Frank Lloyd Wright

Ken Burns's documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, that aired over the last two evenings on PBS, was predictably apolitical. This guy could make a documentary on the rise of Nazism and spend half his time discussing the fashion statement embodied in SS uniforms.

That being said, the show did raise a number of interesting questions that I had never considered before. Although I have toured through some of Wright's houses, I never gave much thought to what inspired him. As it turns out, part of the inspiration was the arts and crafts movement launched by William Morris, the English Marxist, artist and utopian thinker. (Morris's utopianism was of the best kind. It simply was presented as a dream about the future.) Morris explained how art and humanity should interact in "The Lesser Arts of Life":

"You understand that our ground is, that not only is it possible to make the matters needful to our daily life works of art, but that there is something wrong in the civilisation that does not do this: if our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art, they are either wretched make-shifts, or what is worse, degrading shams of better things.

"Furthermore, if any of these things make any claim to be considered works of art, they must show obvious traces of the hand of man guided directly by his brain, without more interposition of machines than is absolutely necessary to the nature of the work done.

"Again, whatsoever art there is in any of these articles of daily use must be evolved in a natural and unforced manner from the material that is dealt with: so that the result will be such as could not be got from any other material: if we break this law we shall make a triviality, a toy, not a work of art."

This credo was central to Frank Lloyd Wright's early approach not only to architecture, but to design as well. He often took pains to design not only the house in a "natural and unforced manner" but even the furniture and utensils within the house. For one client's wife, he designed the dress she was instructed to serve food in, at a dining table and plates that he also designed!

Wright was also insistent that houses not dominate their natural environment but meld into them. The documentary quotes his explanation of why he refused to put one house at the very top of a hill. He said that the top of the hill belongs to nature and should be enjoyed on its own terms. The house was placed on the brow of the hill instead.

So it would be fair to say that Wright expresses a certain possibility for socialist architecture. His designs are an expression of the William Morris direction in Marxism toward an ecologically sustainable living environment that abolishes town-country distinctions. Wright, by the way, was outspokenly anti-urban. He viewed most urban architecture as hostile to the human spirit.

Now the other dialectical possibility in socialist architecture is represented by the German Bauhaus. The Bauhaus movement got its inspiration from the Russian revolution and the Futurism artistic school which celebrated industrial progress and technology. Bauhaus architects such as Gropius were inspired by modern industry and had very little interest in blending in with nature. In fact that insisted on using unnatural components such as glass and steel in their buildings. They also were quintessential urbanists. They designed urban apartment houses for the industrial proletariat, while Wright's clients were suburbanite millionaires.

Indeed, as Wright became more and more established in his profession, he became more and more attuned to the overweening ambitions of such clients, whose life-style he himself began to emulate. The need to connect to broader humanity, a key element of the arts and crafts movement, was dumped overboard as Wright became a pyramid-builder for the ruling-class. By the time he reached middle-age, Wright openly complained about the "mob-ocracy" that was destroying America. He began to resemble the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."

Politically, Wright becomes a typical American eccentric. A life-long pacifist, he joins America First in opposition to WWII. Some of his apprentices, who share his beliefs, actually spend time in prison for refusing to serve in the army. He also learns to exploit his workers like every other American boss, making them work long hours at low pay in pursuit of the "higher goals of the firm". There is an added twist in Wright's exploitation. His third wife, who helps him satisfy his careerist lusts, is a disciple of the Russian cult-leader Gurdjieff. Her knowledge of the inner workings of this spiritualist sect surely helped him create his own cult of worker-bee disciples.

Philip Johnson supplies much of the commentary in the documentary. Johnson was single-handedly responsible for developing the post-modernist style. Originally influenced by the modernist/socialist Bauhaus school, Johnson soon dropped the commitment to working-class improvement and retained only the industrial aesthetic. David Harvey has nailed Johnson's pretensions to the wall:

"But the increasing affluence, power, and authority emerging at the other end of the social scale produces an entirely different ethos. For while it is hard to see that working in the postmodern AT&T building by Philip Johnson is any different from working in the modernist Seagram building by [Bauhauist] Mies van der Rohe, the image projected to the outside is different. 'AT&T insisted they wanted something other than just a glass box,' said the architect. 'We were looking for something that projected the company's image of nobility and strength. No material does that better than granite' (even though it is double the cost of glass). With luxury housing and corporate headquarters, aesthetic twists become an expression of class power."

Like Wright, as Johnson lost his ties to the socialist aesthetic that originally shaped him, he also went off to cloud-cuckooland. While Wright opted for America First, Johnson leapt directly from the frying-pan into the fire and became a fascist sympathizer. This is from a review of Franz Schulze's biography of Johnson that appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

"Slender, intense, drop-dead handsome, with a cleft chin to set off his chiseled features, he was a model of young WASP privilege. Then, inexplicably, he threw it all over -- except his private fortune -- and became a camp follower of Huey Long, Gerald L.K. Smith, Father Coughlin and other home-grown Populist demagogues, returning to Germany before the outbreak of World War II as a correspondent for Coughlin's Social Justice. On the eve of the blitzkrieg William L. Shirer spotted him as 'an American fascist' and suspected him of 'spying' on the other foreign journalists 'for the Nazis.' Philip has never refuted the charge, and only late in life did he make a tepid apology for his activities.

"Was he a Nazi agent, or simply a sympathizer like Charles Lindbergh? By his own admission, he was bowled over by the uniforms, the leather belts, the storm troopers, above all the gigantic Hitlerian rallies staged by Albert Speer. Schulze, in a major discovery, has found that Johnson felt something like 'a sexual thrill' when he watched the Nazis burn and destroy a Polish village."

It would seem that architecture is the art that lends itself most the task of the socialist transformation of society. Unlike painting or music, architecture encloses us in our living and working circumstances. We are part of it and it is part of us. If socialism would combine the ethos of precapitalist hunting-and-gathering societies such as the kind so admired by Engels and Benjamin Franklin alike with modern technology, what more appropriate goal than to create the tipi of the future. The tipi was the center of the tribe's social life, while it was a unique artistic statement. The architecture of our socialist future will take this paradigm to a higher level.

What is clear, however, is that architecture at the service of capitalist profit is a very corrupting business. Whether characters like Wright and Johnson were gargoyles to begin with, or were transformed in the process of interacting with the corporations who paid them is almost an academic question. What is not academic is the need to abolish the system which shaped them.