Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, And the Guggenheim
Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect of the modern era — an architect who, not unlike Marcel Breuer, was as modern in his ideas as the age that saw him create his most acclaimed works of architecture. For Wright, “Love of an idea (was) love of God” (Secrest 4) — a caption that covers his grave and covers neatly his life’s philosophy and the ideal that shaped the formation of his work. Wright was a craftsman and an idealist and a modernist. He was the Kandinsky of architecture — the zeitgeist of naturalism — and in one regard he was the anti-brutalist architect of the 20th century. Yet, in another way, his architecture, despite its grand intentions, is dated by its adherence to the briefly emancipating ideals of an era — a passing philosophical fad that failed to find roots in any traditional structure. In this sense, Wright was like Breuer — a man whose ideas were novel and destined to be outdated in time. Nonetheless, Wright attempted to capture a transcendental quality completely absent in the Breuer’s works of brutalism. Wright’s Guggenheim is a representation of the spirit of nature, and his Robie House is a kind of rebuke against the vertical high rises of the modern landscape. Wright defined his own rules, yet he relished a love of nature, and observed the infinite. This paper will describe, analyze and interpret two works by Wright — the Guggenheim and Robie House — and show how they both reflect aspects of the man who made them.
Wright’s philosophy and worldview are seen readily enough in his definition of architecture, which he called “the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods and men, to put man into possession of his own earth” (Pfeiffer, Nordland 48). This was a far cry from the medieval concept of architecture which was, in the glorious age of cathedrals, a way of giving glory to God. The modern age, of course, broke with the old world relationship with architecture just as it broke with everything else: everything became man centered. The point raises a curiosity concerning Wright: his work was obviously introverted and full of Self — and yet it gave little glimpses, windows into the soul of nature, the infinite spirit of creation.
Wright’s background was as prosaic as his Prairie style Robie House — nomadic in spirit, rootless in terms of tradition: “Like the wandering pioneer of American folklore, Frank Lloyd Wright’s father willingly subordinated family stability and familiar surroundings to a relentless search for personal fulfillment” (Twombly 1) and Frank proved to be no different. His religious beliefs were informed in his childhood by his parents’ Unitarianism: as Wright himself remarks in his autobiography: “The Unitarianism of the Lloyd-Jonesesâ€¦was an attempt to amplify in the confusion of the creeds of their day, the idea of life as a gift from the Divine Source, one God omnipotent, all things at one with HIM. UNITY was their watchword, the sign and symbol that thrilled them, the UNITY of all things!” (Wright 16). That same sense of and obsession with unity would shape the way Wright constructed — from the uniformity of line in Robie House to the uniformity of curve and color in the Guggenheim Museum. Wright was keenly aware of all things working and fitting together. It was not repetition — it was unity that Wright was after.
Under the tutelage of Louis Sullivan, Wright observed that latter’s wisdom regarding art: “Form follows Function” became for Wright a (typically) Unitarian expression: “Form and Function are One” (“Frank Lloyd Wright Biography”). “It was Sullivan’s belief that American Architecture should be based on American function, not European traditions, a theory which Wright later developed further. Throughout his life, Wright acknowledged very few influences but credits Sullivan as a primary influence on his career” (“Frank Lloyd Wright Biography”). American function — an off-shoot of the American Protestant ethos — would become part of Wright’s doctrine, and despite his insistence upon Americanisms, it would connect him to the European Protestantism — the “functionalism” of Breuer — which got coined as “brutal.” Wright’s functionalism, however, was less critically identified as “American” — a term that actually means very little and is as ambiguous as the dogma that governed the American religious spirit.
That spirit is plain enough, however, in Wright’s works. In Robie House (1909) — Wright’s best example of the American architectural style — the Prairie Style — Wright laid bare the essence of American Unitarianism: flat, homogenous, unorthodox, and introverted. What the Prairie Style lacked in ornament, it made up for in horizontality.
Horizontal planes dominate Robie House, giving it a low, flat, stark, and spare appearance. It attempts to resemble the Midwestern landscape surrounding it, however, all it really does is draw attention to itself (like all Wright’s works) in a way that is nearly indefinable. The viewer hardly knows whether he is attracted or repulsed. One thing is certain: there is a peculiar singularity about it.
The floor plan of Robie House is open with a good deal of interior space, and everything from landscape outside to furniture inside is integrated into one and the same design. (Here is Wright’s spirituality: everything must be one). There is a certain aching formalism in Robie House that feels confining, even as Wright attempts to utilize space to the utmost and mimic the expansiveness of the Midwest landscape.
