Returning home to Milwaukee for Spring Break, I took the opportunity to visit all of my favorite locations. After making the rounds to my favorite restaurant, coffee shop, book store, and park, I saved the best for last.
Walking into the light drenched swanlike atrium of the Milwaukee Art museum, I remembered what it feels like to be inside of a piece of art. The vast blue-gray of Lake Michigan spread before me, the shining floor hinted at standing on water–rippling light seamlessly extending nature indoors.
Today I had come to see an exhibit featuring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Weaving through a gallery maze of eggplant colored walls and pausing to stand next to strangers as we contemplated neatly framed prints of right angles and lightly penciled Utopias, “Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century” silently blew me away. As a child, I visited Spring Green and Taliesin West, listening to stories of the man who designed homes down to the details of chair backs and housewife wardrobes, but I never grasped his genius. Frank was a notorious egoist–known for underpaying his workers and showboating his success. He was a womanizer and knew exactly how brilliant he was–claiming that “early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change” (brainyquote.com)
However, despite his trying personality, Frank’s ability to wed the building, landscape, and spirituality to one another remains nothing short of miraculous. For Frank, the building became a part of nature, and nature was God. Utilizing local materials in the majority of his projects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs feature open rooms filled with natural light and a very intentional absence of ornate decoration. In his mind, a living room could become a waterfall, and a kitchen blended seamlessly into a hill. Even when he built houses that were found on residential streets, they seemed part of a larger community–they echoed the landscape. Wright had a sustainable mind for architecture that was well ahead of his time.
Despite my fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well known endeavors (like the Pennsylvania Kaufmann home appropriately called Fallingwater seen above, or the impressive S.C. Johnson office building that revolutionized the way architects thought about cubicles and desk chairs) I was most impressed and overwhelmed by the plans that remained unbuilt. I had no idea this man was a designer of multiple Utopian communities. Peering into glass boxes filled with sprawling dioramas of carefully calibrated hillsides and scattered miniscule tin cars, I had a view into the window of his brain.
Returning to Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a “nation of farmers” the above model is Wright’s proposed “Broadacre City.” With an acre of land for each family of this idyllic farmlike community, Wright designed a new version of Suburbia. He decentralized the city, and developed a city that was a landscape rather than a skyline. Bending to see the tiny rail lines that wind their way along the edges of this sprawling utopia, I wondered how our campus ecology class would interpret it. I wondered if it would ever be possible in a world of shopping malls and grocery stores–an institutionalized mentality of never having to know where anything you own actually comes from. Could we survive if we were each given a plot of land and a small home? The art of farming is becoming lost on us– a generation of headphone wearing, TV watching, multitaskers. Why did this community cease to exist? Was it an issue of money? Or culture? Plotted out in straight lines, it looks like a perfect plan… but was it really? Cars are needed to get anywhere away from the cozy acre of your family home. The small corner of apartments and office buildings lies remote. Families remain in privacy. Today, we might say that this is actually unsustainable–sprawling unnecessarily and discouraging communal living and shared public space.
Broadacre City, also referred to as the “Living City” was not Frank Lloyd Wright’s only envisioned Utopia, but it seems to have been his most carefully thought out. I stared at these replicas and intricately lined plans and wondered what it could be like to spend years of your life working on something only to have it literally remain on the drawing board. I suppose this happens to all of us in one way or another though doesn’t it? We have a plan or a dream or an intention, and then we hit a fork in the road–losing that path for our lives completely. How different would our world be if the Living City had become a reality? What would happen if we went back and built everything Frank left unfinished? Could we use the work of a man who was so far ahead of his time to help turn back our time and undo the damage we’ve done to the environment and our consumer riddled minds?
I think about Frank Lloyd Wright and I think about the concept of vocation. That man believed he had a calling. A purpose. In his work, he saw the hand of God. He did what he truly believed (and most who observe his designs agree) was “good” work. Molding his designs around the inspiration of tree trunks and summer sunsets, Wright worked to avoid the pre-determined structure of acceptably “beautiful” architecture. He broke the mold. And yet, in defying the trend, he created a new one. Today, he fits in perfectly with the “green revolution” of our generation. How can we use his work as inspiration and motivation for our own? Can we find purpose and spirituality in a window pane? Stewardship in a synagogue? Frank would say yes.
I leave you with a few particularly striking quotes from the man himself:
“An idea is salvation by imagination.”
“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
“Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture.”