Frank Lloyd Wright’s economics

41 F L Wright pic1
(1867 – 1959)

Why not make more free to the poor the land they were born to inherit, as they inherit the air to breathe and daylight to see by and water to drink?

I am aware of the academic economist’s reaction to any land question. Nevertheless, Henry George clearly enough showed us the simple basis of poverty in human society. And some organic solution of this land problem is not only needed, it is imperative.

“Henry George showed us the only organic solution of the land problem”

What hope for stimulating a great architecture while land holds the improvements instead of the improvements holding the land? For an organic economic structure this is wrong end around, and all architecture is only for the landlord.

Not too many architects make it onto the cover of Time magazine or feature on postage stamps, much less have a hit song written about them by Simon and Garfunkel. Here was an architect who was a legend of sorts even in his own time, in no small part due to his flair for self promotion – or was it more his scandal-ridden personal life? Considered the most influential architect of his time, he designed about 1,000 pioneering structures that were well ahead of his time and the term ‘organic architecture’ will forever be associated with his name. He famously uttered “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature”.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in small town Wisconsin, the son of a preacher. His mother, a teacher herself, placed pictures of great buildings in young Frank’s nursery as part of training him up from the earliest possible moment as an architect.

He actually never attended architecture school. Civil engineering was his bag early on, until he moved to Chicago to work in an architectural firm where, under his boss Louis Sullivan (his “Lieber Meister” – beloved master), he began to develop his own architectural ideas before starting his own firm in 1893. Over the next decade these ideas would coalesce into his ‘Prairie House’ concept, a refinement of Sullivan’s theme that the form of a building should express its underlying function. Wright’s so-called Prairie School designed houses with low-pitched roofs and extended lines that blended into the landscape.

Wright would constantly query his audiences, “Why paint wood when its beauty lies in its natural essence, not in its bastardization?” This then was the essential meaning of the organic architectural style by which he grew famous. Not just wood, either – to Wright, all architecture was “a sermon in stone”. He maintained there was a realm of the divine within nature and that it was the architect’s duty to capture it, even if that meant “spitting against wind”. He certainly made enemies of conservative architects who looked to the ancient Greeks for inspiration – Wright saw this style as being insufficiently sensitive to the natural environment and largely indifferent to the importance of using native materials. What was more, form had no real connection with function in the architecture of the ancient Greeks. Their architectural efforts were, in his words, “pagan poison”. Wright was much more influenced by Japan, where he lived for 6 years.

No account of Wright could omit the sex scandals that dogged (or spiced?) his life, and it’s difficult to decide whether he was a bohemian who could never fit in with American provinciality or a plain old Pants Man. There’s no doubt that he shocked the Mid-Western moral majority by flaunting married women as part of his flamboyant lifestyle. He had three wives, seven children and countless lovers.

Other scandals were truly tragic. A Barbados servant, who was said to be underpaid and driven mad by the unconventional lovers in his midst, executed a shocking revenge at Wright’s masterpiece residence, Taliesin. He started a fire which burnt Taliesin to the ground, and stood by the only escape door as he murdered, one by one, seven people, among them a long-time lover of Wright and two of her children.

Organic architecture implied much more than the reform of architecture – Wright hoped to reform society through architecture, no less. He even went so far as to suggest that his homes would have a positive effect on the divorce rate and his buildings a salutary impact on the workplace.

No less ambitious was Frank Lloyd Wright’s effort to construct a utopian city, in contrast to the cities of his day which, he quipped, are places for banking and prostitution and very little else. He reserved special venom for congested, polluted and sunless cities whose skyscrapers had “no higher ideal of unity than commercial success”. Still, this didn’t stop him from building his most memorable urban structure, the Guggenheim Museum (1957), situated in the middle of Manhattan.

These influences slowly led him to geoist convictions helped in no small part by his home city, Chicago, being a bastion of Georgism for much of his time there. Chicago taxed land far more than buildings (which Wright supported), and grew by 54% during1890-1900. From 1900-30 it continued to grow at higher percentage rates than most other cities, reinforcing its status as America’s second largest city. Chicago invested in its transit system as few American cities ever did, with the highest land values in the USA in its central “Loop” – land uplifts could be retained for the city purse, which allowed the charging of low fares.

Wright knew how the curse of high land prices stifled architecture and productivity, yet it has to be said that the whole Georgist paradigm only dawned on him late in life. At a Georgist meeting in Chicago in 1951, aged 84, he did speak out clearly by praising George for the “organic quality of his thought, a rootedness and wholeness essential to great art.”

Wright never retired; he died at the age of 92, with the epitaph at his Wisconsin grave site reading: “Love of an idea, is the love of God”. Maybe that quote alone will just about qualify him as a geoist?