New York

Lloyd Wright

Max Protetch

It could not have been easy being the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. Being sired by a genius sets standards of excellence that are often more dispiriting than animating. The small but significant acts of one generation can seem insignificant when compared to the great feats of the preceding generation. Although Lloyd Wright has not suddenly been unearthed from the compost of architectural lore, opportunities to see his work are rare. He belongs to a group of architects practicing from 1920 to 1950 who chose not to follow the absolute dictates of Modernism and instead pursued more idiosyncratic agendas, investigating new materials, color, ornamentation, organic principles, and regional impulses. I suspect that Wright’s work will always be considered marginal; his architecture is too derivative of his father’s to seem fresh, and he is not exceptional enough to merit an analytic detour of revisionist architectural history.

Wright’s was an architecture of manifest destiny. He lived, studied, and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, and the influence of father/mentor on son/student is startlingly evident. In spite of a slight but unmistakable deflation of quality, Wright’s work has all the hallmarks of his father’s, including the different periods and preoccupations. Wright’s most interesting and personal characteristic was as a colorist. Inspired by the many Japanese prints in his father’s collection, he developed a sure and voluptuous color sense. Combined with his abilities as a draftsman, this color bravado made him a sought-after renderer; his most eager client was frequently Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright situated his architecture practice in Southern California. More than anything else, it was this region that nurtured the qualities in Wright’s early work that were not attributable to the influence of his father. He developed a strong sense of landscape and vegetation quite different from his father’s Midwestern sensibility, a curiosity for new technologies and construction materials, and a strong conviction that color had a place in architecture.

One of his most spectacular proposals was for a new civic center in Los Angeles. One pen-and-ink perspective drawing, 1925, depicts a comprehensively planned environment. The central, axial plan includes an underground and surface circulation spine flanked by a series of municipal buildings that rise toward the flat California horizon. While Frank Lloyd Wright was his son’s primary source of inspiration, there were clearly other infiltrations. Less dynamic and expressive, but more grounded in the realities of an existing city and construction conventions, Wright’s urban proposal is very much like Antonio Sant’Elia’s drawings for his “Città Nuova,” 1913–14.

Like his father, Wright relied on residential commissions for his bread-and-butter income, but they were also his forum for research. In 1963, nearly 40 years after his civic center proposal, Wright designed a residence for Mr. and Mrs. John Bowler in Los Angeles that is as delicate and whimsical as the large public project was monumental and sublime, The tempera-and-carbon-pencil perspective drawing is not entirely clear, but the house appears to adhere to a cruciform plan. One axis stretches across the site; it is low-slung, modest, and embedded in the landscape. The other axis rises to an enormous prow whose roofline projects dramatically beyond the glass walls. It is an awkward but hypnotic design filled with pattern, texture, tension, and strange inconsistencies. Whereas the civic center design registers one very clear vision, the Bowler house attempts to combine various sources and ideas and does it clumsily. These two projects suggest that, in the final years of his practice, Wright returned to a most faithful, if flawed, interpretation of his father’s theories and interests.

Lloyd Wright’s work is a provocative example of regional and generational influences. His drawings, models, and buildings are indelible evidence of his father’s extraordinary legacy, which has been both inspiration and stranglehold for so many. Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin-based system of controlled education and practice have produced many disciples but no heir apparent. Lloyd Wright is the most conspicuous product of this indoctrination, but he also had the mettle to challenge Modernist hegemony through regional concerns. He was never a great originator, but it is to his credit that he never became simply an impostor.

Patricia C. Phillips