July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
At the dawn of this century a new form of residential architecture rose from the American heartland, ruled by the total integration of space, site, and structure
After dinner Frank Lloyd Wright would sometimes raise a wineglass, watch the yellow candlelight refracted through the red liquid and crystal, and, quoting the Chinese philosopher Lao-tze, remark that the reality of the vessel lay in the void within, “the place of greatest peace.” Wright was perhaps America’s last great architect to conceive of his work as a search for truth. And for Wright, truth was found not in the physical form of a building but in what it contained. “Space,” he wrote, “the continual becoming: invisible fountain from which all rhythms flow and to which they must pass. Beyond time or infinity.”
Wright’s career had been launched in the last years of the nineteenth century with commissions for houses from Chicago’s newly wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs. In 1902 the architect received his largest commission to date when Susan Lawrence Dana hired him to build a house in Springfield, Illinois. His patron was a young, somewhat eccentric, and very wealthy widow, the heiress to a fortune in mining and railroads, and she gave Wright a virtually unrestricted budget. The final cost ran to sixty thousand dollars, and each of the thirty-five rooms bore its own distinct character.
Wright developed an extraordinary variety of art-glass designs for the 250 doors, windows, and indirect-lighting panels, and he used different motifs for the wooden moldings in each of the house’s sixteen major spaces. His client’s passion for music required that musician’s balconies sprout from the soaring walls of the large public areas. Her influence ranged further: the present site manager, Donald Hallmark, has written that it was perhaps due to his client “that the house would both subscribe to Wright’s interior principle of spatial flow and openness, yet have more than 225 brass curtain rods and sets of draperies.…”
A widow twice more and increasingly troubled both in mind and by financial concerns, Susan Dana moved to a smaller house in 1928 and died in 1946. The state of HIi- nois purchased the Dana-Thomas House from its second owner, the Thomas Publishing Company, in 1981 and closed it for renovation in mid-1987. Although worn by time and inattention, Wright’s first major commission had survived amazingly intact, containing more original glass and other decorative elements than any other of his early works. At Susan Dana’s first gala party, on Christmas Day 1904, her guests marveled at the thoroughly decisive way in which the house cast off the muffled layers of Victorianism. Since its reopening in September 1990, there have again been crowds at the door, there to rediscover the richest and most complex early example of one of America’s greatest architects.
As with all his work, Wright meant the Dana-Thomas House to stand not only as a shelter but as a monument in America’s social landscape. Built during America’s great transition from an agrarian to an urban and industrial nation (the 1920 census reported a majority of Americans for the first time were living in “urban places"), the Dana House may be said to reveal the attitudes of those Americans who were rejecting not only the classical formulas that had guided the nation’s architecture but the social structure as well. Much of this intellectual ferment of the day found its earliest and most vibrant expression in the Midwest, carried from Chicago into Illinois’s smaller communities, where remnants of the frontier still survived.
Frank Lloyd Wright never chose to admit that he was influenced by the ideology of the day or by the creations of other architects. His architecture, he claimed, sprang solely from genius. Never hampered by modesty, Wright declared, “Not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but the greatest who will ever live.” Battered by personal scandals, bankruptcy, and divorces, he forged an image of himself as an artist whose brilliance was accessible only to his adoring patrons. No fact, however extraordinary or insignificant (even the year of his birth), failed to be improved on by Wright as he turned his life into myth.
In an effort to pin down the sources of Wright’s inspiration, some architectural historians have pointed to his exposure to models of Japanese and pre-Columbian architecture at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair; to writings of the great Gothicists Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin; even to the building blocks designed by the German educational theorist Friedrich Froebel that Wright played with as a child. Certainly Louis Sullivan, with whom Wright worked at the Chicago architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan, played a role in his development, and although he grew beyond it, he was very much a part of the Arts and Crafts movement at the century’s turn. But the most consistent theme in Wright’s architecture remains his sweeping rejection of precedent, especially that of the then-popular Beaux Arts classicism. Wright’s life and work were always a quest for the new. The dead hand of the past was his constant enemy.
Wright’s philosophy of architecture has so influenced the built environment of the twentieth century that it is now virtually impossible to disentangle the “Wrightian” from the “non-Wrightian.” At the center of Wright’s thesis was his almost mystical reverence for space, for him the basic element in building. As Wright described it, a good building must allow a continuous flow, with a minimum of barriers separating individuals from one another and nature.
Walls and roofs, the elements of the mere container, seem to disappear in a Wright-built home. In the Dana House, for example, the roof seems to float above its masonry foundation, lifted by a large fascia or ornamental frieze. Because of his de-emphasis of vertical partitions, Wright’s buildings are striking for their horizontal massing, emphasized by overhanging roofs and, especially in his later works, by highly theatrical cantilevers.
The harmony between man and nature that Wright claimed to seek was not always rational in its execution. His buildings also were meant to manipulate the dweller’s senses and emotions. Visitors often entered through virtually hidden doorways into small, dark spaces and from there moved into increasingly open, well-lit areas. At the center of a Wright building a massive chimney stack would pierce the horizontal volume, and at the meeting of vertical mass and horizontal void a hearth would generate the energy for the domestic circle.
In “breaking the box,” as Wright described it, he was creating an organic architecture, true to its natural site, true to natural materials, and conforming to rules of nature rather than formal structure. Wright imagined that by building according to these higher laws, he was making something specifically American, and he saw himself as an “architect of Democracy.” In his office buildings he insisted that the free flow of space contributed to an egalitarian exchange of ideas. His communal work spaces would allow freer access to the boss.
Not surprisingly Wright isn’t known for the design of tall buildings; their height almost inevitably implies a hierarchy. While the farthest-reaching architectural advances of his day were being made in the design and construction of metal-and-glass skyscrapers, his own architectural philosophy was ideally suited to the low building. As other architects were raising the modern city toward the sky, Wright was busy creating a refuge from it.
So overwhelming is his influence in architecture that the most natural comparison may be not with his contemporaries but with the nation’s first great architect, Thomas Jefferson. The Prairie Architect and the Piedmont Architect both projected a vision rooted in the soil and in a reaction to what they saw as the malign influences of the city.
In Wright’s Utopian village of Broadacre, just as in Jefferson’s Virginia, every family would have a plot of land to till. Both Wright and Jefferson imagined a basically horizontal architecture relating harmoniously to its site, and both experimented with the latest technological innovations, which they placed within buildings noted for their spatial complexity. Both believed that their architecture represented a radical break with the authority of the past, and both designed structures that combined simplicity with elaborate detail; perhaps incidentally both men faced financial difficulties as a result of their building projects.
The strongest link between Wright and Jefferson may be the way their modern admirers have recast their work. No longer is it seen as part of a questing process; now it has taken on the finality of an irrefutable answer. We have turned Wright, no less than Jefferson, into an icon, into a symbol of the American spirit, and we have given his buildings a finality he may never have intended.