Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn, The

other tradition of American architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn, The

McCarter, Robert

What is the American tradition in architecture? Judging from what may be seen in the vast majority of suburban residential developments, office parks, or university campuses, the “traditional” American architecture that we have inherited exhibits a kind of schizophrenia, presenting to the street a thin veneer of “Victorian,” or “Mediterranean,” or some other cannibalized “historical” style (creating what is called “curb appeal”), which is totally unrelated to the thoroughly modern open-plan residential or office spaces to be found inside. What has happened to our traditional concept of American character and integrity, to “what you see is what you get,” to the idea that internal values are more important than external appearances?

While this ideal of integrity has disappeared from the vast majority of our buildings today, it lies at the very heart of the uniquely American tradition of modern architecture embodied in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Louis Isidore Kahn (1901-1974). Wright and Kahn are arguably the greatest of all American architects, and they are without question the only ones ever to reverse the traditional “trade deficit” with Europe and the world with respect to architectural ideas of consequence.


AS Horatio Greenough noted even as early as 1852, fifteen years before Wright’s birth, Americans tend to accept all their styles – of clothing, entertainment, and architecture – from Europe. Yet Frank Lloyd Wright’s early work was without question the first true manifestation of what has come to be called Modern architecture, and Wright’s architecture had enormous and far-reaching influence on architects and artists all over the world, from the emergence of the Prairie House in 1900 until his death in 1959. Today, forty-four years after his death, Wright is the only architect who can be named by virtually every first-year student entering American universities, and the number of books published on Wright and his work continues to escalate. In today’s newspaper, Jeff MacNelly’s nationally-syndicated cartoon “Shoe,” depicted a young schoolboy answering the exam question “Name the Wright brothers,” with “Frank and Lloyd.” Wright’s influence also extends to his own profession, American architects having named Wright’s 1936 Kaufmann House, called “Fallingwater,” the most important building in the United States of the last 150 years.

But what exactly is it that we “know” about Wright? The vast majority of us know Wright’s work only from photographs, usually showing the exterior of a building. What is perhaps the most famous photograph of a house, the one showing Wright’s Fallingwater as seen from outside and below, is taken from a viewpoint that can be obtained only by standing in the middle of the stream! In fact, of those who claim to “know” the architecture of Wright, only a minuscule minority has ever actually been inside any building that he designed.

Yet for both Wright and Kahn, the concept of inhabiting a building, our experience of its interior space, of the rooms within, was the beginning of all architecture – and it was only from this interior spatial experience that a building’s external form was to be unfolded or projected. Through our contemporary insistence on engaging architecture only from the exterior view, as an object in the landscape, the tradition of Wright and Kahn has become almost totally divorced from the typical notions of what is traditional architecture in America today. The idea that we can know a building from simply driving by and peering at whatever exterior forms can be seen from the street runs counter to everything that Wright and Kahn believed about architecture. If we are to engage their work, we must reject any suggestion that what is today called “traditional” has anything at all to do with the American tradition of architecture.

In 1914 Wright wrote, “I deliberately chose to break with traditions in order to be more true to Tradition than current conventions in architecture would permit,” distinguishing between plural traditions (the ever-changing styles in vogue during his day), and singular Tradition (the great monuments of the past). Radical though it appeared to his contemporaries, Wright argued that his architecture conserved and reengaged the timeless disciplinary principles underlying the great historical buildings. “Principles are not invented by one man or one age,” Wright said, and he held architecture to be the discipline of principled place-making. Kahn followed Wright in this understanding, maintaining that tradition was neither a habit of design nor a whim of fashion, but rather an inheritance giving insight into the fundamental nature of mankind.

Wright’s importance to American architecture may be said to begin and end with his evolution of the uniquely American contribution to world architecture – the single-family house, starting with the Prairie Houses of 1900-20, continuing with the Concrete Block Houses of 1920-30, and finally ending with his immensely influential Usonian Houses of 1930-59. The Usonians, by far the largest number of houses that Wright designed, were

* modest in size (1200-1500 square feet) and affordable (cost-per-square-foot consistently below market housing), being designed largely for the American working class;

* energy-efficient, using a small fraction of the energy required by a similar-sized house today;

* oriented to the sun to give the inhabitants daylight throughout the day and year, solar warming in the winter, and cool shade and through-ventilation in the summer;

* and constructed with modular, standardized components and labor.

