Review: Frank Lloyd Wright – The Architecture of Defiance by Jonathan Adams
Frank Lloyd Wright’s fascinating life story is fully in keeping with the extraordinary buildings he imagined into being, a one-man display of American exceptionalism.
He coupled an eclectic imagination to the building materials of the modern age along with a magpie disposition to absorb influences from all over – from Turkey, Mayan buildings, his beloved Japan and more.
These syntheses allowed him become the person who ‘probably deserves more credit, and more blame, for what modern America looks like than in any other single figure in American history.’
By dint of this he has been the subject of many books and documentaries, a figure of genius with a controversial personal life and thus a gift to scandal hungry newspapers not to mention that here was someone who was happy to cultivate his own myths.
One was the myth of the origins of his genius. Wright wanted his gifts to be seen as unearthly, things bestowed on him rather than worked for.
But in this handsome, deeply considered book Jonathan Adams – arguably the best-known architect in Wales – suggests that by examining Wright’s Welsh roots you can locate the source of his driving work ethic, his radicalism and his philosophy. He makes that case most plausibly well.
Those roots were planted in Cardiganshire soil from whence Wright’s grandparents, Richard and Mallie Jones, migrated to the U.S, and specifically in an area known as Y Smotyn Du, the Black Spot, with its concentration of Unitarian chapels. Here dissenting, heretical worshippers dismissed the idea of the Trinity and saw God all around.
This fed into Wright’s fascination with nature, whose forms and patterns long inspired him, not just as decoration, but, as in the case of the snail-like spirals of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, as essential shapes.
Such thinking allowed him to design ‘the most beautiful house in the world’ at Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania, where cantilevered balconies project over the rushing waters of a river, creating a house and home of ‘intense richness, designed from simple beginnings.’
Intense and rich enough to be given the accolade ‘Best All Time Work of American Architecture’ and yet designed in a brief flurry of hours one Sunday morning in 1935. Wright’s creative energy could seemingly be sometimes be off the graph.
Fallingwater, as Adams allows, is a building that could only exist in this particular setting, growing out of the location rather than being imposed on it. Wright saw a river boulder and considered how it might the very spirit of the site, its omphalos and imagined the building growing out of it.
Nature was, for Wright, both guide and inspiration. As he put it in a lecture called ‘The Architect and the Machine,’ delivered in 1894:
Go to Nature, thou builder of houses, consider her ways…Let your home appear to grow easily from its site and its shape it to sympathize with the surroundings, if Nature is manifest there; and if not, try and be as quiet, substantial and organic as she would have been if she had the chance…’
Here was a man who would base his design for a tower on the shape of a teardrop.
There were other influences carried by Wright’s Welsh grandparents over the Atlantic, such as the writing and thinking of the poet and scholar Iolo Morganwg.
He believed in the maxim ‘Truth against the World’ which was quietly encoded in a three-pronged symbol, ‘Nod y Cyfrin’ which often was discretely featured in Wright’s work.
One such truth was foundational in his thinking, one summed up by Jonathan Adams in this way: ‘that architecture was the materialisation of human spirituality, that an honest and a simple existence, a life that matched the ideal he had been raised in, could only be lived within an honest and simple architecture.’
Adams goes on to explain how Wright despised along with his mother the dark, gloomy drapery and cluttered bric-à-brac that distinguished the lifestyle of the American middle class.
The book pays a lot of attention to Hannah, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, suggesting she’s been air-brushed out of the picture by many writers. Adams shows us many ways in which she influenced her son, and restores her not only to the family portrait but to her rightful place in her son’s story of rising to greatness.
In the same way Adams sees how Unitarianism manifested in Wright’s work, such as the way in which arithmetic and geometry had sacred significance, or the way Cardiganshire chapel architecture fed into his own designs for American temples.
The book isn’t a linear, chronological account but cuts back and fore across time, splicing together connections. So, we have the ill-advised Christmas morning press conference in 1911 arranged by Wright to defend himself against newspaper slurs.
He had a new woman in his life, Mamah Borthwick and his alleged desertion of his wife and children to be with her in their ‘love bungalow’ got the tittlers tattling.
This follows on from an account of Richard Jones, his grandfather being similarly hounded in 1846, not by newshounds his time but rather by Methodist ministers who didn’t agree with his Unitarian take on things.
And, of course, this is a book about buildings and amazing ones at that, benefitting from having an architect’s eye trained on them.
There are Wright’s Prairie Houses and the Imperial Hotel in Japan which managed to withstand a powerful earthquake as buildings all around were pulverized. There is Dana Thomas House in Illinois. Midway Gardens in Chicago. The Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, to name just a few.
Wright lived his life against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America, one powered by the steam thrust and mechanical pulse of industrialisation, of sending skyscrapers towards the stratosphere in cities such as Chicago, which in the 1870s had been the fastest growing city on the continent.
Wright became the best paid draughtsman in Chicago, when he was working for the influential firm run by an engineer and solver of complex public buildings Dankmar Adler and Paris-trained, Beaux Arts-influenced Louis Sullivan.
In his book ‘On Late Style’ the critic Edward Said shows us how certain artists had a late flowering, true in the case of Verdi, Rembrandt and Wagner and Wright certainly had his own similar blossoming, a period of undiminished vigour and vision.
The Johnson Wax Administrative Building in Racine, Wisconsin. The commission to design the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The creation of ‘Usonian’ homes, an attempt to create a modern, low-cost home that would spawn many imitation ranch style houses over the years.
But all this boundless creativity was sometimes matched by destructive forces.
Along life’s course Wright faced tragedy, such as the mass slaughter of many members of his household when a servant ran amok with an axe, some periods of testing penury and others when he was castigated for his immorality.
All this and more are present in Adams’ excellent book which is beautifully designed, meticulously researched and crisply written.
It goes a long way towards underlining why Wright is the architect’s architect and manages to contain a capacious, sprawling and colourful life between its covers.
And shows how Wales is very much an integral part of that enthralling story, a rich tale of out-and-out architectural genius.
Frank Lloyd Wright: The Architecture of Defiance by Jonathan Adams is published by the University of Wales Press and is available from all good bookshops.
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