Frank Lloyd Wright

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.