I came to appreciate Frank Lloyd Wright by a rather roundabout route. Most people take architecture for granted, especially in this country in recent times when the decline in church-going has removed from their awareness the most potent reminder of their architectural heritage.

My enthusiasm stems from the time when I had just become Director of the Conservative Political Centre and was responsible for producing the party’s publications. One of the first pamphlets to appear on my desk was an elegant booklet, full of exquisite drawings and photographs, proposing an overhead monorail for central London. It argued very convincingly that this would solve the traffic congestion problems which then plagued us. Its author was Brian Waters, now a prominent architect in his own right but then still a Cambridge undergraduate.

The Tories adopted it gleefully for the GLC election. A model of it was displayed in Central Office and it helped to win that election in April 1967. Unhappily, this great project went no further after the party arrived in office. I had found a friend, however, and he was a keen admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright. While still a student he had won a scholarship to visit the famous architect’s many buildings in the Chicago area. When I went to dinner with Brian at his home I found that his dining suite was a reproduction of one of Wright’s own designs. Wright insisted on designing in detail not only his buildings but the furniture and everything else that went in them, right down to the napkin rings.

Last Christmas my son gave me the perfect coffee-table book. It is a foot wide and contains fine pictures and diagrams of fifty buildings by America’s greatest architect. It was produced with commentary by Philip Wilkinson. On the front cover is a picture of Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, and thereby hangs quite a tale.

In 1937 Wright was in his sixties; his practice was ailing and the world was saying that he was past it. He was asked by a wealthy client, Edgar Kaufmann, the father of one of his students, to create a sort of weekend country cottage in a woodland area by a waterfall. The idea was to construct a glorified log cabin in the wilds. Wright agreed. Months went by and eventually Kaufmann, his patience running out, rang up to say he was coming over. Wright told him not to worry and that all was complete.

In fact not a line had been drawn. Compelled by the imminent arrival of his client, Wright sat down at his desk with his coloured pencils and designed the whole project in two hours flat. He had the capacity, shared by a few geniuses, like Mozart, of holding all the elements of a vastly complex work in his head at the same time. His design was for a house, mainly made of gleaming white ferro-concrete, perched on a great rock and cantilevered over a waterfall. It was daring and modern and pushed the latest building technology to its limit. At the same time it was to create a stupendous spectacle of truly poetic beauty in a natural setting. Pictures of it, in the depths of winter when the falls were frozen, are positively breathtaking. His reputation immediately recovered and the most fertile and creative stage of his career began. His client, who had expected something quite different, was nevertheless impressed and told him not to change a thing.

Wright’s career spanned an amazing seventy years of creative activity, during which he designed over eleven hundred works, five hundred and thirty-two of which were completed. He also designed furniture, fabrics, art glass, lamps, dinnerware, linen and graphic arts. He was a prolific writer. He wrote twenty books and countless articles. He was also a tireless educator and gave lectures all over America and Europe.

A life immersed in such aesthetics should be enough to secure Wright a place in the history books but there is more. He was an innovator who initiated many techniques which were new and startling in his day but are now accepted features of the modern world. In 1904, in his Larkin building in Buffalo New York, he erected the first office to utilise air-conditioning, double glass windows, all glass doors and metal furniture. One of his most astonishing engineering achievements (he started his professional studies in engineering not architecture) was the vast Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He designed it to withstand earthquakes, which it duly did, surviving unscathed the devastating earthquake of 1923.

Fallingwater, 1939, Pennsylvania

In light of such ground-breaking achievements, it is worth considering Wright’s position in relation to the development of architecture. When he was a young man the industrial revolution had yet to make its impact on the profession. Tradition still ruled, and the controversy that then raged was between the Neo-Gothic and Renaissance schools. There was little overt use of modern materials except in engineering projects like the bridges of Brunel, the single span bridges across the Seine in Paris or the Crystal Palace. Of course, the Victorian builders had to use iron and concrete but they tended to conceal it or smother it under a mass of decoration.

