Critical Thinking: Happy Birthday Frank Lloyd Wright

Critical Thinking: Happy Birthday Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the original goals in starting people[PLACES]spaces was to expand the conversation about architecture and design.  With that goal in mind, we’re launching a new series, Critical Thinking.  Even though architecture is a relatively niche topic in a downsizing journalism landscape, there are still writers who are devoted to advancing the discourse around our built environment.  Critical Thinking will provide a digest of some of our favorite stories from architectural critics and thinkers each week.

This week, to kick off the series, we are wishing a (belated) Happy Birthday to Frank Lloyd Wright—the original “starchitect”—who would have turned 150 years old in June.

(Header image: Wright's Robie House in Chicago)

A variety of events throughout the summer have marked the occasion, the most significant of which is the “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  The MoMA show is simultaneously birthday party for the architect, and celebration of museum’s acquisition (along with Columbia University’s Avery Library) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s massive archive.  Aaron Betsky, writing for Architect Magazine, fawns over what he calls “the ultimate nerdfest for architecture lovers.”  It is perhaps an expected sentiment from the dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (that's a real thing, not just a saying), but he also struggles with the limitations of communicating the three-dimensional nature of architecture through mostly two-dimensional works.  On the other hand, Alexanda Lange at Curbed (a self-described Wright anti-fan) takes a refreshingly contrarian view of the exhibit, imagining myriad compelling opportunities to display pieces from the Wright archives in conjunction with works from other artists rather than in yet another solo show.  She wonders whether—after the dozen-plus exhibits at MoMA in the past, as well as retrospectives at the Whitney and Guggenheim—New Yorkers have had enough of Wright.

In Chicago, the city most associated with Wright, Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune celebrates the delayed restoration of Unity Temple, completed just in time for the 150th birthday celebrations.  Kamin details the painstaking and expensive (the project is only half paid for) process of restoring one of Wright’s best-known buildings to its circa 1909 appearance, while also adding modern creature comforts like air conditioning and improved lighting.

The Ennis House, one of Wright's textile block houses in Los Angeles.

The Ennis House, one of Wright's textile block houses in Los Angeles.

Perhaps my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright stories of the summer focused on his lesser-known Los Angeles houses.  In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne provides historical context for the Hollyhock House, and the four “textile block” houses that followed, connecting their sombre, massive, Mayan-inspired designs to the personal tragedies in Wright’s life.  As Hawthorne notes, these houses “remain underappreciated and largely misunderstood” in part because of how different they are from the rest of Wright’s prolific output.  Hawthorne’s historical examination pairs well with the personal reflections from Curbed’s Alissa Walker about her time living just downhill from the Freeman House as it precariously clung to its Hollywood Hills site, and how that experience shaped her career.

Despite the troublingly common threads through many these pieces of Wright's ill-informed cultural appropriation and one-dimensional racial prejudice that startle our 21st-century perspectives, all of these stories evoke the deep personal resonance that architecture (and architects) can have on people.  Whether it’s Betsky’s unwavering reverence or Lange’s apt description of his “fame-whoring,” Wright’s work (and his personality) continue to have an effect on people.  It is indicative of what the Dallas Morning News’ Mark Lamster described in his review of the MoMA show as “the Wright Paradox: that he is at once our most overrated and our most underrated architect.”

Whatever your feelings on Frank Lloyd Wright, it's rare to have so many rich and unique perspectives on a single topic.  All of the pieces highlighted here are well worth a read in full (that's the whole point of Critical Thinking).