The Neglected Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright
by Rich Ahern
Frank Lloyd Wright is commonly considered to have been America's greatest architect. Even now, 30 years after his death, his fame and the fame of his buildings are undiminshed.
But what is not well-known about Wright among the general public is that he was a visionary philosopher of culture as well as an architect of buildings. Indeed for him "Architecture" was a big word, encompassing not only the design of buildings but the design of landscapes, of transportation and Utilities systems, of the entire built environments of continents and of the political and institutional structures of nations as well. "[T]here can be no separation between architecture and our culture," he said.
Wright's philosphy is scattered throughout his many writings. It is incomplete and in some need of modification in the light of experience. It was rarely taken seriously in his own day and is generally ignored in our times. Nevertheless, a systematic study of Wright's ideas reveal a remarkably coherent, wholistic philsophy that is, I believe, highly relevant to the future of our planet - a legacy unfulfilled but well worth fulfilling.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Commodity
Understanding that legacy is inhibited by a rather formidable obstacle: Frank Lloyd Wright is a hot commodity. His buildings are popular tourist attractions. Books and articles on Wright and his works proliferate. Houses he designed can command exorbitant prices on the real estate market, while his drawings, furniture and furnishings are much sought after items on the collectors' markets. All of this over-emphasis on the material legacy of Wright tends to obscure the importance of his political, economic, and social ideas.
Possibly the foremost and certainly the most flamboyant promoter of Wrightiana is Tom Monaghan, owner of the Domino's Pizza empire. He has established a museum to house his extensive collection of Wright furniture, furnishings and models, and an archives for Wright's plans and documents. He has bought Wright houses and has built his Domino's Pizza headquarters in a Wright-influenced style. He has retained a former Wright apprentice to design his own mansion. And he has co-sponsored, with the University of Michigan, a series of four symposia on various topics relating to the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
As a long-time admirer of Mr. Wright and his work, my initial reaction to Mr.Monaghan's avocation was wholly favorable. And there has been a good deal of worthwhile information generated, especially as a result of the symposia. Nevertheless, as the years pass by and the names of Wright and Monaghan become inextricably associated, I have been disturbed to find that many people who know of Monaghan's far-right ideology assume that Wright was of like mind. Some superficial similarities might seem to support that view: their flamboyant showmanship, their need to be number one, their love of fine cars. But on fundamental issues their ideas are often poles apart.
The Archives, Museum, preservation efforts, design influences and symposia are all well and good in and of themselves, but I have no doubt Mr. Wright himself would not place great value on most of those projects. His furniture was not always his pride and joy: "I have been black and blue in some spots, somewhere, almost all of my life from too intimate contact with my own early fumiture," he confessed. The chair that Monaghan paid $198,000 for or the dining set he paid $1.5 million for were important elements when seen in their original beautiful environs, but are quite homely as well as uncomfortable when taken out of context. Wright saw "no value in the part except as the part is harmoniously related to the whole."
Preservation was generally a low priority for Wright, even of his own buildings. He saw change as an inexorbable law of nature and he always had his eye on the future. He never failed to stress that "the essence of organic building is space, space flowing outward, space flowing inward. Both plan and construction are seen to be inspired from within. "Nevertheless, he might well be pleased with the preservation of his houses if people could sit and relax in his interior spaces so as to experience his buildings from the inside looking out.
The wonderful sense of great interior space that was the hallmark of all of Wright's office buildings and which served to impart a sense of "family" to a corporate enterprise, is entirely missing in the Domino's headquarters building, the Prairie House. Instead we find the original graceful lines of Wright's prairie houses expanded to gargantuan proportions, eventually to be six-tenths of a mile long, overwhelming both people and landscape. And given Wright's statement that "I have opened the door and shown many a man out of my office when I found that he sought mere novelty...," it takes little imagination to know how he would react to aproposal to design a"Leaning Tower of Pizza" with a 15 degree tilt, as planned by Monaghan. It's a great visual pun but a mere publicity gimmick would be inconsistent with Wright's idea of functional architecture. His dictum was "form and function are one," not "form follows fashion."
