March 06: Art, Craft, Machine

2016/03/06 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright presented his lecture “The Art and Craft of the Machine.”

Wright spoke before members of the Chicago Arts and Craft Society who had gathered at the Hull House, shown above.  The audience and the location are important: the Hull House complex was assembled by Jane Addams to provide a variety of educational, social and artistic programs, especially to the growing immigrant population.  Headquartered at Hull House, the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was the second group of that kind formed in the US; founded to preserve traditional handicrafts and teach useful/artistic skills (especially to women and immigrants).  Two weeks later, Wright presented the talk again, this time to the Western Society of Engineers, which had been founded after the Civil War for engineers to share information and provide one another professional support.  Wright’s choice of audiences is revealing in the fact that they represent such apparently diverse schools of thought, but exactly what Wright meant to draw together: the beauty from traditional craft, made more achievable through the application of machine techniques.

Wright’s basic argument was “that the machine is capable of carrying to fruition high ideals in art.”  Although Wright (like “all artists”) expressed “love and honor [for] William Morris,” he rejected the Arts and Crafts Movement’s rejection of the machine.  Wright takes a historical view, back through the Middle Ages (which provides such richness for some of the great theorists—Pugin for its Christian expression, Ruskin for its morality and honesty, Viollet-le-Duc for its efficiency), which Wright highlights as the time of the setting sun, just before the decline of the Renaissance.  For Wright, the collapse happened because of the printing press, not architecture itself: the press allowed poets to express their ideas in a more immediate way, words being easier to print than stone is to carve. Wright assesses his contemporary day by suggesting that architecture may rise again if it takes one lesson from history: “Every age” has “produced its art with the best tools or contrivances it knew, the tools most successful in saving the most precious thing in the world—human effort.”  It falls to the twentieth-century architect to figure out how to do that in contemporary terms and, of course, Wright knew the way, and it wasn’t the way of the historically derived work around him.  New skyscrapers built of steel and wrapped with masonry was “a pitiful insult.” He delighted in skewering them (perhaps taking a page from his Liebermeister, Sullivan): “imitative blocks [of terra cotta are] badgered into all manner of structural gymnastics” with every attempt made to make it look like realistic structure and yet, Wright surmised, the hidden steel skeleton “which strains beneath the ‘reality’ . . . would fain, I think, lie down to die of shame.”  A good theorist, Wright not only identifies the problem but also projects the way an artist ought to embrace and control the tools of “this Machine Age;” he will tell you how in the essay, which you can read right here.  It is long (one imagines that once Wright was given a podium, he didn’t like to give it up until he’d delivered a good long sermon), and it is not easy, but it is pretty great; saying it’s “food for thought” doesn’t quite do the trick, unless you imagine a smorgasbord.  It’s especially great to be able to read this essay and think about what Wright had done, was doing, and would shortly do: the decade around 1901 included the Winslow House (1894), Willits House (1901), Larkin Building (1903), Unity Temple (1904), and the Robie House (1909).

Wright hoped his essay would show the way to real, true, and good architecture in America.  His avoidance of other likely audiences for an architect’s lecture is as instructive as considering the ones he addressed.  He might otherwise have lectured to students at the University of Chicago (then just ten years old) who were destined to be future clients; he might have made the 150-mile trek to Champaign-Urbana to speak before future architects and their faculty at the second-oldest architecture school in the country; he might have presented before the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which had enrolled its first members in 1869.  But he chose none of these more obvious groups, believing that, although the architectural profession was only about a half-century old in the US (dated to the founding of the first professional organization for architects, the AIA, in 1857 and the first college program for architecture at MIT in 1865), it was already broken.  His hope for the future lay instead with the scientific men who controlled the machines and the Crafts society members who maintained a tactile sense of beauty; only by borrowing and conjoining their principles could the modern architect take a proper stance, standing on both legs.

image: Hull House buildings at the complex (from this source)


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