The Problem Frank Lloyd Wright Didn’t Have

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

I wrote the below in 2008, for a design blog, D/visible, that has since gone into hibernation. But I’ve been thinking about the same ideas this week — essence and monumentality — and wanted to revisit.

William Cordova, "The House that Frank Lloyd Wright built 4 Fred Hampton and Mark Clark," 2006 (installation view)

“It may have escaped your attention,” says Elizabeth Costello, the title character in a 2003 novel by J.M. Coetzee, “but I slipped in, a moment ago, a word that should have made you prick up your ears. I spoke about my essence and being true to my essence.” Costello, an aging writer, has dropped the bait. She has invited the other writers, artists and scholars in the room to squirm and argue, to ask how she even knows she has any “true essence.” If they do ask, however, she won’t be able to answer because she’s not sure she knows who she is.

Artists, architects, writers—people who craft objects and narratives—have spent much of the last forty years questioning what they don’t know. It’s an exhausting, endless cycle. If you don’t know who you are, how can you understand the world around you? If you don’t understand the world, is it irresponsible to fabricate a new object or tell a new story? How will you know that what you’ve made has improved, not tainted, its environment? Pertinent as these questions are, it would be nice if they would stop stymieing artists, keeping them from doing what they want to do, which is make art.

If you can’t go forward, one strategy is to back up and interrogate predecessors who didn’t have the problem you have. Sometimes they have something to offer. Frank Lloyd Wright is one such precursor, someone who thought art, nature, lifestyle and edifice could intermarry. He believed he knew who he was, he believed in essence, and he peppered the landscape with hundreds of large, self-confident structures that didn’t apologize for their essentialism.

Ryan Taber,"Light Screens: breaking and entering ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny; An evolutionary chain locking the windows to Frank Llyod Wrights' home with the Hydrozoan microcosms of Ernst Haeckels' 'Art Forms in Nature': Frederick C. Robie House, 1908-1910, with Discomedusae, Plate 8. Kunstformen der Natur, 1904," 2006, Graphite and Watercolor on Paper

Wright wanted to break architecture down to its archetypal core and begin at the very beginning. For him, finding the beginning didn’t mean being the ultimate visionary. It meant being able to start again and again. It meant devising a foolproof methodology that would allow him to organically harmonize form, function and site each time he designed another structure.

Fallingwater, Wright’s majestic 1935 Pennsylvania house, is a love song to essence. It’s geometric, concrete slabs practically rise out of their stone foundation, like rocks that have suddenly decided to loose their souls by embracing high modernism. Whether the water falling over the cliff at the house’s base flows out of a river or a central font in the living room doesn’t matter—the cliff, the rocks, the water, and the house are all Fallingwater together.

Eric Lloyd Wright, Wright’s grandson and an architect himself, describes the methodology he shares with his grandfather as “architecture which grows naturally and usually from the inside.” Ideally, organic architecture starts from a seed of inspiration and grows outward until it emerges as a structure that validates itself and its surroundings. “It becomes an extension of the environment, although it’s designed by man,” Eric Wright explains. “But, of course, man is of nature. We can’t divorce that.” Maybe that’s what we need: a divorce. Maybe if we ended the marriage and distanced ourselves from our intimate partner we would no longer feel invasive and inferior to waterfalls, peak, and planes. “Whatever we humans do is part of nature,” Wright continues. “The thing you want to be careful about is that it’s not a cancerous growth.”

Elizabeth Costello doesn’t know how to distinguish healthy growths from cancerous ones. Also, once she puts her work out into the world, she doesn’t know how to keep it from becoming cancerous later on. “When the storyteller opens the bottle, the genie is released . . . and it costs all hell to get him back in again,” Costello thinks, “better, on the whole that the genie remain imprisoned.” She no longer trusts her narratives to venture out on their own and so, instead, she makes comparisons, aligns ideas with one another, and tries not to break new ground.

Similitude is a good alternative for someone conflicted about essence. It allows you to traverse history and make connections without saying or doing anything dangerously new. Los Angeles based artist Ryan Taber explored similititude for his 2006 exhibition, “A Rhetoric of Ills,” at Mark Moore Gallery. He worked through a series of 19th and early 20th century references that included Frank Lloyd Wright’s windows. Taber’s Wright rephrasals are delicately transfixing in their own right. Their long, headily verbose titles read like captions in dated textbooks: “Light Screens: breaking and entering ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny,” they begin. The window from Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House warps just slightly in Taber’s precise drawing, weighted down by a lyrical, aqueous jellyfish—a rendering of the Discomedusae that late-Victorian biologist Ernst Haeckel classified—which hangs in the window’s central pane. Some of the panes have cracked and these thin fissures have a subtle poeticism, suggesting that history, like any man-made structure, is ephemeral.

History’s ephemerality elicited Elizabeth Costello’s first literary success. She borrowed from James Joyce’s epic Ulysses, extracting a female perspective from the gender-obsessed narrative. It was an intricate exercise in similitude, but it didn’t make any difference. She still let the genie out of the bottle, giving her readers a narrative hook that told them, somewhat didactically, how to reinterpret literary history. In retrospect, this sort of narrative ploy makes her uneasy and she spends the duration of Coetzee’s novel grappling with her ambivalence.

Taber is retrospectively uneasy about his narratives too. His Frank Lloyd Wright windows may not have been didactic—at least, not exactly—but they framed history a little too nicely, giving viewers a prepackaged glimpse of how nature, modernist structure, and contemporary art can interact. What he and the fictional Costello both want to do is leave all the doors open, to keep their own conflicted positions as artists from defining the way viewers or readers see their work. Maybe similitude doesn’t keep the genie in check after all. Maybe how you make art matters more than what you make.

“In working with the environment we are protecting it; we’re reinforcing it. And we have to do that in order to survive as human beings,” says Eric Lloyd Wright. It’s the sort of statement that makes artists like Taber and Costello twitch. Certainly, the fireproof, concrete masterpiece that Wright is building in the Santa Monica mountains will benefit him, giving him a safe, impenetrable homestead, but what good will it ultimately do the environment?

Concrete house or not, Eric Lloyd Wright has developed a methodology, a way of working, that he can stand by. “I feel that everything is important in your way of life,” he says. “When you talk about organic architecture, you try to work in an organic environment as well as live in it.”

Ryan Taber, "Pompey's Folly," 2008, Concrete, construction debris, steel and urethane, 14 x 7 x 12 feet

By the end of Coetzee’s novel, Costello, despite her extreme dislike of words like “essence” and “belief,” realizes that her stories are her beliefs and that she has lived by moving through them, letting one story transition into another and then into another. An organic methodology of story connecting has defined her career and her life.

“Making decisions about making work is like making decisions about eating and sleeping,” says Taber, who has become principally interested in the way his methodology as an artist relates to the way he lives. Lately, he’s been exploring the materiality of rock, a massive resource he describes as “a cold, inorganic giant object.” Photographing geological nuances, he is building a growing archive of images. He hasn’t obliterated the narrative hook, but his current narrative does not purport to be anything other than a record of one artist’s thought process.

Figuring out how to put objects and stories out into the world without imposing yourself on your audience is a perpetual problem artists will indefinitely grapple with. But having a methodology, like a having a diet and a bedtime, allows you to keep making work as you keep living, in spite of the unanswered questions. It’s an old trick, using method to combat uncertainty—in fact, it’s probably what led Frank Lloyd Wright to organic architecture. Still, it’s the most stalwart, honest failsafe, and it doesn’t stifle the questioning; it just keeps the work coming.