Jan 1, 2016

'The Smart of Everlasting DNA of Frank Lloyd Wright', Platea #1 Winter 2015

Publisher: Platea Media GmbH, Ismaning
ISSN: 2365-9297

When Frank Lloyd Wright, the early- and mid-twentieth century architect, first came to Europe in 1909, he did so with the explicit purpose of procuring a publisher for his many projects, mostly housing, at the time. After an abrupt attempt to establish a home in Italy, he retuned to his native USA in 1910, and immediately set out designing and constructing what would soon become his summer home, and sometimes studio, Taliesin. As his personal empire expanded, he built a second studio, Taliesin West, in Arizona, where he would summer, from 1937 onward. In 1867, when Wright was an infant, the world functioned dramatically different than it does today; France retained its monarchy, and Victoria sat on England's throne. By the time Wright traveled to Europe, first crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1909, he did so by ocean liner, and not by airplane. And it was such early-twentieth century technologies, as trans-Atlantic ocean liners, the telephone, and the mass-produced automobile, which inspired, and enthralled, Wright. He saw such technologies as progressive for architecture and drew-upon the era’s then new innovations: he made use of patterned block systems, for façades of his 1920s California houses, which referenced Aztec motifs, and frequently incorporated the use of steel-reinforced cantilevers. While in Europe, Wright had met with Ernst Wassmuth of Berlin, who published two volumes of his work and an accompanying monograph; they have since become known as the ‘Wassmuth Portfolio’, and included drawings of his many American housing projects. It captured his philosophy for an organic architecture, which advocated for a harmonious relationship between man-made dwellings and the natural world, and served to disseminate his then new ideas throughout Europe. Wright’s legacy has since spread beyond Europe and the USA, and his design philosophy was continued by his successors, notably John Lautner. Today, more than ever, those practicing an extension of Wright’s organic architecture ethics, such as the material researcher Neri Oxman, embrace his advocated symbiosis of human and nature, and amplify its intent with twenty-first century technologies.

If Wright pioneered the concept of an organic architecture, it was the seemingly infinite, and unspoiled natural landscape of the North American continent, which allowed it to flourish. Wright had trained with and worked alongside the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who is perhaps best remembered today for his famous proclamation that, ‘form ever follow function.’ It was this adage that mid-century modernist architects, as the Swiss Le Corbusier and German Mies van der Rohe, both from a generation of successive to Wright, adopted and expanded. Whereas those architects, and their contemporaries, were often burdened by the urban restraints of their European sites, Wright was oppositely unbridled by any Old World limitations, though the technologies available to him did have their limitations. Glass, steel, and expansive spaces define Le Corbusier’s and Mies’ oeuvres; a penchant for finely crafted woodwork, sensitivity toward handmade, and affection for the horizontal–rather than vertical–define the oeuvre of Wright. He embraced the building materials of his own time, as he attempted to merge landscape and site by integrating both: such materials, whether wood or glass, thus appear to be seamlessly combined, even as their joints are always exposed. Wright’s buildings are deeply integrated within their sites, as is the case with his Fallingwater–the famed 1936 vacation home of the Kaufmann family situated atop of a waterfall, along a bucolic Pennsylvania creek. Even when Wright did design for more urbane settings, such as with his single-family house ‘Jacob 1’, in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, he followed his architectural philosophy and constructed an earthed-berm along its northern wall, to protect from wind and sunlight. Wright was certain his buildings would be open to future scrutiny, and interpretation: by way of his own writing, lectures, and his legacy of built works. His architecture captured the zeitgeist of early twentieth-century USA. Perhaps more than his legacy of actually built buildings, it is Wright’s philosophy of the ‘organic’ within architecture that resounds with contemporary society, though, beyond only architectural limitations, as it infiltrates those of fashion and design.

Extending Wright’s organic legacy was one of his most adamantly supportive pupils, the architect John Lautner, who is today perhaps most celebrated for his series of mid-twentieth century houses, most of which are in California. Notable of all his built work–which is perhaps due to its historical saturation in both the architecture and popular media–is his 1964 Sheats Goldstein Residence, perched on the edge of a steep hillside in Beverley Crest, Los Angeles. ‘Lautner was crazy about Wright,’ explains the home’s current owner, since 1972, James Goldstein., who has continually worked to restore, renovate, and recently, reinterpret the house. Collaborating with Lautner, who, according to Goldstein, ‘worshipped and believed in everything Wright did,’ the house remained under his guidance until his passing in 1994. Thereafter, Goldstein turned to architect Duncan Nichols; similar to Lautner’s relationship with Wright, Nichols was once Lautner’s pupil. Goldstein–who acquired the home due to his predilection for the abundant work of Wright present in his childhood, spent in prairie-like Wisconsin–has continued work on the house since Nichols’ passing, in January 2015. They were both responsible for two additions to the property: a site-specific light installation, with James Turell, completed in 2004, and the more recent, and nearly complete, entertainment complex, which rivals the main house in its sheer volume, and when finished will include a lap pool, offices, and lounge with panoramic view of the city’s skyline, all bedecked by an outdoor tennis court. It dissolves into the sloping site. The new complex was designed, says Goldstein, ‘in the same way Launter would have, had be been alive–making use of wood, concrete, and glass.’

