horizontal line

Frank Lloyd Wright at Hull House: On "The Art and Craft of the Machine"

Hull House Museum, Chicago, IL
March 1st, 2001

Good evening. I am honored to be here, and to be a part of this extraordinary commemoration of what is, in some ways, one of the seminal events in twentieth-century architecture. By describing "The Art and Craft of the Machine" in such terms I don’t mean to suggest that Wright’s lecture deserves to be remembered more than his buildings; it doesn’t, and for all its power, it isn’t as good as most of his buildings. But there is a lot to say about it, and there could not be a better time to hear it again, and not just because it was given exactly a century ago.

Most of us remember Wright’s lecture for its central point: Wright argued in "The Art and Craft of the Machine" against the hand-crafted aesthetic of Ruskin and William Morris, and in favor of an architecture that would use the machine as an aesthetic inspiration. He denounced what he considered the hypocrisy of embracing technology as a modern means to achieve a traditional end, which is to say he didn’t think much of using machines to make classical columns or Gothic arches. Wright believed passionately that the machine somehow had to shape the aesthetic as well; it had to be a generator of architectural form. Architecture would not only have to be made differently in the age of the machine; it was essential that it look different, too. While Wright despised the literal revivalism of those architects who struggled, or perhaps we might say pretended, to build in the true Gothic mode, without supporting steel and other manifestations of contemporary technology, he was every bit as dismissive, or maybe more so, of those who used modern techniques and then hid them behind Gothic or classical or Georgian facades. Better not to build a skyscraper at all than to build one like the Wrigley Building or the Tribune Tower, Wright might have said.

Anyway, we all know that. Wright said it with great force, as you have heard, and in so doing he set the tone for numerous modernist theorists of a very different stripe who would follow him – Le Corbusier most famously, but also Gropius, Peter Behrens, Antonio Sant’Elia, and others. Each of them in his own way romanticized the machine, and connected the future of architecture to our ability to evolve a new aesthetic based on the machine. It is striking that Wright came first, but maybe more important to observe that the notion of the machine aesthetic would come, in the years following this lecture, to find a more natural home in Europe than in the United States, among the utopian socialist intellectuals and the futurists who would develop a strain of modernism significantly different from Wright’s own. I think we can take this point further and say that "The Art and Craft of the Machine" is both quintessentially Wrightian and very different from what the usual message Wright tried to convey in much of his rhetoric. It’s quintessentially Wrightian in its glorious, overblow rhetoric, of course, in its arrogance, in its heavily moralizing tone, and in its certainty that we were in a new age, an age of cosmic change, an age that was profoundly different from all that had come before. You don’t have to study the talk very carefully to pick all of this up.

But there is a subtle difference between "The Art and Craft of the Machine" and many of the themes Wright based his architecture, and so much of his other rhetoric, on, and that’s what I would like to talk about for a moment – not how this great lecture is the same as what Wright so often said, but how it is different. You don’t hear a lot in "The Art and Craft of the Machine" about the American passion for flowing, open space, for moving out across the land, for breaking away from the city – passions with which Wright identified completely. You all know of Wright’s constant attempt to present himself as the architect of democracy, as the generator of an aesthetic that related directly to the American tradition, and would itself further and enhance the democratic idea. His "Autobiography" is full of this, as are so many of his writings, which talk of the glories of simplicity, of the sense of repose, of the dignity and ease that would come from the flowing space and clean, earth-hugging lines of his Prairie Houses.

"The Art and Craft of the Machine" is, as you have heard, a radical statement, and I think it is important to remember here the extent to which, much of the time, Wright was not so radical at all Ð in fact, he was oddly conservative. He believed passionately in the traditional family, in traditional roles, and even though he broke brazenly with social convention early in this century when he left his wife and children and took up with the wife of a client, he never shook off a quality of solid, Midwestern conservatism. Wright created radical new forms to accommodate to relatively traditional social patterns. The family, and the symbols that embraced it, were all. The primacy he gave to the hearth, to the dining table, to rooms for playing music in his houses underscores this. Taliesin, his own home in Wisconsin and Arizona, may have been a little bit like a commune, but it was a hierarchical commune, and a commune where Saturday night dinners were black tie. This was a man who did not want to challenge the social order Ð his goal was to make a new form of architecture to protect it. Indeed, Wright believed that the historical styles, the traditional architecture that surrounded him during his nineteenth-century upbringing, was antithetical to the democratic spirit of the United States, and that his Prairie style would express the American spirit better than anything else had thus far been able to do. The last thing in the world that Wright wanted to do was rethink the order of the world.

Of course, some of this – certainly the words in Wright’s "Autobiography" – came later. The Wright we have just heard tonight, the Wright of "The Art and Craft of the Machine," sounds, in substance if not in tone, more like the European modernists who were in so many ways his opposites. They were utopians, who were driven by a social dream, on a vision of a very different society. Indeed, for some of them the new architecture was but a means to a new kind of society: whereas Wright designed new to protect the old order, architects like Le Corbusier and Gropius designed new to overthrow the old order.

