Frank Lloyd Wright  - Table of Contents

Frank Lloyd Wright and Interdisciplinary Teaching

You may be wondering what a professor of English is doing writing about Frank Lloyd Wright. And what role could Wright’s architecture play  in the teaching of literature?

Through an odd set of circumstances I became interested in Wright’s work, and this led to my developing an interdisciplinary course  for the Canisius Honors Program entitled “American Modernism: Problems and Possibilities.” This course, which became centered on Wright, helped me to see the great importance of broadly interdisciplinary teaching, especially today when curriculums have become increasingly specialized, leaving students all too often with educations that are fragmentary, lacking in sufficient  coherence.

I first became interested in Wright’s work when I would often pass by the Darwin Martin Complex on my way to work. Since it is within walking distance of the Canisius campus, I began taking special trips during lunch hour to observe it and then began taking a series of guided tours which enabled me to understand in a very preliminary way some of Wright’s theories and the unique features of his prairie homes. I became fascinated with the Martin House’s strikingly modern design and how different it was from the stately Victorian homes which surrounded it. As a specialist in Modern American literature, I could clearly see how its emergence at the turn of the twentieth century dramatized something wonderfully new in American culture which I also admired in writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Carl Sandburg. Each of these contemporaries of Wright, like him, sensed that American culture was undergoing radical changes and realized that fresh new forms were needed to express these changes.

But as I taught such writers in courses focusing only on literature, I encountered a persistent problem. As much as my students enjoyed studying literature focusing on modern reality, they were often dissatisfied with what they perceived as the extremely pessimistic vision of American life emerging from novels such as Sister Carrie, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Sun Also Rises. And they positively shuddered at the bleak outlooks which centered Eliot’s The Waste Land and Dos Passo’s The Big Money. Beneficiaries of modern freedom, individualism, and social mobility, my students had difficulty accepting  the negative readings of contemporary experience which our writers put forth. They  enjoyed being citizens of modern America as I do.

Saul Bellow emphatically agreed with them when he observed in his Nobel Prize Address that a critical weakness in modern American literature was its failure to capture the affirmative aspects of contemporary life, especially the exciting possibilities for the development of the individual created by modern freedom from traditional roles and conventional values.  The more I studied Wright and experienced his buildings, the more I realized that his work could play a vital role in my developing an interdisciplinary course which could provide a broader, richer, and truer vision of modern American culture. For unlike the dark modernists such as Hemingway and Dos Passos who brilliantly focused on the human problems of modern life, Wright was, throughout his career, a bright modernist who could provide my students with powerful images of the cultural renewal which swept through America in the first part of the 20th century.

Wright’s houses and workplaces establish him as an American visionary who saw his art as an important part of a new America – a revolutionary culture which would be centered in uniquely American values which would free the individual from traditional restraints and also make possible a more open and democratic society.  In a sense he revitalized the romantic vision of America put forth in the 19th century by Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. (It’s no accident therefore, that Wright’s organic theories of architecture are centered in the organic theory of literature developed by these American transcendentalists.)

When I teach Wright in my American Modernism course, therefore, I stress that his buildings are not only beautiful works of art which can be compared to symphonic music or a literary text, but they are, more importantly, metaphors of his powerfully optimistic vision of modern America.

The Darwin Martin house offers a vivid example of this. Its open floor plan provides ample space for family and guests to move freely but also experience a kind of togetherness. In contrast, the traditional Victorian house is a series of boxes, walls which separate people and create private, sometimes secret, spaces. And whereas the typical Victorian home could be a set of zones enforcing social distinctions where servants worked in damp basements and slept in dusty attics, Wright’s home had servants working on the first floor alongside the family and they slept on the second floor, again sharing space with the owners.  And the entire house is bathed in natural and artificial light made possible by the new electricity, skylights, and art glass windows. In this way, everyone in the house, regardless of social distinctions, enjoys an aesthetically pleasing domestic environment. Moreover, they become humanly visible to each other. Can you imagine this happening in Downton Abbey?

After opening the course with this discussion of the profoundly humane environments which Wright created for modern Americans, I contrast his vision of the possibilities of modern life with Stephen Crane’s deeply troubling reading of early 20th century America in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  Crane’s  profoundly deterministic novel symbolizes the environment which crushes its protagonist with three buildings which Wright was attempting to eliminate from American life: the tenement, the sweatshop, and the tall building.

Wright’s prairie home, as previously noted, stands in stark contrast to the fetid tenement which Maggie inhabits. And his workplaces, like the Larkin Building in Buffalo and the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, were envisioned by Wright as human alternatives to the brutal workplaces that were so common in early 20th century America. Fireproofed, air-conditioned, and brightly lit by massive skylights, they provided a safe and welcoming work environment. Wright’s democratic ideals are expressed by the fact that management and workers were not spatially separated but shared space when they worked, ate, and relaxed. Entry level workers could improve their status by taking night courses in the Larkin Building offered by the University of Buffalo. (Darwin Martin himself serves as a shining example of the social mobility encouraged by the Larkin Company as he began his career selling Larkin soap on the streets of Brooklyn but eventually became one of the highest paid executives in America.)

