Culture

In Defense of ‘Bulldozing a Modernist Landmark’

A visitor watches an interview with Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 2009. (Vincent West/Reuters)
Let’s not lose sleep over the destruction of a privately owned home at odds with architectural tradition.

On Monday morning, the Wall Street Journal published a piece lamenting the impending demolition of the Booth cottage in Glencoe, Ill., a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Bemoaning the fate of a “modernist landmark”, Michael J. Lewis quotes an ad from the time of construction that describes the house as “marvelously beautiful.”

I have just one question for Lewis: Have you seen the Booth cottage? It’s just another small, suburban house — and an uglier-than-average one at that. I’d be willing to bet that 99 out of 100 Americans driving by wouldn’t give the cottage a second look. And that one other guy will only stop in awe because he heard someone mention the name “Frank Lloyd Wright.” He may be amazed at its beauty, because, of course, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright, but he’d have the same response if you picked any other simple suburban one-story and told him it was designed by the best-loved American architect. And nobody could really blame him that he couldn’t tell the difference.

Lewis identifies the desire to tear down the 1913 house (in order to free up the large, mostly unused lot on which it sits) with a broader disregard for our history and culture. There’s no doubt that the broader cultural phenomenon exists. Passion for the great cultural traditions handed down to us, though briefly and dramatically reignited by the recent fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, has all but disappeared. But it makes little sense to lump disregard for a Wright design in with this broader trend.

In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright is not a victim of the destruction of our cultural heritage but a major player in it. Wright’s style, of which the Booth cottage is more or less typical, is all about undermining traditional aesthetics, substituting simple geometry for ornate design. He went a step beyond the common modern motto “form follows function” in saying that “form and function are one.” His work in the period of the Booth cottage is entirely minimalist and utilitarian. It is architecture that is not art. (The same is not necessarily true of Fallingwater, Wright’s later masterpiece, but the undeniable beauty of that estate rests much more on the natural landscape than on the jumble of right angles and windows that Wright jammed into it.)

Wright’s recognition as one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century — and certainly the most influential American architect — is fair. But the value of that influence has been decidedly negative for architecture per se. Lewis correctly points to Wright as a major developer of the common styles of American suburban architecture. The utilitarian benefits — Wright-style houses are compact, stable, and relatively cheap to construct — may be valuable contributions to the social aspect of architecture, but they’re irrelevant to the question of cultural value, which is what Lewis attempts to address.

Wright’s legacy isn’t limited to America, either. The Wasmuth Portfolio (1910), a collection of Wright designs that preceded the Booth cottage by just three years, was widely circulated in Europe. The Robie House, built in Chicago in 1909–10, is exemplary of the portfolio’s style. It’s pleasant enough to look at, sure, but a casual passerby could easily mistake it for a satellite branch of the local public library. It’s not Alhambra by any means. Hell, it’s not even a decent-looking colonial.

“Pleasant enough to look at” is a good enough standard for American suburbs, but it has tragic results when transported across the Atlantic. The Wasmuth Portfolio was a major influence on many of 20th-century Europe’s most prominent architects, including that worst of all anti-artists: Le Corbusier. In Europe, where a long and rich architectural tradition already existed, the style of Wright (and others who took his guiding principles even further) makes for an ugly contrast. Just compare Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation de Marseille with the Palais Longchamps in the same city; the Palais Longchamps, though just a few decades older, is built in homage to tradition, not in opposition to it. The results speak for themselves.

Lewis, noting that only two Frank Lloyd Wright houses have been demolished since 2004, admits that, “this is hardly the sack of Rome.” But the reason for that has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. (No visitor to Rome has ever remarked on the economical use of space in the Basilica of Constantine, the clean, sleek geometry of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the revolutionary simplicity of St. Peter’s. In fact, the best Roman parallels to Wright’s architecture can only be found in Mussolini’s hideous EUR experiment.) If we were looking for a modern analogue to the sack of Rome, we might turn to the systematic subversion of classical tradition in favor of gratuitous cultural revolution. We might look to the charge led by Frank Lloyd Wright, and we might, upon recognizing the damage done, set about clearing away the rubble.

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