Better Read: Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks Up

examples of Taliesin Square Papers from the Frank Lloyd Wright Library at Steinerag
Welcome to Better Read, an intermittent experiment at to transform art-related texts into handy, entertaining, and informative audio. This text is excerpts from a pamphlet essay by Frank Lloyd Wright, “In the Cause of Architecture: The “International Style” (Soft Cover), published by Taliesin Fellowship in February 1953. It would be the last of what were called the Taliesen Square Paper Series. The editorial was republished in the July 1953 issue of House Beautiful magazine with the title, “Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks Up.” Wright was 85 years old at the time, and he hated hated the International Style.
I could not find print copies of either of these publications available anywhere. Library holdings of House Beautiful are spotty and incomplete. When I tried the authoritative-seeming, five-volume Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, I also came up short. There are only five copies of Vol. 5 (1949-1959) listed in libraries in the US. How could this be? I ended up buying a used copy for a couple of bucks from Goodwill in Michigan, which turned out to have been deaccessioned by the library in a federal prison. Anyway, the text comes from there [pp. 66-69].
I wanted to find this text because it is the source of two popular zingers from Wright: the great opening line, “The ‘International Style’ is neither international, nor a style,” and saying supporters of modern architecture are not only totalitarians, fascists, or communists, they “are not wholesome people.” This line came up, for example, in a recent Atlas Obscura article about Hollin Hills, a nice but innocuous mid-century modernist subdivision near Washington DC.
I wanted to see the fuller context of Wright’s criticisms, partly because one of the objects of his scorn, the MoMA-affiliated architect Philip Johnson, was actually a Nazi and an aspiring leader of US fascism at one point. [I’ve come to think Johnson recognized the disadvantages of political affiliation for his real interest: himself and his career, and that his devotion for the rest of his life to establishment power was quite sincere, but that’s not the point right now.]
The main reason is because Wright’s communist and anti-modernist bogeymen sounded familiar, like they might resonate with the conservative or rightist campaigns against everything modern, from abstraction to Brutalism to Post-Modernism, to Tilted Arc to the Culture Wars, Wojnarowicz, you name it. Wright’s architecture has been generally assimilated into our historical narrative, but, I thought, it’s come at the cost of our understanding of the political context in which he created it, and from which he attacked those who didn’t ascribe to his own views, or pursue his particular agenda.
Anyway, Wright’s text is after the jump, or you can listen to the text read by a robot.
better_read_frank_lloyd_wright_intl_style_20160505.mp3 [dropbox, 18mb mp3, 13min or so]

Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks Up
The “International Style” is neither international nor a style. Essentially it is totalitarianism, an old totalitarian cult made new by organized publicity.
The “International Style” is nothing but the old architecture of the box with its face lifted.
Any box is more a coffin for the human spirit than an inspiration. The box dominates, constricts, and constrains the individual into something made fit only for collectivism. Its champions now declare dictatorially that the old box is it. This is their great gift to the world-their quote style.
So many university professors, museum authorities, magazine editors, feature writers, and critics seem to be trying hard to give notoriety to a group of architects imported, by a curious twist of fate, from the German Bauhaus to the New York Museum of Modern Art.
The Bauhaus architects ran from political totalitarianism in Germany to what is now made by specious promotion to seem their own totalitarianism in art here in America.
It is being more accidental than creative to mistake a disciplined sterility for austerity, mistake the plainness of bones or a barn door for simplicity (knowing nothing of real simplicity-the innate grace and significance of a wild flower). This is the mistake their promoters seem to make.
In their dubious champions, there is no sense of the depth called the third dimension. They operate only on two. Among these puppets of promotion, facades again become of uppermost importance. These facades all add up to the same thing…a cliche for tyros, teachers and sycophants who crook the little finger and talk esthetics. Or by duped educators grasping for something easy to teach, and approved as a foreign cult.
Sterilization is again mistaken for refinement. Provincial apostles of refinement name it “Classic,” stupidly comparing it to frozen Greek classicism as though the ancient sterilization were a high virtue. But the cause of great architecture, the great truth of building beautiful buildings beautifully according to the nature of architecture, is travestied by this superficial mimicry, that always seems to follow in the wake of great ideas.
