Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

 

The Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, NYC (1959)

 

What a wonder it is, sitting there so apparently out of sync with its neighboring buildings. Instead, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum seems to reach out toward the great park across the avenue. Critics sometimes lament the museum’s apparent disconnect with its context. Yet, others – I among them – rejoice at that discontinuity, given its so many linear, box-like surrounding buildings. When commissioned to add a companion tower adjacent to Wright’s spiral masterpiece, rather than compete with it, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates produced an astute counterpoint in a large rectangular structure with a neutral limestone facade. The tower beautifully keeps our focus on the lyrical curving form of the original museum, as well as expresses continuity with nearby buildings.

Like many, I find when visiting this building a remarkable refreshment of spirit, and experience within it an enhanced sense of life. For the museum provides a context fitting our inclination toward what is spiritual, not merely to what is material. As with the earlier precedents of Wright’s Unity Temple, Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax headquarters, Racine, it surely has to do with Wright’s attention to natural illumination from skylights. Whether or not one walks from the top level down at the Guggenheim, as Wright envisioned, or from the ground level up, the visitor’s eyes are drawn up within the swirling interior space to the light above, gracing the whole through the great oculus of the circular skylight.

An evident facet of this highly sculptural building stems from its late 1950’s time of construction – how the exterior walls of the concrete spiral ramps reveal a degree of unevenness in their outward surfaces (top photo). This was and is a humanly made building, reflecting our highest aspirations in terms of design while also some of the limits of our historic craftwork with materials.

Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is appropriately ranked among examples of world-class architecture. Both lauded and criticized at the time of its opening, it has taken decades to be matched by the work of another master of the medium, Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. Like Wright, he could envision and then design structures exploring the plasticity of modern materials and building methods. It is well to recall that Wright was in his 70’s when he began to create the plan for the Guggenheim (in 1943), and near his 92nd birthday when it was completed in 1959, delayed by the postwar recession.

Guggenheim Museum, Interior View (note the red Calder mobile)

Paul Horgan, while reflecting on the buildings of John Gaw Meem, offered words I find so fitting to Wright’s achievement on Fifth Avenue. “As one of the only great arts to offer physical shelter not only to [our] works but also to [our] spirit, architecture can convey directly the sense of an enclosing confirmation of [our human] desire to believe in a sustaining power beyond [ourselves].” With the Guggenheim, Wright not only achieved a magnificent context for the display of art, but also created what has become “a temple for the human spirit” (a phrase used in the terms of his commission).

This building does not stand alone. An amazing aspect of Wright’s architectural career is not only that he had the visionary imagination to conceive of so many remarkable structures, the audacity to commend them to potential clients, and the providential support for his proposals from so many well-funded benefactors.

With the Guggenheim, beauty ‘incarnate’ is embodied in construction materials and in a form that transcends what we typically expect now in architecture. Here we encounter a building that nurtures aspiration for what may be next in life. It may even prompt an unexpected experience of hope and joy for what it means to be human.

 

The Beauty of The Sagrada Familia

Interior view of Antonio Gaudi’s The Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain

 

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) designed the now famous basilica of The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, to which he gave himself fully for the last 43 yeas of his life. The basilica remains unfinished. Although we most often associate structures like gothic cathedrals with the 12th through the 14th centuries, Gaudi’s visionary work has assured us that there will be a 21st century future for them.

The genius of Antonio Gaudi’s vision for The Sagrada Familia lies in his wedding of a modern understanding of mathematics with a timeless appreciation for the power of light, color, and the shapes and rhythms of the natural world around us. As much an engineer as a visionary architect, Gaudi shared with Frank Lloyd Wright an intuitive appreciation for how the mathematical and geometrically describable structure of trees, seashells, beehive combs, and other aspects of the natural world could inform the architectural integrity of a building. And, like his medieval predecessors, Gaudi recognized the continuity between what we learn from the Book of Nature and what we learn from the Book of Scripture. How paradoxical it is that one of the most modern cathedral-sized churches in Europe may also be strongly traditional, and historically rooted.

Being aware of the etymology of words often associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright helped me to understand his work and that of Gaudi. Wright used the word ‘organic’ in the title of one  of his influential books. Another word, ‘radical,’ is also often used to describe his apparent departure from traditional architectural design. Yet, here is the curious thing. When we hear the word ‘radical,’ we think a departure from tradition is being signaled. But dictionary definitions of that word alert us to what it really means. Radical means, in one way or another, of the root. Radical therefore means less a departure from tradition than it does a rediscovery or re-appropriation of it.

To speak of Gaudi’s radical vision for The Sagrada Familia can be a way to discover the organic character of its nature-inspired design. For the ‘roots’ of this building lie in Creation, both in terms of the multiplicity of form, and yet also in consistency and uniformity of structure, and in the extensive and subtly evocative use of color – not simply in the windows, but on the columns and walls.

