THE DEAD MAN OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE PLANS A COMEBACK
Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly. -Oscar Wilde
A history of Fallingwater must begin with Frank Lloyd Wright, because he conceived a house sailing over the waterfall on Bear Run long before E. J. Kaufmann dared contemplate building it. But the Wright of our story is not the bombastic "greatest architect in history" that he became. Rather he is a Depression-era edition, a chastened architect who would draw life from his most famous building fully as much as it drew life from him.
When he died in 1959, still active at the age of ninety-one, Wright was the most famous architect in the world, literally. He had by then been practicing his craft for more than seventy years, during which he completed over four hundred buildings and worked on twice that many projects that were left unbuilt. His career is without parallel in the history of architecture. Painters can finish a thousand times more works than architects because a canvas demands little time and less money. Architects by contrast devote endless amounts of their energy and their clients' dollars to produce a significant body of work.
Because Wright lived so long, we think of his career as unidirectional, always going up. But what is fascinating about the career are not the heights of success but the fallows during which he produced few buildings but incubated the ideas he would use to brilliant effect later. The longest of these droughts stretched from the completion of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1922 to the design of Fallingwater in 1935. Particularly galling to Wright was the second half of the drought, during which he completed just two buildings: a house for his cousin Richard Lloyd Jones in Tulsa in 1929, and another for Malcolm Willey in Minneapolis four years later.
While Wright served as the model for the architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, in the 1930s his difficulties were far greater than those facing his fictional counterpart. Roark had enemies, but he was still young and had fine prospects before him. Not so Wright. By the mid-1930s Wright was nearing seventy (he was born in 1867, although he claimed 1869), and his promise was as spent as his youth. He retained a certain notoriety among architects and laypersons, but that was mainly as an outrageous character who was good for quotes on a slow news day, not as the trailblazer of modern architecture he had been decades earlier.
John Cushman Fistere, writing in the December 1931 Vanity Fair, was typical of the critics who saw Wright as finished:
Nevertheless there are many who believe that Mr. Wright is more genius than architect, and who justify their opinion by pointing to his characteristic idiosyncrasies, and to the still more significant fact that he has designed comparatively few buildings to support his manifold theories. Even his most zealous disciples have difficulty in listing his actual achievements: the Larkin factory, "that hotel in Japan," and the glass and steel apartment house for New York that has never been built. As an architectural theorist, Mr. Wright has no superior; but as an architect he has little to contribute for comparison.*
By the 1930s even many of Wright's admirers were resigned to his disappearance from the central stage of modernism. In 1936 the New York architect Harold Sterner was forced to admit:
In Europe the names of Sullivan and Wright are famous and respected, but both of these men were given relatively few opportunities to practice their genius, and now Sullivan is long since dead and Frank Lloyd Wright [is] approaching the end of his career.
Nothing irked Wright so much as the way historians and critics praised his early work but ignored what he had built later. To the critic Fiske Kimball, who refused to put Wright's recent work in his American Architecture survey, Wright wrote in 1928: "I have been reading my obituaries to a considerable extent over the past year or two, and think, with Mark Twain, the reports of my death greatly exaggerated."
Wright's troubles in the 1920s and 1930s constituted what seemed like a tragic end for the man who thirty years earlier had been acknowledged as the world's leading modern architect. But what did it mean to be "modern" in those early days? The pioneers of modern architecture had not consciously sought to invent a new style any more than the engineers of the twelfth century intended to invent Gothic. Modern and Gothic both started as technical innovations that were later fleshed out into systems of design. Creating the early structural triumphs of modernism was comparatively easy: London's Crystal Palace of 1851 and the thousand-foot-high Eiffel Tower of 1889 in Paris showed architects how to exploit iron and glass. Tempering iron into steel, using steel to reinforce concrete, achieving transparency through glass, applying prefabrication and the interchangeability of parts to architecture-these adjustments to building technology would soon follow, and so, eventually, did a matching aesthetic.
But the core problem of modern architecture was neither technological nor aesthetic; it was how to harness the new materials to create a humane environment. Here lay the special achievements of Wright and his master, Louis Henry Sullivan. Both Wright and Sullivan sought to reconcile the two most influential architecture theorists of the nineteenth century: John Ruskin, with his plea for a sensuous, tactile, emotion-based architecture, and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, with his vision of architecture as structural rationalism. Having dropped out of engineering after two terms at the University of Wisconsin, Wright jump-started his career in 1887 as head draftsman to Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in Chicago. Sullivan's severely rational but richly decorative Wainwright skyscraper of 1890 in St. Louis (with Wright assisting) achieved an ingenious synthesis of the opposing philosophies of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. Sullivan's slightly later Carson Pirie Scott Department Store in Chicago drank more deeply of the richly decorative Art Nouveau, but even there, in contrast to the Europeans, Sullivan insisted on obeying and not subverting the logic of his industrial building components.
In 1892, Wright emerged from Sullivan's shadow and began working on his own. In the first decade of the new century he produced a trio of works so singular that they would have assured him lasting fame had he put up nothing else. The 1903 Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo was a radical restatement of the form and social environment of the office tower; Unity Temple of 1904 in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park marked a no less radical change in the concept of sacred space; while the Frederick Robie house of 1909, in Chicago, is the ancestor (directly, or via Fallingwater) of half the postwar suburban houses in the United States. Wright capped the decade with a stunning publicity triumph in the publication in Germany of two sumptuous portfolios of his buildings and projects, the Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright). Wright always claimed that everything significant in modern architecture had come from him. Allowing for his usual boastfulness, there is no question that Wright's two volumes hit European architecture like a shock wave. As late as the 1920s, Dutch and German architects were still improvising on themes that first came to light in the pages of the Ausgefürhte Bauten.
But then, just as the modern movement began to flex its muscles in Europe, Wright fell into a tailspin at home. In 1909 he entered a radicalized lifestyle and ran off to Europe with a client's wife, then lived openly with her at his beloved Taliesin estate until her death five years later. These scandals not only cut Wright off from potential clients, they brought disorder to his life as an artist. In the 1920s this disorder seemed to seriously affect his artistic focus. His Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and the four Mayan-style homes he built in the twenties in Los Angeles were so decorative and neohistoricist that critics could reasonably ask if Wright was still a modernist at all.
Like many an artist and many a politician of the 1920s, Wright felt squeezed by forces both to his right and to his left. To his right was the post-World War I "return to order" (retour à l'ordre) that gave a severe and conservative cast to a good deal of the art produced in the 1920s. Picasso's post-Cubist work of the 1920s, for example, marked a significant backsliding from his earlier radicalism. This artistic conservatism of the 1920s soon proved part of a wider European shift to political conservatism that culminated in the 1930s in the art and politics of Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism. In the 1920s Europe managed to foster both an artistic left and an artistic right, but America tilted decisively to the right. As more than one scholar has observed, the Great War made European architecture take refuge in the future, while architecture in America took refuge in the past. This swing to architectural conservatism was made obvious in the 1922 competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower. Of 263 entries from twenty-three countries, only those from Europe kept alive the functionalism and minimal decoration that were the hallmarks of the Chicago School in the 1890s. All but a handful of the Americans-neither Wright nor Sullivan entered-wrapped their steel skeletons in the historicist dress of the Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Georgian styles. John Howells and Raymond Hood won the competition with a so-called modern Gothic takeoff on Rouen Cathedral.
Conservative architects (we could equally well call them as traditionalists, academicists, or historicists) would dominate the profession in the United States from the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago right through the early 1950s. The huge new buildings created for Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era Washington, D.C., in the 1930s showed how much power the conservatives still had. The traditionalist John Russell Pope got rich plums like the National Gallery and the Jefferson Memorial, both finished in 1937, the same year as Fallingwater. The new Supreme Court of 1935 presented itself as a Greek temple of such unabashed classicism that except for its electrical wiring it could have carried the date of 1835 or 435 b.c. It staggers the mind that troglodytes like these were contemporaries of Fallingwater.
