developers. Many features of modern American homes date back to Wright; open plans, slab-on-grade foundations, and simplified construction techniques that allowed more mechanization or at least efficiency in building.

Many facts may not be very well-known during this period of Wright’s career. During this time Wright spent as much time practicing architecture as he didn’t–being a prodigious speaker, author, lecturer, and writer:

In 1939, Wright returned to Europe to deliver a series of lectures in London. These were published under the title An Organic Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy. Perhaps partially as the result of the success of these lectures Wright was able to publish a series of monographs of his then large compilation of his work in three editions of Architectural Forum in 1948 and 1951.

The year 1940 saw Wright’s work once again showcased in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Around this time Wright began to issue private publications, designed and printed at Taliesin. The inaugural issue of the magazine called Taliesin was a special issue titled The New Frontier Broadacre City that dealt exclusively with the model of Broadacre City and the philosophy underlining it. A Taliesin Square-Paper was more politically driven. In this newsletter, he aired his concerns about he war. Because of the war, and the curtailment of architectural projects in 1941 and 1942, writing projects again assumed a prominent place in Wright’s work, now with the publisher Duell, Sloan and Pearce. In association with Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright: On Architecture, a selection of Wright’s writings from 1894 to 1940 compiled by architectural historian Frederick Gutheim, appeared in 1941, followed by In the Nature of Materials 1887 – 1941: The Building of Frank Llyod Wright in 1942, assembled by by Henry-Russell Hitchcock largely from the 1940 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Wright himself went back to work on his autobiography of 1932, revising and updating it. All three books were printed in a square format of Wright’s design.

This period from 1917 to 1942 saw Wright as much author as architect, with few buildings realized, although these were very important. These buildings revealed startling new forms in both residential and commercial design. Personally, the years following 1928 found Wright more settled and secure than an any other time. His 3rd wife, Olgivanna was an inspired and dedicated partner to him. The young men and women of the Taliesin Fellowship provided him with new energy and inspiration as well.

This was a quiet time which they enjoyed despite the war and lack of work. It could perhaps even be called a time of preparation for the flood of work that came Wright’s way in the ensuing years.

This volume as written by Bruce Brooks provides a richly woven story that’s worthy of discussion. First and foremost, a careful study of Frank Lloyd Wright will show that he was a free thinking genius with a consistency that blended nature with art through architecture; yet his method, and methodology are uniquely expressed and changed with time, location, country, and client. Yet, without a doubt, Frank Lloyd Wright’s design aesthetic will almost certainly evermore escape a precise label—but for want of a better descriptive, it’s a safe bet to give tribute to Wright’s genome of genius, creativity, and quality of workmanship and design–which his name is eponymous with–as to his art and work.

The author Brooks, plays a significant and irreplaceable place in the publication of this 3 part monograph series of Wright’s work:

With the founding of the Taliesin Fellowship, Wright’s professional life took a dramatic change: He had always relied upon hired draftsmen to assist in the preparation of his drawings. Now, the apprentices would take over those tasks, learning the craft of architecture as they went along by working on drawings and specifications, tackling engineering challenges, and supervising the construction of the buildings, initially right on the Taliesin property , learning architecture from the ground up, out in the field, on the job site. ‘There will be no armchair architects here!’ Wright once asserted.

The definitive publication on America’s greatest architect

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is widely considered the greatest American architect of all time; his work ushered in the modern era and remains highly influential today—half a century after his death. TASCHEN’s three-volume monograph covers all his designs (numbering approximately 1100), realized and unrealized. Made in collaboration with the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives in Taliesin, Arizona, this collection leaves no stone unturned in examining and paying tribute to Wright’s astonishing life and work.

Whereas the first volume covers the early Chicago years , this second volume deals with the work after World War I, beginning with the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and covering Wright’s quest to design affordable houses with systematic construction methods and the Usonian concept house, with the forest-sited villa Fallingwater being the dramatic climax.

The years spent working in Japan was followed by personal turmoil. In late 1922, Wright divorced from first wife Catherine, and the following year married Miriam Noel. Yet barely six months later she left, initiating a bitter divorce.

In November of 1922 Wright had finally received a divorce from his first wife, Catherine. This permitted him in November of 1923 to marry Miriam Noel, his volatile companion of the last eight years. He [Wright] hoped that by thus legalizing their relationship, the tensions and difficulties that plagued them would be relieved. Unfortunately, this was not to be. BY May of 1924 Miriam had left, and the couple’s final battle, which would stretch painfully over several years, began.

Shortly after, Wright met his third wife, Olgivanna. During this difficult period a second fire at Taliesin strained his already parlous finances; the bank foreclosed, leaving him without home or studio. With nowhere to practice, he started writing magazine articles, and his autobiography (published in 1932 to great acclaim).

Ever resourceful, Wright took out a third mortgage on his Talisin property, and incorporated himself to raise money with the promise of future profits to his funders–hence, Frank Lloyd Wright, Inc. came into existence.

Around this time, Wright had business dealings with the Department Store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann who gave Wright the commission for a summer home in a wooded glen in western Pennsylvania, and in turn, Wright gave Kauffman, one of the most famous houses in the world–Fallingwater.

Also around the same time–Herbert Johnson of the the large corporation C.J. Johnson & Son Company, gave him the commission for the world renowned Johnson corporate Headquarters. Curiously, that’s when Wright used the Herbert Jacobs House in Racine, Wisconsin to demonstrate his ever evolving design and architectural thinking as exemplified with his development of the Usonian concept.

That wasn’t the beginning of Wright’s embracement of his different movements–as his homes in Los Angeles and Southern California defined and perfected his use of his "Textile Block System of interlocking concrete" as part of the building’s interior’s, exterior’s–and as forefront, backyard, and as a form of his notorious mingling of architecture into the landscape.

His block building system led to idiosyncratic works like the famous Ennis house in Los Angeles, and in 1936 he completed the Herbert Jacobs house, using his new "Usonian" techniques, designed to be affordable for the middle-American family. The same year he moved to Arizona where, at the age of 71, Wright embraced his rugged new life in the desert, and with his students started building the Taliesin West complex.

Wright’s prodigious output of conceptual and working architectural drawings was complimented by his ever creative design of posters, graphics, furniture, art, and other types of accessories, which he always produced throughout his illustrious career. These too, are luxuriously shot and are included throughout this Volume II.

This Wright Trilogy of monographs is simply put–brilliant; and is an incredible once-in-a-lifetime capture of the world’s greatest architect’s career and achievement and there’s no reason that all 3 of TASCHEN’S, Frank Lloyd Wright, The Complete Works, shouldn’t be part of your library. Your life will be enriched forever by owning them.

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