It is 1975. I nose my
car slowly into the mouth of a winding driveway in the mountains above Salt Lake City. My companion and I are in search of the only
Frank Lloyd Wright building in the state of Utah,
a hunting lodge built in the 1930’s for a U.S. Steel executive in the town of Bountiful.
Immediately, we encounter a printed “No Trespassing” sign;
below it is a crude, hand-lettered addendum: "Survivors will be
prosecuted." We are frightened, but
being young and feckless, also thrilled. We continue. After twisting for almost a quarter mile
uphill through a dense woods, we come into a clearing. There is the house, more of a cottage, really.
There is no other vehicle there. We emerge cautiously from our car and are
beginning to circle the house, when we hear an engine. A pick-up truck pulls in behind us, blocking
our car in. A burly young man steps out,
visibly angry; there is a rifle in a rack silhouetted in the truck’s rear
“Can you read?” he asks.
Scared, I throw out a flood of words: me and my girlfriend are
architecture buffs on the way from Boston
to the coast stopping wherever possible to see examples of FLLW’s work of which
your house is a beautiful example and we’ll be happy to leave immediately sorry
to disturb you&
Strangely, he softens, and within minutes he is showing us
around the interior, telling us his sad story.
He had bought the cottage, which was run down, to use as a base for
hunting. He was handy, and immediately
started to “fix it up.” In his case this
involved, among other changes, “flocking” the ceilings, and re-doing the
fireplace with a flagstone hearth. Word
got out, apparently through the building supply house, and he was descended
upon by a delegation of architectural students from the University of Utah, who
told him bluntly that his attempts at “improvement” were doing irreparable harm
to a work of art, and that he must cease these bogus improvements immediately,
and instead should “restore” the cottage to its original condition. “One of them even called me a ‘barbarian,’ he
said, utterly bewildered. “"I never heard
of Frank Lloyd Wright; I was just trying to make it better. Now, I wish I had never seen this place."
Though I was also shocked by
the flocking, I found myself feeling genuinely sorry for the owner. My parent’s had built a Frank Lloyd Wright
house some years before. Because they
loved Wright’s esthetic, the irony the Bountiful
house revealed was masked. The truth is,
although you may buy or build a Frank Lloyd Wright house, you never really own
it; rather, you are its “curator,” which is very different, and you must
therefore stifle any impulse to
“improve” it. Indeed, in order to ensure
that no subsequent owner could “improve” my parent’s house in the future, my
siblings and I spent a considerable amount of time and money getting a
“conservation easement” on the house and grounds, which lowered the value of
the property by legally specifying that no changes to the interior or exterior
of the house or grounds could be made without the approval of the Frank Lloyd
Wright Building Conservancy, backed by the Sate of Maryland. That done, my
sister and I sold the house to my brother Tom with pleasure. I loved it too, but had no wish to become its
curator, or the curator of anything else from the past, however innovative and
lovely it might be. I liked to tinker, to change things. My brother did not, which made him an ideal
FLLW's Lewellyn Wright House, courtesy of University of Wisconsin Engineering Dept.
But this memory makes me think about how strange the whole
business of architectural preservation and “improvement” really is. Especially in the case of Wright, who
constantly revised and changed his own elaborate residences, and fought
bitterly with those trying to conserve the ways of the past.
Despite a design
career that lasted for sixty years, Wright spent little time or effort to
preserve his own work. When asked what
his favorite of his buildings was, he always replied “my next.” And he called his architecture “organic,” by
which he meant “living,” and implicitly, therefore, destined to die.
There is in fact a school thought that argues that the
“transitoriness” of the building is intrinsic to the intent of the builder and
must be honored even if it ends ultimately in the complete decay of the
structure. This notion starts in the eighteenth century with the fetishizing of
“ruins’ as sublime examples of beauty, and continued in the nineteenth century
with Ruskin’s hymn to architectural “weathering” as Nature’s finishing touch to
any architectural structure.
This brings us up short, and reminds us of how distinctive
architectural art is. No one, after all,
wants to look at a “weathered” film, or listen to a “weathered” symphony, or
look at a “weathered” painting.