Of course it is true that for all their differences, all of these architects, all of these early modernists of every stripe, shared a belief that architecture had a power Ð a power to affect social well-being, whether it was to make a new and changed society, as the Europeans wanted, or to preserve and protect and energize an older one, as Wright sought. We certainly see this in "The Art and Craft of the Machine." In all of Wright’s moralizing and bombast, he is nothing if not passionate about the notion of art, and architecture, as having the power to transform society. And yet it is something of a paradox that Wright himself, for all his brilliance and daring as a formalist, and for all the magnificence of his architecture, was, as I’ve suggested, in certain ways a rear-guard figure, to whom architectural creativity was in many ways a means of saving the world as it was. Wright believed as the European modernists did that we were in a new age; that was central to the thesis of "The Art and Craft of the Machine." But at the same time, he believed in a kind of status quo, oddly enough. It was, in a sense, motherhood and apple pie – he just wanted the apple pie baked in a new kind of stove and served on a new kind of dish, but in the belief that they would therefore taste all the better. He was certain that the American values he cherished were worth saving – but he was even more certain that this could not be done if we kept producing the traditional, revivalist architecture that had been the bread-and-butter of American building for most of the nineteenth century.

I realize that some of the paradox of Wright the radical/Wright the conservative is a matter of ends and means Ð Wright believed that we needed radical means to protect conservative ends. Maybe that is the clearest way to put it. The Europeans, of course, wanted radical means to achieve radical ends, and that was the difference between them. It’s worth saying also that Wright was not yet thirty-four when "The Art and Craft of the Machine" was delivered, and his youth shows. It’s not that he mellowed later, it’s more that his view of himself as a kind of American prophet seems to have grown, and pushed away the love of the machine. In 1901 we see a Wright who was already fully sure of himself, fully certain that architecture could solve the problems of the world and that he could solve the problems of architecture. The sense of the new century as representing a completely new age led him, perhaps, to a kind of bombast that obscured his underlying conservatism.

There is no simple explanation to this puzzle – how it is that Wright’s most important early statement seems to take him in a direction more consistent with the modernists who were to become, in many ways, his antagonists, the Europeans who history has come to associate, far more clearly than Wright himself, with the notion of an architecture of the machine age. Of course one is tempted to take from all of this that Wright was the fount of all modernist thinking, including that which differed somewhat from his own, and that "The Art and Craft of the Machine" proves a kind of common ancestry for much of the twentieth century’s architectural theorizing, which becomes all traceable back to Wright. That’s a little farfetched, and I don’t think even the most ardent Wrightians would buy this view entirely. But it’s not entirely wrong, either. Yet it’s certainly not a subtle point or an altogether accurate one; we know that the streams of modernist thought are vastly more complex than that, and that the European theorists, many of whom were acquainted with Wright’s work and with his writings, nonetheless hardly derived all their ideas from him.

When I re-read Wright’s lecture in preparation for tonight, something else about it struck me, a passage that I hadn’t remembered. After he finished going on about John Ruskin and William Morris, Wright started talking about Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type, and he made the most extraordinary observation that the printed book was, in a sense, the first machine, and that its arrival profoundly changed architecture. It was not the printing press itself that Wright was calling a machine, it was the book. He owed, and acknowledged, a certain debt to Victor Hugo in this point, of course, who made a somewhat similar observation in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but Wright’s way of expressing this point is interesting. Before printed books, Wright said, "all the intellectual forces of the people converged to one point – architecturee.down to the fifteenth century the chief register of humanity is architecture." Wright referred to the most important pieces of architecture as "great granite books," and said that "down to the time of Gutenberg architecture is the principal writing – the universal writing of humanity." But once printing arrived, Wright says, "Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone. The book is about to kill the edifice," he concluded, here reworking Victor Hugo’s phrase literally.

Never mind whether Wright’s theory is right or wrong, or the fact that it ignores the oral tradition of literature, which allowed words to become part of cultural history even before the invention of the printing press. Like almost everything Wright wrote, this is wildly overstated, full of Whitmanesque hyperbole. But for all of that, it is still an astonishing observation, for in a way it is the beginning of the modern connection between media and architecture. Wright was acting on the presumption that architecture was a form of communication, and that is pretty radical – architecture as media. "The Art and Craft of the Machine," then, can be viewed as an early example – perhaps the early example – of the notion of architecture as media, which today, when we think of almost everything in terms of its implications for information technology, is astonishing. Wright was viewing architecture as a system by which the culture preserved and extended itself – in fact, as the primary system by which the culture did this, since Wright saw art and sculpture as subsidiary to architecture, as merely tools in its arsenal of communication. Sometimes buildings literally did tell stories, as you know – the iconography of the Gothic cathedrals is the most potent example, but so, too, with Greek temples and with most classical architecture – although I think Wright was thinking not only in such literal terms, but also in the idea that the architectural experience itself, the creation of structure and space, was a form of communication, and a form of conveying cultural values between the generations. Now, as I said, architecture was not the only system of preserving culture, as Wright would have had us believe, but there is no question that it was a very powerful one, and Wright’s notion that its power was diminished by the way in which the printing press allowed an alternative means for ideas to become widely disseminated is a compelling thought.