Certain government buildings had at least a dim awareness of modernism. Washington's Folger Library is a little more lively than the neighboring Supreme Court, but it is no less hostile to the informal planning and ahistorical styling of the modernists. "Classical modern" behemoths such as the Rayburn House Building kept going up even after World War II, and some get built even today if the budget will bear it. Conservatives equally dominated the building of America's churches and colleges until the eve of World War II, though here Gothic rather than Classical style was king. American Gothic is not entirely dead even today, although its last real hurrah was Princeton's Firestone Library, completed in 1946.
Conservative taste held sway even longer in the design of America's houses. William Randolph Hearst kept adding to his castle at San Simeon in California until his cash flow gave out in 1937. The big Newport-style Renaissance palaces never went out of fashion, either, though there was less call for them during the Depression. Traditionalists kept building neo-This and neo-That suburban estates even in the postwar years, and such mansions made a comeback a generation later in the wave called postmodernism. Except for the immediate postwar years, designers of modern homes generally got only scraps from this architectural feast. So secure was traditionalism in the 1920s and 1930s that some municipalities prohibited the construction of homes in the modern style, and banks were notorious in refusing to finance them.
But caution: the traditionalist architects were never the doddering oafs Wright ridiculed in his speeches, nor the fools Ayn Rand made them out to be in The Fountainhead. Many were brilliant designers. Certainly the adjective fits Addison Mizner and his neo-Spanish buildings in Boca Raton and Palm Beach in Florida; Julia Morgan, Hearst's architect at San Simeon; and Philadelphia's George Howe, who was better as an academicist than as the modernist he became after a surprise conversion in the late 1920s.
The traditionalists' agenda overlapped at many points with that of the progressives: a concern for aesthetics, for harmonious use of the building site, solid building materials, good functional layouts, and-for some-linkage with the vernacular tradition. The distinction between the two camps lost some of its sharpness in the interwar years. Real progressives like Wright were blindsided by pseudo-progressives who thought of modernism only in terms of advanced building technology. Certainly they knew as much as Wright about the improved mechanical systems (heating, ventilating, cooling) and the handling of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete.
The leading pseudo-progressive was Wright's friend Raymond Hood, who jumped with ease from style to style. After Hood vaulted to the top of the profession with his suavely Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower, he switched to "modernistic" skyscrapers like the 1931 McGraw-Hill Building in New York. Modernistic was not the severe modern style popularized in the United States in the 1950s by Mies van der Rohe, but a Jazz Age variant of the old classicism that turned up in Miami Beach hotels, in the decorative parts of Rockefeller Center, and in the fantastic spire atop the Chrysler Building. A MoMA architecture guide of 1940 severely admonished its readers that " 'Modernistic' means pseudo-modern, and applies to works which specifically imitated the forms of modern art, reducing them to decorative mannerisms, as in Shoe Shoppes, The Chicago Fair , and, alas, too much of the New York World's Fair ."
The core of the modernistic camp in the United States were the practitioners of the style known today as Art Deco. This group was large but ideologically unfocused, and included such superficial fellow travelers on the road to modernism as Hood and the Chrysler Building's William Van Alen. Today we regard Art Deco buildings like the hotels in Miami Beach as a delight, and it seems a puzzle why MoMA took so snobbish a disdain for the style. The reason is that the Art Deco architects were essentially crowd-pleasers, not designers with the intense drive for originality and philosophic balance that characterized Wright and the other giants of modernism. Certainly, the modernistic designers were not lacking in creativity. The best of the Americans was the Vienna-born Joseph Urban, whose New School for Social Research remains one of the glories of Manhattan. The style ultimately found its most exuberant expression in the "streamlined" cars and radios of the 1930s and in Radio City Music Hall. Wright himself was not immune to its charms, as he showed in the late 1930s in some of the streamlined details in the interiors of his Johnson's Wax Building and at Fallingwater itself.
Just as Gothic ended up in a fantastic variant called Flamboyant, so modernism inevitably gave birth to what journalists of the 1930s loved to call ultramodernism. Wright soon perceived that his major artistic threat came not from the conservatives to his right but from the radical modernists to his left. This should have been predictable, because from the first there had been other varieties of modernism besides the one practiced in Chicago.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fallingwater Rising by Franklin Toker. Copyright © 2003 by Franklin Toker. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.