Sunday, July 3, 2022

St. Louis May Have A Second Frank Lloyd Museum

The recent announcement about plans to turn the second Frank Lloyd Wright house in St. Louis into a museum was a good reason to reflect on the impact of this famous architect over the past 100 years. Wright’s influence on the built environment is obvious to those who are familiar with his work. However, it is less apparent to those who don’t know as much about his innovative design. His flaws are often overlooked by his fans, so it is important to note that Wright is not a model for young architects. His influence in St. Louis extends far beyond the current house museum, the Frank Lloyd Wright House, in Ebsworth Park, and the proposed second house museum in the Pappas Residence, in Town and Country.

Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867. He went on to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before moving to Chicago. Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, and St. Louis’ Wainwright Building were both there. They changed architecture forever. Adler and Sullivan would provide three structures for St. Louis: a mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery; the newly renovated Hotel St. Louis within the Union Trust; and the Wainwright. Some rumors suggest that Wright was involved in the design of some of the groundbreaking designs in terra-cotta on the sides of the new skyscrapers.

However, his employment with Adler & Sullivan was not to last. His employers discovered that he had been doing side jobs without their permission. In 1893, he set out on his own and built a studio in Oak Park. He established what would become the Prairie School. This was a result of his Midwestern roots. Prairie School houses had a more modern profile and emphasized horizontal lines with lower-pitched roofs. They sought to create a new way of living by rejecting the Victorian Period’s small rooms and favoring wide, open floor plans. As I look at the Tower Grove four-square homes, I think of Wright when I see the walls being removed from the kitchen and dining room. Oak Park has many examples of Prairie style within walking distance of Wright’s studio.

He left his wife and children and, after a working trip to Europe in 1909, returned to Wisconsin, establishing Taliesin, which would become the archetypal live-work-educational space copied (usually unsuccessfully) by countless others. An employee murdered Mamah Borthwick and her children, ending Wright’s time at Taliesin. Wright was left behind and he went to the West Coast where he received the commission for the Imperial Hotel Tokyo.

His design is extraordinary, especially because it’s the first time that a non-Western client has commissioned a Western architect for major buildings. Wright returned to Taliesin after this triumph was overshadowed by failed projects.

The Johnson campus is not a tall Gothic Revival skyscraper or Chicago School tower that dominates a street in the central business district. Instead, it sits amongst gardens and has buildings of different heights and profiles. Wright was determined to control every aspect of his designs and also designed the furniture for the offices, like many other famous architects.

His extraordinary ability to blend architecture and the natural world was demonstrated in Fallingwater’s 1937 completion. The house is situated on the banks of a stream that runs through the forest. This gives the impression that it has been organically grown from the bedrock that was originally intended by nature. Wright used Fallingwater as an example of how the natural and human world can coexist peacefully, unlike Western architecture, which tries to manipulate its environment.

Fallingwater was constructed for a wealthy patron. Wright countered criticisms of elitism by creating Usonian houses, which were designed for the middle classes. These houses are the most relevant to St. Louis because they both date from the same era and offer some of Wright’s most “teachable moments” in contrast to modern-day houses that have ballooned into incomprehensible sizes. The Usonian house was designed for compact living and shared space. It had small bedrooms which encouraged family members to move into the communal living areas. The Stanley Rosenbaum House clearly illustrates this principle. It was built in the era when cantilevered corners, and other modern design elements that Wright had used for decades, were mainstream.

Although I enjoy Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, I think his followers sometimes overstate the profundity of his ideas. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website lists several precepts that he used in his architecture. They are designed for democracy, integrity, connection, and nature’s principles, and structures. You’ll find a democratized design for the common man walking the streets of Dutchtown. Read the treatises by Vitruvius and Alberti to see arguments for better design to help people. Look to Eastern philosophy to find examples of harmonious built environments that are in harmony with the natural world. Many of the current architects’ mediocrity is rooted in mislearned lessons from Usonian architecture. Wright’s style can be beautiful when it is done well. However, it is a disaster when it is handed to less skilled people.

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