Brain Pickings

On Beauty, Quality, Poetry, and Integrity: Anaïs Nin Meets Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1947)

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“His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable.”

Among the richest and most rewarding parts of Anaïs Nin’s diaries are her encounters with and impressions of cultural icons, whether personalities like Gore Vidal or legendary cities like Paris vs. New York. Yesterday’s compendium of quotes, quips, and words of wisdom by famous architects reminded me of Nin’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., son of the great Frank Lloyd Wright, recounted in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin’s poignant reflections on why emotional excess is essential to creativity and how technology relates to the meaning of life. Though Lloyd Wright, as he was better known, remained in many ways in the inescapable shadow of his father’s legend, he was himself a highly accomplished and visionary architect.

In 1926, a group known as the Allied Architects was commissioned to rebuild the iconic Hollywood Bowl, originally constructed in 1922, but their improvements failed to accommodate sufficient seating or improve the acoustics. In 1927, Wright designed what’s commonly considered the best shell the Hollywood Bowl has ever had, acoustically speaking — a pyramidal structure that was, sadly, deemed too avant-garde by the powers that be and was subsequently demolished after just one season. The following year, Wright was granted a redo and he designed a collapsible, concentric fiberglass shell with movable panels inside for tuning the acoustics — but that, too, was buried for political reasons. The Allied Architects took over for the 1929 season and built the structure that endured, with cosmetic modifications (including, most famously, one by Frank Gehry in 1982), until 2003. It was that “monstrously ugly” version that stood when Nin met Wright in 1947.

Progression of the Hollywood Bowl shell, 1926-1929

While the Hollywood Bowl is but a passing mention in their encounter, Nin’s extraordinary insight into Wright’s ethos becomes, as so much of her writing does, a springboard for a larger meditation on architecture, the world of art and role of the artist, and the ideological underpinnings of mid-century American culture.

I saw his plans for Los Angeles. It could have been the most beautiful city in the world, for everyone to come to see, as people went to see Venice. But architecture had been taken over by businessmen, and Lloyd the artist was not allowed to carry out his incredibly rich, fecund concepts. The room was full of them. When he took a rolled-up drawing from the shelves and spread it over the table, I saw buildings which equaled the wonders of the past.

[…]

Strength was obvious in him, but sensitivity and imagination were in his drawings. Homes, churches, plans for entire cities. A universe of lyrical beauty in total opposition to the sterile, monotonous, unimaginative ‘box’-buildings now seen all over the world.

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I expected Los Angeles to be filled with his buildings. This was not the case. Fame highlighted his father’s work, but not Lloyd’s—not as he deserved. If his plans had been carried out, the world would have been dazzled by them. His work was on a scale which should have appealed to the spirit of grandeur in the American character, a dramatic and striking expression of a new land. But instead, American architects chose to take the path of imitating Europe, of uniformity, monotony, dullness. In Lloyd’s work there was space, invention, poetry, a restrained and effective use of the romantic, surprises always in the forms, new and imaginative use of structural parts, rooms, windows, and materials. He has a gift for involvement in many-leveled lives, for the variations, caprices, and nuances necessary to the human spirit. Every stone, every roof-tile, every window, every texture or material was designed for the consistent development of his building, its environment, and designed to elevate the quality of people’s lives. Uniformity and monotony kill individuality, dull the senses. Lloyd designed his work to reinforce individuality with poetry, beauty, and integrity. It was planned to create a more beautiful and satisfying human environment. Architecture as poetry. … By contrast, the commonplace, shoddy, temporary movie-set houses around him were painful to see. He called them ‘cracker boxes,’ shabby, thin, motel-type homes for robots.

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The Wright pride. Yes, pride in quality. He supervises his buildings, takes care of every detail: searches for masons who care about stonework, painters who can paint, metalworkers who are skillful. Today, in an age of amateurs, this is a most difficult achievement.

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His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. He speaks out boldly, as Varèse did. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable. Beauty and integrity. And for them one has to be willing to make sacrifices.

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This architect never falls off the high standards, the heights he established for himself. The mediocre and the deformed sprout around him, like weeds, ugly buildings which do not endure and which look shabby after a few months. He is offended, but he does not surrender. He finds it “futile, offensive, and all-pervasive, but not inevitable.

In one of her visits, Nin has a chance to look through Wright’s notes and comments on architecture, where she finds the following telling micro-manifesto:

I am concerned with our natural environment, how we can discover and utilize form, and perfect the endlessly varied, stimulating and beautiful services it provides for mankind. It is the architect’s opportunity and responsibility to understand and practice the art of creating with and out of them a suitable environment for mankind—advancing the art with every conceivable means, including, among others, poetic license and poetic prescience. And now, after billions of years of experience and preconditioning on this earth (from the development of the first one-celled amoeba to our present human complex) we have no valid excuse for not performing superbly.

Image adapted from Jason Rzucidlo

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