While the symposia co-sponsored by
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WRIGHT (front page one)
Monaghan and the U-M College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Extensión Service are, in my estimation, the most valuable of Monaghan's contributions to the Wright legacy, they are also in one critical way the most detrimental. By focusing on Wright's interiors, his clients, the preservation of his buildings and the assessment of Wright's material architecture, they have failed to present what was most important to Wright himself: his larger, wholistic perspective including his social architecture. By presenting this distorted image of Wright's philosphy, his ideas have effectively been co-opted by economic and political interests that are actually contrary to that philosophy, thus depriving the rightful heirs of their due legacy. This constitutes, I submit, the misappropriation of the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The view expressed by Lionel March in a 1970 BBC program on Wright could apply equally to the current series of symposia: "Most critics prefer to treat Wright inorganically, separating out his architectural mastery over materials and space which they take seriously, from his views of politics, economics and social philosophy which they judge to be eccentric and somewhat trivial. But contrary to the impression given by Wright's critics, these views were in fact shared by some of the most notable intellectuals and practicing politicians of his day."
The Wholistic Philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright
Wright' s most fundamental principle was that all of culture ought to exist in harmony with nature. 'The struggle against nature never interested me," he wrote. "The struggle for and with nature thrilled me and inspired my work." Nature was his university: "[G]iven inherent vision, there is no source so fertile, so suggestive, so helpful aesthetically as a comprehension of natural law." Architectureculture so conceived he called "organic architecture" and "organic culture."
Wright was quite aware of ecology, the symbiotic interconnectedness of all things in nature. He decried the narrow departmentalization of knowledge in universities and in all social institutions and pleaded instead for a wholistic perspective:' "It is some organic sense of the whole seen as entity that is now the greatest social need."
Wright did not confine his meaning of nature to our natural environment; he included human nature as well, calling it "the subconscious man." Wright's architect-son, John Lloyd Wright, observed that his father was convinced that "a source existed which, by its very nature, produced ideas in the mind that could be reproduced in the world." He revered nature, "not because nature is God but because all that we can learn of God we will learn from the body of God, which we call nature." Furthermore, "By nature-worship, by way of revelation of our own nature alone, can your God be reached," he wrote. "Truth is conscience."
Wright's spiritual insights were the foundation for his ethical, economic and political beliefs. He distrusted all forms of arbitrary authority, be it religious, political or academic. He believed that if one "is really for nature in this inward sense, he
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may be a rebel against his time and its laws but never lawless in his work nor as himself "
In spite of his stress on individual freedom, Wright did not believe in laissez faire capitalism: "The capitalis[m] . . .of our nation is only individualism gone rank or riot," he wrote. "The actual difference between such 'individualism' and individuality of true democracy lies in the difference between cowardly selfishness and noble selfhood. Like the difference between.. .liberty and license." Wright praised the "enlightened American businessman" who was "unspoiled by great financial success" but complained of the "gigantic property interests [which] cast ominous shadows upon defenseless human interests."
The cancerous growth of our cities led Wright to ponder the ethics of property. He lamented the way that the founders of Colonial Williamsburg brought to our land "the feudal land system, the feudal idea of money, the feudal notion of property rights in everything on earth as a speculative commodity." He espoused "a new freedom, wherein a mancan use and improve a plot of ground thereby making the ground his own as long as he uses. Neither land nor man should be idle, a mere speculative commodity."
Because of such statements, Wright eamed the reputation, in some circles, of being a Marxist, a Socialist, or a Communist. But he was something else, as yet unnamed. He wrote that "Karl Marx never appealed to me because he seemed to see the world as a factory for factory workers...it seemed folly to assume that a greater measure of life for all could be had by exalting valleys so that hills, big and little, would disappear." He favored a decentralized economy, which was "anathema to Communism because Communists seek action through centralization." Wright felt that Capitalism, Socialism and Communism were all equally onerous; "[t]here seemed nothing organic in them." While he opposed "plutocratic capitalism," he approved of "organic capitalism... a true capitalist system... which has its base laid broad upon the ground, its apex high as you please."
Wright was as much an iconoclast in political matters as in economics and religion. He opposed "ruthlessly invading other countries simply or largely because we have lost the true meaning of our own." He wrote, "You cannot be imperialistic and democratic at the same time."