The classic or camouflaged old post-and-lintel box is still practiced in the passed-in cage or the glass-walled dwelling, both approved by these publicists and this latest procession of callow-professionals, now baptized (by whom?) quote International. But this latest form of glassification is no true revolt, no actual dissidence. This affection is for free Americans no more than the petty pretenses of small men.
Old Man Box merely looks different when glassified, that’s all. The more the box is glassed, the more it becomes evident as the box. No new ideas whatever are involved as might easily be demonstrated by intelligent reference to the origin of their drawing-board facades. The old sham front has had its face lifted; the only change is merely one of outward appearance. It is a change of face, not of heart.
There are fresh ideas to be brought to life, if you learn to labor for them and are willing to work for them and wait. You must tire, as I do, of seeing these original forms merely renamed. All we have received from quote internationalism, aside from the dropped coping, is merely, “Make the walls all glass, boys.”
And what do we get now? The same old box, only you now really look inside and through the box and see that it is more of a box than ever. Thereby the tenant, as well as the poverty-stricken imagination of the architect, is mercilessly exposed.
The nature of the freedom prophesied by the Declaration of Independence originally made by our nation is antipathetic to an international level either of style or of life. That “style” would be the communistic shadow descending over our own tradition, disgracing the great individuality that gave us our traditions in al their bewildering and wonderful fascination, color, and variety. Individuality is still beloved and prophesied by our nation. Never would we consent to be embalmed alive-to become prisoner of a style!
Organic or truly American architecture emerged from the confusion of the sudden awakening of architecture as a new idea 60 years ago. The strength of the philosophy of a free, intrinsic or organic architecture is that it loves and cherishes these infinitely individual, human traditions of the great Tradition.
Because of our increased techniques, organic architecture could easily afford ALL nations new means of realization, on their own soil, along lines of character and development already peculiar to themselves. Whatever is really modern in architecture should, in this new view of reality, intensify the individuality of all nations, not strip them of the charm of their innate distinctions.
Only when art is indigenous, the work of a particular time, according to the nature and character of the people of that time, is it for all time. Our American civilization is only a way of life. Our culture would consist of means of making that way of life beautiful. Either we die without a culture of our own, or we live by moving forward into a more beautiful concordant life than we now have.
We are not going to die sterilized by this quote International Style, a mere externality imposed by tyros upon American civilization as quote culture. America was born to destroy the facade in all things, governmental or personal, that do not express the inner spirit. If, instead of our own inspired idea of architecture, we are to be reduced by organized expediency…commercial, educational, esthetic, or all together…to an “International Style” by petty factotums, if a fashion is all we merit as a civilization, let’s go back to barbarism. It is far more richly humane.
Why do I distrust and defy such quote internationalism as I do communism? Because both must by their nature do this very leveling in the name of civilization. If communism (the factual religion of collectivism) is once established, the sun of creation, which is the sun of the individual, goes down and life has agreed to be embalmed alive.
I see collectivism in all its form-especially in this cliche architecture-already becoming far too expedient in our midst. the drift away from quality toward quantity, toward all forms of standardization, can only mean the eventual success of the communist or of the totalitarian. All collectivism, such as the so-called “International Style”, tends to diminish the human soul, because it relieves the individual of a developed conscience and takes from him the reward of being true to himself as himself, which the essential spirit of Democracy.
This reward of individuality has been the Star of Creation since time began. That star will set if America accepts anything less than true style: not A style, but “style all the while.” There is no sense in imprisoning the spirit of what should now constitute the free architecture of a democracy-organic architecture.
The “International Style”, an architecture -ISM, at first no more than a “chic” notion, is becoming, by the efforts of its gulled concerts, an evil crusade. A fashion is always the passing show of imitation-in this case the imitation of a bad imitation of a bad imitator.
Unfortunately, this invading fashion is serviceable to the commerce of professional publicists whose latest propaganda, “Post-War Architecture,” is being exhibited and sold over the counter at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I see in it propaganda for the rising tide of mediocrity. If you intelligently examine it, you will find that it betrays the term organic architecture, feeding on it as a parasite.
Unfortunately for the cause of architecture, such unbecoming totalitarianism, offering the shortcut, has become proliferous. It is now on the march in a procession miscalled “Modern Architecture.” Having its parading knights-of-the-cliche ever really studied architecture?
No, nor do they really practice it.
