Frank Lloyd Wright Loved to Hate New York
If you know the slightest thing about Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ll know that he abominated New York City in just about all of the colorful and scabrous ways that he could. There are dozens of deprecations to draw upon, about “dying a hundred deaths a day on the New York gridiron in the stop-and-go of the urban criss-cross” and more of every variety: “I have seen an enormous glut of everything—and seen nothing of any true significance where any real life worth living is concerned.” But Wright also needed New York, and made very considerable use of it during his most difficult mid-career years, as a not infrequent home base for public relations, for writing income, and of course as a source of clients. He also even occasionally enjoyed it.
All of this is well-detailed in Anthony Alofsin’s new illuminating book, Wright and New York. “Between 1925 and 1932 the city turned him around, moving him from personal and professional crisis to set the stage for his final decades as the American champion of modern architecture.”
Most Americans hadn’t been to New York around the turn of the century, but Wright’s inaugural visit in 1909 came late by the standards of eminent architects, at age 42. During his first visit Grand Central Station was under construction; the 1960s Pan Am Building rose very shortly after his last. He didn’t care for much of what he saw on his first visit, or much of what rose subsequently.
His most sustained periods in New York came during his most difficult professional and personal years, the reverse of most years-in-the-wilderness narratives: there was no Churchillian retreat to Chartwell, but early on he had to decamp his sister’s home in the 1920s, amidst his infamous second divorce.
These years saw Wright reduced to various exigencies for money, selling his collection of Japanese woodblock prints and a substantial collection of German monographs on his work. He wrote to Darwin Martin, his Buffalo client “‘We are cutting up bedsheets for handkerchiefs.”
Wright also occasionally obtained some work in this leanest of periods, although given his cantankerousness you would have thought he was paying the clients. His most notable New York proposals included one plan all but impossible to realize, and then another he proceeded to undermine through supreme irascibility.
Wright’s two great New York projects that got away were both commissioned by another genuine New York character, the Reverend William Norman Guthrie, Episcopal rector of St. Marks in the Bowery (to this day the second-oldest church in New York city, dating from 1799). Guthrie was an odd sort: “He invited Native American chiefs to hold ceremonies in his church and commissioned scantily clad women to perform eurythmic dances. He wanted to overturn the foundations of church liturgy and replace them with rites of universal worship.”
His services drew upon Native American, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, and even a little of the Bible, and attracted more than a bit of notice. It’s no surprise that Guthrie was enthusiastic about Wright’s bold visions, in this case a dramatic structure, the Modern Cathedral, which would have been 2,120 feet wide. As Alofsin writes, “Encompassing four-tenths of a mile, this enormous space would be “the largest known interior space in all of history.”
It would have been almost as tall as the Chrysler building, which was soon to be the tallest building in the world. It would have been a massive and dazzling structure, integrating artist studios amidst the sanctuary. He analogized the building not to any one or two things but to: “1. Spider’s Web, 2. Fish Net, 3. Passion Vine and Flower, 4. Fringe [?], 5. Pendant, Stalactite, and Stalagmite.”
It unquestionably would have been interesting, looking radiant in sketches. It also genuinely was not a faceless monolith, meeting the street well and full of eye-catching detail, if it’s also unclear where the space for such a giant structure would have been found in Lower Manhattan. “A vision of urbanity, the Modern Cathedral was the kind of dense, diverse harmony that only a city, at its best, could provide.”
This was not the end for Wright and Guthrie: another seemingly more buildable project was for the St. Marks in the Bowery Towers, residential structures designed to surround the historic church and provide it a source of income. He proposed, with modifications over time, some of, quite simply, the most interesting modern towers ever devised. Breaking the mold of the square and rectangle that had and would dominate skyscraper construction for its full history he proposed a pinwheel design.
Instead of being supported by a forest of columns set in a grid, the building would be organized around a concrete pylon that ran its entire length and contained the elevators and mechanical shafts. The shaft penetrated deep into the earth, like the taproot of a great tree. Each floor would be cantilevered from the pylon, like branches extending laterally from the trunk. Not only would the floors be fung from the core and spun around it, but their undersides thinned towards their unsupported edges, saving both in material and in overall weight.
Their engineering was innovative, but their look was anti-modern in key ways:
The patterning for the St. Mark’s Tower provided a powerful, if subtle, icon; the ornament was essential, not an extravagant irrelevance. By bringing the outside pattern into the interior, Wright was making a harmonic, unified whole. This feeling of totality and integration lay at the heard of his organic architecture. His approach veered vastly from the bare and planar aesthetics of Functionalism.
Wright went about this commission in typically fractious fashion. Guthrie repeatedly and diplomatically stressed his need to convince his vestry board, which Wright proved almost entirely unhelpful in doing. He asked, not unreasonably, for a few sketches of the project paid by the sheet: Wright refused, asserting that his buildings were works of total design. Guthrie wrote Wright mordantly. “For this purpose you have to assist me by putting on a due appearance of humility, which is very hard for you to do.”