Wright voiced opposition to American preparation for World War when it was considered unpatriotic to do so: " Almost all our wars are waged to keep prosperity...at home under the false conditions of a false Capitalism. ..What can be worse than the deification of money by a whole people?"
Wright believed that a democratic government is a "govemment that recognizes an inner realm of choice belonging by inalienable right to every individual and that within that inner realm of science there can be neither invasion nor compulsion." Consequently he thought that "military conscription is a political, economic and social crime not only against our form of government but against the very life of our people." He therefore proposed that "only by two thirds popular vote...may war be declared. And anyone voting for war is thereby self-enlisted.."
Not surprisingly, many people considered Wright to be "unamerican." But he loved belonging to this country by "loving the country not so much for what it is - no, but more for what it meant to be and for what a good many of us still hope it is going to be." Wright believed that "neither poverty, war, tyranny, taxes, slums, oppression or aggression are necessary . The mobilzation of all of our resources for war shows that if these resources were mobilized for the abolition of poverty and servitude, peace, plenty and freedom could actually be won."
Reclaiming Wright Legacy
Wright's wholistic vision is contiasted today with the plethora of single-issue groups of the left, right and center, each boldly proclaiming their right without reference to some greater, more fundamental concept of rights by which to justify their assertions. In spite of attempts to form coalitions, the lack of a shared worldview inhibits the formation of lasting alliances.
Increasingly since mid-century, the magnitude of environmental polution, diminishing resources, institutional corruption and declining expectations have shaken the complacency of people all over the planet. Unable to cope with uncertainty, millions of people seek the solace of so-called fundamentalist religous idealogies in both Oriental and Occidental lands, falling easy prey to charismatic leaders. (Is Mr. Monaghan himself a victim?) Many millions more can hardly be blamed for dropping out of the political system altoge ther.
Frank Lloyd Wright was right again when he said, "What we all need is a new grasp on fundamentals, new grasps of what constitutes American life and American character." Frank Lloyd Wright did not think in an intellectual vacuum. His ideological lineage can be traced back through Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Jefferson, Paine, Algemon Sydney, Hugo Grotius to Cicero of Rome and the Stoics of Ancient Greece. That lineage is over two milennia of the tradition of the sadly neglected philosophy of Natural Law. This is not only a western heritage; it may readily be detected in the precepts of Taoism, which so gre atly influenced Wright, of Zen Buddhism, of the Sufi, and of native peoples everywhere. This philosphy is embodied in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence as the justification of our separation from Great Britain. There the phrase "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," refers to science and conscience.
The philosophy of Natural Law is based on the aphorism, "Right makes might." The countervailing dogma of "Positive Law" is used to justify dictatorships of all varieties everywhere, namely, "Might makes right" Oppressive govemments ally themselves whenever possible with hierarchical religions, with its truths based on often corrupt interpretations of scriptures. Natural Law, based on science and conscience, respects that immutable law of nature-change. Its logic leads us to condemn intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua, or any country where we are not wanted. The logic of the philosophy of Natural Law leads us to conclude that, whatever our personal opinions might be regarding abortion, free choice is the only viable option for society, since it is the only option that is consistent with freedom of conscience. Likewise, with conscription, registration for the draft, and a host of other issues.
Two centuries ago, today's environmental crises were not foreseen. Today, radical ecologists and others would preserve the environment at the expense of urban development. Frank Lloyd Wright was ahead of his time, suggesting ways to balance the two, to build in harmony with nature. His ideas are in many ways akin to those of the fast emerging "Green" movement.
In the end, the reclamad on of the wholistic philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright is not just a matter of realizing his unfulfilled legacy; it is also a challenge to reclaim the entire tradition of the Philosphy of Natural Law. Not only Wright but also Buckminster Fuller, Teilhard de Chardin, Paolo Soleri and many others have contributed significant insights to an emerging wholistic philosophy. Together with our own contributions, they offer hope that we may yet develop a paradigm for planetary peace to facilita te out entry into the 21 st Century.
Dr. Rich Ahern is a land planner, urban designer and artist in private practlce in Ann Arbor.