The Republican Co-option of Frank Lloyd Wright
Virtually every media outlet has reported that the stage for the Republican convention is “inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright,” seemingly all reading off the same RNC press release. The claim is quite a stretch by any account. Christopher Hawthorne, architectural critic for the Los Angeles Times quotes Jim Fenhagen, lead production designer for the convention saying that he pulled together the stage “after a couple of simple Google searches” of Wright’s work.
The LA Times piece is headlined “Frank Lloyd Wright Could be Wrong for Convention” and it’s quite correct — and quite understated. Hawthorne obsesses over the overblown connection between Ayn Rand and Wright how this could be embarrassing to Rand devotee Paul Ryan; and then states Wright “grew his hair long and liked to wear a cape. His political views were far from consistent, but he leaned left and was accused of distrusting capitalism and even, on occasion, of having Communist ties.”
The story is so much richer than this flawed summary.
First, it should be stated that Wright would be a great person to draw from for a convention since he worked and wrote endlessly about architecture and democracy. But that would imply that one wants a convention to reflect real democratic values. Consider Wright’s explanation about his design for a corner-window: “The corner-window is indicative of an idea conceived, early in my work, that the box is a fascist symbol, and the architecture of freedom and democracy needed something basically better than the box. So I started to destroy the box as a building. Well, the corner-window came in as all the comprehension that was ever given to that act of destruction of the box. The light now came in where it had never come in before and vision went out. You had screens for walls instead of box walls – here the walls vanished as walls, the box vanished as a box.” [Video]
While the stage at the Republican convention is at least somewhat less fascist-looking — to use Wright’s phrase — than past convention stages, it does very little to convey a sense of what Wright was about. One might imagine how Wright would design a convention space. In his Unitarian Unity Temple in Chicago, he has the congregation facing each other as well as the stage, calling it a “Temple to Man.” But, as Wright would say, we’re a society far removed from getting to that stage, so to speak.
Wright wrote about how artists had become mere ornamentation for a society that had turning to worshiping money. He would doubtlessly resent the invoking of his name and faint design elements for the Republican convention. He would likely deride using his name in a platform design to advance a political platform he could would view with disgust. Wright would also be amused at how the stage designers use plastic to mimic various woods. This seems to be a critical part of why the stage is allegedly inspired by Wright, it looks like it’s made of wooden rectangles. But Wright wrote a great deal about materials and how stone and wood and glass should be used in a manner consistent with their innate qualities, part of what he’d call “organic architecture.” Nowadays, people probably interact meaningfully with stone and wood and glass mostly while playing Angry Birds.
But perhaps most importantly is how the RNC can invoke the name Frank Lloyd Wright, and how virtually every media outlet can parrot it, while seemingly no one voices a real sense of what he stood for and how diametrically opposed his vision is to much of what is being said from that RNC stage.
In a remarkable 1957 interview, a baby-faced Mike Wallace (who died this year) interviews an elderly but very vibrant Wright two years before his death. Wallace introduced Wright as being in “the opinion of some, America’s foremost social rebel” and would later comment that during the interview Wright “was master, I was student.” A number of exchanges give a sense of the interview which, quite unlike most media interviews today, is both contentious and admiring; both timely and perennial:
Wallace asked: “You’ve heard of Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Americanism?”
Wright replied: “Is there anything more anti-American than McCarthyism?”
Wallace: “Why did you vote for Stevenson as opposed to Eisenhower?”
Wright: “I voted for him because I thought he would make a good president, but against my conscience because I thought that he was too good for the job.”
When asked why he was not enthralled by the New York City skyline, Wright replied: “Because it never was planned, it is all a race for rent, and it is a great monument, I think, to the power of money and greed trying to substitute money for ideas. I don’t see an idea in the whole thing anywhere.”
Wallace: “I understand that you attend no Church.”
Wright: “I attend the greatest of all Churches. I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my Church.”
Wright also said ”Nature is never other than serene even in a thunderstorm” and may well have been bemused by Nature intruding upon the Republican festivities this week.
At one point in the interview, Wright mocks Wallace for puffing away at cigarette supplied by Philip Morris, his sponsor, before letting him off the hook with the comment “Let’s leave the cigarette smoker his solace.”
When asked “What do you think of the American Legion?” (a group Mitt Romney just laudingly addressed), Wright replied: “I never think of it, if I can help it. … I’m against war. Always have been, always will be. And everything connected with it, is anathema to me. I have never considered it necessary. And I think that one war only breeds another. And I think I’ve been borne out by the reading of history, haven’t I? One war always has in it, in its intestines, another, and another has another. Why be for war? And if you are not for war, why are you for warriors?”
