'The Last Wright': Green Issues as Wide as the Prairie

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Four years ago in Iowa, the crowd at a Howard Dean rally was framed by a picture-perfect Main Street, lined with old-fashioned street lamps, glass storefronts and quaint houses with inviting front porches. It looked like a scene straight out of "The Music Man," the classic musical by Mason City native Meredith Willson. And it was. The Dean campaign was using a spanking new, Disney-like facility, Music Man Square, built to attract tourists, reverse urban decay and pay homage to the town's favorite son.

The grand opening ceremony of Music Man Square two years earlier provides a bitter counterpoint in Lucille Carra's "The Last Wright," a film about the only surviving hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright, screening at the Environmental Film Festival this evening. It is part of an emotional argument: Even as the benighted civic leaders of Mason City poured money into a fake, nostalgic, tourist-trap version of Main Street, a genuine Mason City architectural gem, Wright's 1908-1910 Park Inn Hotel, was falling into ruin.

A film about Frank Lloyd Wright might seem a strange fit for an environmental film festival. Wright was certainly at pains to describe how the Midwestern landscape had influenced the long, low, horizontal lines of his famous Prairie style (of which the Park Inn Hotel is one example). But being inspired by nature doesn't make one an environmentalist, nor even a naturalist.

And when it came to urbanism, Wright wasn't exactly prescient in terms of the environmental consequences of his low-slung, far-flung fantasy cities. In his book "The Natural House," Wright embraced the urge to spread out, which we now call sprawl. The automobile, agent of egalitarianism and democracy, had made it "a social crime to crowd in upon one another."

But "The Last Wright" isn't really about Wright or his ideas, but rather is about the powerful emotional and aesthetic draw of his architecture. And in that sense, it's perfectly clear why it's showing in an Environmental Film Festival. Since the 1970s at least, when environmental degradation and vicious "urban renewal" were remaking the natural and built worlds with equal brutality, the preservation and environmental movements have been in emotional and intellectual alliance.

A shared concept of sustainability, a mutual feeling for "place," has kept them marching, if not in lock step, at least in opposition to the same general enemies: greed, senseless development and indifference to the aesthetic power of the world around us.

Lately, however, as concerns about global warming have become acute, preservationists are increasingly using the language of mainstream environmentalism. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the gas crisis had focused the national mind on conservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation made sustainability part of its mission. Last year, with energy woes and global warming dominating the headlines, the trust's current president, Richard Moe, relaunched "sustainability" as a major initiative, noting in a speech, "It makes no sense for us to recycle newsprint, bottles and aluminum cans, when we're throwing away entire buildings."

Carra's hour-long film, which is unfortunately rather muddled in its effort to draw together too many threads, shows the tragic decline of Wright's hotel over the years, until it is hardly recognizable as a Wright building either inside or out. Plastered with signs, chopped up inside, Wright's hotel eventually played host to go-go dancers. Music Man Square may remind people of Willson's famous song about moral turpitude -- we've got "trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool" -- but Wright's neglected hotel lived the whole sorry drama of decay.

The sense that it is a failing of our moral character to neglect our buildings or our natural environment has worked well enough for both movements over the years. But with the urgency of global warming, and oil shooting north of the $100-a-barrel mark, there are now much harder, pragmatic, quantifiable arguments for the necessity of environmental sustainability. Which may make the alliance between preservationists, green building advocates and environmentalists a bit more complicated.

Another documentary at the Environmental Film Festival, "The Green Dragon," follows the frantic efforts to introduce "green building" initiatives to China, where construction and urbanization are proceeding at a terrifying pace. Advocates for more energy-efficient building techniques argue that China could save money, save the environment and save the health of its smog-choked citizens if it made a few green tweaks to its building techniques.

But, as one expert in the film notes, Chinese developers don't think in terms of the five- or 10-year payback of building green. They're building too fast, too cheaply and turning over their buildings too fast to think in increments longer than a few months.

As the green architecture movement becomes increasingly an argument made with numbers -- quantifying pollution, energy used, money saved -- will preservationists be in an awkward alliance if they continue using environmental arguments? Ann MacGregor, president of the nonprofit that bought the Wright hotel and also a conjoined bank building by Wright, says it will cost about $18 million to preserve both structures. It's an unfortunate question, but if we're being brutally pragmatic, would that money be more environmentally effective invested in solar panels, insulation and energy-efficient appliances? The question is almost sacrilegious, but it shows the possibility of a rift.

Sustainability has become such a buzzword among architects, corporations and governments that one wants to force some candor and clarity by asking difficult hypothetical questions. Too many architects who embrace "green building" standards fail to take note of a fundamental fact: The greenest building is the building that doesn't get built. Preservationists would say, "Amen," which is why we should preserve old buildings. But preservation isn't always an environmental boon. Even preserved buildings require heat and electricity, and by their very presence take away from the world's allotment of green space.

"The Last Wright" makes its points by referencing an old, emotionally powerful argument about sustainability -- a manageable, respectful harmony with the world we've built and borrowed. "The Green Dragon," which screens on Wednesday afternoon, suggests a much more pragmatic and hard-edged sense of sustainability -- a world hanging in balance, with dire consequences if we can't change our ways. It's a pleasure to report that Frank Lloyd Wright's Park Inn Hotel is now being renovated and will eventually reopen as a boutique hotel. It's more disturbing to report that when it comes to sustainability, it's not clear if anyone is using the word quite the same way.

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