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ART REVIEW : Salute to an Idea Man

TIMES ART CRITIC

Frank Lloyd Wright did not need to design a house for Ayn Rand or be fictionalized as Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead” in order to be remembered, but the fact he was seems salient. He was born to an era that produced larger-than-life personalities ranging the cultural spectrum from James Joyce to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Pablos-- Picasso and Casals.

Wright certainly left a personal myth, but it rests on a foundation of unforgettable architectural images etched in the collective mind--from the levitating balconies of “Falling Water” to the conch-shell spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. His memory lives vividly in Los Angeles because of the Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park and--more recently--because of his apparent influence on Bruce Goff’s design for the new Japanese pavilion at the County Museum of Art.

Wright’s place as a keystone of the modernist movement was already solidly established when he died in 1959 at age 92, and it has never budged. One can not, however, remember the last major exhibition devoted to his work.

Now there is a welcome one visiting the San Diego Museum of Art through August. Called “Frank Lloyd Wright in the Realm of Ideas,” it does two things very well: It provides a chance for a fresh take on his legacy and it solves the most besetting problem of architectural exhibitions.

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Normally such shows let us down because no number of drawings, models, and photomurals quite make up for the lack of real buildings. Here you have the authentic thing--erected in front of the museum--in the form of one of Wright’s ‘50s designs for what he called his “Usonian Automatic Houses.” They were intended to provide custom-built dwellings at moderate cost. Walking around in it is more fun--and provides a livelier sense of the Wrightian aesthetic--than a barn full of documentation.

And what was Wright’s aesthetic? As everyone familiar with his work knows, he was very big on Organic Architecture. This is not architecture grown in a health-food store . . . but sort of.

One of the most striking things about Wright’s work is its apparent eclecticism. He seems to have worked in as many varied manners as Picasso. Wright once romanced the Romanesque, remembering his early mentor Louis Sullivan. Despite his undeniable modernity, elements of updated Craftsman style come out in much of his furniture. A pared-down sense of traditional Japanese recurs, but not in the concrete block buildings that look decidedly pre-Columbian. If we decide firmly he was an avant-gardist with roots in the past, he trips up the idea with designs that would look right at home in “Star Trek.” His proposal for a Xanadu pleasure dome for Huntington Hartford looks like it should be called “Overflowing Saucers.”

The rationale for all of this is that Wright first decided the traditional box-shaped building was too confining. Beginning with his 1906 Larkin Building he tried to “beat the box” and never looked back. That done, he became what today would be called a “site-specific” artist, tailoring each structure to the lay of the land. He also tried to respond to materials--including modern innovations like reinforced steel and concrete--seeking the solution to his design problems within the problem itself.

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His best results, like the prairie houses and Taliesan, have astonishing internal integrity and are utterly integral to their surroundings. Well, not quite. They become romantic gestures of stylish unity with the land. One admires details like his Constructivist-Deco windows even as they give him away as a mandarin exquisite.

Wright was a genius with facets. If he exploded the box he never forgot the cave, the tepee, the mosque and the temple, marking himself as an Exotic Noble Savage. In his Techno-Islamic phase he designed an Arizona State Capital that one is jolly glad was never built.

What comes across most strongly about Wright today is his visionary romanticism. He had grand ideas about American democracy that outstripped either geography or politics and entered the realm of metaphysical fantasy. In that sense he was an inheritor of Antonio Gaudi and a forerunner of Paolo Soleri. Wright was very concerned about his artistic progeny, but there are very few direct Wrightian inheritors today. That’s partly because he was a very hard act to follow and partly because he was individualistic to the point of idiosyncrasy.

The Usonian house in front of the museum looks at once striking and domesticated with its chunky gray block construction, but the minute you’re inside it feels a trifle odd. Everything is organized along a single long corridor that runs the length of the facade, beginning with the kitchen and ending with the master bathroom, which has no door. Bedrooms and a study off the tunnel-like axial corridor are beautifully detailed, but so underscaled they feel like steamship staterooms.

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By marked contrast, a copious terrace and high-ceilinged living room force the sculptural contrast of spatial sizes. It’s artistically dramatic, but does make one long for more harmonious distribution of emphasis.

Glib psycho-architectural observers have traced Wright’s love of contrasting spaces and ceiling heights to the fact he was himself small of stature and inclined to design for his own bodily dimensions.

Whatever the truth, Wright’s houses tend to exaggerate a problem inherent in most structures designed by modern architects with great talent and strong convictions. The buildings may be things of artistic joy, but they never become the spiritual dwellings of the inhabitants. No matter who owns them they always belong to the architect.


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