Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

15 AUGUST, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Feisty Critique of Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Education, and the NYC Skyline

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“Taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.”

Frank Lloyd Wright may be one of history’s greatest architects, but he was also a source of endlessly quotable wit, timeless wisdom on education, and a lesser-known but exceptionally talented graphic artist. Above all, however, he was man of invariably strong opinions, always unapologetic in his convictions and unafraid to challenge even the most sacrosanct of dogmas.

In Conversations with Artists (public library) — writer and public intellectual Selden Rodman’s fantastic 1957 anthology, which also gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality shortly before the artist’s death — Wright unleashes the full force of his opinionation on some of his architectural elite peers, the disconnect between education and culture, and the trouble with the Manhattan skyline.

When asked about his opinion of Le Corbusier’s epoch-making church on the French-Swiss border, Wright scoffs:

An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?

Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House gets the even shorter end of the stick:

Is it Philip? … And is it architecture?

He later elaborates on his contempt:

Philip Johnson is a highbrow. A highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity. His house is a box of glass — not shelter. The meaning of the word shelter includes privacy.

When Rodman admires a Chinese silk painting in Wright’s home, the architect offers, “almost apologetically,” a disclaimer shared by those who have found their purpose and attained fulfilling work:

It looks as though we live pretty soft here, doesn’t it? We don’t. You’d be surprised at the amount of work that goes on… It’s never work though, is it, when you’re doing anything organic?

Rodman visits with Wright again some weeks later and finds him, at the time in his late eighties, “very handsome,” dressed in a “pink shirt with a white collar and a striped tie, knotted at the throat, leaving the ends folded back artist-fashion fin de siècle.” The architect is in an especially feisty mood that day. His first target is Gotham’s skyline:

The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity. … Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.

He takes the same sword to the institutions of formal education, for which he famously eviscerated throughout his life:

The universities are medieval antiquities, too. They’ll never get culture through education. … The common man will never get it. He is the enemy of culture. Culture is made for him — but in spite of him, because he believes only what he sees, and he sees only what he can put his hands on. We’ve missed culture somewhere along the way.

On a subsequent visit, Rodman finds Wright in a much more amenable mood, possibly due to the company of a lady he was having tea with — and no average lady but the revered critic and champion of art Emily Genauer. Rodman, tickled by Wright’s good humor, decides to ask him whether there was any truth to the legend that he once absentmindedly went to see a client in his pajama bottoms. The answer bespeaks both the artifice of pop culture myths and the commanding diva-disposition that only creative geniuses can afford:

Not a word of truth. In the first place, whatever I am, I am always well dressed. In the second place, I don’t go to clients. They come to me.

Wright then returns to the subject of the disconnect between culture and education:

All culture is indigenous, as distinguished from education.

When Rodman asks him how America is to get an indigenous culture if it has failed to do so in two centuries, Wright responds with a beautiful metaphor from botany:

The same way the Dutch developed the delphinium. They started with the larkspur, and kept cultivating the roots until they had something better. They didn’t start from scratch. They were smart enough to start with something humble. Until they knew its nature they weren’t in a position to improve on it. It’s the same with culture. Until this lesson is learned we’ll get nowhere.

When Rodman suggests that perhaps we’re learning it since our taste appears to be improving, Wright retorts:

Taste [isn't] enough … taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.

Frank Lloyd Wright with his model of the Guggenheim Museum (Photo: Associated Press via The New York Times)

The conversation concludes by circling back to New York. In 1943, Wright had been commissioned to design the new building for the city’s legendary Guggenheim Museum. He would die several weeks before the museum’s completion in 1959. Rodman asks him whether he would’ve taken a similar commission had the project been a skyscraper rather than a museum, and Wright responds in the negative with his characteristic clarity of conviction:

It would be immoral to add to the congestion of this already hopeless city. … The only way to save this city is to take buildings out of it, not to put more in, and of course the latter is what they are doing.”

He ends the conversation by citing an entertaining encounter with media mogul Henry Luce, in which he surprised Luce by referring to himself, in contrast to “the old professionals,” as “the oldest amateur.” (Coincidentally, the following year, Wright coined his famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’”)

Conversations with Artists is priceless in its entirety, featuring revealing tête-à-têtes with such creative icons (alas, predominantly male) as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg. Complement it with Anaïs Nin’s lyrical account of meeting Wright’s son.

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16 OCTOBER, 2012

Happy Birthday, Chrysler Building Spire: The Story of an Epic Architectural Rivalry

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How an architect’s private rivalry resulted in one of New York City’s most iconic public images.

The story of New York’s iconic Chrysler Building is the story of one of history’s greatest, most ruthless architectural rivalries — one ultimately resolved when the building’s famous spear was surreptitiously erected to claim victory on October 16, 1929. This excerpt from the PBS documentary New York tells the riveting tale of the epic one-upmanship that precipitated the now-legendary structure:

In the spring of 1929, the race into the skies reached fever pitch when the automobile magnate Walter Chrysler unveiled plans for a massive new skyscraper on the corner of 42nd street and Lexington Avenue, with instruction to the architect, William van Alen, to make it the tallest in the world. Van Alen had scarcely broken ground when his one-time partner and now bitter enemy, H. Craig Severance, set to work on a rival structure eighty block to the south, for the Bank of Manhattan Company on Wall Street, and the race was on. Month after month, the two builders vied for preeminence, each altering his plans again and again in mid-construction to stay ahead of the other. On clear days, workers in each of the two tall towers could track the progress of their rivals four miles away.

[…]

On October 16, 1929, the 185-foot-long spire, assembled in secret in the building’s tower, emerged from its chrome cocoon and was bolted triumphantly into place. The gleaming silvery spike raised the Chrysler Building’s overall height to 1,048 feet, 121 feet taller than its downtown rival.

The Chrysler Building in 1932

Height comparison of buildings in New York City

Images via Wikimedia Commons

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04 OCTOBER, 2012

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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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