Crane’s Maggie commits suicide at the end of the novel because her pregnancy pushes her out of her home and her workplace and her hopeless situation is symbolized by her standing in front  of a coldly impersonal tall building which reminds her of her insignificance as a human being. But all of Wright’s buildings are built on a human scale and are meant to create a new kind of American democracy where people like Maggie can get off the streets which brutally condition their lives and inhabit buildings which lift them as human beings by providing them with homes, meaningful workplaces, and education.

So Wright’s architecture enables me to explore an important aspect of modern American life that would be impossible if I constructed the course only with literary texts. Wright therefore becomes a kind of baseline for the entire course. But while I began our study by contrasting Crane and Wright in terms of their visions, I then compare Wright’s experiments in architectural form with the bold, new techniques developed by a number of American poets, musicians, and painters. Wright is often credited with “breaking the box” of conventional architectural space by opening up his buildings and fashioning new kinds of domestic work space. (Structural steel, reinforced concrete, and plate glass, new materials at the turn of the century, allow him to do this.) Strong  parallels can be made between the Wright building and the free verse poetry flourishing in America at the same time. We then examine a number of poems by Wright’s long-time friend, Carl Sandburg who saw Chicago as Wright saw that city, as a wide open world, inviting innovation, modern freedom and individualism. Sandburg’s verse eliminated boxy “stanzas” (the Italian word for room) just as Wright’s buildings create radically open space by eliminating walls and rooms.

We also make important connections between Wright’s  experiments and jazz, a uniquely American form of music which was flourishing in Chicago in the early 1900s when Wright worked there. The jazz developed by Louis Armstrong and King Oliver emphatically “breaks the box” of traditional music by centering itself on free improvisation. Wright, in a similar way often described his own methods as improvisational when he insisted that a building not be pre-formed and mechanically imposed on a site but instead should grow naturally and spontaneously out of a site. He saw buildings like Fallingwater as “germinating” naturally as it discovered its own form. Wright once described constructing a building as a jazz musician might describe his performance when he claimed that his methods took the form of “something you do as you work, as you play…It is fleeting, it is evanescent…you have to be quick and take it.”

We also make a useful and revealing link between Wright and John Dos Passos when we study The Big Money, the final book of the USA Trilogy. Dos Passos, who studied architecture at Harvard and had a great admiration for Wright, actually crafted a mini-biography of Wright in the novel, praising him as a visionary who had imagined an America which could fulfill the promises of the Founding Fathers and which could serve as an alternative to the failed actual America which USA laments. Many of Dos Passos’ extraordinary fictional experiments invite comparisons with Wright’s innovations. Like Wright, he explodes the box of the conventional novel by fragmenting narrative, literally cantilevering plots in a number of wildly different directions rather than centering the story on a single character. Dos Passos’ heroes such as Joe Hill, Thorstein Veblen and John Reed, like Wright, are modern “new Men” who reject traditional patterns of thought and create radically new ideas which seek to transform America into a truly open, democratic modern society.

Late in the course we study a unit on post-World War II suburbanization in the United States. Here again, Wright provides a useful context for our study. During the 1920s he predicted the decentralization of American life and he idealized this vision in a planned suburb which he called “Broadacre City.” He predicted that the mega-cities like New York which had developed in the late 19th century would be replaced by smaller, carefully designed suburbs which would be spread throughout the country. Highly individualized housing would be integrated with humanely designed workplaces like the Johnson Wax Building and these places would be connected by a vast system of highways. Each house would be set on an acre of land and would feature gardens linked to a system of parks. Each family would be equipped with an automobile and each house would have a carport.

We contrast Wright’s idealized vision with how the American suburb actually developed after World War II. Using two literary texts, Phillip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and John Cheever’s “the Country Husband,” we speculate how disappointed Wright would be with how American suburbanization and conformity which Roth’s novel and Cheever’s story describe in such realistic terms. But I do stress to my students how Wright’s principles are still relevant today because they have become important parts of the New Urbanism which in recent years has attempted to redefine the suburb as a workable, humane living environment.

Students  enjoy such interdisciplinary work because it enables them to perceive the vital connections between their areas of specialized study and the broad areas of knowledge which enrich these studies and place them in very revealing perspectives. In this way, they receive a resonant, coherent education which is much more than the sum of its parts, an education that continues to grow long after they have graduated from college.

Dr Robert Butler
Professor of English
Canisius College
Buffalo, New York

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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