Wright went on to suggest that the printing press so weakened architecture that after the Middle Ages architecture had no choice but to devolve into historical replication – in Wright’s view, as you may remember, the Renaissance was nothing but an elaborate pageant of classical copying. Wright’s theory was that since architecture had been robbed by the printing press of its role of conveying human thought, it turned into a poor echo of itself, an effete copy of its past, while fresh ideas were expressed in books instead of buildings. And it only got worse, century by century, Wright believed, until at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was delivering "The Art and Craft of the Machine," by which point architecture "is but a little, poor knowledge of archeology," Wright said, and art, too, had become essentially a form of denial, a sentimental grasping for the past. Now, it is easy to laugh at this, and indeed, some of what Wright had to say was patently ridiculous. It isn’t news to observe that Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot of fun deliberately misreading everything in architectural history from the Renaissance through the Beaux-Arts. But let’s stay focused on the machine itself, and on Wright’s realizations about it, which broke through his own wild rhetoric to some other, equally wild but I think vastly more insightful rhetoric. Wright said of the machine that it was "invincible, triumphant, the machine goes on, gathering force and knitting the material necessities of mankind ever closer into a universal automatic fabric; the engine, the motor, and the battleship, the works of art of this century!"

I love the phase "universal automatic fabric"; it almost makes me think of the Internet. Wright certainly understood that all technology does, in a way, connect, and that it feeds upon itself. But the real point here is that Wright was urging that we, in effect, take back the machine, claim it for art and architecture – that it is the reality of our time, as much as stone was the reality of the fifteenth century. Others would say similar things later – Le Corbusier most memorably, as I’ve already said, as well as the great Italian futurist Sant’Elia – but Wright’s view of architecture as a communications medium, and thereby vulnerable to the printing press, gives the idea of accepting the machine a whole different meaning.

And now that almost all technology seems in some way to be about information, now that technology and communication have become almost one and the same, it is difficult not to think that the relationship between architecture and technology must be even more interdependent than it was in the past. Wright’s underlying thesis – that the machine was not only a tool, but also an aesthetic inspiration, even an aesthetic imperative – has obvious analogies to what is going on today with blobs and folded planes and everything else that can be said, symbolically or actually, to reflect the shaping of architectural form through computers. There is no question that we are at a moment of technological development as important as the dawn of the machine age, and that it will have as significant an effect on architectural form. It has already begun to. And like the architecture of the machine age, its effect will be felt in process, in materials, and in physical appearance. And also like the architecture of the machine age, the effect of technology on the way architecture looks will sometimes be a direct result of new processes and new materials, but it will just as often be a result of imagined connections – architecture that just sort of "feels" digital, regardless of how it was derived, which is not so different from a lot of the International Style architecture of the nineteen twenties and thirties that "felt" mechanical, even though it may have been drawn as carefully as a Beaux-Arts rendering, and constructed as traditionally as a Victorian church.

We are in an age as new, and as uncertain, and as frought with potential for architecture as the machine age. We don’t yet fully know what the digital age will mean for architecture, although we already see, as we did in the machine age, a conflict between those who see new technologies as just a set of tools that will make it easier to construct architecture that is more or less similar to that which we have built before, and those who see new technologies as the basis for an entirely new aesthetic, as Wright did a hundred years ago. There could not be a better time to look back at "The Art and Craft of the Machine," because we now have a whole new kind of technology, beyond the machine, and a whole new generation of architects who are seeing digital technologies in the same way that Wright saw the machine – as an inspiration. We have the same sense that the world is never again going to be the same.

We aren’t likely to greet the digital age with rhetoric like what we have just heard in "The Art and Craft of the Machine," and that is partly because not even the greatest architect of today has Wright’s ability to combine brilliant aesthetic invention with the tone of a fundamentalist preacher. It’s impossible to imagine Frank Gehry, or Peter Eisenman, or Greg Lynn, exorting us all to save civilization with "The Art and Craft of Digital Architecture." I think we will move into this new age more quietly than Wright brought us into the machine age. But we should make no mistake, as we adjust to the digital age and as we struggle with the question of how much the architecture we make now has a responsibility to embrace the technology of our time, that if we decide it is liberating, not to say profound, for architecture to do so, that it was Wright, a hundred years ago at Hull House, who showed us the way.

horizontal line