American Impressions, Chapter 6: Wisconsin
Frank Lloyd Wright's Failure
Driving into Lakeland for the first time four years ago, I noticed that the green highway sign on I-4 advertising “Frank Lloyd Wright architecture” at Florida Southern College was in quote marks, as if the Department of Transportation found architecture—or Wright—peculiar. No quote marks appeared anywhere near Disney or Universal Studios, or anywhere else on Interstate-4 for that matter.
But the highway stylists had it right, even if unintentionally. Architecture is everywhere around us, and everywhere a fringe curiosity. People don’t rush out to see the latest downtown atrium or stroll the prefab sites of the subdivision that cropped up where meadows had moored the moos of cows only a month before.
Despite having architect Thomas Jefferson for a foundation, we’re not the sort of nation that would, as France did in the last two decades, ante up $6 billion in taxpayer money to decorate the capital city with arches and pyramids. ( Washington’s ongoing, $10 billion program to build or renovate 110 federal courthouses across the nation is driven by function and security). To rise above the indifference here an architect must either have the patronage of a corporation’s wealth or muster the sort of ego that can bully mountains.
Wright had ego. “He lived from first to last like a God,” the architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote, “one who acts but is not acted upon.” He considered architecture the greatest art, his “truth against the world,” but no less than Walt Whitman considered poetry the greatest art or your neighborhood electrician considers perfect wiring the greatest art. The difference is that when Wright set out to change the world with architecture, his ideas played a great role in changing the look of the American landscape down to the sort of highway along which I saw his name in quote marks.
At the time all I knew about Wright was his reputation. I couldn’t have told the difference between a ranch house of his design and one built by, say, Paradise Homes of Polk County, or known that Wright’s influence was such that the similarities between the two are greater than the differences. I didn’t bother visiting his dozen buildings at Florida Southern College until I had to interview someone there a month or two after settling in Lakeland. But something happened as soon as I arrived on campus. I didn’t want to go to that interview anymore. I just wanted to walk around. It was unlike any place I’d known, half rustic, half Star Trek, a confusion of land and buildings that looked almost perfectly ordered, although some buildings didn’t mesh.
I don’t mean to sound like Paul being knocked off his donkey by a heavenly revelation. Architecture still meant nothing to me, although my first few weeks in Florida had so submerged me in flatness and the visual stutter of strip-mall after strip-mall that any half-brained variation in the landscape would have produced a welcome shock. Florida Southern was more than half-brained. I retreated there often after that first visit, gradually discovering that it was both a small treasure and a ruin. Wright’s buildings were standing up to the test of time poorly, and the seemingly dissonant, newer designs of a growing college had altered Wright’s vision for the place quite radically. It explains to some extent why Florida Southern is rarely referred to when the more than 1,000 designs by Wright (half of which were built) are discussed. But it is the only planned community that Wright pulled off, and it holds more clues to Wright’s legacy than scholars allow.
I wanted to trace my growing admiration of Wright back to his origins in his native Wisconsin. And it was there, at Taliesin ( Tally EH sin) near Spring Green, his home and workshop for half a century, that I had something like a revelation—that I finally “got” Wright. The pleasure I’d first known walking around Florida Southern was multiplied tenfold even though I wasn’t escaping plain surroundings. The Wisconsin landscape of rolling hills and breezy colors is a natural elixir. But it’s also there that I discovered why Wright’s ideals are more impressive than his constructions—or rather, the consequence of his constructions. Why, for instance, it is impossible to understand Wright at Florida Southern, and why Philip Johnson, mean as he was, may have had a point when he called Wright “the greatest architect of the 19 th century.” For all of Wright’s genius, his originality, his pragmatism—he never knew an obstacle he couldn’t conquer—he consistently forgot that he was not, in fact, God, or that the paradise at Taliesin, like America, had boundaries.
Taliesin is a utopia, so it would be redundant to call it perfect. It is a 37,000- square-foot house built, as its Welsh name implies, like a “shining brow” along the side of a hill. The house follows natural contours instead of obliterating them, stretching an arm here, an addition there, a cantilevered balcony between the trees so Wright’s mistress, for whom he built the place, could walk out from her bedroom and be close to the birds. From the design of a small lamp to the intimacy of hidden nooks in the living quarters to the quiet immensity of a house crafted out of yellow limestone that was quarried almost in the neighborhood, every detail is a fresh idea, and every idea is Wright’s.