They are sometimes painters, sometimes sculptors-always enthusiasts, but never builders. They are the slaves, not the masters, of construction. They know nothing of the nature of materials and have contempt for the nature of human beings. They are not a wholesome people.
Yet, they are selling an architecture absolute, ready-made, to a trusting people over the counters of American museums and in schools and periodicals.
Those who do know architecture are not affected. They are well aware that any quote International Style is the degeneration of a good idea. Regarded by whatever creative architectural intelligence is left in our world, this substitution of facade for substance is shamefully wasteful-therefore demoralizing.
Let’s face it, the main point of vantage for “internationalism” in any form lies in “collectivism”. Collectivism is taught in architecture by too many of our schools, themselves representing an eclecticism just above the general level of universal imitation.
Collectivism will serve either totalitarian or communist, but can never serve the democrat, because it is merely a conditioning of the herd, not an enlightening of the individual. It could destroy democracy by playing on its great weakness-mobocracy. By this collectivist conditioning of the mind, the machine becomes a dominating pattern instead of a tool. We then have the “machine for living”, the theory that “less is more”, and other concepts that become, more and more, less.
If as a nation we are to have our own richly humane culture, we must work for it. Unless we waken soon to the nature of the nation we designed, we will see no more of the creative architecture of creative architects.
Our “plan factories” and the factory-produced young architect emerging from our colleges, (now hanging by eyebrows from skyhooks or playing jack-in-the-box up on bare sticks), seem to have found in the negation just what is needed to make the long labor of becoming an architect less long and arduous. Such architects are appearing only to disappear.
Organic, or intrinsic, architecture, on the other hand, offers rational hope for the future. It abolishes the old post-and-lintel box as unscientific, resents and rejects such “slabs” as the UN Building.
Organic architecture is a new idea of what constitutes a building. It introduces wholly new values into building. An entirely new ethic-and esthetic-comes to life when the building is so conceived as intrinsic, as the result of the nature of materials, tools, situations, and the human beings it shelters. Wherever it is honestly built, you may see a new countenance, the countenance of truth emerging.
Architecture is primarily interior; of the thing, not on it. It is not a dead aspect of style but style itself, bearing ever fresh form, like all living things in nature.
About 20 years ago, the shadow cast upon modern organic architecture by the then new Museum of Modern Art, the “International Style”, was named.
To the museums, then the morgues of art, it seemed to offer expedient resurrection. But this confluence of equivocal minds and circumstances now is identifiable as a sinister attempt to repeat the betrayal of American organic architecture in the way the Chicago World’s Fair of ’93 did it to the modern movement then led by Louis Sullivan. (The fair offered “classic style” and the American people seeing it on a huge scale for the first time were awed and sold, and the pioneer work in clarity and dissidence by Architects Sullivan, Richardson, and Root was set back by 50 years.)
Can the hucksters of this ready-made cliche of “internationalism” for our half-baked, snatch-and-run system of professional success recognize fundamental truth? No.
They can exist only by means of controlled publicity-more publicity-some more publicity-and salesmanship. In this activity publicists are the enemies of our culture.
What now is the educational policy of the quote international school-ism of architecture?
Publicity-more publicity-some more publicity.
Publicity is becoming the great substitute for art, philosophy, and-yes, being.
Must the shameful, servile, provincial past of our national culture repeat itself ad nauseam ad libitum?
The servile recourse to a machine-style parallels the rise of mediocrity now flooding what should be high places. The world we share is not smaller than it used to be because of airships, atom bombs, and electrification. The world is larger because more comprehensive, though less comprehended by us. As human beings, our view, both personal and national, comprises so much we never dreamed of before and do not understand now. What merely existed for us, before mechanization set in and “International Style” appeared as the ideal expedient, is a growing problem for us to solve.
This does not mean one world, but many. Too many perhaps, because we are not yet ready with our own.
If ever international co-operation is to come true, the need for solidarity of the independent nation and individual grows immensely in importance, with easy intercommunication. The strength of our native spirit is more necessary than ever for the freedom not only of ourselves, but the entire world.
[END QUOTE, FLWCW V.5, pp. 66-9]
Get your own copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Collected Writings, Vol. 1-5, collect’em all! [amazon]
Previously in Better Read:
Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland, A Zine By Brian Sholis
Also: Rosalind Krauss; Ray Johnson; W.H. Auden