Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, May 15 – August 23, 2009
In 1924, the middle of the age of the Charleston, wealthy businessman Gordon Strong asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a tourist destination for the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Maryland. Strong suggested a dance hall that would attract day-trippers from Washington and Baltimore. But the egomaniacally forward-thinking architect, obsessed with modernist notions about progress and determined to change the nature of architecture itself, designed a massive ziggurat-like structure, partially nestled in the hillside, containing a great domed planetarium and ringed by a natural history museum. Wright imagined that visitors, newly bitten by the automobile bug, would drive their Model-Ts to the top of the ziggurat, admire a breathtaking view, and then check out the other attractions inside. Though never built, the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium design heralded Wright’s infatuation with the spiral that eventually led to the Guggenheim Museum’s famously quirky, round structure.
Appropriately, the Guggenheim itself is currently presenting a retrospective of Wright’s work, featuring working drawings and a model for Wright’s ambitious project. Just as aptly, the show has an endearingly wistful back-to-the future quality. Marking the Guggenheim’s fiftieth anniversary, the retrospective makes much of Wright’s legacy as the first distinctly American architect. He moved beyond his teacher Louis Sullivan’s dictum that form follows function, holding instead that form and function should be organically linked. Wright was the first architect to give the interior, rather than the exterior, primary design consideration. Inspired by Japanese architecture, he knocked down walls and raised ceilings, opening up the inside of the building. Yet this exaltation of the expanded interior corresponded to a dynamic vision of a liberated America on the move across the landscape. An early and fervent proponent of the automobile, Wright believed driving would enable Americans to escape the oppressive denseness of overpopulated cities. Part of their aesthetic reward would be Frank Lloyd Wright houses, whose oversized windows and careful siting nested the structures in their bucolic surroundings and celebrated their seclusion.
Wright is justifiably considered a visionary. Yet in a post-modern retrospective moment, for people like me who grew up in Wright-inspired modern houses, his imagined future looks paradoxically nostalgic. In the ’60s, my parents were among the converted. It’s unclear whether their Wright-ness was an informed decision or not, but they wholeheartedly adopted the same dream that drove him. They engaged an architect to design their home, which embodied a decisive break with the props of their traditional New England childhoods. The house was the envy of my school friends. Most of them had drafty old houses built in the 1800s or raised ranches in crowded neighborhoods. Our snazzy, custom-designed split-level house was set at the end of a winding dirt road, nestled into the hillside, and surrounded by woods, with a beautiful view looking out over the reservoir. The open floor plan, built around a central fireplace, featured floor-to-ceiling windows on all the exterior walls. They appointed it with brand-new, neutrally-colored, angular furniture, and my father copied the works of the painters he most admired—Klee, Mondrian, and Picasso—to hang on the pristine white walls. His favorite artist was Alexander Calder, which eventually moved him to make a collection of riveted aluminum sculptures that he installed, shiny and unpainted, throughout our property. In the winter, when the trees were bare, you could see them glinting in the sun through the woods.
My parents, hermetic and reticent by nature, loved that house, and lived there for over forty years. For me, though, it was like living on an island, or, less generously, in a jail. Having known nothing else, I took the architectural innovation, the beautiful natural milieu, and the breathtaking vista for granted. What I really wanted was to live in a normal neighborhood where gangs of kids roamed the sidewalks. Instead, my two sisters and I spent endless hours shooting hoops in the driveway, jumping rope, reading, and, in the winter, ice-skating for hours on that lonely reservoir. The house’s open floor plan, Wright’s device for fostering family unity, from my perspective, created a constant, glowering parental presence. With no public transportation, and the nearest town several miles away, I became a zealous bike rider; when I turned sixteen, my driver’s license was a ticket to freedom.
Still, one of my earliest memories is the delight I felt running down the ramp the first time my parents took me to the Guggenheim. For better or worse, I have been hardwired with the aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright. By grasping his modern dream of freedom from spatial constraint, my parents nurtured in me an enduring preference for solitude and, at the same time, an opposing yearning for wider companionship. Ironically, by the time I went to college, I had become so accustomed to isolation that I had trouble adapting to the relentless conviviality of dorm life. In the years since, though, I’ve struck a delicate balance between the reassuring clarity of aloneness and the warm solace of community. I live in the downtown area of a village where the stores, restaurants, and playground are within walking distance, but I rarely go out of my way to socialize. And each of the cozy rooms in my historic New England house has a door.
ContributorSharon L. Butler
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.