Friday, January 29, 2010

Broken Unity

by EJF, UCI (Unitarian Crime Investigation)  

Many in the Wright-o-sphere will have heard by now of the tragic vandalism suffered by Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park last week.  Apparently, the perpetrator accessed the central skylight via construction scaffolding, and dropped a sealed bucket of tar down into the sanctuary below.  The skylight itself was not damaged, suggesting a deliberately destructive act, as one of the art glass panels must have been lifted up to drop the bucket through (and then replaced, unharmed).  Fortunately, the bucket remained sealed, so the sanctuary was not tarred, but the bucket took out one of the hanging, Wright-designed cube lights that grace the space.

Unity Temple damage - PrairieMod 
For some, this perplexing act of destruction brings to mind police investigations, insurance claims and increased security.  These are all important in the aftermath of such an incident, but what it brings to mind for me is:  education. In so many ways, a well-educated audience can be the best defense for a work of art or historic building.  Simply put:  people don't destroy what they understand, value and love.

Although there are no such documented high-profile cases of vandalism against the Martin House Complex, numerous anecdotes from long-time Buffalonians, many still living in the Parkside neighborhood, indicate that the property endured various minor acts of mischief during its "period of abandonment" (c. 1937-1954).  Pieces of floor tile, woodwork and other materials were pocketed as souvenirs (as they still are on occasion), fireplace tiles were smashed and some art glass may have been damaged.  But one can make a clear correlation between the rough treatment of the then-mysterious house and the general lack of public understanding and appreciation for Wright's great Buffalo buildings at the time - evidenced most dramatically by the 1950 demolition of the Larkin Administration building to make way for a parking lot.

The good news:  as understanding and appreciation for Wright's "Buffalo Venture" has grown in recent decades, the Martin House Complex is being meticulously re-assembled and restored.  Coincidence?  Hardly.  Human nature is to dismiss or even attack what we don't understand.  The groundswell of public and private support for the Martin House restoration can be traced back to education, whether by tours, publications, lectures or word of mouth.  Heightened awareness of the importance of these treasures of American architecture has translated into increased funding and more widespread and passionate advocacy.  

Ironically, the rapacious art market, rather than ignorant vandals, may be more damaging to Wright buildings in the long run.  Donald Hoffmann makes this case compellingly in his article "Dismembering Frank Lloyd Wright" (Design Quarterly No. 155 (Spring, 1992).  Wright's works are dismantled much more comprehensively by collectors than they are by hurtling buckets or little boys wielding rocks.  

There are various other revenge-based motivations for vandalism, and we may never know the motive for the Unity Temple attack; but I maintain that the most common "motive" for such acts is tenacious, old fashioned ignorance.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Unseen Art Glass

By EJF, Art Glass Groupie 

With the publication of our new book Frank Lloyd Wright Art Glass of the Martin House Complex (Pomegranate, 2009), as well as previous documentation of Wright's art glass such as Julie Sloan's Light Screens (Rizzoli, 2001), it starts to feel as though "it's all been done" - as though every one of the nearly four hundred pieces of art glass from the Martin House Complex has been well-documented and interpreted.

Well, guess again.

Whereas every window, door, cabinet door, skylight and laylight in the Martin and Barton houses is documented via original example, photograph or drawing (or some combination thereof), the ill-fated conservatory and carriage house still harbor some secrets.  We believe that there are various pieces of art glass from these once-demolished buildings that are not documented in any form.  Thus, there will be a degree of guess-work in establishing their pattern in order to reproduce these pieces.  Some examples include:  The three-part window in the east arm of the conservatory "crossing," facing the Barton House, the two-part windows in the north bay, flanking the cast of Nike, and a series of six narrow windows on the second floor of the carriage house, facing east (in the bathroom and above the stairwell).

With the well-known consistency of the art glass pattern in these two buildings - variations on a single, signature pattern for each - there's little doubt that the mysterious windows do not represent a totally new pattern.  Rather, they must be variations of the typical pattern for the building in question.  But this supposition only takes us part way.  The guesswork is in determining how the conservatory or carriage patterns might have been divided to fit the undocumented openings.  In the case of the conservatory art glass, with its somewhat more pictorial floral motif, it's a question of just how many "flowers" fit a particular width of window - or, in the case the narrowest examples on the east, whether they would accommodate even a single stem.

In 2008, Canisius College intern Katie Brobeil pursued the exercise of mocking-up possible solutions to some of these art glass mysteries.  Using the known patterns and dimensions, she extrapolated various options for the unknown window patterns and represented them via Photoshop.  Below are the two options she presented for the series of narrow carriage house windows, shown singly and in series:
Ultimately, it's a question of how the implied continuity of these patterns played-out across these odd-sized openings.  In the parlance of traditional pictorial composition, are the colored squares in the carriage house pattern to be viewed as "figure" or "ground?"  Or does an attempt to apply such terms to these compositions only muddle our understanding of their lost progeny? 