Wright here is more radical than today’s lefty activists, who are quick to follow any call against war with the boilerplate need to “support the troops.” See video and transcript of the full interview.
Wright derided “advertising men; the realtor, the so-called ‘developer’” as “defacing life” and mocking the notion that we should “call these conservative?”
Wright attacks the notion of “rugged individualism” that determines much of our world “and becomes the ‘capitalist’” as entirely foreign to his “ideal of individuality.” To Wright, the difference between individualism and individuality was “the difference between selfishness and selfhood; the difference between sentiment and sentimentality; the difference between liberty and license.”
He traced his sense of individuality most notably not to any European philosopher, but to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who, he argues, set the terms for the individual developing organically with others in a manner befitting a democracy.
He derided the “disintegrating effect of money and machines” as “Money shows [man] new ways to cheat life. Power becomes exterior instead of interior. … In these circumstances architecture becomes too difficult, building too easy.” Which is why the RNC’s designers can do a little googling to get a design and have a contractor build it with relative ease without ever having to understand the first thing about Wright’s ideas.
Wright, if anything, believed a different form of “American exceptionalism” than that politicians pontificate about. He bemoaning U.S.’s lack a developed culture, coining the term Usonian to refer to people in the U.S. — and to the homes he thought they should live in. He believed in nothing like the ”Judeo-Christian heritage” — though he regarded Jesus as “the great master poet of all time.”
Nearly 30 years before Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” railing against a modern Moloch, Wright wrote: “Greed in human nature may now come near to enslaving all humanity by means of the Machine — so fast and far has progress gone with it. This will be evident to anyone who stops to study the modern mechanistic Moloch and takes time to view it in its larger aspects. … A man with a machine may murder or enslave millions, whereas it used to take at least thousands to murder millions. And the man behind the machine has nothing on his conscience.”
And while the LA Times states that Wright was a critic of capitalism, that’s not quite correct. Wright is quoted as saying: “I believe totally in a Capitalist System, I only wish that someone would try it,” which is actually somewhat similar to Noam Chomsky, who notes he is frequently misunderstood as endlessly critiquing capitalism since there is “nothing remotely like capitalism in existence.”
And, as the LA Times states, while Wright has been accused of having communist sympathies, consider this exchange with Wallace:
WALLACE: Well now, you are an individualist, you certainly believe in freedom.
WALLACE: You cherish it. Therefore, how can you explain this enthusiasm for a country which even then, and certainly now, has instituted thought-control by terror, political purges by blood, suppression of intellectuals?
WRIGHT: Do you ever disassociate government and people?
WALLACE: Er… frankly, you’re putting this question to me personally, and I… I find it very difficult to disassociate government and people.
WRIGHT: I don’t find it difficult. I find that government can be a kind of gangsterism and is in Russia. And is likely to be here if we don’t take care of ourselves pretty carefully.
This was at a time when virtually every influential figure in the U.S. was deriding Russians. The anthropologist Margret Mead — now quoted endlessly for her line about a small group of people changing the world — pumped the establishment line at the time, claiming the Russians were always saying “no” at the United Nations because they were raised with swaddling clothes. Wright was clearly opposed to the oppressiveness of communism in the Soviet Union, and just as clearly opposed to the Cold War and the anti-Russian hysteria that often went with it. It’s quite analogous to someone being opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein and also opposed to war on Iraq and the related hysteria and prejudices.
Many know of Wright through Ken Burns’ film on Wright. It does have lovely shots of Wright’s buildings, some good interviews and some priceless Wright quotes: After being jailed under the Mann Act (for taking a woman across state lines for “illicit purposes”) Wright said he was guilty of “the deadly sin in a democracy of having ideas,” and his quip that cities are “prison houses for the soul, a place for bankers and prostitution and very little else” and “I don’t build a house without predicting the end of the present social order.”
Still, the documentary is severely skewed. For example, it only mentions Wright’s politics in relation to his opposition to World War II, almost as if he were just another American Firster. Burns also depicts Wright simply as a great admirer of the “great cathedrals” — but consider this exchange with Wallace:
WALLACE: When I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I am not a Catholic, but when I walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral here in New York City, I am enveloped in a feeling of reverence.
WRIGHT: Sure it isn’t an inferiority complex?
WALLACE: Just because the building is big and I am small you mean?
WALLACE: Hmmm. I think not.
WRIGHT: I hope not.
WALLACE: You — you feel nothing when you go into St. Patrick’s?
