Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Falling Water; Frank Lloyd Wrong?

Today, my parents, my sister, and i went to see Falling Water. It was a remarkable experience. My mother and i had seen a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright in preparation for the trip (yes, the nerdy apple falls not far from the nerdy tree...). I am happy we did, as the tour was rather superficial. Two things, possibly connected, were not addressed and continue to gnaw at my mind:
1) Mr. Wright had virtually no professional training
2) Mr. Wright was a total d-bag

After reading a few of Simon Winchester's books, it struck me (as i am sure was the intention) that many of the greatest innovations were achievements of people who lacked formal education (Winchester has written two books about the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, and The Meaning of Everything). James Murray, the son of a Scottish draper was an autodidact who taught himself numerous languages, archaeology, and who was making accurate astronomical predictions before the age of 12, was the primary editor of the OED. In The Map That Changed the World, Winchester tells the shocking story of William Smith, the canal digger who despite bitter class-wars, became the father of modern geology.

Leonardo da Vinci, whose bastard-status prevented him from receiving classical education (which was probably an advantage because it forced him to observe the world rather than be bound to the Greek mindset of conceiving the world according to models) also comes to mind. John Harrison, a carpenter who taught himself clock-making, invented the marine chronometer,(which established longitude), revolutionising navigation in the 18th century. All of these people, including Wright, were laypeople. All of these people worked with their hands.

Wright actually put a premium on manual labour and stressed its relation to one's development as a person or as an artist. In his apprenticeship programme at Taliesen, pupils learnt by doing--and this included working in the fields, preparing meals, and maintaining the property. Wright told his students that it was as important for them to work with their hands, read poetry, cook, and listen to music, as it was to study great architectural works. In a similar way, T. S. Eliot describes the 'heterogeneous ideas' that create the unified experience in the poetry of John Donne:

The ordinary man falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Like Donne, Wright viewed his craft as a spiritual process, involving the cooperation of the natural with the supernatural. Donne often discusses the rectification of reason, the transformation or elevation of one's natural reason to a higher plane, contingent upon belief in God. In other words, belief in God is basically super-sizing your reason.

Conversely, Wright viewed nature as being rectified by humanity, or what he called organic architecture; 'a reinterpretation of nature’s principles as they had been filtered through the intelligent minds of men and women who could then build forms which are more natural than nature itself'.

Wright bucked the trend of industrial architecture, of modernism with all its machinery, dominating and subduing nature. He instead turned to craft; the spiritual space of a building, the craftsman's hands on the piece, the harmony between humanity and nature. Wright's philosophical commitment to architecture that is generated by its surroundings has made his horizontal planes practically iconic, and can be seen in his treatment of the boulders at Falling Water. Nature is not interrupted, nor is it displaced.

Lovely. It sounds like Wright had much in common with Donne. It also seems that his stint in Japan influenced him with a lot of Eastern thought about our place in nature, and body and mind and harmony stuff. So what's the problem? I guess i'm confused by a guy whose aesthetic is morally grounded but his actions were so scandalous and immoral.

The debate about morality's place in art, or as Benjamin Constant called it, l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) has been discussed by people such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarme, Wilde, Ruskin, Whistler, and loads of others. I've rattled them off like they're distant family members, but i've only read them superficially--click here for a more in-depth synopses. A few weeks ago, i attended a conference on early modern English thought, and was blown away by a paper about the impact of Paradise Lost on Kant's moral philosophy. It restored my faith in what initially drew me to literature, and though we (perhaps anachronistically) may disagree with much of what 17th century religious writers have to say, there is little doubt in my mind that they genuinely sought a moral life. As for Wright, i don't want to justify him. And only trite things come to mind about how someone with such a nice philosophy could be a total d-nozzle. Like the greater the person the greater temptations, so i suppose he just gave in to his. But that doesn't quite cut it. Thoughts, anyone? Bueller?


  1. Hmmm, this neither surprises nor upsets me. People are complex.

  2. Another great post. From my reading of your post, I believe your consternation arises from your assumption that awareness leads to acceptance. Wright and countless others may have found God or spiritual morality through labor or their crafts, but finding a key to a moral, God-centered life does not equate to incorporating those findings into one's life. The examples are as many as there are people. Even St. Augustine, a key figure in shaping Christian theology, famously wrote in "Confessions" something to the effect of "God, help me live a moral and chaste life...but not yet." St. A lived a fairly notorious life in his youth despite a clear awareness of God. St. A was a living example of my favorite quote from Oscar Wilde, "every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." Wilde himself was well aware of spiritual morality and that quote is the best summation of Christian philosophy I have ever read. Oscar, however, far from lived a God-centered life. Being a fan, I've always hoped he didn't run out of future. To stay focused, working with one's hands can be a strong force to lead one to spirituality or God, but there are other forces that can just as strongly lead one away from God. That competition is the nature of sin. Sin is often thought of as a breaking of the rules, but a true definition of sin is an action that draws one away from God. So sadly, there is no contradiction in Wright or Wilde. They are just examples of people who were too easily drawn away despite their awareness, a battle we all wage to some extent. I believe that the philosophies of Kant actually make it easier for artists and such to fall into this "trap" to lead more self-centered lives, but that is another story.

    So, you write wonderfully about the impact of craftsmanship on philosophy. Does philosophy impact your woodworking?


