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FLW: Defining American Architecture

Robert C. Twombly was born December 14, 1918. He has taught architectural history at the City University of New York. Twombly wrote numerous biographies on Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and has edited Sullivan's public papers. He was a resident of Nottingham, New Hampshire and passed away on Tuesday, May 11, 2010.

Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture written by Robert C. Twombly is a biography that retells the Wright’s life and explains the impact of his architecture. Wright, born June 8, 1867, wanted American architecture to be its own; he wanted to remove the imitative styles. Wright lived a life in the spotlight with his controversial love affairs, which would reflect in his architecture. Wright was the pioneer of organic architecture; fusing architecture into nature. Wright wanted to bring forth “knowledge of the relation between form and function.”1 The architect attempts to solve wide spread social problems by customizing homes for the nuclear family.

Wright’s father, Reverend William C. Wright, was nomadic. With Wright’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, the couple lived in six towns in four states before Frank was eleven. Every town in which the Wrights’ stayed, the townspeople cherished William for his charisma, confidence, and character. Although a great asset to the town, often times towns could not support the Wrights, eventually leading the family on a search for better conditions. Anna’s family owned a tiny farming settlement of Hillside, Wisconsin. The Lloyd Joneses were a tightly knit Unitarian clan with eleven children. During summers Frank and his siblings would visit Hillside to work on the farm with the Lloyd Joneses. William wanted all of his children to play an instrument. Frank liked to compare music to architecture as “an edifice — of sound!”2 Frank’s early architecture experience came from Joseph Lyman Silsbee, a prominent Chicago architect and family friend. Wright then became partners with Alder and Sullivan, who had already become one of Chicago’s most respected architects. When Sullivan discovered that Wright was designing independent work, Sullivan was furious which lead to Wright leaving. Sullivan and Wright’s relationship was complex because there was a power struggle between the budding architect and the older architect. Catherine Lee Tobin was the daughter of a prosperous businessman, when Wright met her he was infatuated. Wright and Tobin married on June 1, 1889; he was twenty-one and she was eighteen. Tobin provided Wright with the social etiquette needed to excel in the social and business aspects of Chicago life. Wright’s critics praised the house he built for himself because it was different and unexpected, the Architectural Review saying: “One may condemn, but one is driven to admire. Here is originality and unquestionable genius. Good or bad…the work is full of intense personality.”3 In 1901 Wright announced the “prairie house” which would late be known as Wright’s “Golden Age”4. The architect strived to create solutions to the problems of designing residences that would preserve and strengthen proper family life while utilizing modern technology in the most effective way. The house Wright built for himself and Tobin in Oak Park in 1889 was a result of the effect of his own nuclear family and of the influence of the Lloyd Joneses. Once inside the Oak Park house, a fireplace blocked people from moving forward, a person must go left or right. Wright created the break in a straight motion to promote family togetherness. In both the Winslow House and the Oak Park 1889 house the façade in the front was linear and clean; in the back the façade was busy and geometrical. The different sides of the house reflect the influence of his childhood. Wright’s idea of architectural simplicity was a total rejection of the Victorian decorations. Wright continued to build prairie houses until 1913, the houses were not necessarily built on the prairie, but more nomenclature in order. The prairie houses are a successful balance of contradictions because “they are at once active and static: while firmly and obviously rooted to site, they also reach beyond themselves. Anchored resolutely to the ground, they offered a safe and secure harbor to the family against the modern life.”5 The prairie house characteristics includes multifunctional interpenetrating spaces and intimate atmosphere and family mutuality.

By 1909 Wright was on top of his professional career and the Prairie School was created to imitate the architect’s style. Wright wanted to explore, after being welcomed into the upper-middle class and the basic family he wanted to expand to larger commercial buildings where his architecture could be experienced by a large number of people at a time. Inspired by the cheerful childhood they gave him, Wright built the Hillside Home School for his aunts on the Lloyd Joneses side. The school attracted nationwide publicity for the nature based curriculum, “Wright’s objective was to link art with nature for residential and pedagogical purposes.”6 The Larkin Building also followed the prairie guidelines; “it was comfortable, futuristic, eminently practical and exceptionally well planned.”7 Wright’s other buildings were highly praised: “The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright – Its Influence, not only important because of their outstanding qualities but because of the influence they have had. Mr. Wright indeed stands more prominently than does any other Western residential architect.”8 Wright also wrote books such as In the Cause of Architecture, his most important statement since his Jane Addams Hull House speeches. In this essay Wright coins the phrase “organic architecture” and proposes the six principles that his designs embody. In response to Wright’s architecture, the Prairie School was formed by people who aspired to follow in his footsteps. Wright would later dismiss the Prairie School stating that he was the sole creator of prairie house style. This burns many bridges and reflects Wright’s ego.

