On the occasion of 150 years since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth (June 8, 1867), ICW reached out to Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, for some thoughts.
ICW: Commemorations such as this allow us to ask questions about influence and legacy. In this case, how can we think about distinct pre- and post-Wright periods in American architecture? Can you give us a sense of that?
CH: Pre-Wright is marked by a slow search to establish an authentic American architecture, an effort that really picks up in the work of Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect he called his “Lieber Meister.” Wright takes Sullivan’s ideas about ornament, form and function, which were hugely influential but largely contained to the late 19th-century Midwest, and expands them in place and time, working all over the US and in Japan and across a staggeringly long career. To oversimplify a bit, Wright’s work is a sustained negotiation between a desire to express a domestic architecture and staying in conversation with — not wanting to appear outpaced by — experiments in European modernism. His career lasted so long and he was so prolific — especially at the beginning and the end of his working life — that any time you talk about before and after you also have to acknowledge how long the “during” was. His established his own firm in 1893; his last great building is the Guggenheim Museum, completed (posthumously) at the end of 1959.
ICW: A few buildings notwithstanding, we don’t generally associate Wright with Southern California or Los Angeles. Should we?
CH: We should. The work he did here in the early 1920s — mostly experimental concrete-block houses with pre-Columbian ornament — helped Los Angeles get a better sense of itself, its cultural and architectural identity. It pointed the way to a regional architecture that wasn’t Spanish (more on that below), that didn’t rely on European precedents. It was different from anything being done here at the time and also radically different from anything Wright did before or after.
ICW: Why have we missed the connections or the relationship, Wright and Southern California?
CH: Mostly because his time here was short. When he set up an office on Fountain Avenue in January 1923 he thought maybe he’d be here for good. LA was booming. But by the end of that year he’d given up on that dream. A number of potential projects — some of which were maybe pipe dreams from the start, like the massive Doheny Ranch — had fizzled out. He was not getting along with his son Lloyd, also an architect and the construction supervisor for some of the LA houses. Most of the concrete-block houses didn’t work out quite as he’d planned, in part because of their experimental structural system. He designed a house in Montecito early on his career and then returned to LA near the end of it for a couple of small projects. Those were flybys. But in the 1920s he was trying to really ground his architecture in Southern California, trying to reinvent himself as a West Coast architect.
ICW: Los Angeles in the 1920s must have seemed caught between provincial and would-be metropolitan, especially to someone with Wright’s eye. What did he think of the place?
CH: His opinions were inconsistent — since he was — but tilted negative. After he left he dismissed LA as a “desert of shallow effects.” But it also sparked something in him, elicited work as inventive and singular as he’d produce anywhere. And he sympathized with the provincial in any case — he was from a close-knit, rural Welsh Wisconsin family that was suspicious of cities. He never quite shook that attitude.
ICW: Who did he know here and with whom did he associate?
CH: His son Lloyd arrived earlier and was for a time the head of the design department at Paramount. Lloyd helped him make contacts. Aline Barnsdall first wanted to build her house in Northern California; once she bought land on Olive Hill he had a steady source of LA income. He was better at making connections in the right social circles when he was younger, as an up-and-coming architect in Chicago. By the time he got to LA he was middle-aged and reeling from the 1914 murder of his mistress Mamah Borthwick.
ICW: His LA time is coincident with his Tokyo work? Any connections between here and there that are especially interesting or germane?
CH: The timing is mostly during the Tokyo work, and just after. It’s the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that gives him a key commission at a lean period in the middle 1910s and brings him regularly to the West Coast for trips across the Pacific. His work here is influenced by Japan but the hotel is also shaped by his rising interest in the architecture of the Americas, defined broadly. Especially pre-Columbian.
ICW: Do you know if he made any connections to the way Los Angeles boosters had become so attracted to Chicago at the time? In other words, LA wanted to do, 1900-1950, what Chicago did, 1850-1900. Did Wright sense that?
CH: He must have, though he was too cynical, too much of a curmudgeon and too vain to join a campaign promoting anything but himself. He saw Los Angeles as the future but also as refuge, a place to hide out and reinvent himself. That contradiction can be seen in his LA work, which is historicist and experimental at the same time, looking backward and forward in a way that has confounded some critics and historians, who were used to dividing 1920s architecture rather neatly into avant-garde and revivalist camps.
ICW: How did he change Los Angeles?
CH: I’ve been working through this question — not just to write the Times piece marking the anniversary but in helping develop a forthcoming KCET Artbound documentary on Wright’s work in L.A. I think you could make a case that his houses here paved the way for the particular success of the major civic and cultural landmarks of the middle and late 1920s — the Central Library, City Hall, Wiltern, etc. Those projects were eclectic and revivalist without being slavishly Spanish Colonial Revival, a style Wright disdained. He planted the seeds for that, for an approach that broke equally from the Bauhaus, the Mission and his own early work.
As architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne also writes a weekly column about architecture in Los Angeles. The 1920s photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (above) was taken by Julius Shulman and is courtesy of USC Libraries.