Thursday, August 15, 2002

"[...] The crypto-fascist Philip Johnson famously dismissed Wright as the greatest architect of the 19th Century. [Perhaps, architects who build glass houses shouldn't throw stones.] There's a certain grain of truth about this, though not, certainly, in the sense that Johnson, who embodied the worst strains of modernism (and post-modernism), meant to convey.

Wright was a utopian, in the grand romantic tradition. He was grounded in Rousseau and often let slip that his favorite poets were Walt Whitman and the dreamy Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Along with fellow poet (and snitch) Robert Southey, Coleridge cooked up an idea for a utopian community in western Pennsylvania they called, somewhat clumsily for two poets capable of stunning lyricism, the Pantisocracy. They were going to pay for the land on the proceeds of a long poem chronicling the life and death of Robespierre. But the plan ultimately fell apart over violent disagreements between the two on sexual freedom (which Coleridge advocated) and slavery (which Coleridge abhorred). Interestingly, the Pantisocracy, charted out only on maps in Coleridge's house in Keswick, was to have been located not far from where Wright built his most famous house, Fallingwater. [...]

The early half of the 19th century was a time of incredible optimism and radicalism in the United States. In the 1840s, there were 100,000 people living in more than 150 socialist/utopian communities across the country. "Those towns stood for everything eccentric: for abolition, short skirts, whole-wheat bread, hypnotism, phonetic spelling, phrenology, free love and the common ownership of property,'' wrote the journalist Helen Beal Woodward in 1945 article on utopian communities. The Civil War largely put an end to all that, but the utopian spirit continued to thrive after the war, particularly in the prairie states, through the rise of the populist parties and the Wisconsin progressives. [...] the Jacobs House, and the dozens of Usonian designs that would follow, did more than that. It was truly one of the first environmentally-conscious designs, utilizing passive solar heating, natural cooling and lighting with his signature clerestory windows, native materials, radiant floor heating, and L-shaped floorplan that anchored the house around a garden terrace. [...] Why are we left only with the barest elements of the design, the cookie-cutter ranch houses that came to dominate the lots of suburban America?

There's no simple explanation. But one thing is clear. Wright's plans to revolutionize the American residential living space ran afoul of interests of the federal government. Think about this: in his 70-year career Wright didn't win one contract for a federal building. Not even during the heyday of the New Deal.

It all came down to politics. Wright's politics were vastly more complicated and honorable than that embodied by Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's self-serving portrait of Wright in her novel The Fountainhead. Sure there was a libertarian strain to Wright, which Rand seized on and distorted to her own perverse ends. But he also was drawn to the prairie populism espoused by the likes of the great Ignatius Donnelly. It's this version of Wright that makes an appearance in John dos Passos' USA trilogy.

Wright was a pacifist and his i outright opposition to war cost him government commissions, the great lifeline of the professional architect, especially during the Depression and World War II. [...] John Sergeant, in his excellent book on Wright's Usonian houses, argues that there's a mutual admiration between Wright and the noted anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. In 1899, Kropotkin moved to Chicago, living in the Hull House commune, set up by radical social reformer Jane Addams, where Wright often lectured, including a reading of his famous essay the Arts and Crafts Machine.

But, in those crucial decades of the 20s and 30s, Wright's political views seemed to align most snugly with Wisconsin progressives, as personified by the LaFollettes. In fact, Philip LaFollette served as Wright's attorney and sat on the board of Wright's corporation.

None of this escaped the attention of the authorities. From World War I to his final days, Wright found himself the subject of a campaign of surveillance, harassment and intimidation by the federal government. In 1941, 26 members of Wright's Taliesin fellowship signed a petition objecting to the draft and calling the war effort futile and immoral. The draft board sent the letter to the FBI, where it immediately came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who already loathed Wright.

Twice Hoover himself demanded that the Justice Department bring sedition charges against Wright. He was rebuffed both times by the attorney general, but, typically, that only drove Hoover to expand the surveillance and harassment by his goons.

But, as a review of Wright's FBI file reveals, the Fed's interest in the architect extended far beyond his pacifism. Hoover's men recorded his dalliances with the Wobblies, his continuing attempts to combat the US government's dehumanization of the Japanese during and after the war, his rabble-rousing speeches on college campuses, his work for international socialists and third world governments, including Iraq, and his rather unorthodox views on sexual relations (the Feds noted that Wright seemed to have a particular obsession with Marlene Dietrich). [...]

Usonian Utopias: Frank Lloyd Wright, Working Class Housing and the FBI
by Jeffrey St. Clair

....Vineland echoes... not the WWW, the IWW....