Architects Louis Sullivan

Considering Wright

by Michael R. Allen

In “A Case Against Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect”, Toby Weiss makes a brilliant entry into the ongoing debate on the historical importance of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The essay spends a lot of time investigating the reconstruction work needed to keep his landmark works watertight and structurally sound.

Toby’s points resonate with me to great extent. While I remain fascinated with the aesthetic dimension of architecture, I am most impressed with what buildings are and how they function. May favorite buildings balance technical proficiency with inspired design, and their architects never lost sight of the fundamental basis of architecture: containment of space for a purpose. Wright’s mentor and one of my favorite architects, Louis Sullivan, applied rigorous standards to the construction of his buildings because he believed that the appearance of the building should be the embodiment of the architectural form he was designing. While Sullivan is best remembered for his artistic achievements, part of his architectural program was structural innovation and his partnership with structural genius Dankmar Adler shows his desire to get every detail correct.

In contrast, Wright’s iconoclastic insistence on advancing design principles ahead of examination of what his buildings were seems sloppy and careless. However, Wright created wonderful works of architecture and a few, such as Chicago’s Robie House and Springfield’s Dana-Thomas House, that lack the structural pitfalls of his later work. There seems to be a point in his career at which he began to willfully avoid the pragmatics needed to make truly great buildings. While his earlier works show that he learned from Sullivan the importance of posing the building as a solution to a spatial problem, his later works are almost purely artistic creations that nonetheless make great, awe-inspiring spaces. That he would come to insist upon bizarre and faulty construction methods is troubling, but more suggestive of the consumption of Wright by his ego and “vision” than of his inadequacy as an architect. Wright could do better, and chose not to do so.

I would say such a choice is not the mark of an artist, but of an architect acting irresponsibly toward his buildings. If the architect has a duty to any one thing, it is to the buildings that he creates. If a lapse in duty is a failing, then Wright failed in the late part of his career. Oddly, he is much more revered than Sullivan, whose duty to architecture was so intense that he sacrificed his career rather than make bad buildings. (Both were, however, similarly arrogant toward clients and moody.) Sullivan could be a bully, but he did not lose clients because his roofs leaked and he denied the problem. He lost clients because his theory of architecture was supplanted by others, and his vision was too strong to be tolerable to most clients. He did not want to balance his views and those of his client. Neither did Wright, who also had long stretches without much work.

So why did Wright become an enduring popular legend and Sullivan largely forgotten until the scholars began reconstructing his legacy in the late 1950s? Mass media seemed to play a role; Wright’s sensational personal life and aptitude at developing quotable axioms made him great fodder for newspaper articles, radio news programs and, famously, television. To some degree, Wright was able to compromise his presentation with public expectations; Sullivan was far too verbose and serious to do so.

Wright’s legacy as an architect alone would not have solidified his fame; his ability to become the first American architectural media icon did so. As a showman, he excelled. He defined the public’s perception of the Architect in a way that Sullivan could not. Whether or not his buildings need expensive repairs based on his faulty structural calculations to most admirers seems but a footnote to his body of work as public figure and designer. Perhaps the trouble with Wright is that it’s nearly impossible to consider his work apart from his role as a public figure.

To me, each aspect is equally important. I admire Wright but find Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, Albert Kahn, George Elmslie and much lesser-known American architects to be far more studious designers committed to great, functional buildings before being committed to theoretical purity. Ironically, other architects achieved a consistency greater than Wright’s without making big promises. In some ways, the legacy of 20th century American architecture was enriched by Wright and defined by others.