These amazing houses were characterized by both astonishing quality of interior space and intimate relations to courtyard gardens, and they set a standard that has never been matched by the universally similar and experientially vacuous developer products that have typified the American homebuilding industry since Wright’s death.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of American pretensions to having developed an indigenous “culture” that Wright, without question the first modern architect, and arguably the greatest architect in the modern world, was given so few public commissions in the United States – barely 10 percent of his 470 built works and more than 1200 designs. Proving the adage that “a prophet is never honored in his own country,” Wright in his seventy-two-year career never received a single commission from the American government. Yet the relatively few public commissions that he did receive resulted in buildings that now stand among the greatest monuments of architectural history, among which are the Larkin Building of 1902 in Buffalo, New York; the Unity Temple of 1906 in Oak Park, Illinois; the Bank and hotel of 1909 in Mason City, Iowa; the Midway Gardens of 1913 in Chicago; the Imperial hotel of 1919 in Tokyo, Japan; the Johnson Wax Building of 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin; the Florida Southern College buildings of 1938 in Lakeland; the Beth Sholom Synagogue of 1954 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, unfinished at the time of Wright’s death in 1959.


In one of the ironies of history, it was in the same year as Wright’s death that Louis I. Kahn first began to gain international attention for his work, which was to be almost entirely comprised of public commissions. In 1959 he received commissions that would result in his influential built works, the SaIk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and the Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York; his first major unbuilt works, the U.S. Embassy in Luanda, Angola, and the Fine Arts Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Kahn saw completed his Richards Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania. Having realized his first major built work, the Yale Art Gallery, in 1953, Kahn, in a building career of only twenty years’ duration, would nevertheless become the most influential architect in the world during the second half of the twentieth century – this despite the fact that he did not live to see the century’s final quarter, dying in 1974.

Kahn was influenced in his student days in the 1920s by Wright’s great Unity Temple, with its square-and-cruciform plan and cubic central volume, and from this building Kahn developed his practice of starting every design with the square in plan. However, in the 1950s Kahn had grown more distant from Wright, disturbed by many of Wright’s larger late projects, which Kahn felt were “arbitrary, personal, experimental, and disdainful of tradition. ” Yet in 1959, upon learning of Wright’s death, Kahn felt obligated to pay homage to this greatest American architect and visited the Johnson Wax Building (1936) for the first time. The great central workroom, with its grid of concrete columns supporting circular roof elements that floated in a glass-tube ceiling, the whole flooded by sunlight from above, was the most astounding revelation for Kahn – he was, “to the depths of his soul, overwhelmed,” as Vincent Scully recalls.

It would be Kahn’s destiny to fulfill the promise and potential to be found in Wright’s few public buildings, and Kahn’s legacy is that he is the greatest modern architect of public buildings in the world. In addition to the four buildings mentioned earlier, Kahn’s works around the world – most notably his Indian Institute of Management of 1962-74 in Ahmedabad, and the Bangladesh National Capital Complex of 1962-74 in Dhaka – are complemented by his great later works at home, including the Exeter Academy Library of 1965 in Exeter, New Hampshire; the Yale Center for British Art of 1969 in New Haven, Connecticut; and his masterwork (if one must choose), the Kimbell Museum of 1966 in Fort Worth, Texas. In all these buildings, light from above illuminates an introverted world within – the architectural definition of public space so powerfully established in Wright’s Unity Temple, Johnson Wax Building, and Guggenheim Museum.

A brief review of the major ordering principles that Kahn shared with Wright reveals the true measure of Wright’s inspiration for Kahn:

* the room, and its interior experience, as the beginning and generator of all architecture, complemented by the expression of this interior volume in exterior form;

* the central, top-lit, noble room as the focus of all public, institutional buildings;

* design always beginning with the square and cube, the most primary, ancient, and fundamental of geometric forms;

* the concept of “servant” and “served” spaces, where the servant spaces house structure, mechanical systems, and service spaces, so as to free the spaces that house the primary spaces of occupation;

* the plan as a society of spaces, interlocking and interacting so as to make possible both the planned activities and the unplanned meetings that engender cultural and social development;