No one expected Wright to leave his wife and six children to elope with a client’s wife. Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband were good friends with the Wrights. Mamah Cheney’s love affair with Wright was an open secret; they went to see movies together, but it erupted when the two had a secret elopement. The couple went to Europe while Catherine stayed at home and supported Wright saying that he would come back to her. The house in Spring Green, Wisconsin that Wright was building was a house for Cheney called Taliesin. Many speculate say that Wright left suddenly because he was tired of the suburban middle class. Wright wrote: “Motherhood had become her profession, architecture mine. Fair enough, but it was a divison.”9 Wright was unimpressed when critics tried to label his buildings into a “type”10 he said that it diminished the uniqueness. Wright intended to be as self-sufficient as possible at Taliesin, creating a water supply unit, power plant and an ice house. During his years with Cheney he created three architectural landmarks and wrote three important essays: Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurde von Frank Lloyd Wright (1910), The Japanese Print: An Interpretation (1912), and In the Cause of Architecture: Second Paper (1914). In these papers he writes about organic architecture and related world movements to architecture. In his German essay he describes how Gothic architecture believes in natural law and praises the Gothic spirit. In The Japanese Print, he praises the Japanese for being minimal but keeping the essence of the object. Wright was commissioned to help design the Midway Gardens in Chicago. This venture represents a short-lived experiment in American entertainment. The Gardens failed because the owners could not financially support the place. The Midway Gardens reflected Wright’s Gothic ideals; he worked with the arts to create a place that would be filled with musical and visual art. In response to Wright’s Japanese print essay, the Japanese wanted Wright to design a hotel for diplomats to stay in while visiting Japan. Once complete, Japan faced a devastating earthquake. Wright’s Imperial Hotel would survive, which Wright credits to the design. During the summer of 1941, Wright was at the Midway Gardens site and Cheney and the children were in Taliesin. A newly hired chef would set fire to the dining room in which Cheney and the kids were eating. When Cheney died, a part of Wright also died. Wright begins to rebuild Taliesin. He also started to design his first planned community. Letters of condolences flooded his mailbox and he was taken with a letter by Maud Miriam Noel. Unlike her predecessors she would compete with Wright for the limelight. Wright married Noel in 1923. The marriage only lasted five months. Noel sued Wright because she found out that Wright had been sleeping with another woman, Olga Milanoff. She was the wife of a fellow architect. By February 1825, Milanoff moves to Taliesin to give birth to Wright’s seventh child, Iovanna. Noel lied to the courts saying that Wright had left her penniless and that he had abused her; she wanted Wright’s money. Noel had filed complaints against Milanoff, saying that Milanoff’s visa had expired. Milanoff’s husband, Hinzenberg, filed a violation of the Mann Act against Milanoff because she was living with his seven year old daughter in Taliesin. The Mann Act violation was dropped for lack of evidence and Noel’s lawyer said: “I wanted to be a lawyer; she wanted me to be an avenging angel.”11 Soon Wright’s architecture began to move west, to California. Throughout the turmoil in his personal life Wright continued to evolve through his writings and buildings.

Wright started to work on his planned community, Broadacre City. The community was build by the Taliesin Fellowship, a resident group of students under Wright’s apprenticeship. Inspired by Milanoff’s upbringing, Wright creates a Fellowship, this Fellowship would learn how to be self-sufficient and have the opportunity to work under Wright’s guidance. Many critics could not believe that some students were gullible enough to pay to rebuild Taliesin and plant food. Everyday they had a set schedule. Unlike the fellowship in which Milanoff grew up, Wright’s students were not allowed to be equals or challenge the master, Wright. At Spring Green students became isolated and ingrown. The Fellowship was hierarchical and the seniors looked down on the rest. Milanoff controlled everything non-architectural and enforced strict etiquette. “Every Sunday the students would gather at the master’s feet and listen to his sermon.”12 Wright used the Taliesin Fellowship to help build Taliesin West and Broadacre City. Wright imagined Broadacre as a self-sufficient city. The center of the city had schools surrounded by houses, separated by class. Taliesin West was build after Wright suffered from pneumonia. Instead of being on the hillside Taliesin West sits on the desert floor. It had a canvas roof and was built for the Fellowship. Taliesin East was built for Cheney and Wright. The mountain surrounding the Taliesin West house pays tribute to the “agricultural migrants of the Great Depression who took their tents to California in search of a fortune.”13 Wright created the Usonian houses for the lower-middle class. The Usonian house principles called for conservatism in spending and a simple geometrical layout. The evolution from the prairie house to the Usonia house showed the transformation of the American people. As fewer women stayed home the kitchens in the Usonia houses became smaller and the floor plans opened up so everyone can communicate when home. Wright had already tackled middle-income housing, the upper wealthy class, and employment conditions of working people. At eighty Wright planned to take on some of his most famous works. Fallingwater, the luxury vacation retreat Wright designed in 1936 for Bear Run, Pennsylvania and investor, Edgar Kaufmann. This house seems to be floating on top of a waterfall but appeares solid and strong. The walls of Fallingwater jut out in different directions but it still maintains balance. Critics called Fallingwater “the most famous modern house in the world” and “one of the most complete masterpieces of twentieth century art.”14 The Administration Building for the Johnson Wax Company was built in a small town and the building created a warm atmosphere where the townspeople looked forward to going to work. Wright was attracted to the Johnson Wax Company because it was self-sufficient, small, and family owned.  The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is shaped like a sphere, the closest thing to pure organic architecture. From every point of view people are aware of the activity as the hallways spiral around the center. The structure is stable like a coiled spring with weight evenly distributed. All of Wright’s buildings show a growing understanding for what the people want. Wright designs for the people and he has more longevity than many other artists. Frank Lloyd Wright worked with all different sections of architecture. He started as a residential designer and went to commercial building and turns back to residential. Wright designed houses because “he wanted people to live in harmony with nature.”15