Moved by the visions of St. John, as recorded in Revelation, Gaudi perceived the Church – both as the community of the Body of Christ and also as a physical structure enabling our assembly for liturgy – as having come down from heaven, so that the divine presence would now be tangibly among us. The words of Revelation 21:1-6 appear to have been at the heart of Gaudi’s vision for his new church, which seems to express the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and be an embodiment of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

As at least one observer notes, while diligently preparing the design for The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi shaped a building. In the process, God shaped Gaudi. Te Deum laudamus! May our encounter with the result of Gaudi’s work have the same effect upon us.

Sagrada Familia basilica still under construction in Barcelona.

 

For deeper insight concerning the design and structure of Sagrada Familia, see the video, The Gaudi Code, with this link: { https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3e8sckgWqQ } For a further and deeper exploration of Gaudi and his approach to Sagrada Familia, read The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece, by Gijs van Hensbergen. Also very helpful is the visual guide book, The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: A Temple Converted into a Universal Work of Art.

 

 

The Beauty of the Imperial Hotel

The preserved but relocated lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel (1923)

 

Having grown up in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, with parents attentive to the arts, I remember visiting the Imperial Hotel on several occasions. It was a favorite place for my parents in the 1960’s, to go for dinner and dancing given the fine hotel orchestra. In connection with family visits there, I first became aware of some legendary aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation as an architect, and his penchant for self-promotion. As one wag has said, ‘he was by his own admission the world’s greatest architect!’ And yet, with some artists and architects, pride sometimes reflects aspects of correct perception.

The Imperial Hotel project for Wright came at a particularly fortunate time, following a series of misadventures and personal tragedies. Offered the opportunity to design what would become the second Tokyo Imperial Hotel, replacing the largely wooden original in 1917, Wright embraced the project and designed a building that might provide a hybrid between Eastern and Western aesthetics. Having first visited Japan in 1905, he was becoming known as an emerging connoisseur of Japanese woodblock prints.

Among the features of Wright’s remarkable Imperial Hotel, which continue to evoke interest to this day, were the textured bricks Wright designed to provide pattern and a distinctive character to the exterior and interior surfaces of the building. Through my parents’ friendship with some former hotel staff, I have one of these bricks.

Here is an example:

The most notable feature of the hotel was Wright’s ingenious response to the challenge of designing a large project in an area quite vulnerable to earthquakes. With more than 60′ of spongy material between the ground surface, and any subterranean rock upon which to anchor a foundation, in a city adjacent to a large bay and the sea, Wright settled upon a unique solution. Just as an experienced restaurant waiter might carry a selection of plates and dishes upon a large tray, Wright proposed to ‘float’ his hotel upon a huge concrete slab. Astonishingly, on the very day of its opening, September 1, 1923, the great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo, destroying much of the city, accompanied by extensive fires. Wright’s hotel survived largely intact, establishing the genius of his design, and his providential provision of large water features around the property helped not only to save the hotel, but other buildings in the area.

Here is an early, color-retouched, view of the site:

Sadly, Wright’s Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1968. This amazing structure had withstood the Kanto earthquake as well as the later fire-bombing of Tokyo in World War II. Despite its incredible beauty and innovative engineering, it could not compete with hotels built to more modern standards of efficient design and construction, with its by-then antiquated plumbing and electrical infrastructure, as well as its dated room sizes and land-use configuration. Here is a view of the interior of the original lobby area. Walking through this space as a child was nothing short of inspiring:

And here is a view of the original lounge bar, preserved within the later Imperial Hotel as I remembering seeing it about 20 years ago:

Very happily, the entrance court and lobby of the hotel, as depicted in the upper photo, was preserved and rebuilt at the Meiji Mura Architectural Museum, in Nagoya, Japan. I hope some day once again to visit what remains of this beloved building.

 

Note: in my view, one of Lego’s finest architectural reproduction kits is that of FL Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel entrance and lobby. I enjoyed assembling it helped by my Lego-savvy grandson, James, using a set involving about 1,000 plastic bricks remarkably similar to those Frank Lloyd Wright designed about 100 years ago.  {PS – bought the kit, used status, on ebay / no commercial connection implied here}

A Canopy of Light

 

 

In his visually stunning documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, a Welsh architect named Jonathan Adams visits some of Wright’s finest buildings. Upon entering the ‘great workroom’ of the S C Johnson (Wax) Company headquarters building, he gives voice to what is surely a very common response to that amazing space – ‘this may be the most beautiful room in America.’

Among the several features of this sublime interior that evoke praise are the lithe columns supporting the large expanse of pyrex glass tubing, the warmly colored horizontal flow of the brick balconies and walkways, and the architect’s complementary attention to the color of the furniture and carpeting, the originals of which were all designed by Wright. As we see in so many of his buildings, ‘Cherokee’ (or iron oxide) red as well as limestone-reminiscent cream and ochre are primary features of his color palette.