Wright’s attention to craftsmanship and detail is what makes him beloved by many, but his architectural ode to American style feels dwarfed by the giant steel structures of the industrial age. It may be quaint and homey on the inside, but its exterior lacks the wit and style of art nouveau. What Robie House is, essentially, is a kind of self-expression of Wright’s attitude toward the complex industrial age: here, in the Prairie Style, was simplicity, elegance, refinement, soul. At least — that appears to be the intention.
Wright essentially broke with every other European architectural movement by building in the Prairie style — a style which had no European forerunners, but which definitely owed something to the emptiness of the great Midwest and which responded in a kind of anti-verticality gesture to the gargantuan high rises of America’s metropolises. Wright would build another similar slap-in-the-face to the American high rise with the Guggenheim Museum — a slap-in-the-face that would be there in the heart of New York City itself — on 5th Avenue across from Central Park.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1959) Guggenheim Museum in NYC is that slap. Set in the midst of the hustle and bustle of urban brutalism (of a kind), Wright’s architecture blossoms like a flower in the modern metropolis — the new desert Babel: a place of respite against the noise and machinery of the white collar world around it: a place that draws one because, for a moment, it reflects something in nature. The line, the contour, the unreal angles, the pure white: there is an aspect of other-worldliness to it.
Like all of Wright’s architecture, it is obsessed with line, concaves, surface, with uniformity that attempts to blend in with nature: this is the Robie House of NYC — prairie style all dressed up in fine furs: the horizontality of his earlier work coupled with the circularity of his Orthodox house-of-worship design. It is hard to say whether the Guggenheim is a place of prayer, an out-of-her-element Midwest girl, or just another example of modernism in a world already so horribly modern. And yet the Guggenheim is more: an obvious example of 50s-ish art: it is kitsch and out-dated, yet perennial (like nature) and innocent.
The anti-verticality of Wright’s Guggenheim draws you past the other high rises on the same block. Its pretense mocks its neighbors. Its introverted character (like so many of Wright’s projects), is misleading: the Museum is bursting once you look inside. Yet something does discredit all: Perhaps it is the fact that it so childishly breaks ties with the past, turns its back on European traditional structures, and lets its fancy spring forth willy-nilly. Perhaps it is the large skylight that looks down on all from above — as though reminding us that despite its sleek veneer, the Guggenheim house of non-objective art is still in thrall to the objective God above. Whatever, it is, the Guggenheim is a contradiction that both repulses and attracts.
The Guggenheim also reminds one of being on the brink of Revolution — on the brink of 60s fashion, on the cusp of the generations of lost definition, of lost traditions, of wandering, questioning, exploring. If the Guggenheim effects a sense of peace, it is not without the feint cry of social disintegration that whispers along the interior walls.
A kind of art deco spirit also lives within the Guggenheim: it’s pine cone hive exterior sits above the canopy like a crown, and inside houses the jewels — the artwork that hangs precariously from the concave walls. The open space invites you to dwell on the mysterious and contemplate the interior life — away from the crowded, stacked-up world just beyond the walls: “deliberately placedâ€¦beyond the limits of control” (Witcombe).
The Guggenheim, therefore, takes you out of your element: it transports you into another time, another place — a time and place that never existed and has yet to come into existence: a sanctuary where modern art and naturalism merge into an architectural act of creation. Are these false impressions? Or is the Guggenheim nothing more than a Kandinskian cross between “fashion” and “fine art” (Johnson 666)?
There is nothing absurdist about Wright’s architecture. It is sincere and always quiet. Yet something about the Guggenheim is so unlike Robie House — so bursting — so NYC and modern — that it amazes, calls attention to itself and yet does not play the fool. It is as if nature, electrified by the city life of Manhattan, crawled its way out of the waters in Central Park and evolved in a sudden awakening of energy into a concrete structure — the fruit of the vine of 5th Avenue: a pine cone inversion dangling upwards toward the sky.
In conclusion, Wright’s Robie House and Guggenheim are architectural works that surprise and yet do not shock; that confound and yet do not offend. They draw one to a sense of the spiritual — and yet reject the traditional definitions and rigors of medieval faith: they draw attention to themselves and their individuality and allow one to turn an introspective eye on things; but they also appear to be ever-running from definition, from any definite answer. They evoke the mysterious, and yet they are trapped by a time and place: by 20th century kitsch, Midwest sentimentality, and NYC 5th Avenue glamour and brutalism. For all these reasons, I have chosen to analyze the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. He is an American enigma — a representation of all that is most curious about the modern world: its desire to be individualistic and its inability to do anything but conform to the shallow philosophical impulses of its time.
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