The Outcast: A Review of Wright and New York by Anthony Alofsin

Reviewed by Fran Leadon

Wright and New York: The Making of America's Architect  By Anthony Alofsin May 2019 352 pages

Wright and New York: The Making of America's Architect
By Anthony Alofsin
May 2019
352 pages

Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t care for cities. In his 1954 manifesto The Natural House, he advised prospective homebuilders looking for land to “go as far out as you can get . . . way out into the country—what you regard as ‘too far’—and when others follow, as they will (if procreation keeps up), move on.” And Wright particularly hated New York City: “For four months I’ve been marking time in New York,” he wrote in 1927 from an apartment on East 9th Street, “dying a hundred deaths a day on the New York gridiron in the stop-and-go of the urban criss-cross.” He rarely stopped for long in New York, and with each visit came away practically spitting with disdain. “Our cities today are voracious mouths,” he wrote in his autobiography, published in 1932. “And New York is the greatest and greediest mouth in the world.”

And yet New York City held Wright in its sway all the same. In his meticulously researched, highly readable Wright and New York, Anthony Alofsin outlines Gotham’s influence on America’s foremost twentieth-century architect.

Wright couldn’t avoid the city entirely, but given the choice, he preferred the wide-open spaces of the West. He loved the fields and woods of his native Wisconsin, and in 1929 discovered Arizona, where, Alofsin writes, “[vast] tracts of land lay pure and empty.” That’s how Wright liked it, pure and empty, and much of Alofsin’s book focuses on how the contrast between city and desert affected Wright. “[The] city,” Alofsin writes, “as it stood in the flesh—pockmarked, chaotic, superficial—maddened him to no end. The desert provided the perfect antithesis.” Wright, working on plans for a resort in Chandler, Arizona, that never got built, gathered his family and employees in a primitive modernist encampment he called “Ocatillo,” a temporary way station with canvas roofs that foreshadowed the more substantial Taliesin West, the compound Wright began building in Scottsdale ten years later. Arizona both reinvigorated Wright and intensified his loathing of New York: at dinner one evening in the desert he said the city was a “prison;” that he “couldn’t breathe” there.

Wright had begun his career in Chicago, arriving in 1887 in the midst of a decade that saw its population double. Wright apprenticed in Louis Sullivan’s office and designed Shingle- and Queen Anne-style houses that were lovely but not that different from the work of other Victorian architects. Chicago, like New York, was both nurtured and constrained by water: narrow Manhattan squeezed between the Hudson and East rivers, Chicago pressed up against Lake Michigan. But west of Chicago lay nothing but endless prairie, and gradually, beginning with the Winslow House in 1893, Wright perfected an abstract style that employed overhanging eaves and horizontal massing to accentuate the flatness of the Plains. The horizontal line, Wright wrote in The Natural House, was the “earth line of human life, indicative of freedom.” Even when Wright’s houses rose to two or three stories, they seemed low, hunkered in the protection of the ground. Wright had invented a new architecture that was primal yet completely new, and distinctly American.

Then the wheels came off: Wright abandoned his wife and six children, had an affair with a woman who was then murdered at the original Taliesin, his home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1914, along with her two children and four of Wright’s employees. Wright divorced, remarried, and then left his second wife, Miriam, for the Montenegrin mystic Olgivanna Lazovich. Newspapers had a field day, the enraged Miriam followed him everywhere, and in 1925 Wright and Olgivanna fled to Olgivanna’s brother’s house in Hollis, Queens. Wright, feeling trapped, wrote an essay there that was about New York and was entitled, tellingly, “In Bondage.”

The following year was even worse: Wright, broke and disgraced, was arrested at a rented lake cabin in Minnesota and jailed for violating the Mann Act. The charges were eventually dismissed; Miriam granted Wright a divorce, in 1927, and Wright and Olgivanna married the following year. In 1928, the Bank of Wisconsin, which had foreclosed and taken possession of Taliesin two years earlier, put the place up for auction; Wright was able to move back in and reopen his practice only after a group of friends stepped in and bought Taliesin from the bank.

Alofsin recounts this disastrous series of events in great detail before chronicling Wright’s gradual rebranding from pariah to hero, a long process that culminated in 1940 with a sweeping retrospective at MoMA. The road to recovery wasn’t easy, and along the way Wright benefited from contacts he made in New York with critics, publishers, and curators. New York may have been an “incongruous mantrap of monstrous dimensions,” as Wright put it, but he needed the city all the same. So he courted favor with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Lewis Mumford (who called Wright “our most distinguished outcast”), and Alexander Woollcott (who called him an “ingenious giant”); socialized with e. e. cummings and John Dos Passos, and formed a lasting friendship with William Norman Guthrie, the progressive pastor of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. He had family there, too: There was the brother-in-law in Queens plus Wright’s sister Maginel, a successful illustrator, who lived in Greenwich Village.

Alofsin believes that New York played a “catalytic role” in Wright’s resurgence; that it was even more important to Wright’s career than Arizona. “Despite its transformative power,” he writes, “the desert could not make his future—only New York could do that.” Only New York? Was a city that Wright described as a “prison-house for the soul” really the catalyst that, according to Alofsin, “turned him around?”

Perhaps, but if it did it isn’t obvious, especially since Wright built so few projects in the city. There was a minor, late-career house in the hills of Staten Island, the even-more-minor Hoffman Automobile Showroom on Park Avenue, and, of course, the inverted spiral on Fifth Avenue that was initially called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and later became the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Surprisingly, given that the Guggenheim became Wright’s most famous project—the one in the background of the once-ubiquitous two-cent postage stamp of 1966 that depicted Wright—Alofsin, sticking mostly to a chronological structure, devotes only the book’s final chapter to it. But Alofsin spends three chapters describing two projects Wright designed for Guthrie that, despite high hopes, never got built: a skyscraper church (a fashionable building type in the twenties) and an ill-conceived phalanx of sixteen-to eighteen-story residential towers flanking the historic St. Mark’s. Thank God the towers weren’t built: they would have practically stepped on the church, their awkward siting offering further proof that, despite his command of interior spaces, materials, and construction details, Wright had no feel for urban design. Broadacre City, his 1930 antidote to Le Corbusier’s la Ville Radieuse, was more of a small town than a city, and Wright thought that even small towns were “too large.”

Wright’s best work came with small projects that hinted at the wider world. His career rejuvenated by the thirties, he found his groove with the Jacobs House of 1936, the first, and conceptually clearest, of his beautifully conceived “Usonian” houses. The Jacobs House was L-shaped in plan, with a flat roof and projecting end-walls that seemed to gesture toward the horizon. The Usonian houses were masterful, with not a single windowsill or door jam out of place. But since their coherence depended on Wright’s trademark horizontal line, they wouldn’t have worked in New York, a city forced into compliance with an unrelenting street grid and narrow building lots.

Even the Guggenheim, for all its wonderful details, was a round peg jammed into a square site. The greatest New York architects at work in the city during Wright’s lifetime—George B. Post, McKim, Mead & White, Joseph Urban, Ralph Walker, Raymond Hood—accepted the confines of the box that was Manhattan, and worked out the interior puzzle as reflections of the exterior. Wright, who didn’t really think of buildings in terms of façades, did the opposite: Perfecting the concept of the “folded plane,” he designed interior spaces that expanded as needed and eventually, after much pushing and pulling, defined the exterior. Wright’s work required space, and New York, so rigid and rectangular, wouldn’t make room for him.

Fran Leadon is Associate Professor of Architecture at City College, CUNY, and co-author of the AIA Guide to New York City, fifth edition.