Monday, September 10, 2012

Wright's Root Exhibit Explores His Formative Years

On Tuesday September 18, 2012 at 5:30pm, Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago, will lead a private tour of his newest exhibit “Wright’s Roots” at Expo 72 as a special fundraiser for Glessner House Museum.  Following his extraordinary exhibit on Louis Sullivan in 2010 at the Chicago Cultural Center, “Wright’s Roots” explores the early and often overlooked period at the start of Wright’s career, much of it spent working for Sullivan, whom he referred to as Lieber Meister. 

Since his death in 1959, the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and career has become legendary – and has sometimes drifted into myth.  Many of today’s perspectives came from Wright’s own accounts of a professional career that spanned three quarters of a century.  His path to becoming a colorful public figure synonymous with modern architecture was filled with many little-known detours and diversions, but all contributed to his lasting fame and reputation. 

Using seldom-seen illustrations (including Wright’s unbuilt design for the Milwaukee Public Library and Museum, 1893, shown at top) and original artifacts to tell the story of his complex personal journey during the often-overlooked early period of his life and career, “Wright’s Roots” explores Wright’s formative years, ending with Wright building his studio in Oak Park.  As Samuelson stated in an interview on WTTW recently, “Wright has become legend – known as someone who pursued purely new, modern architecture.  But in trying to find himself in the late 19th century, he experimented with different historical styles.  It was both his knowledge of the past and his idealism for modernism that made him the great architect he was.  We tried to juxtapose his early and late buildings.  In telling his own story, Frank Lloyd Wright doesn’t talk about these early experimentations with style.  He claimed he was just trying to get work to feed his family during this period.  But when you look at his work, he had certain consistent habits.  He was truly searching.”

What did Wright know about Glessner house?  Although he doesn’t mention the house specifically in his writings, he no doubt knew the building.  The house was being finished just as Wright arrived in Chicago.  And given Sullivan’s interest in the work of Richardson (the evolution of his design for the Auditorium Building after seeing Richardson’s Wholesale Store for Marshall Field being a prime example), Wright would have been exposed to the house, both in person and through architectural journals of the day.

In his book Three American Architects (The University of Chicago Press, 1991), James F. O’Gorman examines the impact of Richardson on both Sullivan and Wright.  As an example, he points to the design of the Victor Falkenau houses in Chicago, for which Wright was the delineator of the sketch that appeared in the Inland Architect in June 1888.  O’Gorman points out that Wright may have well been the designer of the houses as well and mentions several features, “his rock-faced, horizontal ashlar wall, his semicircular arches, his mullioned and transomed basement windows, and his trabeated upper openings divided by chubby columns” as all being inspired by the Glessner house.  O’Gorman goes on to mention the plan of the dining room and the “Richardsonian breadth” of the staircase at the Blossom house at being further indications of the impact of Glessner house on a young Wright.  For his design of the Winslow House the counterplay between symmetry and asymmetry once again harkens back to Richardson’s Glessner house – a formal symmetrical fa├žade with a central entrance surrounded by axially balanced regular window openings, with the asymmetry created with the addition of a porte cochere to the left side.  Likewise, the asymmetrical and relaxed arrangement of the backsides of the houses echoes a similar attempt to create less formal family spaces. 

O’Gorman concludes by stating that “it should be clear that Wright’s appropriation of Richardsonian forms, at least soon after his initial experiments at the Falkenau houses and elsewhere, cannot be construed as copying.  With Sullivan’s tutelage, Wright quickly developed these characteristic features to his own ends, evoking their spirit while transforming their details as he sought his own vocabulary.  By the mid-nineties Wright had adopted Richardson’s emphasis on a disciplined architecture whose impact depended upon the integrated combination of elemental tectonic forms.  And by the end of the decade he was ready to generate out of this and other sources an architecture all his own.”

No architect works in a vacuum.  Both consciously and unconsciously they are impacted by the work of their fellow architects.  How they take that information and interpret it in their own works separates the “boys from the men.”  In “Wright’s Roots,” Tim Samuelson explores those early influences and shows how Wright’s genius took root in the architecture of his day, but soon led down a path that forever changed the face of American architecture. 

For tickets to this very special tour of “Wright’s Roots,” call Glessner House Museum at 312-326-1480.  Prepaid tickets are required and cost $25 each, with proceeds benefiting the museum’s House & Collections Committee Fund.

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