Frank Lloyd Wright, Urban Visionary
The original version of this article first appeared on CityLab.
In the early years of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright gave a speech entitled “The Art and Craft of the Machine” to various audiences including the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society and the Western Society of Engineers. It was as damning of the metropolis as any biblical prophecy:
"Be gently lifted at nightfall to the top of a great downtown office building, and you may see how in the image of material man, at once his glory and menace, is this thing we call a city. There beneath, grown up in a night, is the monster leviathan, stretching acre upon acre into the far distance. High overhead hangs the stagnant pall of its fetid breath, reddened with the light from its myriad eyes endlessly everywhere blinking."
He continued, charting the city’s systems; its “intricate network of veins and arteries […] millions of small intestines […] the heavy breathing, the murmuring, the clangor, and the roar!” Yet for all the disgust in his description, there is also a sense of marvel. There is after all “glory and menace” at work here. If there is a hope for this Frankenstein’s monster, Wright concluded, it was in the possibility of art giving it a soul. Naturally, Wright thought himself well-placed for the role of savior.
“The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity,” Wright once declared. “Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.” Boston, he recommended preserving as a museum piece. Pittsburgh was to be abandoned entirely. It's easy to look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposals and assume that he was anti-urban. Many of his truly iconic buildings are situated as escapist sanctuaries in the midst of or chiming with nature, from his Prairie School architecture to much larger projects like San Marcos in the Desert.
When he turned his attentions towards conurbations, it was certainly with a degree of ambivalence. At times, his designs seem to be more barbed critiques than practical buildings. Faced with the challenges of population density and urban sprawl, Wright proposed the building of the mile-high skyscraper, the Illinois. It would be 528 floors tall and served by 76 atomic-powered elevators. If you insist on centralization, Wright surmised, this is it, taken to its logical, impressive and inhuman conclusion.
Other unbuilt plans had a similar mix of spectacle and dread. His National Life Insurance Building resembled a colossal motherboard component, yet it contained many pioneering ideas such as modular interiors and was to be built by assembling prefabricated units. For good and ill, elements of these fantastical projects have reappeared in real-life architecture from the under-construction kilometer-high Jeddah Tower to the prefab skyscraper Mini Sky City in Changsha. Similarly, the mixed-use of his unbuilt Crystal Heights in Washington, D.C. became ubiquitous even if towers of glass, marble and bronze remained relatively scarce.
For all his criticisms, Frank Lloyd Wright was not intrinsically opposed to cities. Instead, he urged us to examine what cities had become and recognize that none of this was inevitable. Other cities were possible and it was the role of architects, invested with an artistic eye, to humanize the city.
One of the ways to do so was to break out of restrictive influences and look to the wider world for inspiration. Wright was enthralled by the materiality, harmonies, and silver ratio of Japanese architecture, a debt he repaid with his Maya-infused Imperial Hotel, which survived the devastating Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 but not the demolition crew of 1968. He was inspired not just by the ornamentation of “Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca” architecture he’d adored since childhood (as evidenced in his Ennis House, which inspired Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner) but also by the urban planning of Mesoamerican settlements with their plazas, passages, and palaces.
This was translated into his recurring plans for complexes such as his unbuilt Lexington Terrace Apartments and his demolished Midway Gardens. They suggested the idea of hubs within the metropolis so that cities didn’t have to be chaotic collages or mundane grids. They also characteristically tempered the monumental with the organic. This is most famously seen in the iconic Fallingwater and the startling Seacliff plan. But the terraces, viaducts, and hanging gardens of his unbuilt Doheny Ranch also demonstrates his profound awareness of topography, locality, even arcology. “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.” Wright instructed, “It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.”
The utopian Broadacre City is arguably the apotheosis of this view in Wright’s work. It’s been called suburban, which is true in the sense that it is an attempt to synthesize the urban and the rural. Wright realized that a great deal of the countryside is now man-made, and that the city is not the antithesis of the environment but an environment in itself. It was an attempt to reconcile that which had been treated as a binary. The garden city meets the automobile, the frontier American meets the enlightened progressive, the Jeffersonian farmer meets the technocrat. In its most admirable aspects, Broadacre encouraged architects and planners to regard all architecture as landscape architecture to some degree. “Architecture that belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace,” Wright explained to Mike Wallace in a 1957 interview. Yet there is the sense that even Wright recognized how improbable the plan was, given how sci-fi Broadacre’s phallic streamlined cars and UFOs appear. All the gadgetry in the world might not compensate for what was essentially a well-meaning and beautified sprawl.
There is no doubt that Wright’s visions could be eccentric and misguided. Yet even then it’s notable how close they came to success. His Plan for Greater Baghdad, inspired by a long-held love of One Thousand and One Nights, was an intriguing but undoubtedly orientalist folly with its statues of Haroun al Rashid, Aladdin and a replica Garden of Eden. What prevented it becoming reality was the assassination of its patron King Faisal II. Baghdad was left to the designs, some dystopian, of the rulers who followed. While we might criticize his heartfelt naivete, Wright’s inventiveness, knowledge, and commitment meant his work rarely came across as pastiche.
