In Wright’s Shadow:
The Legacy of Jaroslav Polivka
By Barry Muskat

great indoors
The Guggenheim Museum, presentation drawing, 1946.
©2000 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation,
Scottsdale, Arizona.
Architecture, by its very nature, is a collaborative effort. In any project, the architect does not step up to the plate alone. Rather, the process is complex, with many human components, including, but not limited to: the client, the site-planners, the engineer, the contractors, the subcontractors, and the tradespeople.

The architect, almost as a coach, sets the game plan, designs the plays, selects the players, and, at some level, moves the effort forward. On the playing field of the built environment, the result can be seen as a victory, a defeat, or simply as a legacy—a great set of game plans left for others to follow or—perhaps—to ignore.

Throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright had many collaborators who helped realize his daring vision of an organic architecture. This creative synergy is illustrated beautifully in the current exhibition at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (on display through January 7, 2001). The exhibition explores the relationship between Jaroslav J. Polivka, the celebrated Czech/American engineer, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the consummate American architect, a relationship which, until now, seems to have escaped the attention of many Wright scholars.

The Wright/Polivka professional relationship first came to light through a unique collection of Polivka papers in the Archives of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Generously donated to the University in 1982 by Polivka’s children (through the courtesy of Buffalo’s Katka Houdek Hammond, Jaroslav’s granddaughter), the papers cover a period from 1945 to 1959, and illustrate a working relationship between Wright and Polivka that evolved into a respectful friendship. Although this extensive correspondence makes their collaboration irrefutable, the extent to which Polivka influenced Wright is still an intriguing mystery, and one which deserves consideration. Though Wright—typically—never publicly acknowledged Jaroslav Polivka’s work on his designs, these letters document Polivka’s involvement and confirm that credit is due.

great indoors
The Butterfly Bridge, presentation drawing.
©2000 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jaroslav Polivka was born to humble beginnings in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1886. Proficient in languages, he worked his way through school to get his engineering degree in 1908. He finally achieved his Doctoral degree in 1917. His career was immediately interrupted when, at age thirty-one, he was conscripted to serve in World War I, where he was wounded just prior to the armistice.

After the War, Polivka returned to Prague and in 1919 opened an architectural and engineering office. By that time, Polivka had already experienced the expressive power of a new architecture. He would have understood the modern concept of finding straightforward solutions to architectural challenges. In addition, he had become a hands-on expert in the design and execution of projects that used exciting new materials like reinforced concrete and steel, pre-cast forms, and glass as a structural element.

His expertise went even further. Polivka developed special skills in Photo-Elastic Stress Analysis, a technique that examined small-scale transparent models in polarized light. When put under stress, the optical effects determine the stress distribution. Stress analysis was used for new problems which did not have established solutions—in the 1920s, it was still a developmental technique.

Meanwhile, a new type of architecture was emerging in Czechoslovakia as Polivka’s career began. Some of the most famous members of the European Architectural avant-garde—Austrian modernists Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Adolf Loos—had been born in Czechoslovakia. These architects worked for many years as leaders and trendsetters in Vienna (a city very close in geographic proximity to Prague), the city that became the bastion of the battle against the popular Art Nouveau style and the ornate tastes of the time. It would have been natural for Czechoslovakian architects of the 1920s to adopt the Viennese tendency towards Functionalism, a principle whereby the form of a building is determined by its function. This new visual language of design was expressed in simple, rectangular volumes with the intentional avoidance of ornament. In Czechoslovakia this was coupled with Rationalism, a system in which the designer pursued a thoughtful and reasoned solution to a design problem. Czech architects used Functionalism and Rationalism to speak a language that was simple and clear, the antithesis of Beaux-Arts.

great indoors
The Rogers Lacy Hotel, presentation drawing, 1946. ©2000 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Scottsdale, Arizona.
Driven by these new developments, Jaroslav Polivka’s practice in the post-war years of the 1920s and 30s was successful and prolific.

Two particular projects gave Polivka international exposure and helped change the course of his career. First, there was the daring Czechoslovakian Pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1937, which he designed in collaboration with Jaromir Krejcar. Framed on a steel skeleton, its three stories were lifted off the ground, supported by only four piers, and sheathed in a smooth skin of glass. Another major project, the Czech Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 (which he designed in collaboration with Kamil Roscot), gave him the opportunity to emigrate to America, avoiding the approaching war.

With many accomplishments behind him at the age of fifty-three, Polivka embarked on a new career in his new country. In 1939, he took a position as research associate and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley campus. With a colleague, Dr. Harold Eberhart, he immediately founded the Photo-elastic Laboratory at Berkeley where he continued to refine and develop advances in his stress-analysis specialty.

In 1941, he applied, as joint inventor with colleague Victor di Suvero, for a Patent for Improvements in Structures, an “invention relating to structures and structural members of curved surfaces ruled by straight lines or shaped as conicoids.” Their invention showed that systems with curved surfaces could use straight structural members resulting in a structural network of great rigidity and resistance, a technique which would serve Polivka well in the future.

