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On the 50th Anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
June 17th, 2009

Thank you. I am truly pleased to be here, and to share in this occasion, which marks not just the fiftieth anniversary of this building, so brilliantly restored thanks in large part to Peter Lewis’s wisdom and generosity, and not just the fiftieth anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s death, but the coming together of a what we might say are all the various streams of Frank Lloyd Wright’s awesome legacy, streams that have for a long time flowed in parallel channels, and far too rarely intersecting. Tonight brings together the stream of the Guggenheim Museum, and all that it means for art museums, and for the architecture of art museums; and the stream of New York City, which played a unique role in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in that it was at once the target of his harshest rhetoric and the home for a substantial portion of his complex psyche that could not be contained at Taliesin; and then there is also the stream of Wright scholarship, which seems, like a mighty river, only to flow with greater and greater force as time passes, thanks in significant part to Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Mark Keane and Neil Levine, among many others; and finally, of course, there is the stream of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the stream whose channel has often seemed the most removed from all the others, however much it might be thought to be the one that connected everything to everything else.

But tonight the streams always flow together, which has not always been the case. For a long time the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has not been an active presence in New York; it could almost be said to have drawn a line around Taliesin West and Taliesin in Wisconsin, as if these places were not just incomparably great and treasured pieces of architecture, but somehow were also the only places that conferred legitimacy on dialogue about Frank Lloyd Wright, as if everything that took place outside that line was invalid, or inappropriate, or unauthorized, or improper, since it did not carry the Foundation’s imprimateur. I think the process of getting beyond this has been going on for a long time, and I credit Bruce Pfeiffer for opening the doors gradually but steadily to the outside world, guarding the integrity of Wright drawings and this extraordinary archive that is in the Foundation’s possession while understanding that you do not, in the end, honor a master by presenting his views as a party line. You do him more respect by opening the windows, letting some fresh air in, and letting his ideas joust with others. No one need ever fear that the ideas Frank Lloyd Wright stood for would not do well in the marketplace of ideas, any more than we need fear that his buildings would not hold their own in the ultimate judgment of architectural history. They will do just fine, and they are strong enough to survive in the intellectual boxing ring. Only weak ideas need to be protected from dissent. Strong ones emerge all the stronger.

It is not an accident, I think, that Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation declined a bit in the generation following his death. Some of that was the result of the kind of revisionism that inevitably goes on after a great figure departs—Mark Keane alluded to that in his remarks—but some of it, surely, was the result of the way in which the Foundation handled his absence, which was to act almost as if nothing had happened, and he was still with us. That gave everything an air of unreality, to say the least, and for quite a while after 1959 there were two Frank Lloyd Wrights. One was the late American architect whose oeuvre contained several of the greatest buildings in the history of American architecture, maybe in the history of all architecture. Then there was the architect who was still considered the guiding spirit of the Taliesin Fellowship and the senior design partner of the architectural practice at Taliesin West.

Ironically, the foundation’s attempt to keep Wright alive had almost an opposite effect. It made him seem distant, almost godlike, a prophet so much larger than life that he seemed to transcend life. He made all architectural questions irrelevant, because he seemed to have all the answers. Paradoxically, it was the other Wright, the one who was more clearly dead, who in those days who seemed more alive, since he was treated more as a human figure, as an architect with ideas you could think about and discuss and debate. The Frank Lloyd Wright that I studied at Yale in the late 1960’s seemed more connected to the rest of architecture than the deity who resided at Taliesin, where there was not dialogue so much as gospel. It was much more meaningful to talk about how Wright was affected by the history of architecture and how he, in turn, affected it, than to imagine that the history of architecture began with the start of his career and ended with his death in 1959.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone literally believed that—I certainly hope they didn’t—but for a while, it seemed as if the Fellowship and the Foundation were operating almost as if that were the case. Why this was so is complex, and while much of it of course has to do with the people in charge of Taliesin and the Fellowship in the years after 1959, we have to lay at least some of the responsibility at Wright’s own feet. He brilliantly crafted his own reputation—we might say that the creation of his persona was as conscious an act as the shaping of any of his buildings—and it was not a persona that bespoke modesty, or had any understatement about it. He was controlling, and he had a will of iron. He possessed enormous charm, but every ounce of it was directed toward achieving his ambitious goals.

I think Wright was the first architect to use contemporary media as a platform for celebrity, and he did so brilliantly, as Mike Wallace’s classic interview reminds us. Wright took naturally to all forms of communication to enhance his persona. He wrote books, not just his _Autobiography_ but also monographs and treatises and presentations of his work; he gave newspaper interviews and delivered lectures; and the minute television appeared on the scene, he was there, too, assuring that not just architects and critics but the average man on the street would know his name. He took so naturally to media, and to the development of new communications possibilities, that it is impossible not to wonder what he would have made of the Internet. I am sure he would have been among the first architects to have his own website.

But Wright thought about media in a far broader way than the preservation and enhancement of his own reputation. If you go back to the famous talk he delivered more than a century ago at Hull House in Chicago, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” you see a young architect—he was thirty four at the time—talking not about the American landscape and the architecture of democracy and the primacy of the hearth and some of the other themes that often inspired him, but about the role of technology in shaping architectural form. It is a remarkable talk, not least because it suggests that in some ways Wright was closer to the European modernists than he liked to let on, but also because it contained, with an acknowledged debt to Victor Hugo, the first serious attempt by an architect to explain architecture as a form of media, as a form of cultural communication. 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 for a hundred years ago – architecture as media. Today we think of almost everything in terms of its implications for information technology, but people didn’t then. 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 that time, as much as stone was the reality of the fifteenth century. Others would say similar things later – Le Corbusier most memorably, as well as the great Italian futurist Sant’Elia – but Wright’s view of architecture as a communications medium 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, but also as full of 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. 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, exhorting us all to save civilization with “The Art and Craft of Digital Architecture.” 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, who led the way.

And this is what I mean by opening ourselves up to Frank Lloyd Wright, and opening him and his work to the world we live in today—not just preserving it and teaching it and talking about it, but seeking connections between his ideas and the twenty-first century. If technology is one realm in which there are connections to be made, sustainability is another. It is no exaggeration to think of Frank Lloyd Wright as the first green architect, given his deep connection to the land and to indigenous materials, as well as to the way buildings are sited and the way in which they relate to the sun. And after all, before the word was taken over by Whole Foods, “organic” was all but Frank Lloyd Wright’s calling card. And to mention yet another side of Wright that has urgency today, the Usonian houses demonstrated his passionate interest in bringing architecture to everyone, and assuring that it not become solely the province of the rich. Wright did not want to design only custom-made houses for the rich. He wanted to prove that architecture could affect the lives of everyone, and have an impact on an entire community. So, too, with all of Wright’s urban projects, which may not suggest the direction we would want to go in today, but which provide the perfect starting point for the discussion of where we do want to go.

Wright, of course, always provides a starting point. That, you could say, is the point. If there is anything to be taken from this wonderful exhibition that surrounds us here, beyond the joy of seeing this new partnership between the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Guggenheim—a partnership that I hope will continue to flourish—and beyond the pleasure of seeing Wright’s work presented within the confines of this great Wright building, it would be the way the exhibition underscores how Wright’s work is important not only as artifact, not only as great architecture of the past. The exhibition reminds us that Wright matters also because of all the thoughts his work stimulates about the world today, and about the problems we face that did not exist in his time. Great architecture, like great art, always offers up new ideas and new meanings to each time, to each era, and it is continually reinterpreted, which is exactly as it should be. Great architecture, like great art, is forever new. And so, too, is Frank Lloyd Wright.

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