He went beyond merely co-opting exotic myths and tropes, basing his Baghdad plans on the ‘round city’ incarnation of the city under Al-Mansur in the 8th century. His adaptation of the ziggurat, for example, in his Gordon Strong Automobile Objective through to his originally pink Guggenheim synthesize and subvert rather than simply imitate. The frivolous nature of much of the Raygun Gothic architecture that followed, borrowing heavily from Wright’s late work, can obscure how bewilderingly futuristic his designs must have seemed, like his Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Beth Sholom Congregation, Marin County Civic Center or the flying saucers of his Huntington Hartford Sports Club and Play Resort. Looking back at the incidental details on his glorious drawings and you’re reminded what age he was creating futures in; from the impressionistic horse-drawn cart of his 1903 Larkin Administration Building rendering for Buffalo, to the men in top hats lining up outside his San Diego cinema in 1905. Studying his proposed city “The Key” on Ellis Island with its huge domes, moving sidewalks, and suspension cables, you realize this was solarpunk before cyberpunk even existed.
Despite the futurism of his projects, Frank Lloyd Wright was often dismissed as an archaic crank by modernists, summed up by Philip Johnson’s backhanded wisecrack that Wright was “the greatest architect of the 19th century.” Much of this criticism emerged from the false dichotomies Wright continually railed against. There is little doubting the presence of awe and beauty in modern architecture, from Ando to Zumthor, but it is quite another thing to sermonize on it. Wright was not afraid to do so. In his lecture on the machine age, he placed himself in the lineage of William Morris and John Ruskin. He rejected art for art’s sake but saw that beauty could have a role in bringing about dignified and expansive ways of living. He had learned and updated the practice of gesamtkunstwerk from the Vienna Secessionists, recognizing that mosaics, stained glass windows, statues, and carpets could give buildings mystery, character, and completeness.
Modernity didn’t have to mean austerity nor did beauty have to be florid. It could be the “Spire of Light” of his Community Christian Church, or oxidized copper on the Samuel-Novarro House. “The architect should strive continually to simplify; the ensemble of the rooms should then be carefully considered that comfort and utility may go hand in hand with beauty.” Wright saw that it was not either/or.
If art could restore soul to the machine city, the machine could restore something to art in return. Above all, it provided an escape from drudgery and indulgence. Wright may have valued craft but he was not a reactionary wishing to return to a lost age of monks and guilds. The machine had bought us back time and it was a sick society that squandered that on yet more work of dubious value. He accepted, “The tall modern office building is the machine pure and simple,” but while he lambasted attempts to dress it up in fake finery, he refused to accept that it had to be soulless or undignified. If a palace could aspire to the sublime, why not work places where citizens spend most of their day?
As adventurous as the columns of his Johnson Wax Headquarters was the sense of providing inspiration in an otherwise mundane environment. Wright recognized it was futile to insist on the artist versus the machine. The machine was simply misused and the artist misled. Working together in the right way was far more beneficial than retreating into an outmoded and mythically authentic past. Wright demonstrated this with his use of concrete in his Unity Temple and in his Mayan Revival Architecture, showing that remarkable structures could come from an often-derided technology provided it was used compassionately.
In doing so, he foresaw and avoided the pitfalls that the more graceless incarnations of Brutalism would later fall prey to and undermined the ignorant dismissals of the medium by traditionalists. In the case of the Unity Temple, it proved the sacred could be modern and the modern could be sacred. It need not even be a pious setting, given Wright designed a multitude of buildings, including a frat house, a kindergarten, a planetarium, a polish factory, an outdoor drinking establishment, a gas station, and even a kennel (‘Eddie’s House’)—"everything from a chicken coop to a cathedral."
Wright may have been an egotist but his conviction was unswerving (if quietly patriarchal). "Noble life," he once said, "demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall." The great democratic element to Wright, all through his life, was that he saw this nobility potentially everywhere and saw how vital it was to cultivate it.
In his machine lecture, Frank Lloyd Wright reflected on Victor Hugo’s assertion that printing had usurped architecture. It might be possible today to say that the de-spatialized wonders of the internet have diminished the physical city or at least distracted from it. It seems no accident that the increasing loss of public space has occurred at the same time as the vast expansion of virtual space. It calls to mind the wisdom of even the most utopian of Wright’s plans in Broadacre City. The architect had believed that telecommunications and transport had rendered the centralized city pointless.
Yet he recognized, alongside the glorious new liberties technology afforded citizens, that a physical and architectural place to call home with land, light, air, and peace was also vital. In an age where vernacular architecture and public space is being crowded out by supranational corporate space, so that everywhere looks like nowhere in particular, Wright’s sense of belonging to the local and having boundless curiosity towards the global might well appear radical once more.