His amazing ability to adapt, and his knowledge of the latest technologies and materials allowed him to lecture, publish, and successfully establish himself professionally in America. Then, in 1946, a simple event changed the course of Polivka’s career irrevocably. He read an article in Architectural Forum that quoted Frank Lloyd Wright as saying that engineers were “complete damn fools!” Rather than rising to the challenge in anger, Polivka responded with an enthusiastic letter. In it he revealed both his humor and his affinity with the great architect:

great indoors
Telegram, Frank Lloyd Wright to J.J. Polivka, August 29, 1946. Courtesy of the University Archives, University at Buffalo.
“I am writing as an old admirer of you and your work which doesn’t mean very much to you because, I am sure, you are getting such letters by the thousands, and this letter probably will be overlooked. I am admiring you as an engineer, although, according to a quotation in the last Forum issue, these engineers are complete damn fools. You may be right since the engineers in their structural conceptions are very seldom guided by eternal laws of the Nature. Take for example cob webs of a spider which definitely should be studied by an engineer whose specialty is to build suspension bridges and two-or-three dimensional structural network. The average engineer knows only beams, girders, columns, and any deviation from these every day tools is considered as unusual, crazy, or dangerous. For many years I was grappling with this prejudice. Your work confirms and fortifies my ideas and that’s why I am so grateful to you.”

That letter resulted in an invitation from Wright to visit Taliesin, and began a relationship between the two men that lasted until Wright’s death, more than thirteen years later.

Much can be learned by focusing upon the seven specific projects on which both Wright and Polivka worked. Polivka’s involvement ranged from playing a minor role and acting as a consultant to Wright, to that of being the catalyst who conceived the project, brought it to Wright, and then assumed multiple roles as the project moved toward its fruition.

Only two of their designs, the Guggenheim Museum and the Johnson’s Wax Tower, were actually constructed. Still, the other projects remain exciting and of interest as a measure of Jaroslav Polivka’s contributions to his field of engineering and to Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Guggenheim Museum

Wright received the commission to design Solomon Guggenheim’s Museum for his collection of non-objective art in 1943, yet the finished building did not open until October, 1959, six months after Wright’s death. The seventeen year period until its completion reads like a soap opera with a changing cast, controversy, and intrigue. For the prime site on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, directly opposite Central Park, Wright designed a circular structure, wider at the top than at the bottom, seated on a rectangular base, with no horizontal floors on its interior. Instead, it featured one continuous spiral ramp which would climb on a five percent grade and complete five full circles as it turned along the inside of the building, providing three-quarters of a mile of gallery space.

Wright saw the challenge ahead when he wrote, “The belief seems general that the building will encounter stupid opposition and never be built—but everything I ever did has encountered that.” In fact, the Guggenheim was unique and so different from anything that had ever been built in Manhattan (or anywhere else), that the governing authorities and Wright could not even agree on the basics. (For example, officials said that the building was eight-to-nine stories tall: Wright simply said his ramp was one story.)

great indoors
Jaroslav Joseph Polivka.
Courtesy of the Polivka family.
The New York Planning Commission, always cautious in accepting new technology, found thirty-two violations in Wright’s preliminary drawings. The Building Department finally agreed that it would approve the design if the soundness and safety were proven by experienced engineers. Jaroslav Polivka provided structural analysis and used photo-elastic stress analysis testing to confirm to the authorities that the museum could be built and would be safe. He recommended a steel skeleton and specific methods of prestressing reinforced concrete.

Wright had drawn the original design of the Guggenheim with supporting posts on every floor of the ramp, although he preferred a spiral ramp freely balanced in space. Polivka’s work permitted the posts to be eliminated, an achievement of extreme importance to the success of the final execution of the museum’s interior. For it is the uninterrupted, flowing surface of the ramp’s parapet walls in their upward climb which becomes the major element contributing to the drama, freedom, and aesthetic success of the museum.

The Rogers Lacy Hotel

Buffalo’s Martin House (1904) is renowned for its elaborate art glass windows. Although Frank Lloyd Wright stopped using art glass in 1923, he continued to use glass inventively in projects like Johnson Wax (with its glass tubing), Fallingwater and Graycliff (with mitered glass forming corners), and even in his Usonian houses (pattern of wooden cut-outs with glass). Rogers Lacy, who made his fortune in oil, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a hotel for Dallas, Texas. The project offered Wright a sensational opportunity to continue experimenting with the geometric patterning of glass. Wright’s design showed a base of nine stories that covered a full city block, from which a dramatic tower of concrete cantilevers rose another fifty-five floors. Wright envisioned the hotel as the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was to be spectacularly sheathed in a patchwork of diamond-shaped glass panels. Glowing with natural light, the interior of the nine-story base featured an atrium court. The design eliminated the long corridors of a typical hotel plan and showed hotel rooms opening onto sun-balconies planted with greenery.