The land around Taliesin is today as Wright saw it a century ago, as it was when it belonged to his Welsh ancestors. The fact that Taliesin is only one of five structures Wright designed on the 600-acre estate, none of them changing the land so much as agreeing to it, reinforces Wright’s submission to Nature, a word he always capitalized. It is as if the buildings have always been among the hills—the farm, the Hillside Home School, the Romeo and Juliet Windmill, the house he built for his sister. “We’ve lost the sense that architecture should be serene, and these buildings are quintessentially serene,” the Taliesin Preservation Commission’s Beth Mylander said as she took me around the place.
Taliesin was a community as Wright envisioned it, self-sufficient, educational to all who lived there, especially the young men who attended the Taliesin Fellowship, a cultish-like architecture school Wright founded in 1932. (It still exists, without the cult, dividing its time between Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West, in Arizona, where Wright spent his winters.) Taliesin also displays Wright’s mastery of every form, of buildings large and small, commercial, private, communal, intimate, secular or spiritual. It is a synopsis of his huge output, and proof, as he claimed, that “I can build everything from a chicken coop to a cathedral. And everything will be beautiful.”
During Wright’s long life (1867-1959) there were the fires, the scandals, the women, the money-grubbing and the bankruptcies, his savage contempt of people (the “mobocracy”), his self-promotion and his knack for half-lies. He wrote his autobiography in the fibbing tradition (minus the gloom) of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “ConfessionsÓ and wrote everything else in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hazy transcendentalism: a guru’s words that sound as beautiful as they are meaningless. To this day I don’t know what he meant by “organic” architecture, nor, I think, did he. (“Now, organic building, organic character, these are words which a mobocracy perhaps would have difficulty understanding,” Mike Wallace told him during the second of their two famous interviews in the 1950s. “Well,” Wright replied, “let’s say ‘natural,’ does that suit you better?”) But Wright’s outrageous personality and rhapsodic writings are relevant to his legacy only in so far as they continue to tickle our lust for celebrity weirdos. They add little to the meaning of his architecture or its consequences. We take those consequences for granted today, as if they evolved by coincidence or necessity. But design had a lot to do with it, and Wright had a lot to do with that design. “If I had another 15 years to work, I could rebuild this entire country, I could change the nation,” Wright told Wallace. He didn’t know that his ideas had already changed the nation, that they were changing its landscape. Not, as he had hoped, for the better.
Hard to imagine that there is a connection between the beauty and harmony of Taliesin and, to use Jane Jacobs’ words, “the Great Blight of Dullness” of your average suburban subdivision. But there is a direct line from Wright to Abraham Levitt’s Levittowns to suburban sprawl. “Although Wright disdained the Levitt houses as trash,” suburbia historian Barbara Kelly wrote in 1992, “Levitt was fond of pointing out that he had been able to produce the low-cost houses that Wright had only theorized.”
Wright’s achievement was precisely this: in imagining the ranch house—affordable, inviting, elegant—he democratized housing the way no architect before him had condescended to do. He could not have imagined it without also imagining the limitlessness of American land. During Wright’s lifetime America felt limitless. Only the city (to Wright “a place for banking and prostitution and very little else”) felt cramped. With endless land, fast cars, which Wright loved, and the cheap highways of Eisenhower’s interstate system, which Wright applauded, the ranch house was a city-busting idea looking for a setting. The suburb, the new frontier, would be it.
Taliesin, of course, is not a ranch house. It’s not any kind of house. It’s an idea that itself sprawls on a hill, a construction that evolved over many decades with less planning than whimsy, although it was the whimsy of a genius who could do no wrong on his own planet. But Taliesin was his inspiration, the utopia his restless social conscience wished for every American. He imagined all America a Taliesin, a beautiful empty land that could be harmonized with architecturally correct dwellings. That was what his planned community of Broadacre City was all about, a decentralized rural idyll with no cities or towns but houses, factories and schools integrated with the land where necessity required and the “county architect” allowed. Like Taliesin, Broadacre-like cities would be islands of self-sufficiency connected by highways and speed.
Wright never built Broadacre. But look around. We live in a land of suburbs connected by highways, of self-contained but not self-sufficient communities that have turned their backs on cities. Wright’s vision had not been wrong. It had simply neglected some details: He would not be around to regulate the architecture his ideas anticipated. And Wright architecture, like Wright the man, could not mesh with any other. At Taliesin, where the architecture is preserved like an Eden, it remains perfect. In any other place where it must step out of its garden, it carries its own failing.
