Friday, July 2, 2010

A Visit With Lloyd Wright

1. Lloyd Wright's home -- almost unphotographable
behind the thick vegetation.
2. Sowden residence from the same period.
Architecture feeds the brain and is sustenance for the soul. When I was just out of architectural school, I took a road trip with my friend, Greg Walke, to find some of that nourishment. We traveled west in Greg's tan MG convertible to see iconic examples of mid-century modern architecture. One afternoon we stopped to visit Lloyd Wright, the talented, but overshadowed, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an old man at the time and looked just like his father. (But a full twelve inches taller!) He graciously received us in his Doheny Drive home, on the boundary between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Despite the August heat, Lloyd Wright lit the living room fireplace to demonstrate how his design employed natural convection to coax warm air out of the house.  He opened a glass wall onto a patio shaded by the branches of an enormous ginkgo tree. The ginkgo sheltered the entire house and the fireplace drew in this cooler air to exhaust it up the flue. No artificial air conditioning. Wright was very proud of the organic qualities of the room.  His home was like an enchanted cave, designed and built in the in the 1920s.  And we were entranced by his stories.

“Why are you boys here?” he asked. We told him we were in California to see some of the great works of twentieth century architecture. (Much of it authored by him.)
3.  Sowden house today. (Extensively remodeled.)
Of course, Wright had already pegged us as eager neophytes, seeking wisdom from one of the masters.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “You’re here to eat architecture.” We knew immediately what he meant, sharing a mutual understanding. Great architecture provides sustenance; it nourishes the spirit as food does the body.

4. Another Wright design from the same period. (Derby house, 1926.)
I learned years later that we were not the first guests charmed by Wright in this manner. It was practiced theater for him. The novelist Anais Nin wrote of meeting Lloyd Wright for the first time in his Doheny Drive home. He lit the same fireplace and talked about the natural ventilation through the house, filtered by the cool of  the prized Gingko tree. He expostulated about organic architecture in the same way. At least he was consistent. The lesson I took with me was the importance of architectural input in everyday life. It is healthy to “eat” good architecture.

5. Ramon Navarro house, from the 1920s.
Note: Since it is almost impossible to get a good picture of  the Doheny Drive house, the accompanying pictures show Hollywood-area  projects by Lloyd Wright from the same decade.  His architecture during this period was monolithic, closed, and fortress-like.  They are all located on busy streets, which partially explains this.  However, he was also supervising his father's local projects during the 1920s: among them, the Ennis house and the Barnsdall house. They all had similar characteristics.   This was a brief period in the elder Wright's career when his projects -- mostly located in the Hollywood Hills -- resemble Mayan temples.  Lloyd Wright's later work became much looser and more transparent, including his  famous "Glass Chapel" in Palos Verdes from 1951.  (See blog entry March 4, 2010.)


1. Minnaert
2. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Historic American Buildings Survey
3. Los Angeles
4. la photo
5. la photo

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