THE GOODS : Touring a Piece of Architectural History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rich legacy of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, is kept alive by the awe-inspiring structures he left behind. Here in Los Angeles there are several Wright houses, large and small, to be seen--one open to tours.

We have so many of his masterpieces to admire, it seems of relatively little importance outside of the architectural history world that one of his earliest and least imposing buildings is no longer standing.

The Larkin Building, which Wright designed for a mail-order soap company in Buffalo, N.Y., opened in 1903. In 1950, the soap company long bankrupt, the five-story building was demolished to make way for a parking lot.

But the Larkin was like no other office building ever built, and a new CD-ROM has brought its legacy back to life.

If you can get past the silly title--"The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright: America's Architect"--there are numerous lovely features for Wright enthusiasts on this CD-ROM. The disk--which sports a beautiful design based on the architect's use of stained glass windows--includes hundreds of photographs, numerous sound bites and a few video clips concerning Wright's life and works.

The most intriguing are the "walking tours" of two still-standing Wright creations--the 1909 Robie house in Chicago and the 1924 Ennis house in Los Angeles--plus a third of the Larkin.

The tour of the Larkin begins at the front of a digitized model of the building on a particularly beautiful day in Buffalo. A click of the mouse and we swoop down to the walkway, through the main entrance and into a lobby dominated by a huge, semi-circular reception desk. We can then travel into the main part of the building and choose to go up the elevator or continue on into the heart of the Larkin--its towering atrium.

Unlike the atriums of most commercial buildings, the Larkin's was not a public concourse or gathering place. Rather, it was the main office area of the building.

At the bottom of the atrium, on the first floor, were orderly rows of desks. But there were no partitions or walls, and above the workers soared five stories of empty space, up to a glass ceiling that allowed natural light to shine through.

Traditional office builders would never allow all this open area--it would be considered a waste of office space. But Wright felt it gave a work environment the feeling of a cathedral, and that it would be inspirational for employees.

Continuing on the tour, you can tilt your view upward to gaze at the light five stories above, just like the Larkin employees who once had their desks here. Then you can continue upward to other parts of the building.

This walking tour is a wondrous use of the medium, but there are limitations.

First, you have to stay with the tour; you can't wander around the Larkin at will. Because of the limits of disk storage space, and because programming a walking tour of all of a building would be a Herculean task, this CD-ROM allows you only to examine certain sections of the Larkin.

Also, current limits on digitalization do not allow for enough detail to get a real sense of the all-important textures Wright achieved in his choice of building materials. And, of course, you can never get a true sense of space on a computer screen.

Finally, although handsome in looks, many of the features of "The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright" from Microsoft (available now on the Windows platform for about $55, the Mac version is pending) are relatively cumbersome to use. Navigating through the various features is not always easy and on the whole, the disk runs rather slowly.

But I am grateful to have had at least a limited chance to explore a building I could never see in person. And it made me appreciate Wright all the more.

Now if I could only convince The Times to break out the ceiling and install a five-story atrium above my desk.

* Cyburbia's Internet address is Colker@news.latimes.com.

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