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Testing an Inspiration

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $4.50.

Wright says, with his usual frankness and perhaps more than usual insight, “Testing an inspiration . . . has characterized my life.” The reader of the new version of his autobiography, first issued in 1932, will find such threads as this one useful as he wanders down the labyrinthine corridors of the self-reported experience of America’s great architect. Greatest? It depends on whether one equates inspiration and experiment with creative power. Perhaps social awareness is also essential, not by the imposition of ideas, but by the integration of new ideas with those already existent. Shall we say, all art is ultimately social, but architecture must needs be, primarily and secondarily as well. While this point of view will be reached again at the conclusion of our comment, it may be appropriate to illustrate our generalization at once. “Broadacre City,” Wright’s dream city of the future, is a series of brilliant ideas rather than a locality where human beings can work and play and worship humanly.

And there is another reaction which this reviewer found occurring from time to time during his rereading of a story notable for its subject matter and for its vagrant style. More than in the first version, the personal episodes seemed unnecessary. One missed the family photographs of the older book, which helped at least to give three dimensions to the persons and matters discussed. And so much new material has been added to this volume, recording the author’s activities as a world figure, that even the color of the melodramatic and tragic events mentioned seemed a bit faded. Above all, the self-justification, however disarmingly presented, grew a bit dull. In the promised third version, when “Broadacre City” is presented in full detail, some drastic cutting of domestic matters may be found desirable. Like Isadora Duncan, like Alfonsina Storni, like Paul Gauguin, and many another artist of great ability, Wright has not sensed that art and life are intimately related, but not identical. Are the creations of genius, perhaps resulting from this confusion, worth the heartbreaks? Who shall say?

The autobiography is the third of a Wright series issued by the publishers. Frederick Gutheim in “Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture” undertook the difficult task of collating Wright’s numerous and fugitive papers and addresses and extemporanea in an effort to present a reasoned account of the architect’s thought. Material in print, as of 1941, was in general ignored. The bibliography and the inaccessible items are well worth preservation in this volume. Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s survey in the second volume of the series, strangely enough called, “In the Nature of Materials,” and giving merely as subtitle the more informative legend, “The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright—1887-1941,” with its full photographic apparatus and its intelligent comment, is invaluable. He frankly rescues Wright from the position of “Old Master,” to which place he and other young “Internationalists” had relegated him a decade ago. He even argues with much plausibility that Wright’s work has sociological significance. However, Wright’s own lectures at Princeton and his series of articles, “In the Cause of Architecture,” are likely to remain the classic expressions of his thought. His projected third version of the autobiography will be a fitting climax. Yet when one has listed all the reservations and made all the comments one wishes to record, the remarkable range of ideas and brilliant performances of Wright for more than fifty years, presented with sparkling comment in the volume before us, remain, and remain amazing. The Larkin Building, the Unity Church, the various forms of “Taliesin,” the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, “Hollyhock House,” the San-Marcos-in-the-Desert project, the Kaufmann house, the Johnson Building—what an utterly dazzling panorama! Even the “Prairie Style” houses of the 1890’s possess chiefly historic interest, save as the basic ideas continue fruitful, so varied has been the subsequent achievement. Surely, one is not justified in asking for more. And the story of the Taliesin Fellowship, where his young apprentices are being trained, and his thrilling experiences in Brazil and England and Russia, where his ideas have long been germinal, make exciting reading. What if an occasional point of view irritates, as when Lincoln is written off as a fanatic or when, in order to sharpen the focus on the Kremlin, the purple light of the Acropolis is allowed to blur—irritations also stimulate.

Indeed, so dazzling is the impression made by the last chapters that the reader, until he refocuses his eyes, is apt to see the future of architecture in terms of a rosy mirage, scarcely human. Fortunately for him, and in the long nui for Wright’s own influence, Eliel Saarinen in “The City,” William Lescaze in “On Being an Architect,” and J. L. Sert and the International Congress of Modern Architecture in “Can Our Cities Survive?” have recently also made suggestive comments on man and his architecture. These other books raise questions which need answers, and they are not contained in the “Autobiography.” Lescaze reminds us that “architecture is the art of making the content and form of civilization coincide.” Sert emphasizes the fact that the cities of the future will not be isolated skyscrapers, however brilliantly expressive of materials and setting and function, but will be inhabited areas expressive of man as a social and cultural being. Saarinen says, “. . . any building must be an integral part of its environment, physical and spiritual.” His “organic decentralization” suggests that a creative mind is more human than an inspired and experimental one. The reader may even be emboldened to ask those questions which may have bothered him, but which as a mere layman he has not ventured to ask openly before. Will uniformity of structure be allowed to become monotony or is uniformity of spirit sufficient? Will the patina of time tone synthetic materials effectively or only drably? Will the city of tomorrow be flexible enough to serve the whole man, who is still seeking? The answers to such questions are more reassuringly suggested in the Saarinen volume than in those glimpses of “Broadacre City” given in the autobiography. To be creative, the relationship of man and his architecture must be humanized, not merely inspired and experimental.


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