Which brings us back to Florida Southern.
It is so difficult to “get” Wright there because it is no longer the place he designed. It has been overbuilt, as the college has a limited space to contain its needs. So it is impossible to experience Wright’s space at Florida Southern the way it is possible to experience it at Taliesin. The space can only be tasted.
When the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy held one of its meetings there a couple of years ago, I toured the place with that small group of Wright fans, half of them architecture buffs, the other half buff with Ph.d.’s , and joined the synchronized head-shaking every time we came across alterations such as air-conditioning ducts, an insolent nail in the wall, the earth-tone stonework painted white or the newer buildings planted anywhere land permitted. We were all very haughty and very mistaken, each one of us pulling a good imitation of Wright, who believed that altering his buildings was a crime against Nature.
But the college has done only what it needed to do. It could not afford to be shackled by Wright’s autocratic vision. The irony that Florida Southern points to is that while Wright was big on creating buildings that breathed with nature, that “let the outside in,” he was incapable of creating buildings that played well with other architects’ buildings. His city buildings were creations of contrast, such as his desire to “siphon off the energy of New York” with his Guggenheim Museum, which spirals gleefully amidst Fifth Avenue’s grid of right angles. If he was willing enough to create intentional contrasts with existing structures, it was implicit that designs subsequent to his could not fit in. So any growth not of his design at Florida Southern would necessarily ruin his intentions. In effect, Wright made sure that Florida Southern would never be a treasure so much as a sprawl of what-might-have-been. It is not the college’s fault.
The same failure applies to Wright’s architectural vision for the country in general. He didn’t cause suburban sprawl as much as he foresaw America’s turn away from the cities, and tried to address it. America would have been the perfect place had it been peopled by Wright-thinking citizens and had land enough for millions of Taliesins.
As it is, the nation has adopted what it found most utilitarian in the Wright canon, and instead of Broadacre City, has created Broadacre America. The ranch house with its carport up front and a Walden Pond in every back yard has devoured the landscape in a way Wright never imagined, because from vantage points like Wisconsin’s or Arizona’s he could never imagine that land was a limited commodity. Land has disappeared so quickly that the box-like, upwardly gobbling Colonial house Wright despised is back in style. But Wright’s failure makes him the quintessential American, a visionary only insofar as the present is the only moment that matters. He saw possibilities, not obstacles.
WISCONSIN IN BRIEF
Total area: 65,499 sq. mi. (rank: 22).
Population (1997): 5,169,677 (rank: 18).
Economy: Services, manufacturing, trade, tourism.
Motto and nickname: Forward; Badger State.
Entered union: May 29, 1848.
Notable fact: Historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated thesis, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in which Turner declared the Western frontier “gone,” was first presented at a meeting of the American Historical Society at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1893 just as Frank Lloyd Wright was developing his philosophy of prairie architecture designed for the open frontier.
The state in quotes: “Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird served us so wonderful,” wrote John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and a Wisconsin resident, in 1899, when the last passenger pigeon was shot from the Wisconsin sky. The central part of Wisconsin had numbered 136 million such pigeons in 1871. A monument to the passenger pigeon is located in Wyalusing State Park in Grant County.
Books: The quickest and most enter- taining route to Frank Lloyd Wright’s own eclectic views on everything from raising buildings to raising children is found in “Frank Lloyd Wright: His Living Voice” (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, 1987), 207 pp., $25.95. The price includes two audio tapes of Wright speaking to his students.
Two relatively recent, comprehensive biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright are Brendan Gill’s “Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright” (DaCapo Press, 1987), 544 pp., $17.95, and Meryle Secrest’s “Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography” ( Chicago, 1992), 634 pp., $20. But be warned: Gill’s book is an unadmiring settling of accounts (Gill was The New Yorker’s architecture critic), and Secrest’s focuses on Wright’s soap-operatic life at the expense of his works.
Video: Ken Burns’ “Frank Lloyd Wright,” a three-hour documentary, is available on video for $29.98 from shop.pbs.org or by contacting your local public television station.
* Taliesin East ( Wisconsin): www.TaliesinPreservation.org
* Taliesin West ( Arizona): www.buildamerica.com/old97/2-24-97/wkshow.htm
* Broadacre All-Wright Site and guide to many Wright pages: www.geocities.com/SoHo/1469/flw.html
Wisconsin tourism: www.tourism.state.wi.us
* State of Wisconsin: www.state.wi.us