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FLW And The Leaky Roof

Posted by acdtest on August 29, 2003

Frank Lloyd Wright And The Leaky Roof

here’s a disease of sorts currently afflicting a large segment of the Eastern cultural elite that would be comical were the doings and opinions of that elite not so widely influential. The chief, and most destructive, symptom of the disease is a determined eschewing of even the appearance of elitism, and a wholesale and prominent embracement of pop culture and populist concerns in the matter of the arts. The disease seems to afflict for the most part, though not exclusively, those who, for a variety of reasons, have run out of anything of genuine substance to contribute to the conversation on the high arts, and so have in consequence embraced a domain within which they can operate with relative freshness of approach and insight.

Well, why not?

Here’s why not — and right from the weblogging keyboard of a card-carrying member of the Eastern cultural elite (take especial note of the use of the term “fan” in the following):

I know I’m committing art-fan-heresy if not actual art-fan-treason by admitting this, but I’m not a Frank Lloyd Wright fan. Yesyesyes, he was a giant and a mega-talent, and his buildings are often beautiful. (I’m not blind.) But while they’re beautiful as structures, they’re often absurd as buildings.

[…]

Simple question: Would you want to live in one of his houses? I wouldn’t, for two main reasons. Most important is the way a Frank Lloyd Wright house never becomes your home; instead, you move in and become the curator of one branch of the Frank Lloyd Wright museum. You’re just the custodian in a monument to his genius. For the other, I wouldn’t want to be in charge of (let alone pay for) the upkeep. Wright couldn’t resist trying out innovative building techniques — which has meant in practice that many of his houses are in semi-constant need of expensive repair.

[…]

The buildings work as they’re supposed to only if you first submit to FLW — and submit totally. Give over to his genius, and then you’ll have earned the right to experience the full, transcendent FLW experience. What if, on the other hand, you prefer to live by your own rules and you expect your house to play along? You may find yourself wrestling with a nightmare as well as courting bankruptcy.

So, what’s wrong with this picture? I mean, it all sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it?

It does indeed — if you’re talking about a tract house, or a stand-alone designed and built by a builder along more or less typical commercial lines. Such bourgeois concerns, however, have no place when the house is one designed and built by an architect of genuinely transcendent aesthetic gift.

Wright’s houses, for instance, are notorious for their leaky roofs. As a house is the most elemental and paradigmatic instance of a shelter a leaky roof would seem a most damning and fundamental fault. And so it would be were the house simply a building. With the possible exception of his earliest work, none of Wright’s houses qualifies as simply a building. They’re all, as is all great architecture of any sort whatsoever, first and foremost works of art. That’s to say, considerations of the aesthetic trump all else. As Wright himself is reported to have responded in answer to complaints concerning those infamously leaky roofs: “That’s what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.”

Glib, arrogant, cavalier, and the effusion of a monstrous ego most certainly. But essentially true nevertheless.

Should Wright have taken more engineering care in working out his house designs? Perhaps. But it’s not as if his houses were dangers to their original owners; not even the cutting-edge, structurally innovative, and justly aesthetically world-famous Kaufmann house, “Fallingwater”, which today, some 65 years after its building, is in danger of collapsing without extensive (and wildly expensive) correction of its fundamental engineering faults.

And what about the whine of “…a Frank Lloyd Wright house never becomes your home…. […] You’re just the custodian [of] a monument to his genius. […] What if….you prefer to live by your own rules and you expect your house to play along?”

In short, the answer is you hire a good, solid, bourgeois builder to build a house for you, and leave the all-too-rare Wrights of this world free to serve those worthy of their transcendent aesthetic genius.

UPDATE 1 (24 August at 11:56 AM Eastern): Weblogger Alexandra of Out of Lascaux comments. Alexandra imagines that the author of the above quoted piece was merely baiting. Would that it were so.
UPDATE 2 (24 August at 12:28 PM Eastern): Weblogger David Sucher of City Comforts Blog also comments — in a manner of speaking.
UPDATE 3 (26 August at 1:09 PM Eastern): Weblogger Lynn Sislo of Reflections In D Minor comments as well. She carelessly writes:

A.C. Douglas seems to think that because Frank Lloyd Wright was an Artist his buildings should not be held to the same standards as ordinary buildings…

which is not what A.C. Douglas wrote as any clear-eyed reader can confirm for himself.

Her less careless prediction that,

I know A.C. Douglas will consider my attitude “bourgeois.”

is, however, right on the money.

UPDATE 4 (27 August at 12:18 AM Eastern): Oh dear. Is there no end to these howls of deepest indignation from that noblest of creatures, that salt of the earth, the Common Man, whose tender sensibilities have been so wounded at the suggestion he and his common concerns are not the true measure of things but merely the commonest of common denominators, that his defensive rhetoric has been driven to execute the most prodigious pirouettes. Which brings me to weblogger J.W. of Forager 23 who is the latest to offer his comments. And, Ooooo!, is he upset. (Update of the update: I comment further here.)
UPDATE 5 (29 August at 1:51 PM Eastern): Weblogger Aaron Haspel of God Of The Machine has now entered the FLW sweepstakes with his comments, concerning which comments I’m certain I’ll have more to say anon.
UPDATE 6 (29 August at 9:04 PM Eastern): The anon of the immediately preceding update is here and now.
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