WALLACE: Regret? Because of what? Because –
WRIGHT: Because it isn’t the thing that really represents the spirit of independence and the sovereignty of the individual which I feel should be represented in our edifices devoted to culture.
WALLACE: When you go out into a big forest, with towering pines, and this almost a feeling of awe, that frequently you do get in the presence of nature, do you then not feel insignificant, do you not feel small in the same sense that I feel small and insignificant?
WRIGHT: On the contrary, I feel large, I feel enlarged and encouraged, intensified, more powerful, that’s –
WALLACE: Let’s talk –
WRIGHT: And that’s because, why? Because in the one instance you are inspired by Nature, and the other instance you are inspired by an artificiality contrary to Nature.
As Stephen Colbert would say: Check and mate.
Jeffrey St. Clair recently wrote a wonderful piece “The FBI vs. Frank Lloyd Wright” that lays out some critical facts:
Wright’s plans to revolutionize the American residential living space ran afoul of interests of the federal government. Think about this: in his 70-year career Wright didn’t win one contract for a federal building. Not even during the heyday of the New Deal. … John Sergeant, in his excellent book on Wright’s Usonian houses, argues that there’s a mutual admiration between Wright and the noted anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. In 1899, Kropotkin moved to Chicago, living in the Hull House commune, set up by radical social reformer Jane Addams, where Wright often lectured, including a reading of his famous essay the Arts and Crafts Machine. …
Wright’s politics were vastly more complicated and honorable than that embodied by Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s self-serving portrait of Wright in her novel The Fountainhead. Sure there was a libertarian strain to Wright, which Rand seized on and distorted to her own perverse ends. … But, in those crucial decades of the 20s and 30s, Wright’s political views seemed to align most snugly with Wisconsin progressives, as personified by the LaFollettes. In fact, Philip LaFollette served as Wright’s attorney and sat on the board of Wright’s corporation. …
From World War I to his final days, Wright found himself the subject of a campaign of surveillance, harassment and intimidation by the federal government. In 1941, 26 members of Wright’s Taliesin fellowship signed a petition objecting to the draft and calling the war effort futile and immoral. The draft board sent the letter to the FBI, where it immediately came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who already loathed Wright. … Hoover’s snoops were only a minor irritant compared to the real damage that was done by the Federal Housing Authority, which routinely denied financing to Wright’s projects. … the State Department even tried to get Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, deported as an undesirable alien. They were once again saved by the fast legal footwork of Phil LaFollette. …
Wright’s plans to put portions of his Broadacre City model into reality ran into other problems with federally-connected lenders. Several of Wright’s cooperative communities, including one in Michigan and another in Pennsylvania, came to nothing because banks refused to back the plan. The reason? Wright and his clients refused to include restrictions prohibiting houses from being owned by blacks and Jews.
Wright and his call for an organic architecture and reverence for Nature can be seen in the context of what we today would call environmentalism, though Wright embraced the automobile and atomic power; but virtually everyone did shortly after World War II. Still, Wright’s vision for how to overcome sprawl: A mile-high skyscraper with Nature all around is an incredibly compelling one even today — the issue to him was how humanity could in effect extend Nature, learn from it to build and develop rather than be in tension with it, how buildings could be “a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”
Perhaps the only thing Wright does have in common with current political figures is a huge ego, though in Wright’s case, there was some justification. Wrote Wright: “By playing down to the idea of the common man, dogmatic political authority exploits him … So the ideal of innate aristocracy of which hour forefathers dreamed is betrayed for votes in the name of democracy.” Wright called for “a new kind of aristocracy” “of the man, not on him.” “Not his by privilege, or birth , but by virtue earned.” The language seems anachronistic, but it’s similar to Martin Luther King’s call for people to be judged not by the color of their skin, but “by the content of their character” and it’s something Wright frequently hailed Thomas Jefferson about, notwithstanding their numerous contradictions. (See The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer.)
But this isn’t really about history, it’s about the future. Wright wanted society to be organized very differently. He wanted artists to be masters, not ornaments for the financial sector. He addressed the the arts and crafts movement, accepting their fidelity to integrity in work, but pleading with them not to reject the Machine, since if it’s “dominated by human greed is an engine of enslavement — if mastered by the artist it is an emancipator of human possibilities in creating the Beautiful.” The Machine — both literal and figurative — could be run by the hucksters and the profiteers or it could be run by the visionaries and artists and Wright argued that the artists should attempt to control the Machine. It’s true for art, for architecture, for design, for manufacturing — and for virtually every other endeavor from journalism to teaching.