Last updated: February 27, 2019
Topic: ArtDesign
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Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas about art and architecture revolutionized American aesthetics During his active career, his concepts and designs were considered revolutionary and, rightly so, as Wright sought not only to rebel against his contemporaries, but also against what he termed “the box.” Wright considered architecture imprisoned: “Down all the avenues of time architecture was an enclosure by nature, and the simplest form of enclosure was the box. The box was ornamented, they put columns in front of it, pilasters and cornices on it, but they always considered an enclosure in terms of the box. ” (Pfeiffer and Nordland 9)

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Wright believed that America with its democratic society and its diverse cultural associations deserved an architecture that represented the spirit of freedom, liberty, and adventure that had helped to shape the nation itself. Now when Democracy became an establishment, as it is in America, that box-idea began to be irksome[…] I was the free son of a free people and I wanted to be free. I had to find out what was the cause of this imprisonment. So I began to investigate.” (Pfeiffer and Nordland 9)

Partially in response to the International school of architecture:”In the early part of the twentieth century, Wright faced a cadre of young antagonists who saw it as their mission to […] design not “homes” but “machines for living.” This International School began to cover the countryside with vast flat slabs of anonymous black glass” (Sandefur 40) and partially in response to history, Wright began to experiment with bold and original forms based in the newest materials. His aesthetic, however, maintained ties with history, with the fundamentals of form, seeking first from nature and hoping for a blend of body and brain. “Steel–the new material–allowed tenuity[…] Now you could make the building tough with tensile strength. If the idea was to do away with the box, here was the means. […] So the life of the individual was broadened and enriched by the new concept of architecture, by light and freedom of space.” (Pfeiffer and Nordland 9)

The idea that “steel—the new material” found its best expression when subsumed to the needs of the individual and when conforming to the dynamics of nature brings with it social advocacy and political gesture as the inhabitants of a building or home are more important in Wright’s aesthetic than the “nobility” or “grandeur” of the building.  A spiritual impulse also pervades many of Wright’s buildings and he designed temples and other religious structures on commission, charging them with his same organic aesthetic. Wright believed that art provided a glimpse of the Divine and the Infinite. “The song, the masterpiece, the edifice are a warm outpouring of the heart of man–human delight in life triumphant: we glimpse the infinite. That glimpse or vision is what makes art a matter of inner experience–therefore sacred, and no less but rather more individual in this age, I assure you, than ever before.” (Pfeiffer and Nordland 19)

In this way, Wright’s work becomes something much deeper, much more intimate than a building constructed from theories and equations and from the model of “the box.” In fact, Wright elevated architecture itself to an entirely different plane in making his designs such profound personal and universally expressed monuments. That he poured his heart and soul into each of his buildings and sought always for the organic and spiritually integral, without resorting to gross overt gesture of exaggeration.  A famous example which embodies Wright’s aesthetic is the Guggenheim Museum:”Here we are not building a cellular composition of compartments, but one where all is one great space on a single continuous floor. . . . Let walls, ceilings, floors become seen as component parts of each other.” (Pfeiffer and Nordland 11)

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For individual homes, a warmer even more intimate aesthetic pervaded in Wright’s designs. Without sacrificing the mathematical precision of pure forms, Wright invested these abstract forms with the human touch and brought them “down to earth” so to speak, blending them so closely with everyday living spaces: “Hollyhock House in Los Angeles is a prime example, built in the 1920s for a wealthy patron of the arts, Aline Barnsdall. The theme of the building was the hollyhock flower, which Wright then abstracted into a shape and then built upon it, creating a unified whole, like musical variations on a theme. Wright doesn’t reach for some removed Platonic ideal; he searches for the human idea found beneath the surface of an image. ” (Sandefur 40)

It’s easy to imagine the proliferation of “anonymous black glass” that might have enjoyed dominant influence over the look and feel of American society had Wright not so brilliantly and confidently forwarded his counter-aesthetic which was expressed in a unique and magnificent career. His structures and ideas live on, not only as material demonstrations of conceptual theories and ideas, but as emotive expressions of profound religiosity and philosophical depth. By humanizing architecture, Wright not only grounded the art in a popular and democratic tradition, but he also elevated the popular response to and awareness of architecture in America. Wright’s work can be considered an expression of humanism invested with a deep sense of beauty and spiritual conviction.  “His buildings do not descend upon the earth, as a Gropius building descends–or as a Corbusier building crashes. Instead, they rise upwards from the earth, expressing the essential humanism of his vision[…] Here religion doesn’t hand down its precepts in stone tablets from a mountaintop; it raises humankind from the earth with a gentle, almost parental touch.” (Sandefur 40)

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Works Cited

Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks, and Gerald Nordland, eds. Frank Lloyd Wright in the Realm of Ideas. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Sandefur, Tim. “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Humanism.” The Humanist May 1999: 40.

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