At the end of the day, this decision may come down to some meditation on how Wright deals with other, documented examples of similar windows in series, and which version "feels" right (or "Wright") in the context of the dazzling array of Martin House art glass.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Being an ongoing series of postings on missing artifacts from Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House complex [not the hapless passengers of Oceanic Flight 815].

This week:  buffet doors:

Below:  detail of Martin House buffet, Fuermann and Sons, 1907

During the Martin House "period of abandonment" (c. 1937 - 1954), roughly three quarters of the original compliment of art glass (394 pieces) was removed from the complex.  Much of it was spirited away by Darwin R. Martin in his attempt to liquidate components of the Jewett Parkway property.  Most of this art glass made its way to a few collectors and dealers and, from there, to public and private collections around the world.  The eighty-nine pieces of glass from the carriage house and conservatory were not as fortunate and may have been destroyed in the demolition of these buildings; most of them remain unaccounted for.  Only the Barton House was unscathed; it retains its original array of forty-five pieces of art glass.  

Among the pieces of Martin House 
diaspora that found a good institutional home were a pair of art glass doors from the dining room buffet.  They are held in the collection of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida, an outstanding collection of American decorative arts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a concentration on the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Museum has been graciously cooperative in sharing images and information on these rare doors, but is not able to deaccession them to make them available to the Martin House.  The mystery that remains is:  what became of the other identical pair of doors from the buffet?
The remaining two doors are conspicuously absent because, as interior panels, they were likely well-preserved over the decades and protected from the elements, increasing the possibility that they survived...somewhere.  Having examined the Morse Museum doors first-hand, I can attest that they are in excellent condition.  So, where are their counterparts?  Given that at least one piece of Martin House art glass (a conservatory door) is known to reside in a private collection in Japan, we may never locate the two remaining buffet doors.
The good news:  with one pair carefully preserved by the Morse Museum, the craftsmen at Oakbrook Esser Studios can produce perfect reproductions from the extant example.  Thus, a fully-restored buffet is in the offing - minus the Swedish meatballs.  

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dubai and the Mile High

by EJF, Doorman for the Ivory Tower

Following five years of construction and media buzz, the Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai) - now the world's tallest building - officially opened this week with a fireworks display befitting the mind-boggling structure. Although a thoroughly 21st century building in terms of its sheer size, structure, mechanical systems and amenities, the Burj has a mid-twentieth century precedent (at least on paper):  Frank Lloyd Wright's audacious plan for the Illinois ("Mile High") building, a skyscraper-to-end-all-skyscrapers envisioned for Chicago.  

While there are many differences between Wright's Mile High and Adrian Smith's Burj (for SOM), they share a fundamental approach to the super-tall building:  bundling masses together to produce a meta-form that strategically diminishes as it ascends - in effect, bundling individual towers together into a mega-tower.  Such a form is perhaps most familiar in the American consciousness in the Willis Tower (Sears Tower), with its stepped, blocky massing resembling a larger structure arrested in construction.  While this approach is, at the end of the day, a structural consideration to combat wind and torsion loads in these structures, both the Mile High and the Burj take inspiration from the natural world.  Wright's tower appears to be inspired by crystalline or splintered wood forms, while the Burj reflects an inspiration from the form of bundled reeds, an element of Middle Eastern vernacular architecture dating back to Ancient Egypt.  Moreover, the Burj, glittering techno-tower though it may be, has a plan based in nature; its spiraling "Y" plan,  with masses exfoliating out from the center along a matrix of circles fused with hexagons, was inspired by the Hymenocallis, a desert wildflower - a nod to Wright's organic architecture.  I can't help but think of Wright using a Prairie flower to demonstrate the core-and-cantilever structure of his Price Tower (Bartlesville, OK) - the only one of his various skyscraper designs ever built.

The Burj Khalifa has shattered the world record for tallest building, surging past the previous record-holder, Taipei 101, by over 300 meters.  Still, the Burj would be dwarfed by Wright's Mile High (literally a mile high or 5,280 feet), had it been built.  It may not be fair to compare the built and the unbuilt, but Wright's vision may not be a flight of fancy for long.  The Jeddah tower, proposed by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, would hit Wright's mile-high mark if constructed.  And Eugene Tsui's Ultima Tower would be an incredible two mile high "sky city" contained within one structure.  For the moment, these concepts remain in the realm of utopian fantasy;  but, with the completion of the Burj Dubai, it may be only a matter of time (and money) before skyscrapers break the mile-high barrier. 

Click HERE for an amazing digital simulation of Wright's Illinois building, created by Harvard Graduate School of Design students - the closest you may ever come to taking that elevator ride to the 500th floor...