Robert C. Twombly’s thesis for Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture is that Wright helped define and refine American architecture. He cut out the unnecessary opulence and replaced it with a sense of harmony. Wright set the stage for future architects by fusing luxury and simplicity. Wright was a visionary like his father and strived to better American society by starting at the basic level of society, the family. Wright stated in his “In the Cause” essay: “Radical though it may be, my work is dedicated to a cause of conservative.”16

Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture, published in 1979, was a revision of Robert C. Towmbly’s Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretative Biography published 1974. In the Preface of the revised book, Twombly said he, “thought I had given the man enough time, but Frank Lloyd Wright is a compelling man.”17 Twombly’s purpose for writing this piece is to inform the reader of the life of Wright.  Twombly belongs in the Neo-Conservative school of historiography. They celebrate traditional American values and view the U.S. as a unique and stable country.

The Library Journal and Choice reviewed Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture. Both reviews said Twombly has added no new facts, the Library Journal said: “the book’s strength remains the interweaving of Wright’s personality and architecture.”18 The Choice review says that the Unisonian house information is covered better in another biography about Wright. The review also states the further documentation of Wright’s personal life. Sources were added in the bibliography to show extensive research. Both reviews noted little change, but the small changes helped clarify sources and the details of Wright’s life.

Reading Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture by Robert C. Twombly gave an informative look into Wright’s life. This book makes critical connections between his architecture and his childhood influences. Twombly must have conducted an extensive research on Wright. The author also wrote a biography on Sullivan, which shows his knowledge of architecture. In Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture, Twombly uses many quotes from people in contact with Wright to support his thesis. Twombly often helps define terms coined by Wright that the architect did not feel necessary to define. “An organic structure is built according to nature’s principles: harmonious in all its parts and with the environment, it expresses and unified all the factors calling it into being.”19 Twombly helps clarify Wright’s abstract ideals by sewing Wrights’ influences and work together.

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to be rid of the imitation that he saw in America. Later, as America became a world power, other nations would copy American architecture. He wanted to create a functional and unique style specifically for the American people. As more women obtained jobs outside of the house, he adapted the layout of the house to accommodate the new American family. Wright wanted his houses to be simple to help people relax once at home. He wanted to save people from the insanity of the urban jungle. Wright helped spread American architecture when he shaped organic architecture. The principle of utilizing native elements helped organic architecture spread and become popular. Wright brought a sensual mysterious quality to simplicity. It was no longer considered plain; simplicity is a complex balance between nature and human that is always changing. “No organic building may ever be ‘finished’.”20 Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture paints the life of Wright, justifying the low moments and glorifying the high.  Robert C. Twombly retells Wright’s life in this detailed biography by effectively connecting the dots and clarifying Wright’s ultimate vision.

1. Twombly, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright His Life and His Architecture. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1979. 106
2. Twombly, Robert C. 15.
3. Twombly, Robert C. 34.
4. Twombly, Robert C. 38.
5. Twombly, Robert C. 73.
6. Twombly, Robert C. 97.
7. Twombly, Robert C. 100.
8. Twombly, Robert C. 105.
9. Twombly, Robert C. 128.
10. Twombly, Robert C. 124.
11. Twombly, Robert C. 190.
12. Twombly, Robert C. 218.
13. Twombly, Robert C. 233.
14. Twombly, Robert C. 378.
15. Twombly, Robert C. 418.
16. Twombly, Robert C. 106.
17. Twombly, Robert C. vi.
18. Wilson, H.W. Library Journal Vol.104. 1p (1979): 182-182. 1p
19. Twombly, Robert C. 319.
20. Twombly, Robert C. 312.