Wright had in mind the vertical strength of tree trunks when designing the columns, and the large disc shaped platforms at their top combine to suggest a canopy of trees between which filtered daylight descends. At the same time, he also spoke of the columns as being like lily pads rising to the surface of a pond, to receive the nourishing light above. Although both of these metaphorical references seem apt to me, the interior of this expansive space is evocative of the great gothic medieval cathedrals and their clerestory windows, especially in connection with Wright’s profound sensitivity to the power of natural light. The priority he gave to natural light, as well as to its spiritual significance, is evident in his design for one of his earliest public buildings, Unity Temple, in Oak Park, Illinois. How wonderful it is that Wright can help us celebrate the experientially redemptive abundance of light, even on a dark winter day.

In a prior blog post I referred to how our engagement with the appearance of, and the spaces within, a building can have the effect of uplifting our souls and of enlarging our view of the world. By this, I was reflecting on how encountering great works of architecture can enrich our sense of community, as well as our regard for the pursuit of beauty, goodness, truth and other recognized virtues. Primary among these is joy.

Our contemporary sense of the word joy is often limited to a feeling that happens to us. But, as Thomas Aquinas is remembered to have observed long ago, “joy is the noblest human act.” Yes, we can feel joy. But we can also rejoice at the presence of sublime beauty, whether divinely created or humanly made. As a prayer to God for the newly baptized puts it, “Give them… the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Virtues like beauty and goodness can also be described as ‘natural authorities.’ This is because they help make our responses to these qualities in things and people, and our subsequent actions, intelligible. For example, we enter and behold a profoundly beautiful space like the ‘great workroom’ at the Johnson Wax building. Our encounter with its beauty ‘authorizes’ or makes intelligible our response to it as we experience and express joy and wonder. Our encounter with this beauty can also prompt an appreciative regard for how our lives in community can be enhanced. Here, the experience of human-created beauty evokes our joyful apprehension of the beauty of our Creator, and of our Creator’s handiwork all around us as well as within us. Most appropriately, we rejoice at what we behold.

 

Notes: The SC Johnson company headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin (1936-39), is typically referred to by its original common designation, the Johnson Wax building and tower. The company welcomes visitors and offers tours. The F.L. Wright-designed furniture that is seen on these tours was manufactured by the Steelcase company in Grand Rapids, MI. Wright’s Unity Temple dates back to 1905-08 and is still in use for congregational worship today. The prayer for the newly baptized is found on p. 308 of The Book of Common Prayer. Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order, is the source for my use of the concept of ‘natural authorities.’

The Beauty of ‘Wright’

Exterior and plan of the Lykes house in Phoenix

Before my conversion to following a greater ‘master,’ I have been devoted since at least 8th grade to the alluring architectural vision expressed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright’s buildings, drawings, and writings, I have found a compelling, nature-shaped understanding of how we might best engage the challenge of inhabiting this world. As expressed by Wright, flourishing as a human being means consciously living in accord with the order and beauty of what believers refer to as Creation. In connection with this vision, FLW may have been the first to use the phrase, ‘an organic architecture.’

Exterior and interior of David Wright house, also in Phoenix

An old adage reminds us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and imitate Wright I did. In my desire to become an architect through the traditional route of apprenticeship leading to licensing, I began developing basic drafting skills in junior high and designing house after house. All the while, Wright’s life and work became my principal reference point. Just as many of my schoolmates memorized the career statistics of favorite baseball or football players, I could quote a parallel set of statistics related to Wright’s major projects, such as the height, diameter and weight-bearing capacity of the columns in his internationally recognized Johnson Wax building in Racine. Perhaps it was the influence of having visited his Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while growing up in Japan, as well as having a compatible aesthetic temperament. Yet, whatever the source, from my earliest appreciation for Wright’s buildings to this day, I have simply loved his architectural work. To me, Wright’s vision almost always seems ‘right.’

I state this fully aware of the perceived and actual shortcomings of many of ‘the master’s’ most well-known buildings. A favorite story is attributed to Mr. S.C. Johnson, owner of the company building mentioned above as well as of a stunning large estate home designed for him by Wright, “Wingspread.” Apparently, at a dinner hosted by Johnson for several distinguished guests, the roof over the dining room began to leak (a notorious feature of some of Wright’s structures), causing a drip onto the host’s head. Johnson is remembered for having telephoned the architect at that moment, complaining about the leak. Wright responded by saying, “well, Sam, move your chair!”

The realization of Wright’s stunning architectural vision, expressed in such things as curved walls, daring roof lines, and dramatically extended cantilevered terraces, often relied upon the patronage and funding provided by wealthy clients. Throughout history, great artists have depended upon the same. But we should not overlook Wright’s committed pursuit of the opportunity to design and build beautiful-yet-affordable homes for clients with ‘ordinary’ incomes (e.g., the “Usonian” houses). Not only do we find many of these homes preserved and valued in our communities, but the design principles evident within them have influenced countless examples of contractor-designed homes of lesser architectural interest.

The pursuit of human flourishing within the beauty and order of God’s Creation is a wonderful thing to behold. As Irenaeus put it centuries ago, ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive.’ And the human person is most fully alive when flourishing within the beauty of God’s handiwork, and within our creative tributes to it.