Wright replied with typical modesty: “Were a vote to be taken by you among architects of Europe whose work our American Architects emulate—as to whom they would nominate as best qualified to build your building for you—they would give you my name.”
Wright still refused to send any drawings before the commission was approved, citing the theft of prior such drawings. He then dodged a desired meeting with Guthrie and leaked these plans to the press, irritating Guthrie who rightly feared that nearby property owners would raise prices. Guthrie was irked,“Do you realize you have just flashed before us, wizard-like, a beautiful vision, and fled incontinently?” He continued,“You seem to think you can shoot through this town like a gorgeous coruscating celestial explosion, and take effect; but really I cannot manage to get a quote for a vestry meeting in less than a week’s time, and that is hard work.”
Wright’s eventual presentation of 20 drawings of an 18 story tower scheme was a bravura display of charm and design, replete with imaginative detail. The exterior pattern was sawtooth-like with glass skin shifting slightly outward as it rose. The units were duplexes with multiple balconies. Windows pivoted vertically and featured screens in alternate rows so that the glass screens could be washed from the interior.
They also included vertical blades that could be expanded or contracted to control light. It would have been a pioneer of modular construction, as many portions could be assembled off-site. Characteristically, he even still supplied no specifics on cost, “the numbers seemed undignified as his work of art took its first public bow.”
Having finally consented to explain himself, he was undone by timing, as the project was unveiled on November 4, 1929, a mere six days after Black Friday, and the project was soon rejected.
New York continued to fuel Wright’s building schemes, as an example of what life should not be, with that city serving as a prime inspiration for his bizarre plans known as Broadacre City. Wright quite reasonably loathed Le Corbusier’s Plan Voison as a mechanistic straitjacket for humanity but he proceeded to propose something just as impractical. His notion was to disestablish the city altogether, “Ruralism as distinguished from Urbanism is American and truly Democratic.”
All of the buildings proposed by Wright’s Broadacre City (and realized in model and drawing form most fully in his 1935 Industrial Arts exposition in New York in 1935) are sprawled out in a state of tremendous automobile-reliant sprawl, without a conventional street in sight. It was a sharp contrast to its host city, “New York City represented the total opposite image to Wright’s spread-out vision of a four-square mile, low-density settlement in the country.”
For all of its imaging of freedom, it was in large part of absence of control that Wright loathed. He commented to Olgiavanna once, “Every city is after-the-fact an overgrown village. No city is deliberately planned.” His vision relied upon the state to banish all such deviation from the picturesque.
Ironically, while Broadacre City contained decentralized activities, it hypothesized a centralized government as a means of limiting bureaucracy and linking local and county officials more directly to the federal government. In this system of localized county government, central control would be extreme: land distribution, for example, would be controlled by the agent of the state, the architect, who would be the “arbiter of organic architecture.”
The Broadacre proposal was among the most prominent of Wright’s very considerable work of self-promotion and writing conducted from the heart of the American PR and publishing worlds. Alofsin notes that Wright “was the most prolific author on architecture in the twentieth century.” Between 1927 and 1932 he produced over 100 pieces. He wrote 14 essays for Architectural Record between 1927 including some on single materials: stone, wood, glass, concrete, and sheet metal. He wrote for stranger publications, such as Liberty and World Unity magazines, interpreting the Spirit of the New Age; any who would offer him plenty of money and little editorial meddling were welcome. Architectural Forum published a full issue written and designed by Wright in 1939. He monetized images and interview requests and was closely involved with New York museum appearances, as testy archival letters demonstrate.
His status shifted over the 1930s “from pariah to patriarch” in part due to very effective management of his own image, Alofsin notes. By 1938 he was on the cover of Time Magazine, praised as the “greatest architect of the 20th Century.”
He needed New York to play out his role as prophet and deliverer of Jeremiads. He understood that its machinery for publicity formed his most important creation: the architect himself as commodity. Wright became the first architect as a brand, leading the way for the star architects who followed in the late twentieth century.
1943 saw the start of his Guggenheim commission, which required considerable time to realize, with its site playing host to an exhibit on his work and a Usonian model home. It remains a wonderful beacon today, the spiral that is “Wright’s final assault on the International Style,” a sculptural interpolation in the literally and metaphorically square world of Manhattan.
New York wasn’t simply an ossuary for Wright’s ideas (excepting the Guggenheim) as Alofsin traces the route to realization elsewhere that Wright’s plans took. The Modern Cathedral plans were tweaked for the Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park just outside Philadelphia. The St. Marks-in-the-Bowery plan was a clear imprint on the H.C. Price tower in Bartlettsville, Oklahoma. He said as much in a monograph on the building: “The Story of the Tower: The Tree That Escaped the Crowded Forest.” He also designed the Hoffman automobile showroom on Park Avenue, tragically demolished in the very recent year of 2013.
Wright wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “The great city of New York, capital city of these United States, shows to all of the Americas the danger of excess success.” And yet Wright never seemed to take issue with all of the great success it gave him: read and find out.
Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications.