The State of Wright: An Architects' Discussion
How do architects look upon Frank Lloyd Wright’s work? We recently convened a discussion among four active Buffalo architects to get their insights as to Wright’s place in history and his relevance today.
Ted Lownie is the founding partner of HHL Architects, a full service architectural firm specializing in new building projects, adaptive reuse of good buildings, and preservation/restoration of significant historic buildings. HHL has supplied the architects for the entire Martin House Estate project, Phases I through V, and Lownie has been intimately involved with preparing the historic structure reports, restoration and reconstruction drawings, and sitework including construction administration for all phases.
Matthew Moscati is an architect and principal of TRM Architects, a full service firm that specializes in high-end residential as well as entertainment and hospitality projects. Moscati is also a past president of the Buffalo/Western New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Patrick J. Mahoney is an architect and an associate at Lauer-Manguso & Associates. Mahoney was a founding member of the Graycliff Conservancy, is president of the Conservancy, and chairs the committee overseeing the restoration of the estate. He has directed the removal of post-Wright alterations and all restoration efforts to date.
Debbie Pease is an architect and vice president at Cannon Design. She focuses most of her efforts on creating and reconstructing educational spaces for schools and universities, and was recently involved with a pro bono effort assisting University at Buffalo students with the construction of Martin House Complex models that were utilized as base models during the visitor’s center design competition.
Frank Lloyd Wright has often been referred to as “America’s greatest architect.” Does this description still hold up in 2012?
Ted Lownie: The description “America's greatest architect” still holds and will for years to come. When one considers the extent of his career, the evolution of his design, and the body of work that exemplifies it, no one else comes close.
Matt Moscati: In 2012, I think that Wright stands alone as America’s greatest architect of the twentieth century. There was room in the past few decades for the next generation of American architects—Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, and others—to influence both the theoretical and the practical aspects of the profession, but all have yet to match the contributions over a lifetime that Wright has made. The diversity of design, the range of his global influence, and especially the new approaches to architecture itself over deeply entrenched philosophies of his day, all put Wright above others.
Many artists and philosophers have recognized the duality of life. It has been characterized as masculine versus feminine, right brain versus left brain, the heart versus the mind. I find Wright’s work so compelling because of his efforts to address in his architecture both the rational logic and sensorial emotion.
Was there a particular project or building in Wright’s repertoire that first intrigued you early in your education, life, or career?
TL: While in college, I was intrigued with the grid as a planning and proportioning tool. As a part of this experimentation, I discovered the hexagonal variation that Wright employed in the design of the Hanna house (1936) and marveled at the resultant flow of space. I never employed that particular grid, but it remains one of many discoveries that make architecture such a wonderful learning experience
MM: In the architecture school I attended, the program was very theoretical and European-based. I found myself captured by the ideas of architecture that did not emphasize the entire human experience. Visiting masterworks throughout Europe, I was intrigued by the cerebral experience as manifested in physical form. I was left somewhat unfulfilled by the lack of emotional response generated. It was not until I returned to the US and toured Wright projects in Western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and around Chicago that I felt Wright had successfully blended architecture fascinating to the mind and comforting to the soul.
Patrick Mahoney: Fallingwater captivated my interest as a teenager and started a quest to see everything he created. [In fact, Mahoney has visited almost all of Wright’s extant work.]
Wright spoke and wrote about his “principals of organic architecture.” How do you define organic architecture, and what is the simplest way the lay person can understand it?
TL: Wright wrote and spoke of his principles of organic architecture in his career—often, to me, cryptically. However, I believe that what he meant was striving to create an architecture that exemplifies harmony between the natural world and human habitation. Organic architecture embodies a design process that includes the design of every element in a building—all its parts and pieces, as well as furnishings. Everything relates to everything else as seen in the symbiotic ordering in nature. Wright once wrote “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
Debbie Pease: As an example, the cantilever [a visually unsupported overhang] exists in nature. Frank Lloyd Wright mimics that principal in his design. He also utilizes colors and materials found in nature.
What groundbreaking features of Wright’s work do we take for granted today?
TL: The creation of the “open plan,” wherein spaces flow from one to another. The spaces are not always literally defined. In addition, there’s the merging of indoors and outdoors by “breaking the box.”
MM: Wright’s organic approach led to dramatic structural statements that were integral to design concepts. Designs today are filled with images of enormous cantilevers and other unique structural systems.
DP: Groundbreaking features that we take for granted today include the column and beam construction that allowed for the use of ribbon windows, the cork flooring he utilized on the second floor of the Martin House, experimenting with concrete to make it lighter, and the idea of hiding the mechanical systems.
Has Wright influenced you personally in your own design philosophy? Are there principals that you readily incorporate in your own work and thinking?
TL: Wright has not particularly influenced me in my own work although I have considerable respect for his design philosophy and principles. I suspect that my architectural education is responsible in that I was taught not to emulate work of other architects when learning how to solve design problems.
PM: Buildings I design are designed to serve the clients interests first; when it is appropriate, Wright’s philosophy has been integrated into a structure.
DP: I try to incorporate his principals whenever I can and as budget allows.
Wright has works in many regions of the country. Why do you think his Buffalo portfolio is so important?
TL: The Buffalo projects are an incredibly important part of his portfolio. First, they established his initial true patron relationship. Second, they included his first large scale office building (a typology that he was anxious to work with), and third, it gave him his first commission to create a composition of multiple elements (house, pergola, conservatory and garage/stables) as occur at the Martin complex.
MM: Buffalo’s architecture of the early twentieth century provides a unique context in which Wright’s work can be appreciated. This is on top of Buffalo’s effort to rebuild a masterwork—priceless in itself—the Martin complex.
PM: The Buffalo portfolio is important for the range of designs represented, the scale to which Wright was able to concentrate on the work, and the level of documentation that give the modern observer insight into what Wright was really like. Too many places create a false image of Wright that not only misrepresents the architect but is simplistic.
DP: It is important to me because as a Buffalonian, I see Buffalo’s architecture as an economic driver for the area. Frank Lloyd Wright tourists are coming from all over the world to see his work here in Buffalo. And when they come, they will also see buildings designed by all of the great architects including Louis Sullivan, H. H. Richardson, Louise Blanchard Bethune, D. H. Burnham, Eero and Eliel Saarinan, to name a few. Setting aside the local factor, his portfolio in Buffalo is important because his Prairie House masterpiece, the Darwin D. Martin house, is located here. The plans for this complex were pinned above Wright’s drawing board for over fifty years.
There’s the controversial question as to whether designs unexecuted during an architect’s lifetime (specifically Wright’s) should be built posthumously—a century later in another time and place. What are you feelings on this?
MM: If there are detailed drawings available and there are not many questions left for the contractor, I would not have an issue. In Wright’s case, my sense is that his working drawings were more about design intent and there were many decisions made in the field during construction, even in his own time—but he was there to make the decisions.
PM: I believe the best way to understand a design is to experience it in three dimensions. If this can be done without major compromise, I favor it.
DP: Every situation is different. Yes, some unexecuted designs were meant for a particular site. Others were not. We should not let this get in the way of building Wright’s architecture.
In the portfolio of Buffalo projects, do you have a building or space that is your personal favorite? And what draws you to it?
TL: My personal favorite Wright space in Western New York is the Unit Room in the Martin House because of the unending discoveries that one makes when experiencing the space. Wonderfully satisfying!
MM: My personal favorite is the pergola, the link from the Martin House to the conservatory. For me, it’s the sense of space—not just the link, but the connections. It’s a very strong axial space. A lot of people can do that well, but there’s something about the way Wright did it. One feels the connections laterally: connections to the space are almost opposite to one another, but you still sense them as being part of the sequence.
PM: The southeast balcony of the chauffeur’s house at Graycliff is my personal favorite, as it is highly intimate yet completely unrestrained. The dichotomy of the space perfectly expresses a private and public space. Although it is only seen on extended tours today, it shows a masterful control of a tiny area.
DP: The entire Martin House complex is my personal favorite. The complex is recognized as Frank Lloyd Wright’s best Prairie Style home. The complex is located in my neighborhood and I keep appreciating it more and more in my role as a docent at the complex.