Frank Lloyd Wright’s most eccentric LA properties, defined
Frank Lloyd Wright’s career casts a long shadow over the world of architecture and architecture criticism. The celebration of his 150th birthday last year suggests that the architect is perhaps more popular today than he was during his lifetime – a time when he was arguably the most famous architect in the world.
It’s all the more exciting to watch a television show that sheds new light on his Los Angeles architecture, designed during one of the darkest periods of Wright’s life. As part of KCET’s Artbound franchise, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne has not only conducted an in-depth study of the Ennis and Millard Houses, two of the architect’s eccentric Mayan-inspired concrete block houses, but ties these curiosities together Twenties with Wright’s life and career reversed.
That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles, which premiered last night, airs regularly on KCET, and can be viewed online, includes an in-depth on-site analysis that adds new dimensions to these underrated designs.
Like a crime drama, Hawthorne’s exploration of these homes and Wright locations across the country follows the trail of the evidence wherever it leads, pulling threads together with forensic details.
There is something larger than life and mysterious about these houses. The Ennis House, built in 1924, which towers over Los Feliz like a temple, has shown numerous cameos in films and TV shows, while the lesser-known Millard House (1923) is hidden in a Pasadena gorge (Hawthorne’s interest was partially piqued) repeated Visits as his daughter takes piano lessons at home). They are not unknown, but they are not adequately researched and analyzed by Wright standards, says Hawthorne.
“They’re not invisible, but the buildings themselves are unfathomable and disgusting and don’t open to easy analysis,” he adds. “You are so different from Wright’s career and what other architects in LA were doing back then.”
What makes Hawthorne’s exploration of these places so exciting is the way he traces how Wright’s ideas and personal life came together to create such unique structures. By the time these homes were being designed and built, Wright had moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest and tried to reinvent himself after his affair with Mamah Borthwick and her tragic murder of Taliesin pushed him to flee to Europe had.
“There’s a degree Wright tried to escape to,” says Hawthorne.
Courtesy of KCET
Wright came to Southern California in the early 20th century when the debate about his Los Angeles identity played out in his architecture. The default setting for civic design was Spanish Colonial: the state’s missions were being rediscovered and restored at the time, and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego displayed the style.
But Wright – in the midst of his own identity crisis, having pushed the prairie concept as far as possible and always on the lookout for something daring – saw a different path. The architect channeled Mayan and Aztec patterns, some of which were also on display at the Panamanian-Californian exhibition, and saw a new shape that would be more authentically American than a style imported from Europe.
Never mind that Wright, who never actually visited pre-Columbian Central American architectural sites, dabbled in his own myth-making, says Hawthorne. These styles and patterns match the new concrete block construction system he wanted to experiment with, and the notoriously confident architect took on the challenge of creating a contrasting building in a landscape he barely knew.
Hawthorne’s hour-long documentary shines when it connects Wright’s previous projects with these architectural outliers. Trips to Robie House in Chicago, an epitome of Wright’s Prairie Style era and his time in the Midwest, plus a look at the AD German Warehouse, a strange project in southwest Wisconsin and the first use of its Mayan block patterns, shows how Wright came to these unique projects.
“This project was key to me,” says Hawthorne. “He’s coming almost straight from the San Diego Expo and he’s designing a warehouse that is so otherworldly and out of place, but so connected to what he’ll experiment with later in Los Angeles.”
Courtesy of KCET
Despite the eye-catching appearance of these buildings, Wright was determined to do something authentic and scenic, a point Hawthorne emphasizes. The recipe for his concrete blocks even called for using the ground from each project location. That’s why the Ennis House, rising from the hillside, matches the brown color. Millard House was in a ravine, a challenging location that increased the difficulty of an already challenging project. A new structural system and an atypical, romantic place that makes construction difficult; Wright “challenged himself in interesting and often perverse ways”.
The architect was proud of the houses and once wrote of the Millard House that he would have “rather built this little house in Pasadena than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Obviously an exaggeration, it spoke of the pride of authorship in the quirky jewel of a house.
Hawthorne feels the immersion in both houses while showing Wright’s unique process and influences. It also shows how much the two projects have to say about a long-running design dialogue. How can architecture be used to explain and explain LA’s civic identity?
“The most interesting buildings in LA for me are the ones that are trying to come to terms with this idea,” he says. “What does it mean to be an LA architect and build an LA house?”