  3. Kari and TK:
    First off, thanks for commenting-it's the main reason i started blogging. I have been thinking about what you guys have said. I totally hear the stuff about the complexity. Martin Luther King Jr is a big hero of mine--but i was crushed when i heard he had affairs, etc. So one issue is disappointment. However, part of what makes people heroes, or worthy of emulation is their character flaws. If we didn't have limitations, we wouldn't be capable of being 'heroes'.
    TK-i love the Wilde quote, and i thank you for the illuminating Augustine parallel. Whilst Augustine eventually got there, and though he prayed to incorporate his values into his life (albeit with a brief delay!), i suppose we'll never know what went through Wright's mind. Well, maybe i ought to look at some bios of him.
    I look forward to further discussion of Kant, as well, and I think you ought to start a blog! If not, can you at least do a guest post on this blog?
    As for your question about philosophy impacting my woodworking, here is a sad admission:
    when i say i am a novice, i really mean it. i've only made 2 coffee tables and one dining room table. I think when i progress and get to design, i will let you know. Sometimes, though, i find myself reasoning according to some metaphysical conceits and experimenting. Thankfully there have not been too many accidents!
    What is the relationship between philosophy and your woodworking?

  4. Naomi,

    Thanks for the offer, but this is your blog. You lead the discussion. You're very good at it, I would not be.

    I do mostly handwork in woodworking since I'm a firm believer that working with your hands is good for your soul (although I confess to using a thickness planer on larger projects). Other than that, philosophy doesn't impact project choice or design, at least not yet.

    Don't sell yourself short, a dining room table is a big project. I'm sure it turned out great.


  5. Hey Naom, liked this post. I think that often people live very compartmentalized lives. On the one hand, it's hard to imagine that a person can be so morally advanced in one area and so depraved in another when we are accustomed to thinking of people as "moral" or well, bad, but I think that even if it's harder to understand because it seems hypocritical, it might ultimately be better for someone to excel in one moral area and flag in another rather than be completely morally average or worse, profligate. Though I don't know if FLW was giving himself this sort of "permission," I often think that people often will need to focus on one area of self-improvement or moral conduct and let another one slide. If asked whether I would choose art over another area and whether I would consider art a moral area, that's a second, possibly more interesting question.

    Also, I thought that we decided we're not going to use the d-word anymore.

  6. You are saying so many things here. First off genius is bred not made. While it doesn't hurt to have a formal education it certainly doesn't take the place of genius, talent or vision it only adds to it. It's kind of like martial arts. There is only one thing more dangerous than a small man with great martial art skills and that's a big man with great martial art skills. Jazz musicians are also an excellent example of talented artists that until recently were not allowed to take part in serious music so out of necessity and a need for expression Jazz was born. The same can be said for any art form or technology for that matter. With technology a need for something makes people create it. It wasn't that long ago that apprenticeship was the norm and most of the population had a trade of some kind not a university degree. Some of the most brilliant creative people I have ever met have been machinists that could think way past their university educated engineer bosses as to what could realistically be created. Frank was correct in understanding that real skill is only created by doing as well as learning. Franks personal demons and tragedies in his life were enormous and though we would love to have his talents I wouldn't trade my crazy life for his mostly tragic one. Frank was a genius that like great sculptors who saw the finished sculptor in the block of marble he saw the finished product on the property before him. Formal education really doesn't mean squat but it does open doors a lot quicker than just saying you have talent but proven talent will open doors a lot quicker than an unknown person with a phd. I know, pretty obvious! Ahh and then morality in art. Hmmmmmm I guess we just have to ask the art critic because they really decide everything for the artist.

  7. Naomi,

    Wonderful post. You have a really good writing style.

    (I say that coming from a liberal arts education (B.A. in Art History) and having experienced a large amount of terribly dry, boring and convoluted art and literature writings for many years.)

    I must say, that Wilder quote is going to stay with me for some time.

    As TK said, don't sell your woodworking skills short. I have never even attempted a coffee table, much less two coffee tables (you must drink a lot of java!) and a dining room table, but I like to think of myself as a woodworker...

    To me, woodworking is an art form, so how large a piece is or how many pieces I've made isn't important; it is important for me to know that I've applied my creative skills as best I can and breathed life back into a piece of wood.

  8. Denes-thanks for the comment. I think we all to some degree let one thing slide whilst trying to improve in another area. As for the art issue...what are your thoughts?

    Shira-thanks for reading my blog. I totally hear what you are saying, but i am also questioning if formal education maybe might have a negative impact. Check this out:


    Ethan-thanks for reading my blog--i am a big fan! And, seeing as i am in the throes of scrapping and rewriting my dissertation, your compliment on my writing is well-timed! Yes, that Wilde quote from TK is great. Thanks, TK!

    TK and Ethan--i'll post photos soon of my table and then we'll talk! ;-)

  9. Wright was well into his ideas about respecting nature and horizontality before he ever went to Japan. He did so by taking the commission of the Dana Laurence (Thompson) house in Springfield Illionis (1905). and returned later to begin building the imperial hotel (now gone).

  10. A note on Wright and being a jerk: I was reading this great book on Greene and Greene which quoted a critic from the earlier part of the last century. He was speaking about Greene and Greene compared with Wright, and he said that G&G were much better architects/ designers because their work was much more self-effacing than Wright's. I will try and find the book title and the name of the critic...