The importance of being Frank
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - April 25, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -This month, the architectural world celebrates the 50th death anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the greatest modern architect of the 20th cetury. The American Institute of Architects, in fact, declared him “the greatest American architect of all time” in 1991.

He loved the recognition showered on him, but he did not need people to tell him what he already believed himself — that he was the Master Architect, one whose “organic” architecture was ahead and superior to the nascent modernist movement emanating from Europe and one that, beyond function and aesthetics, would frame a new American social order. His larger social agenda did not materialize but his more than 500 houses and buildings did define modern architecture in 20th-century America and influenced architecture, interior, planning and landscape design worldwide.

Wright’s influence on Philippine modern architecture and Filipino architects of several generations is also undeniable. His celebrated projects, like Falling Water, the SC Johnson Wax complex, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, along with his “Prairie and Usonian” houses, left an indelible mark on the thinking and designs of Filipino architects of the late 1930s up to today.

National Artists for Architecture Pablo Antonio Sr. and Leandro V. Locsin publicly acknowledged the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on their work. So, too, did the likes of Jose Maria V. Zaragoza (designer of the Meralco Building), Carlos Arguelles, Gabriel Formoso, and Felipe Mendoza (of Batasang Pambansa fame).

Wright’s body of work was the most studied and emulated in the Philippines up to the 1980s and he still is the subject of academic study to this day. When I give my talks at schools of architecture here, I ask students to list the architects that inspired them. Two Franks are often on top of their lists — Frank Lloyd Wright, and Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Filipino architects Lindy Locsin and Bobby Mañosa are also usually mentioned, with minimalist maverick Ed Calma on some lists.

I took my architecture in the 1970s at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and FLW was the top deity among the foreign architects venerated then. I read his biography early in my student years, along with the works of Paul Rudolf, Gordon Bunshaft (of SOM), Eero Saarinen, Moshie Safdie and the out-of-this-world futurist Buckminster Fuller.

Still, it was Wright who inspired me and my generation the most. Many of us dreamed of apprenticing in Taliesin, his atelier and school in Scottsdale, Arizona. The famous Filipino architect Jose Zaragoza was invited in the early ‘50s to go to Taliesin. He deferred this because of the pressures of work. Later, as head of the Philippine Institute of Architects, Zaragoza almost managed to get Wright to visit Manila, but the master’s schedule would not allow it.

Taliesin was a fellowship established by Lloyd Wright in 1932 with 23 apprentices. Enrollment at the studio-cum-school became the holy grail of young architects wishing to learn and bask in the glory of the master, who by then was in his sixties and at the height of his fame. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938.

It took another 60 years for a Filipina — Lira Luis — to graduate from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (the current name of the establishment). She is now doing well with her own firm in New York City but often comes back to give talks at her alma mater — the University of Santo Tomas, whose main building, by the way, was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the master’s only work in the Far East.

I never got to apprentice at Taliesin. I did get to work under Cesar Concio, Felipe Mendoza and IP Santos. Later, I would get to work on projects with senior partners at Locsin’s office after he passed away. There is much to be said about lengthy apprenticeships with masters (three to five years) and finding role models and inspiration (through biographies and pilgrimages to actual iconic projects).

Young architecture and design graduates nowadays eschew this time-honored and tested way of learning in favor of quick stints at offices and then it’s away to foreign shores or local outsourcing offices. They become faceless cogs churning out repetitive drawings absorbing nothing of value and earning money, yes, but none of the experience or polish necessary to become real architects.

Few of our students or young architects and designers have read Frank Lloyd Wright’s biography, or any other great architects, for that matter, save for snippets in general histories of architecture required in school or for board examinations. Fewer still have read the limited literature on Filipino architects. Save for one or two obscure publications, none of our architects have authored books on their design ideas and ideologies. Wright wrote 20 books and numerous articles aside from lecturing at schools and for the public (he earned money in the Depression years by doing this, but then he had enough fame to be sought after).

I count two full biographies of Wright, as well as a dozen more books on his work in my own collection. Although I practice in the related fields of urban design and landscape architecture, Wright’s designs have always been a source of inspiration. Few architects have such a supreme grasp of the placement of buildings on a landscape or creating settings in a community or urban context as Wright does.

Wright’s iconic Falling Water residence is a masterpiece of interior design, landscape architecture, as well as architecture. This landmark residence, as well as the lesser-known earth-bermed house for Herbert Jacobs, are also prime examples of “green” architecture half a century before the concept became fashionable.

Wright was always sensitive to the contours of the land. He had worked at his uncle’s farm as a teenager and understood the potential of sites and orientation. Most of his projects were, in fact, outside the city. Wright’s houses always used hardware materials from nearby, timber from neighboring forests, stone from local quarries. He even manufactured his own cement when he built his first Taliesin School in Spring Green, Wisconsin, in the ‘30s. There, too, he and his apprentices dammed their own reservoir and installed a mini-hydroelectric plant for electricity.

Wright’s architecture is actually relevant for tropical climes. The deep overhangs and open-plan layouts of his original “prairie” houses were easily adapted by Filipino architects in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The overhangs make for good protection from the sun and the open plans allow cross-ventilation and flexibility of functions.

Some Wright scholars believe that the master was influenced by the Japanese pavilions he saw at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 while still a young architect working for his liebermeister Luis Sullivan. Wright never acknowledged the influence of Asian architecture, although he did become a world-renowned collector of Japanese prints (often making even more money selling his prints to clients for their interior décor than from architectural fees).

The blocky massing of his later architecture was also much copied. Though less appropriate for Philippine settings, this did not deter our architects from emulating the form of Wright’s work. The CCP main theater is without a doubt inspired by Falling Water, although the curvilinear geometries of the main mass’ base are more an influence of Eero Saarinen or Pierre Luigi Nervi than Wright.

Wright’s architecture and his personality and tumultuous personal life story has been the background or subject of literature, theater and film. The Ennis house is a popular choice for filmmakers. The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark (played clumsily by Gary Cooper) was supposed to have been based on Wright. Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) used the house’s interior for his apartment. More recently The International, a Clive Owen and Naomi Watts starrer, had a devastatingly fun time shooting up the interiors of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most fascinating artists and personalities of the 20th century. His life was filled with drama, sex, and intrigue (three wives, several dalliances, abandoned children, close male relationships, a constant flight from creditors and banks). He lived beyond his means, but his personality and architecture were larger than life and his ego twice the size of his biggest project.

Filipino architects can learn from Wright the virtues of self-belief, self-promotion and the audacity of a creative idea carried to fruition without compromise. Wright said, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”

Filipino architects need to change — from being too humble and low-key to artists sure of themselves but constantly seeking improvement nevertheless. Most importantly, Filipino architects need to learn the importance of standing one’s ground. Wright did not like European architects coming over to tell Americans how to build. Filipino architects should take the same stance with American and other foreign architects who are invading our shores and telling us (via the developers who bring them in) how to build our buildings and how to lead our lives.

Yes, we may study their architecture, but until we learn to build and think on our own, frankly speaking, our lives will just be fragile boxes on borrowed foundations, with false façades and the spaces inside void of any meaning.

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