FLW Still Provocative After All These Years

Event: Frank Lloyd Wright in the 21st Century: Being Versus Seeming?
Location: Columbia University, 04.13.09
Speakers: Michael Maltzan, FAIA — Principal, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Los Angeles; Shohei Shigematsu — Partner, OMA*AMO, New York; Marion Weiss, AIA — Partner, Weiss/Manfredi, New York
Moderator: Kenneth Frampton — Ware Professor of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), Columbia University
Organizers: GSAPP in collaboration with David Van Der Leer, Assistant Curator, Architecture & Design, The Guggenheim Museum, in conjunction with the upcoming exhibit “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward”

MoMA Queens by Michael Maltzan Architecture

Christian Richters

Frank Lloyd Wright gets the wrong kind of press and plenty of it. Whenever today’s architects get caught up in the dreaded star system, they can thank Wright (or curse him) for inventing the “starchitect” role. Wright did for American architecture what Mark Twain did for American literature: he brought the field to mass attention by attaching it to a larger-than-life public persona. This hasn’t always advanced his professional legacy. It’s been easy for the legends, the pronouncements, the flamboyance, the 1914 arson and murders at Taliesin, and so forth to overshadow the actual work.

As Marion Weiss, AIA, of Weiss/Manfredi, observed, a large-format photo of Fallingwater — reasserting the centrality of landscape and site-specific features in 1938, while European theorists were moving in the opposite direction — can be the first architectural image an American born in the 20th century recognizes. Despite his massive popular presence, or because of it, much of architectural academia keeps him at a distance. “When I was in school,” Michael Maltzan, FAIA, of Michael Maltzan Architecture, recalled, “you were not allowed to look at Wright,” as if all the pop-culture exposure had somehow contaminated him. (Maltzan studied him in secret.) Shohei Shigematsu, partner at OMA*AMO, noted the relative shortage of scholarly attention paid to Wright compared with theoretical rival Le Corbusier, suggesting Wright’s concentration on private homes (474 residential projects out of his built total of 532) among the possible reasons, but also noting a stylistic adaptability bordering on opportunism and observing that “Wright’s… vision was so open that it somehow spawned someone like Venturi, who said ‘vision sucks.'”

The agrarianism and anti-urbanism of Broadacre City have not aged well in the era of exurban sprawl, but the panelists find that other aspects of Wright’s vision prove durable. His ability to choreograph a linear experience strikes Maltzan as a strong model for his own firm’s movement-oriented projects like the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary quarters in Queens. Wright focused attention on the relation between democratic political models and various spatial models, and his vertical projects demonstrate a knack for inverting spaces so that urban conditions appear in the interior, a paradox that Kenneth Frampton later noted in Wright’s “introverted” public buildings adapting a courtyard-house typology.

Weiss observed how Wright “intensifies what’s already there” in a site’s topography and materials; this conceptual strategy informs several recent Weiss/Manfredi projects regardless of their formal dissimilarities to the Prairie Style. Shigematsu called attention to outlier projects in Wright’s canon that hint at under-recognized concerns, such as the Guggenheim’s implicit subversion of New York’s zoning-driven setbacks, a convention that OMA’s new 23 E. 22nd St. project also sports. Wright’s provocations have stimulated the work of the firms represented here, though they seldom replicate his signature geometries.

Wright’s public prominence is peaking again, thanks to the Guggenheim’s forthcoming 50th anniversary exhibition “From Within Outward” as well as the latest biographical narratives (T.C. Boyle’s new novel The Women (Viking, 2009), and Richard Nelson’s 2007 play Frank’s Home). This panel suggested that Wright can raise unexpectedly tricky questions and carefully avoided the assumption that substantive answers appear easily. Toward the conclusion, Frampton offered another context where Wright has fresh relevance: if the concept of sustainability is taken in its broad cultural and ethical senses, Wright’s “response to specific climate and site conditions… resists the seduction of the global,” and his legacy of a hypothetical suburbanism (contrasting, Weiss noted, with the “complex and contradictory framework” of the very different America built in the post-Wright era) remains near the core of the unresolved question of what a sustainable national architecture might be.