As technologies progress, fashion, architecture, and design will see a continual appreciation for the raw, natural, and textured–as screens proliferate daily life. What this means for these fields in the future is being defined today; Neri Oxman, a materials researcher at MIT in Boston has, since 2008, been searching for ways to create buildings, ‘without joints.’ To her, an organic piece of architecture would not be 3-D printed, but instead grown, organically, from its site; walls would clean themselves, both inside and out, and no repairs are ever needed. Such a future is possible for architecture–what does this, then, mean for design? Whereas architectural practices are limited by the constraints and budgets of their clients–and technology–fashion cycles fade faster than those of design, due to their seasonal turnout and, relative to architecture, lower production costs. The Amsterdam-based fashion designer Iris van Herpen was recently catapulted onto the world’s catwalks–most ostensibly for her 3D printed creations. Her technology-entwined working process entails a continual collaboration with an array of artists and programmers, and in this way, she has extended the bounds of fashion practice, by making such a working process permanent–it is integral, rather than regulated to limited items of her collections. Her arguably organic fashion is derived from natural influences, though is limited to the definition of biomimicry; her materials do not breathe or grow, yet. Rather than trying to decipher natural material behaviors, to recreate them, as does Oxman, Herpen is concentrated on form, which mimics the organic, in a much similar manner, as did Wright; her skeletal creations are frenetically embraced, for their newness. Oxman–unlike both Wright and Herpen–researches with an explicit purpose of understanding actual organic materials, capable of self-repair and reproduction.

A recent architectural project that enthralled the architectural media, with its sensational and seemingly organic design approach–which is in all actuality, only an organic illusion–is the Parkroyal Hotel in Singapore, by WOHA; cascading layers of greenery dramatically inhabit its tropically overgrown, and thus jungle-like front façade. Yet, it was Edouard François’s 2004 Tower Flower, in Paris, which perhaps best epitomized this early-twenty-first century trend–of placing endless plants on buildings–with verdant clusters of bamboo planters strung along its exterior corridors, which in turn cloak its silhouette with lusciousness. Coincidently, Bosco Verticale in Milan, by Stefano Boeri, is incredibly similar to it. Another, more recent example of seemingly organic architecture, is the vertical garden designed by Patrick Blanc that adorns Jean Novel’s Central Park housing tower, in Sydney. There, an integration of site and architecture is achieved with today’s technology, notably by an obtrusively large heliostat, which reflects light down to a portion of its site–a park–that is otherwise always in shade. Only time will tell if such architectural innovations are only gimmicks, or genuine additions to a seamless merging of exterior environments, and architecture. Though, are such technologies integral to the future of organic architectural developments, or do they instead serve as afterthoughts to complex design problems, which perhaps were capable of being resolved earlier in the design process? How will future architecture integrate itself, with its site? Such a holistic approach to the creation of the new, through consciousness of the design process, is the domain of biomimicry; rather than wrap buildings with infinite potted plants, buildings may one day instead grow, in the same way most plants tend to: from their site.

Architecture will need more time and experimentation, before it blends Wright’s organic approach, with materials that technology now enables humans to create. Vertically grown gardens are welcomed additions to cities around the world; though they are only the first publicly visible signs of a renewed environmental sensitivity currently being embraced within the architecture profession; some architects even specialize in such architectural elements, as vertical gardens. Others, as New York-based Marc Fornes, combine ‘systematic research’ with digital fabrication to create site-specific installations and spatial-interventions; his design solutions are algorithmically determined, as are his materials and their joints’ connections. Yet Fornes’ materials do not breathe, reproduce, or repair by reacting to their context. And so architecture–currently involved in a self-induced debate about its future–has ahead of it two possibilities: a material-interconnectivity and technologically enabled flexibility, today locally, and next century, globally; or the trusted stacking of natural materials–such as bricks–that connect their joints at the most inorganic angle of 90-degrees. Wright went to extreme measures to ensure that his horizontal, rather than vertical masonry joints gained prominence within his housing designs. And his organic outlook required him to remain near the ground, literally through horizontality, and materially, through his predilection for brick, stone, and concrete. Through thought and construction, Wright created, sustained, and legacized his organic architecture philosophy; that legacy, of integrating architecture with the natural world, is today amplified, and was, more recently, adopted by fashion and design.