As a youngster Wright was acquainted with the ideas of Ruskin as his mother had given him copies of the latter’s works. These no doubt helped put him in favour of decoration but he was certainly not averse – as Ruskin was – to modern, industrially-produced building materials – quite the reverse. From the leading Chicago architects, Adler and Sullivan, he was introduced to the dictum ‘Form follows function’, which was then rather avant-garde. The firm went on producing Romanesque and other traditional-style buildings, and Wright’s own first house, with its high pitched roofs has a somewhat Tudor look.

Wright never attached himself to any fashionable style. As he matured, the internationalist school came into vogue in which form was all and decoration was scorned. Wright thought this approach was impoverished, arid and bereft of spirit. He called it ‘a new eclecticism’, a commonplace formula which anyone could imitate. Certainly one could argue that the extreme forms of modernism, as found in the constructs of Le Corbusier and his imitators, are positively inhuman. Le Corbusier’s comments that ‘a house is a machine for living in’ and ‘chairs are architectural but sofas are bourgeois’ say much about his dreary attitude to life. The worst products of his school’s influence were the tower blocks which were widely adopted after the Second World War. Wright regarded them as boring and inartistic. They were meant to provide improved habitation for slum-dwellers or poor immigrants. The reality is that most of them became shabby, impersonal dormitories of misery. Eventually many had to be demolished by controlled explosives, in Saint Louis, Birmingham, Glasgow, London and, more recently, Paris.

Wright was above all an individualist and, when he set up on his own, he soon established the ‘prairie house’ design that was to be his speciality. He listed the nine principles he followed for this type of house as follows:

• Number of parts to be minimised to produce unity
• House to be integrated with site by emphatic horizontal planes
• Rooms as boxes to be replaced by spaces created through the use of screens and panels
• House to be raised on a platform above ground with main living quarters on upper floor to provide better all-round views
• Light screen windows to replace rectangular window holes in walls
• Materials minimised in number, with ornamentation expressive of each material, and all designed for industrial production
• All services (heating, plumbing, lighting etc.) to be incorporated as architectural features into the building fabric
• Furnishings to be in keeping with the building
• No fashionable decorators to be employed

What Wright sought was a distinctly American kind of architecture, the characteristic open-plan interiors signifying his belief in personal freedom. This was perfectly genuine, although it often seemed at odds with the authoritarian attitude he adopted towards his students, where he was always the oracle who brooked no opposition to his views. All the same, his theme of freedom was convincing enough for Ayn Rand, the super-individualist, to base her novel, The Fountainhead (later filmed with Cary Grant as the hero), on his life.

Some have said that Wright was not interested in ordinary people because he spent his time building houses for millionaires – and indeed he built plenty. Yet he also designed a series of ‘Usonian’ houses suitable for those of moderate means. Moreover, the precast concrete blocks he designed were created so that people could build houses of their own.

Of course, Wright, though deified by his fervent admirers, was far from perfect as a human being. Indeed, his life in many eyes was scandalous and eccentric in the extreme. He also had some very bad luck. He abandoned his first wife and six children for Mamah Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. His wife refused to grant a divorce but he settled down with Cheney and they had two children. One day a crazed servant, apparently angry at being underpaid, murdered Cheney, her children and six of his guests, and set fire to the house.

Wright rebuilt the house only to lose it to a further fire. He rebuilt it yet again and went on to marry a further two times. Wright ran a school of architecture named after the mythical Welsh bard, Taliesin, in which the students paid to work as his apprentices, and where, it is said, they all behaved like members of a commune. There, his last wife – a talented woman from Montenegro known as Olgivanna, to whom he remained devoted – took firm charge.

All through his life Wright had the capacity to shock people. He often said outrageous things. In 1955 in the New York Times he observed, with reference to the city of Boston: ‘Clear out eight hundred thousand people and preserve it as a museum piece.’ At times there was certainly more than a touch of megalomania. He described himself as not only the greatest architect in the world but as the greatest in history. He lived to the age of ninety-three and provides a prime example of the truth of the adage that if you live long enough you are forgiven everything and may even become an icon.

In his last years he had one more shot in his locker – the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. It is a daring and technically demanding exercise in concrete surrounding a spiral ramp. Controversial as ever, many thought it was an unsuitable shape for exhibiting paintings. When I took the opportunity to go and see it while in New York a few years ago I was far more impressed by Wright’s building than the contents it housed.

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