And yet “weathering” has its limits in architecture. Yes, it
should inspire us, but it needs to keep the rain out, too. Wright’s houses did
not always do that. Many of his roofs
leaked from the beginning, in some cases because his ideas were ahead of
existing technologies. He even joked about it.
One client is said to have telephoned him, distraught over a leak in her
ceiling allowing water to drip onto the hors
d’oevres at her house-warming party.
“What should I do”, she wailed.
“Madam, your house is a work of art and should not be left out in the
rain,” he replied.
By the time he died, at age ninety-two in 1959, most of the
art world agreed. His work was generally acknowledged to be of great importance
in the history of art and therefore worthy of preservation.
But how do you
preserve “organic” architecture? The
same way you preserve anything else: by trying to arrest natural processes.
Think of time as a river, and the built environment as all the material in its
channel. As time goes by, the rocks in
its bed are tumbled, smoothed, thrown up on its banks, which change constantly.
But eventually, the rocks will become sand, will become something entirely
But in many human societies, ours among them, certain
features of the stream bed are felt to
be too important to be allowed to decay.
So we strive to armor them against the ravages of time, even as the
structures around them change, evolve, die. And we particularly disdain those
who, like the Bountiful hunter, wish to be
“creative” with these special structures.
Interestingly, this impulse to preserve is intrinsically
conservative, in many ways the opposite of the impulse to create, particularly
ironic in the case of trying to preserve the work of a rebellious, rule
breaking innovator like Wright.
Can it be done? Yes
and no, I think. There are now many
organizations and individuals
devoted to this effort, and in some cases they have been
brilliantly successful (many examples are to be found on the website of the
Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy at www.savewright.org.). But can buildings
really be immunized against the passing of time, no matter how scrupulously
they are restored?
Of course not. Dusan
Makavejev, a brilliant Serbian filmmaker, once remarked that “over time, every
fiction film becomes documentary, and every documentary becomes fictional.” He
meant that even though the film was preserved, its meaning changed. Think, for example, of an episode of the highly
scripted television show “I love Lucy.” Looked at in 2007, it becomes a
documentary about how people dressed in the sixties, what they thought was
funny, etc. Something akin to that
happens to architecture. A pioneering, rule-breaking structure becomes over
time a “classic,” in the course of which you see its commonality with other
structures of the same time period against which it was rebelling. We can preserve the structures, but our
thoughts about them, and our perception of them, are constantly evolving.
An example: my wife and I live in a late Victorian cottage
built in 1898 in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.
It is in many ways typical of the houses against which Wright was
rebelling in his first great creative period.
Yet one of the reasons we bought it was it nostalgically reminded me of
the home and studio Wright built in Oak Park for his growing family at around
the same time. Time does that. The
rebels and the authorities turn out to have much more in common than they
thought. They are both, after all,
Renovated Victorian Kitchen, Jamaica Plain, photo by Tim Wright
Are we ardent conservationists of our Victorian gem? Hardly. Spurred by my innovative wife, Karen,
and helped by several designers, we have torn out walls, plastered over doors,
made one large room out of two smaller ones, created a new bathroom and a new
kitchen. Much of what we are doing, with
great delight, is in fact “bringing it up to date,” transforming a nineteenth
century house into one that better serves our twenty-first century needs.
Are we accused of artistic desecration by gangs of
architectural students for so doing? Not
at all. Unlike the poor Bountiful hunter, people
we show it to praise us for the energy and the ingenuity of our adaptations. Is
this fair? I don’t know. Our house had
an architect, but few people know his name, which gives us our license to
“improve” his work.
In the case of Wright’s work, the Bountiful hunter’s “mistake” is unlikely to
be repeated, given the spread of Wright’s fame.
Unfortunately, that same fame means that living in his houses is no
longer affordable to the kind of people who built many of them.
As far as preservation goes, the truth, I think, is that our
culture needs both types: stewards like my brother Tom, to help preserve the
iconic expressions of architectural modernism, and also people like Karen and
I, modernizers of the antique, even as all of us, structures and people, drift
inexorably toward antiquity ourselves....