so long, frank lloyd wright
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So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright
April, 2009, Page 212
Sketch copyright Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
A 1959 rendering of Grady Gammage Auditorium
When those in the field speak of Wright, it’s for his use of so-called organic architecture, in which “function and form are one” and nature is respected. They revere his bold action of breaking the box, creating plans filled with open space, where rooms flow from one to the other. His mark is unmistakable, even in lesser-known local buildings like the David Wright House in Phoenix – whose spirals recall the Guggenheim – and the Raymond Carlson house in Phoenix, a playful ode to Wright’s signature rectangles.
But Taliesin West is the epitome of Wright’s organic architecture. The walls are made from rocks found on site and set into place with concrete formed by mixing desert sand with cement. The angular roofs and pool mimic the surrounding McDowell Mountains. Tall windows filter in natural light, and narrow passageways funnel cooling breezes. The architect also enhanced the feeling of space by constructing narrow corridors that open into expansive rooms, relaying a sense of compression, then a release.
“His ideas of connecting architecture to the world in which we live in a fundamental way is still a compelling vision,” says Richard Cleary, an architecture professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “You somehow feel privileged to be in his buildings; you feel better about yourself and your surroundings. He was a master at that.”
Cleary says Wright’s work has a timeless quality that remains fresh and new to generations that may not realize just how old the modern-looking structures are.
Wright expert Robert Twombly calls him “the first U.S. architectural superstar.”
“He was an excellent speaker who said outrageous things, but he had the goods to back up what he said,” says Twombly, an architecture professor at the City College of New York. “His buildings were simply marvelous.”
Twombly says his legacy goes beyond mere drawings and structures and speaks to something inside every American.
“It’s all about going against the mainstream, following your instincts and doing what you think is right,” he says. “You have to give him points for his independence of mind. He didn’t do what was trendy at the time. Some people try to do what he did but don’t have the talent to pull it off. He did.”
Sketch copyright The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Rendering of the Guggenheim Museum, late 1950s
Neil Levine, a noted Wright scholar and a history of art and architecture professor at Harvard University, believes the last chapter about Wright’s imprint on future generations of architects has yet to be written.
Levine, author of the landmark book The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, says Wright’s personal life often impedes an unbiased study of his work. In other words, Wright’s ego, his affairs and multiple marriages, financial escapades and other scandals count against him.
“A lot of younger architects find him limiting because of his personality,” he says. “It angers some people... it’s something that gets in the way.”
The architectural historian says interest in Wright has been on the decline in recent years, especially compared with the late 1980s and 1990s, which saw an opera, a stage play and a slew of new books about his life.
Yet, visitors still come to Taliesin West in healthy numbers, although the counts have declined slightly in the past two years.
Last year, 90,234 people took part in one of several formal tours of the property – roughly 15,000 less than in 2007. In 2006, that number was 112,719. Officials expect those figures to rebound with this year’s remembrance of Wright’s death.
Students continue to enroll in the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, splitting their time between the Arizona and Wisconsin campuses, just as they did in the old days.
Many students continue the tradition of living in the surrounding desert in small shelters that they conceived and designed themselves with scant funds. Some are responsible for meal preparation, others construction or possibly research. It’s a hands-on place where the philosophy is “learn by doing.”
Fitting, some say, since Wright himself had no formal architecture degree.
“The idea is that you are in school, not in some ivory tower,” says Victor Sidy, an alumnus and dean of the school for four years. “You learn the skills and the motivations that are required in the profession before you leave here.”
He says the school fills a niche, catering to people “who take that path less traveled.” Students can earn a bachelor’s degree in two to three years and a master’s degree in another two to three years. This year, there are a combined 21 students.
Sidy says he believes the school, among the smallest in the nation, has turned the corner since 2005, when the Higher Learning Commission placed its accreditation in jeopardy due to an administrative turnover and uncertain financial backing by the foundation. It was re-accredited two years later.
He says the accreditation woes were a wake-up call that prompted the school to become more disciplined.
“What we try to do is take the best of what Frank Lloyd Wright advocated during his life and times and integrate that with the requirements of the profession today,” Sidy says. “It’s very much an interpretive thing.
“Wright advocated things like sustainability, human scale and natural architecture. What could be more relevant today?”
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