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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What I've Learned from Frank Lloyd Wright

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate just how lucky I was to have known what I wanted to be “when I grow up” from age 12. In 1981 we built our house only a mile from the apartment in which I grew up in St. Louis. I rode my bike to the construction site every day for the 6 months it took to complete and absolutely fell in love with architecture, especially residential.

I came across Frank Lloyd Wright’s work while attending the University of Kansas, where we had Taliesin alum such as Curtis Besinger and Victor Papanek. This was when my travels to Mr. Wright’s buildings across the country began and still continue to this day. We’ve all heard people say that you can’t learn only through books and classrooms – that you must experience your interests first-hand. This became apparent after spending time inside and out Mr. Wright’s work and speaking with numerous original homeowners who told us stories and experiences that were not in any books.
After visiting well over 100 buildings around the country (spending the night in some of them) as well as reading dozens of books by Wright and about Wright and listening to audio of Mr. Wright speaking to apprentices about architecture and life itself, here is what I’ve learned from Frank Lloyd Wright:

Appreciation for Nature

Mr. Wright's work is synonymous with Nature, capital “N”, and his architecture makes you realize the benefits of your greater connection to it. Most if not all of Wright’s work occurred in natural settings with enough acreage to create a private, restful atmosphere. His buildings “hug” nature, literally, through the use of planters extending from the structure.

The buildings grow from the site instead of being put on top of them. Mr. Wright often said that a building “should appear to belong where you see it standing”. Nature was Mr. Wright’s stage, and the building provided a front-row seat to the sights, sounds and smells of birds, rain, the rustling of leaves, deer, changing sun angles and the snow. This is exactly the experience at the Penfield House in Ohio, where the view to the landscape is through 12-foot French doors from the built-in Living Room bench seat. We sat for hours watching deer and feeding the birds.
You become relaxed as your biorhythms attune to the site – you connect! The troubles of the world slip away in this parallel universe. It’s quiet, peaceful, joyful!! It’s also very difficult to go “back to civilization” after you’ve experienced Mr. Wright’s architecture. You wonder why you’ve been living in what you have for all this time. I remember sitting with Ken and Phyllis Laurent in their Living Room, all warm, dry and cozy as a storm passed by. It was wonderful! You begin to “see” Mother Earth in her infinite variety and understand that she is the ultimate context in which all man-made structures exist. Wright’s work was “green” before it was popular or necessary to be so. We’ve tried to bring this Nature appreciation back to our own house, Optimista, by connecting inside and outside through design, as well as feeding the birds every day and maintaining the landscaping.
Appreciation for Beauty and Integrity
Mr. Wright’s work has been rightly described as “works of art” in and of themselves. Wright called architecture the “Mother Art”, and had an appreciation of music, literature, and sculpture – believing in the integration of the arts and architecture. One of his best examples was in Midway Gardens, a beer garden/restaurant/entertainment complex built in Chicago in 1914 (unfortunately demolished in 1929).
 Wright’s work has made me cognizant of scale, proportion and the consideration of what the eye sees - where it rests. He said that ornamentation (not the enemy by the way) should be “of the building” and not as merely surface application on it. Mr. Wright designed niches and/or shelves with proper lighting specifically for a Client’s painting or sculpture as an integral part of the overall design. Part of the meaning of the word “Organic” (the name for Wright’s architecture) is “part is to whole as whole is to part”. There is design continuity throughout the entire building as a whole, just like there is in Nature itself. Nothing is out of place or disparate from the design theme. The design integrity is maintained through and through. As I walk through the design of our own home, I have always tried to think about what the eye sees as you move through the space. Where should a piece of sculpture go? What looks right? Would a mirror here allow you to see the sky through that high window? What do you see when you turn this corner? Does the custom furniture I’ve designed for the house relate and “fit”. Is everything you look at beautiful? How could it be better?
Appreciation for a Cultured, Civilized Life
In much of my readings about Frank Lloyd Wright there are many references to him and Mrs. Wright being good hosts to Clients and visitors at both Taliesins. They had their infamous Easter celebrations every year, where Wright would wear his white suite and shoes.
Taliesin always held small concerts, had tea time, and fabulous dinners. Guests would be entertained and enjoy the beauty of Wright’s architecture and overall property. The way of life at Taliesin was completely their own making – a life that encouraged you to be the best representative of humanity. I’ve read from original Client accounts of visits to Taliesin that Taliesin didn’t “go by the ways of the world”. More recently I’ve come to admire this and tried to create this kind of environment for my wife and myself. I’ve learned that you can design the way of life you want to live – regardless of what is going on in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of the free, creative individual who has space and comfort in our great Democracy has inspired me to think about how my wife and I want to live – that we make life happen instead of life happening to us! Recently I’ve been shopping for a tea set, which I would have never thought of if not for an appreciation of Wright. We want to host and entertain properly more often. We want to show off our own unique home and fill it with friends, family, peace and love. We want to serve guests good food and wine in a beautiful space surrounded by beauty with Classical music filling the air.
Mr. Wright always dressed impeccably, out of respect for himself and guests. He said that you acted differently, more nobly and with dignity when you dressed well. We also want that for ourselves, which is quite different from our sweat pants and T-shirt culture.
In all the books I’ve read, especially by original homeowners themselves, about their lives in their Frank Lloyd Wright house, they all were enriched and uplifted by the experience. They were educated, not just academically at a school, but by Mr. Wright and his architecture on the joys and possibilities of what it meant to be truly humane. Wright Clients traveled, were open-minded, well-read, and had a desire for learning. They were involved or had an interest in the community, the arts and education. They had purpose in life – a reason to get up every morning and make the most of this day. They were, and still are, the best of America. I want nothing more than that kind of life for my own family, and as an architect mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright, am privileged to keep trying every day to achieve it!
Colin Edward Slais
Scottsdale, Arizona