America's Architect

By JEFFREY DAY - jday@thestate.com

Frank Lloyd Wright is the architect nearly everyone knows something about. And who knows Wright, and his work, better than other architects? We joined four of them for a look at "Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful" at the Columbia Museum of Art.

The exhibition explores how Wright redefined American living space and sought to create not just a house but a total, uniquely American, environment.

The four architects — Mary Beth Branham, Tom Savory, Trudie Siebels and Doug Quackenbush — talked about individual objects; Wright's philosophy, personality and impact; and how well the show accomplishes its aims.

DRAWING WRIGHT

The group first headed to a drawing near the start of the sprawling show, which occupies three large galleries. The detailed drawing with subtle colors and perfect lines was done in 1906 and shows the interior of the C. Thaxter Shaw House in Montreal.

Siebels: "The drawings are the most gorgeous aspect. That's what I look at first."

Quackenbush: "These are very romantic and lyrical. There's not just a hand in them, but an attitude that comes across."

Branham: "Drawing (for architects) is a dying art." (Most drawings are now done with the computer.)

Quackenbush: "The computer has become such a powerful tool. You can do it much more quickly."

Siebels: "But there's something atmospheric about the light and ambience you can't get out of a computer."

Savory: "In the hands of a Frank Lloyd Wright or Eliel Saarinen, these can be sublime; but not all architects can draw that well. That doesn't mean they aren't great architects."

ON WRIGHT'S EGO

Siebels: "He eventually wanted to impose an entire environment on the client. Behind everything he did was the thought of how it was going to elevate him."

The other three say "Absolutely" almost simultaneously.

Savory: "I think that's true of every single famous architect."

Siebels: "But he was more egotistical than most."

ON WRIGHT'S IMPACT

Branham: "I think he touched more people because of all his residential work. He was one of the few well-known architects who concentrated on houses."

Savory: "He really deserves credit for having pierced American popular consciousness as no other architect did before or has done since."

Quackenbush: "His ideas about freedom of space, the open plan, pushing architecture and new technology together were so important. A lot of people were doing that, but he did it in a language that did resonate with Americans — he called his architecture American."

Savory: "The negative side effect is that Wright was more anti-urban than any architect I can think of. He took the bungalow which faced the street, turned it on its side and pulled it back (from the street) and pushed everyone else away. He had a huge influence on promoting sprawl and the suburbs."

WHY THE SHOW WORKS

Quackenbush: "This (show) crystallizes why he was important through his influence on the American home."

Branham: "It's a nice mix of furniture and drawings. It's a combination that shows well what he was doing. It's great that it's here in Columbia. This is something we haven't seen here before."

Savory: "I think someone who has seen a million Frank Lloyd Wright houses and exhibitions may not see anything specifically new in this, but what they will see is the way it's put together. And they see it in Columbia. This is the most comprehensive design show ... that I've seen here."

Branham: "I brought my 11-year-old son. ... He was totally enthralled with the whole thing. Children who come get a better idea of what design is. They will look at the pieces and parts. It's something they can relate to."

Siebels: "Don't you think any child would be thrilled with the geometry?"

Savory: "It shows that modernism can be, and what the best modernism is — warm and detailed and inviting. That's incredibly important in Columbia. People walk out on the street and see buildings that are called 'modern architecture' and people say they don't like them. But they're not modern architecture. ..."

CHAIRS AND COMFORT

Quackenbush had dinner at an authentically furnished Wright home in Michigan owned by a furniture company. At dinner, he sat in one of Wright's tall, straight-backed chairs: "To sit in one of those chairs is as awful as it looks."

Savory: "You see pictures of (architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe) sitting in his chairs all the time..."

Branham: "... but you never see Wright in one of his."

They note that Wright's later chairs look more comfortable.

Quackenbush: "This is just speculation, but maybe he changed because he learned his furniture wasn't comfortable."

PLYWOOD PROBLEMS

Siebels: "I don't know whether he hated plywood or just built things out of it shoddily to show what a bad product it was. It's so sloppy compared his early (furniture), which is absolutely meticulous."

Quackenbush: "I think he was celebrating a new material and making no attempt to hide what it is."

Siebels: "Yes, but he could have used a fine-bladed saw so it doesn't have all these shards."

NOT QUITE USONIAN

The last gallery examines Wright's attempt to create and market "Usonian" houses, which were to be simple, beautiful and inexpensive.

Quackenbush: "It just didn't catch on. It was ahead of its time. After World War II, it was probably possible again, but he had moved on to much more personal projects."

Siebels: "He had to have been impressed by Sears (which sold prefabricated houses), but he was doing it for an elite."

Quackenbush: "I suspect that even though they were affordable they were, in fact, not terribly affordable. Two-story masses, interlocking spaces, a lot of glass — let's face it: It's not inexpensive, but you're still buying it out of a catalog. It's a flawed model."

Siebels: "He chose (two companies to make furnishings) that were the most expensive design and manufacturers to do this. That's not exactly Usonian."

THE LIGHT

The four agreed that the object they liked best was the Taliesin III Lamp from 1949. (The museum is showing a 1994 reproduction.)

Quackenbush: "We'd have to give it the jury's prize. That's a pretty strong piece."

Siebels: "That's Wright at his best...."

Savory: "Slightly obscure ..."

Siebels: "So elegant ..."

Savory: "So simple ..."

Branham: "We love that hands down."

 

Reach Day at (803) 771-8518.


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