Wednesday, December 6, 2017


The thought occurred only with the layering of ideas over time, as time and ideas do: it has to do with complexity. Street View had been opened to peruse Taliesin and Taliesin West on a few occasions, to see the contexts and locations; to sense the particularities of place, its awe-full/awful reality, and ponder the possibilities of getting there. One is always surprised by Wright in a different way to how one is surprised by Philip Johnson - see:

Days later, when strolling past a temporary table of books in the shopping centre, an early Christmas ‘pop-up’ shop, a book on Fallingwater was noticed – and purchased. One had hoped to be able to visit this house when in NYC, but things turned out otherwise; the book would be the consolation for now. Details of the familiar exterior, and the not so familiar nooks and crannies of this place, were presented, along with the landscape, an array of interior images, and various intimate details. It was not as though this publication was a hagiography or hollow coffee table tome. One chapter included information on the strengthening of the cantilevered balconies that had deflected about 150mm. This subject had been covered by Scientific American some years ago. It was refreshing to have the information formalised as a part of the history of the house: Fallingwater, published by Rizzoli, New York, 2011 in association with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy on the 75th Anniversary of this home: edited by Lynda Waggoner, photographed by Christopher Little. There are several stories about Frank Lloyd Wright and structure that have formed a part of his-story: the Johnson Wax building with its ‘lily pad’ columns comes to mind.

Johnson Wax link

Guggenheim stair

Wright's work astonishes: no matter how much one knows about it and its images, there is always more; and more again; and still more, with each image revealing something new and surprising. It feels as though just one of these ideas might have been enough to establish a reputation, but there are many themes, inventions and variations, almost a surplus when compared with Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Meis van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, both examples of minimalism in idea, form and detail. Wright’s work is breathtaking in its creativity and complexity – truly stunning in nearly every surprising way, no matter how familiar one might feel with a project.

Farnsworth House

Entry to reading room in the Guggenheim

Guggenheim toilet

The Guggenheim in NYC had revealed its little surprises too, even though plans and images of this structure have been published and perused time and time again since its completion. There was the keyhole door to the library/reading room, with its semicircular lobby and curved sliding door that had not been seen previously – or had one forgotten? There was the side space on the south with its low, arched perforation into the core spiral void. The quaintly planned little toilets on each floor impressed, both for their utility and compactness. How many galleries offer such convenience? The small, inverted void, vertically connecting the adjacent shop, gallery and cafe spaces – this narrowed with height in contrast to the main spiral that widened as it rose - reminded one of the Louvre's pyramid and its nearby, miniature, shopping centre inversion. Was Wright the inspiration for IM Pei's idea?

Shop, gallery and cafe void

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre shopping mall

Guggenheim footpath

Interior floor detail

There is always more with Wright. When one considers the difficulty of getting even simple details constructed today, one has to ask how Wright did it? One stands amazed when looking at photographs of the Guggenheim being constructed. The reinforcement alone engages one’s incredulity, the astonishment that it was designed and happened, let alone the concrete itself, its forming. Yet all of this had been detailed with the same perfection and care as that revealed in the circular pavement pattern of the footpath where the tolerances seem to be less than one millimetre. This amazement arises not only as a matter of practicality, the wonder of getting it built: it is the embracing and accommodation of complexity as a commitment, an idea, as a cluster of ideas and intents all resolved and communicated as a set of instructions, that baffles. Not only is the stonework of Fallingwater thought through as an idea, but polished timber shelves are incorporated; water spouts spray out of the walls into pools; natural rock ledges are built around and over, left perhaps for a Buddha: and still there is more thought given in this seemingly insignificant corner, to incorporate a small, square skylight in the slab above for the particular quality of light needed. It turns out that nothing is unimportant or incomplete. One is simply amazed, not only at the comprehension and the documentation required, but also at the consideration and implementation of the vision. Was all of this detail drawn? What did the contractor do? Wright wanted “a competent builder who is small enough to stay on the job and experienced enough to know what to do and how to do it without help.” Hall and Hall was chosen. One wonders if the firm was aware of the task it had taken on. Was there any serendipity in the detailing? Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Bear Run site prior to the beginning of construction. The apprentice who was to supervise the work asked Wright the datum reference of all of the specific levels itemised in the drawings. Wright pointed to a rock, and said that was it: the rest is history. Was there any discovery in this process? Was there ever the question: “What do we do here, Mr. Wright?” when a huge boulder appeared in the clearing work; or maybe didn’t appear?

Looking at some of the documents published on Fallingwater, the answer to the question of documentation seems to be “Yes,” that everything was completely detailed as intended. Wright's ability to manage such richness is beyond reasoning – but it is all there: the thought given to everything shows the breadth and depth of his engagement. Some analysts talk of this ability as ‘working with space’, (Bruno Zevi), but it is far more than this. It is knowing forms, materials and details in all of their complexity, and being able to communicate this feeling for facts for another to fabricate in the everyday matter of ordinary events. It involves an understanding of structure and joints, making – see:  in much the same manner as which it anticipates and engages experience.

One ponders issues like waterproofing and junctions, control joints and construction joints, in these complex matters of building: but they are there. A photograph in Fallingwater shows a large natural outcrop intruding into the interior. The caption notes that Wright was concerned that water might seep into the space through the rock, so he built a small channel at its base to drain any water to the outside. There is a history of Wright buildings leaking that has become legend – a negative that thrills critics. The story goes that one of Wright’s clients telephoned him to say that the roof was leaking water on to the antique dining room table. Wright’s response, “Move the table,” is seen as pure, architectural arrogance, when in fact it is the most sensible first step one could take in the circumstance.

Kimbell Art Museum

One struggles to discover a parallel that might help ordinary comprehension of Wright’s skills. It is clear that not all architects have this amazing facility to manage complexity so comprehensively. There is the story of Louis Kahn coming on to the site greatly excited and explaining his new vision, his new idea, perhaps a revised detail, to the contractor, a large Texan in the case of Kimbell Art Museum. The raw, practical response was: "That would have been a good idea yesterday!" What is so impressive with Wright is that all of these 'yesterday' ideas are able to be incorporated in his projects; that he can handle this richness and produce it; embody it. It is in this sense that one can see his work as being inspired by nature, with its integrity and completeness participating as a presence in light.

His works hold that sense of time being made now. Taliesin West was said by Wright that it would make a good ruin. In a sense, Wright made new, old, weathered buildings; he understood how the effects of time can be incorporated now, not in any false manner, but with the honest integrity that he boasted about: the irony of the dishonesty of false humility prompting what appeared to be pride and arrogance. One looks at the early photographs of Taliesin, (The Early Work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Wasmuth, Berlin), and can see a wholeness that amazes in every way; the incorporation of tiny things that might be accumulated only after years of habitation are all there. Looking at the images today, (Street View), one sees the very same parts and pieces that appear to be confirmed by nature’s mosses and algaes that have been welcomed into the surfaces: as if nature took its time to get there, to catch up with Wright’s expectations. Images of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo have the same feeling of age about them. His work incorporates a sense of sedimentation; of fretted and worn walls, ledges, paths and steps – surfaces and forms anticipating a future in the same way as his Taliesin West ‘ruin’ does. It holds the intelligence of life, nature. Is this its inherent vitality?

Where else might one sense this miracle? A similar thought arises with the rug maker, who, thread by thread makes the most astonishing of patterns in huge surfaces, intricate and complete. One event that occurred in this layering of ideas for this text is the new rug. It is a beautiful thing, modest in size, with a precise pattern both rich and complex; and three-dimensional. Someone sat and made this item. How on earth might the perfect pattern, its symmetries and varying depths be pieced together piecemeal, thread by thread: weft and warp; long and short; this knot or that? What concept was held by the maker? What organisation?

Yet it has occurred. The eye can test every detail in its slow, enjoyable perusal of this coloured, patterned, textured surface, but it reveals no slip-up; no errors at all. Even though the idea of imperfection - perfection being for the gods only – can be accommodated meaningfully, there is none. One discovers only a slight mismatch in colour: is this the deliberate imperfection? Otherwise the carpet maker has organised everything, from the geometry of the pattern in the overall rectangle and its subdivisions, and in every detail part of these, to be revealed, as planned, in complex, thread-by-thread perfection. How? It is truly astonishing, and astonishingly beautiful.

Architecture needs to concentrate on the accommodation of complexity rather than hunt for slickly smart, stylish forms. Minimalism and grand, formal iconography can come to be seen as a poor excuse for inabilities. It is too easy to be brashly bold and confident: a con? This concentration needs to occur by incorporating Sullivan’s dictum of ‘Form Follows Function,’ not ignoring it as some past, outdated theory. We have to know how to grow ideas onto past experience rather than to stride boldly over these understandings, ignoring them as irrelevances. Wright’s works are richly embellished in every way, and yet they work. Facts become little miracles in light: space and time. Tucked away in the shelving in one small, seemingly insignificant corner of Fallingwater is a slotted shelf – the heating. It forms only a minor complication in the intersections of these intimate ledges, yet it is there as a part of the whole, not as an apology or brashly expounding some quirky rationalist theory with its presence. Here one thinks of Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery at Eveux, France. Corbusier fitted all of the services into this building surface-mounted, exposed in all of their awkward random messiness. Was the idea ‘honesty,’ or was it too difficult to incorporate these pipes and conduits into the idea? The question deepens when one realises that Corbusier could not, or did not bother to vary the concept to express the rigour of function in its forming and use of balconies: see - Was ‘honesty’ merely a ruse?

Rayner Banham tells of his surprise in one of Wright’s houses. He had been invited to a party, and, during the evening’s chatting and socialising, he had sat on a window ledge, only to discover it was the source of the heating. Wright incorporated services and integrated these within the complexity of his space, structure, materials, forms, and decoration without apology or excuse. He designed everything – lights, furniture, fabrics, rugs, leadlight windows. Fallingwater’s open fire water boiler astonishes. That something so simple could be considered by the master shows his mastery – his link to humanity: flesh and blood. There is a mind and body at work, feeling for place and people; embracing a world of wonder with care and interest: intrigue – being there. Wright’s were no mere intellectual games, and yet they were.

There is the story of a child writing to Mr. Wright. He had designed the family’s home. The request was for Wright to design the dog house. Wright responded, explaining that he was busy at present, but that he would do it when he had time. He did! It was Wright who added the yo-yo to the rendering of the Guggenheim interior that illustrated a child looking over the balcony into the spiral space. There seemed to be nothing that did not interest him; nothing too insignificant to be ignored – except stupidity that always stimulated his intolerance.

There is a quality that is more than skill here: it has to do with loving life and people; the world: nature. An unbelievable astonishment – where we cannot marvel enough, (Martin Lings on Islamic art) – is embodied in his works. One has to ask not only what this is, but also how it is possible? How can good work, (Good Work Schumacher), be accomplished? It involves something personal, rich and caring; loving, as Schumacher noted. The wonder of nature hums in both location and building with Wright: their dialogue. Only the Guggenheim struggles in this regard, torn away from nature, remote in NYC. The project was accepted almost as a challenge by Wright, to prove that he could do it - build in a big city context. Interestingly, Wright selected a site that was located as close as one might get to nature in NYC, Central Park, without being in it. The Guggenheim stands near one of the main entrances to the park on Fifth Avenue, at E90. It appears to be inviting folk to experience the beauty of the trees as well as the building – its longing to be with the park.

Looking out from the Guggenheim cafe

The experience of not being able to marvel enough needs pondering, for it has to do with the accommodation and embodiment of complexity – a richness of subtlety, feeling, love integrated into a wholeness – a holiness: truly a spiritual wonder.

What does it mean for us? What must one do? How can a knowing humility of honesty and certainty be embraced both in the doing and its outcomes? We need more than the wonders of technology to accomplish this.

On technology, one can turn again to Wright to understand more. He was emboldened by the new technology of his day. All of the mechanical tools were not seen as a loss of craft, as Morris envisaged them. Wright spoke of these gadgets, this mechanisation, as being a way to perfection. Alas this change has taken the lowest denominator, the path of least resistance, to become a way of doing things faster and cheaper, leaving one yearning for the integrity of the lost Morris handicraft that can no longer be afforded. One has to ask how the technology of our era can help us rather than embolden us to a false greatness of hopelessness: a phantom grandeur described as progress. Considering that Fallingwater was completed in 1937, one has to wonder about our ‘moving forward,’ as the jargon describes it.

Do we have to learn to become 'rug makers'?

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