Frank Lloyd Wright, Cover to Cover: A Look at 3 Books on the Master

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's death was in early April, and though it might be tempting to honor the occasion by outfitting your home with table runners or night lights inspired by the legendary architect, the editors of three new Wright monographs would like to remind you of the seriousness of his work, the breadth of his imagination, even his heroism.

Physical manifestations of Wright's legacy may be harder to find in Washington than in other places. There are only a few Wright-designed residences in the area: the Pope-Leighey House in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, the Robert Llewellyn Wright House in Bethesda and the Luis Marden House in McLean. There are no major public buildings. But as the contributors point out in "Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward" (Skira Rizzoli, $75), the absence isn't for a lack of trying. Published in conjunction with an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the book demonstrates -- through a trove of archival photographs and drawings as well as essays by Wright scholars -- not only the scope of the architect's vision, but also how much of it went unrealized.

Among the dashed dreams highlighted is Wright's 1940 plan for a multi-building development along Connecticut Avenue near Florida Avenue in Northwest Washington. The ambitious design imagined a series of towers (the tallest rising 24 stories) that was to include an apartment complex, shops, a 1,100-seat theater, a hotel with more than 2,000 rooms and a parking garage. Outfitted in white marble, verdigris-bronze and crystal, the structures would have shimmered brightly, and the banquet hall and private supper rooms would have been so opulent, Wright boasted, that "Versailles would be no more."

Alas, zoning and height restrictions doomed the scheme. But Wright, who had few kind words for Washington area architecture (he once said that downtown Bethesda would be improved only if it burned down), claimed that D.C. officials had rejected the so-called Crystal Heights project because its unusual design failed to fit in amid the city's predominant classical and Colonial architecture. Other unrealized projects detailed in the book include a planetarium equipped with spiraling, Guggenheim-esque ramps at Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick. Farther afield, there was an elaborate 1958 plan for a cultural center in Baghdad that featured a fanciful Garden of Eden park, complete with Adam and Eve fountains.

Although those and other projects never made it from draft room to reality, such setbacks only strengthened the architect's resolve, argues Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer in "Frank Lloyd Wright: The Heroic Years: 1920-1932" (Rizzoli, $60). Pfeiffer, director of the archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., chronicles the difficulties, both personal and professional, that plagued Wright during this relatively fallow stretch.

There were, of course, the turbulent relationships with women such as Maude Miriam Noel and Olgivanna Hinzenberg (for more on this see T.C. Boyle's new novel, "The Women"). But it was a time, Pfeiffer writes, when Wright conceived many ideas that came to fruition over the next three decades, such as the dendriform columns that are the hallmark of his Johnson Wax administration building in Racine, Wis. It was also a period when he completed several notable projects: the Hollyhock House and Ennis House in Los Angeles and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. And he initiated the Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin, where apprentices lived and worked with their esteemed mentor.

Pfeiffer's book is an accessible, flattering look at Wright's life and work, weaving together biography, architectural criticism, archival photographs and drawings, and, in its best moments, Wright's own words: "If you are not an inspiration to me and I am not an inspiration to you, this place is not going to work," he is said to have told his students at the Taliesin Fellowship.

If you'd prefer to draw your own conclusions about the man and his work, "Frank Lloyd Wright: American Master" (Rizzoli, $30), an overview that is refreshingly spare in text, is a good place to start. Beginning with Wright's 1886 Unity Chapel in Spring Green, Wis., the book, with photographs by Alan Weintraub, traces the architect's development from the low-pitched roofs, clerestory windows and open floor plans of his Prairie-style residences to the curves and spires of his later works, such as the Marin County Civic Center in California and the Guggenheim. The greatest hits are here and captured in rich color photographs: the Robie House in Chicago, Taliesin in Spring Green, Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa.

Architectural historian Kathryn Smith introduces each stage of Wright's career with brief narratives that read like museum plaques peppered with interesting tidbits. (Workers on his 1920s textile-block houses, she notes, were paid 15 cents for each granite-and-cement block they created by hand.) Though 400 pages long, the book is petite in its dimensions, the kind of thing that might look nice on a Wright-inspired coffee table or, if you're lucky, the real thing.

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