* expressing “the nature of materials” to develop the poetics of construction, reengaging the architecture of mass and structure (as opposed to the modern cult of lightness), and employing natural light and its shadow as the primary means to characterize interior spaces;

* challenging the instrumental, dehumanizing, and universalizing effects of industrialization and modernization;

* regarding the history of the discipline of architecture as “a friend,” as a source of inspiration and principles, not as a source of forms to be copied;

* resolving paradoxes through design as a way of embedding each building in both the unique opportunities of its time and in the timeless and eternal aspects of the human condition;

* and, finally, a profound commitment to architecture conceived as being an ethical framework for the daily life that takes place within it.


Y;t the depth of Kahn’s debt to Wright has rarely been acknowledged in the writings of professional historians, much less in the popular press, and has most often been intentionally underestimated if not entirely ignored. Why is this relationship between America’s two greatest architects, and the manner in which their work constitutes an American tradition of modern architecture, so difficult to perceive for both those within the discipline and the public at large? And, more importantly, why has the architecture of Wright and Kahn not had more influence on what we see being built around us today? I would argue that a partial answer is to be found in three successful attempts to curtail the development of an indigenous American modern architecture by introducing a ready-made style from Europe – and in what these events say about the way we think about architecture and its relation to fashion.

In 1893, at the height of the indigenous “Chicago School” of architecture, which included Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan, the organizers of the Chicago Columbian Exposition selected the pseudoclassical style of the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts for the “white city” that they built on the shores of Lake Michigan, at the time the largest collection of buildings of this style in the world. In 1932, during the Great Depression, when most American architects, including Kahn, were unemployed but nevertheless organizing to provide volunteer housing design, based upon modern European models of social housing, the Museum of Modern Art selected examples of many of these same European projects. It exhibited them as exterior photographs only, emptied of their political, social, and cultural meanings, and reduced them to a formula that the curators called “The International Style.” Wright, then sixty-five-years old, was included in the 1932 exhibit, but excluded from modernism by being called “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.”

Because the first was “classical” and the second “modern,” most architectural histories do not suggest any relation between these two events. Yet they are more alike than not, having in common the intention of defining a uniform interpretation of architecture, completely disengaged from the specifics of place, program, or history, and intended to be the same irrespective of where in the world it was built – a universal, international style; a formula ready to be applied across America.

As I would hope is amply evident to the reader by this point, the architecture of Wright and Kahn and the American tradition of modern architecture that they established stand in direct opposition to this concept of a universal, international style. This brings us to the third event, which took place in 1988, after the deaths of both Wright and Kahn, when the Museum of Modern Art held another architectural exhibition, this time entitled “Deconstructivist Architecture.” At that time and since, some have held that the work represented in this exhibit, literally drawn from early modern Russian architecture and subjected to dismemberment (“deconstruction”) by way of contemporary French literary criticism, should be welcomed as an alternative to the recently dominant style of historicism. Yet, when examined from the point of view of the tradition of American architecture founded by Wright and Kahn, “historicist” and “deconstructivist” post-modernism are exactly the same: international styles ready for application throughout America.

“Today the difference between a good and a poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it,” Ludwig Wittgenstein rightly held. The only real possibility for change in the abysmal state of contemporary American building will come by way of our supporting the work of the new generation of architects, most still in their forties, the great majority of whom have chosen to reject the temptation of the stylistic formula and to engage the tradition of American architecture to be found in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn.

Robert McCarter is professor of architecture at the University of Florida, where he was director of the School of Architecture from 1991-2001. Before that appointment, he held the positions of assistant dean and associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Columbia University, 1986-1991. McCarter is the author of definitive monographs on the architects Frank Lloyd Wright (Phaidon, 1997) and Louis I. Kahn (Phaidon, 2003), has written and edited a number of other books, and contributed to numerous scholarly publications including The Oxford Companion to United States History, The Dictionary of 20th Century Architecture, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, and 50 Key Thinkers on the Environment. McCarter is also a practicing architect, president of D-Mc^sup 2^ Architecture, P.A., Gainesvillle, Florida, since 1991, and his firm has designed a broad range of project types, including church, health care, horse farm, community building, housing prototypes, and custom houses.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Summer 2003

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