Wright then sought Polivka’s expertise in glass. Polivka investigated the use of Thermolux glass (one of his favorite building products from Europe) as well as alternate products and examined their light-diffusing, heat-insulating, and sound-absorbing qualities.

great indoors
Polivka and Wright at Taliesin. Courtesy of the University Archives, University at Buffalo.
Rogers Lacy died before the building design was taken to the working drawing stage. Nevertheless, both Wright and Polivka had been relentless in their search for the most up-to-date building materials throughout their careers, and they continued to discuss and evaluate work done on the Lacy hotel for future projects.

Twin Bridge vs. Signature Bridge: Crossing for the San Francisco Bay

Western New Yorkers are well aware of the swell of controversy surrounding an additional bridge crossing currently proposed for the Niagara River between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Canada. Proposals under consideration range from building a twin to match the existing Peace Bridge to adopting a new “signature” design. What Buffalonians might be surprised to know is that a strikingly similar scenario was played out a half century ago in San Francisco, California.

The boldest project of the Wright/Polivka collaboration was the design for San Francisco’s “Butterfly Bridge.” The bridge’s new shape, new materials, and new construction methods were freshly innovative and glaringly different from any other design under consideration. The reinforced concrete arch bridge to cross San Francisco Bay was clearly Jaroslav Polivka’s idea, and is significant as a project that Polivka brought to Wright. The Butterfly Bridge’s “..graceful arches.. rise up out of the water, spreading like outstretched wings.. supporting the actual roadbed itself.” Wright visited San Francisco and went on record as opposing the building of a twin to the existing Bay Bridge. He later was quoted as saying that San Francisco had the opportunity “..to overwhelm the bad taste of the politicians and to make a gesture that will redeem American civilization in the eyes of the world.”

The Butterfly Bridge was the zenith of the Wright/Polivka collaboration and a true combination of their talents. Wright, the expert at piers and cantilevers, and Polivka, the expert in reinforced concrete and shell structures, produced the very best work they did as a team. Both men saw steel truss bridges as extravagant and obsolete. Polivka called them “a devastating blemish on our landscape,” and Wright described one example as “the most awful thing I’ve ever seen—bits of steel held together with smaller bits of steel, and all of them rusting away at such a rate that a crew of painters must spend all of their time painting it.”

The Polivka/Wright team recommended using reinforced concrete and documented that their bridge would cost less than half the cost of bridges proposed by others. Their long-range vision saw that “the life of the concrete structure would require almost no upkeep” thereby projecting enormous savings in costs of maintenance. Both men had expertise in constructing buildings that were designed to survive the shockwaves of an earthquake, and designed this bridge with the added benefit of offering earthquake-proof construction.

Despite its tremendous potential, the Polivka/Wright project was not selected. It is generally conceded that this was due to pressures by a powerful American steel industry. Notwithstanding, the Butterfly Bridge project brought Polivka back full-circle to his roots, to his bridges, to the work he appears to have loved the best in Europe. He had years of experience in which his career bridged the gap from design and testing to construction and completion. The remarkable reinforced concrete design for San Francisco Bay’s crossing drew upon the field in which he was preeminently qualified.

Epilogue

It is clear that the contribution Jaroslav Polivka made to the visionary architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright should not only be recognized, it should be celebrated and further examined. Polivka was enormously talented with multi-faceted abilities to take on any number of challenges. His experiences in Europe kept him near the cutting edge of an architecture that was dynamic and changing. He had a successful career in Europe, and then in America, before meeting Wright. Clearly, he had some sort of undefined but valued role in the Wright entourage. Why then, with all the evidence to document his talent and his input, has Polivka been relatively unknown?

One might look at the role of the engineer in general to find that, with rare exception, it has been sublimated to that of the architect. The engineer may never even be credited. Further, the very diversity that made Polivka invaluable in terms of his utility to Wright was probably a major reason for lesser recognition.

Finally, Wright rarely publicly recognized his collaborators and the value of their contributions. In addition to his other talents, Wright was the master of self-promotion and, no matter how talented, a mortal like Polivka could only stand in his shadow. While respectfully recognizing Wright’s incomparable status as one of the premier architects to have ever lived, it is important to challenge traditional views of history when armed with new evidence. When the scorecards are finally tallied in the arena of 20th century architectural history, Jaroslav J. Polivka should be given full credit for his substantial role of “engineering the organic.”

Barry Muskat has a Masters Degree in Art History from the University at Buffalo and has lectured widely on the Guggenheim project. He is co-curator for the Polivka exhibition at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and has written his Master’s thesis on the topic. He lives in Clarence Center.

Engineering the Organic: The Partnership of J.J. Polivka and Frank Lloyd Wright is currently on display at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2001. The exhibition is presented by the University at Buffalo and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. It has been produced by the University Archives, the School of Architecture & Planning, Center for Virtual Architecture, Department of Media Study, Architectural and Planning Library, Lockwood Memorial Library, Center for Book Preservation, and the Research & Interpretative Department of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.


SUBSCRIBE NOW

Back to the Table of Contents

Back to Top