Retrospective

From the Archives: A MoMA Design Curator Addresses a Frank Lloyd Wright Controversy, in 1954

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Kaufmann House), Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1934–37, pencil and colored pencil on paper.

©2017 FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/THE FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION ARCHIVES (THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | AVERY ARCHITECTURAL & FINE ARTS, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK)

For the March 1954 issue of ARTnews, Vincent J. Scully, Jr., an architecture professor at Yale University, wrote an article called “Wright vs. the International Style,” which proposed that Frank Lloyd Wright had influenced much of the European modernist architecture that he himself dismissed. According to Scully, there were contradictions in Wright’s own designs—a provocative idea at a time when critics, curators, and everyday Americans had come to consider Wright one of the great architects. Scully’s article was so controversial that various notable curators and academics wrote in to complain about his thesis. ARTnews published several of these responses in its September 1954 issue. With an exhibition of materials from Wright’s archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we have republished a response from Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., a MoMA curator who alleged that Scully had ignored critical elements of both Wright and European architects’ practices. Kaufmann’s response follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“The Wright-International Style controversy”
By Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
September 1954

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
Director, Good Design, Museum of Modern Art

Congratulations on publishing a provocative article by one of this country’s few distinguished students of recent architectural history—Vincent Scully. Too bad that Scully, intellectually keen, is visually distracted by his documents—photos, plans, etc. Surely the buildings themselves mean more, and I believe the architects’ statements, carefully considered, mean a lot too. The curious treatment of these elements in Scully’s article seems to lead to serious errors of interpretation.

Certainly, as Scully says, Wright not only gave and gives to his leading contemporary colleagues, he took and takes from them and from various documents. Originality is never chemically pure; human creativity remains at all times human, that is, involved.

Unknown photographer, Frank Lloyd Wright, n.d.

©2017 FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/THE FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION ARCHIVES (THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | AVERY ARCHITECTURAL & FINE ARTS, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK)

Why does Scully deplore the polemics between strong personalities in international art? Can no light kindle from the sparks that they strike? Should culture display a united front merely to simplify the interpretive tasks of teachers? I think the bouts between Wright and the “Internationalists,” however mean occasionally, will prove to be one of the most meaningful campaigns ever waged in the visual arts. How can one call Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies “noble spirits” and then immediately doubt the honesty of their self-proclaimed differences, as if they were clowns or T.V.-wrestlers, tumbling in a fixed fight? These men have something great in common (their words as well as their works testify to that) but their divergences are great, too, and seminal for architecture in our time. Were Scully’s ideal of culture less garbed in a Schutzmantel I think he’d be a better referee and guide.

Constantly in this article Scully compares crustaceans and vertebrates, so to speak, because of some superficial resemblances. Yet it is the organization behind the effects that determines the character and significance of any structure, animal, mineral, vegetal or man-made. Even Mies’s 1923 Brick House project—as near to Wright as ever Mies got—uses its screen walls to enclose space, just as do the more placidly placed walls of the Barcelona Pavilion. Even in this phase of his work Mies is a creator of crustaceans, essentially, of buildings whose shell protects the life within, even when this shell can be transparent. Wright, in the Willits house (or the 1906 Gerts house project which is as close to 1923 Mies as Wright ever got) is busy developing the theme of space exploding, from a nucleus, from a vertical spine of utilities, stairs and chimneys. Walls do not so much protect the life within as project it; in wright the sense of perception is provided by the sheltering roof.

The same confusion exists in other comparisons by Scully. Flat roofs (which, after all, Sullivan and Garnier dramatized too) could hardly hover over more different bases with more diverse effects, and from structural supports less alike, than in the Boat Club (Wright) and the Pavilion (Mies). The relationship, however tenuous as I believe, between the envelope of a Wright house and de Stijl paintings, would have been better illustrated by a van Doesburg where the linear grid does not coincide with the color fields, or conversely by the mosaic sections of the Coonley house walls. Just as the massing of Wright’s Jones house seems closer to Gropius’ Fagus factory than to any of Mies, so does Wright’s House on the Mesa project look more like Mies’s projected Brick House of 1924 than that of the previous year cited by Scully. Even then, Wright’s wall areas are always flowing out, Mies’s always returning on themselves. And more, these walls areas result from two different basic concepts which give form to all elements of each project, walls included.

Frank Lloyd Wright, model for Davidson Little Farms Unit. Project, 1932–33, painted wood and particle board.

©2017 FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/THE FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT FOUNDATION ARCHIVES (THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | AVERY ARCHITECTURAL & FINE ARTS, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK)

May I be allowed to express with some feeling (since I know one of these buildings intimately) that no two houses were ever less alike in concept, effect, intent or detail than Falling Water and the Villa Savoie. Here for once when comparing plans would reveal a basic unlikeness, one is not illustrated! How can we comprehend a serious statement on architecture which parallels pictures related only through the familiar accident of photographic lens distortion? As to the play curved against rectangular planes in these two houses, no resemblance can in fact be traced. The curved planes at Falling Water are used as Wright had used them for some twenty years, in minor, usually external details, never with the obvious counterpoint of Poissy.

Finally, are we seriously invited to compare Mies’s massive cubes of brick fastidiously pierced (The Wolf house) with the most determined attack ever perpetrated on walls as such: the staccato piers of the Jones house?

Then too I must confess I am disappointed in Scully’s willingness—reminiscent of Mumford at his saddest—to substitute Weltschmerz for penetration in many passages.

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