On and By Frank Lloyd Wright: A Primer of Architectural Principles Edited by Robert McCarter. Phaidon, 2005. 372p. £35
In the multitude of books published on Frank Lloyd Wright over the last decade or so, two stand out: Neil Levine's The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (AJ 04.07.96) and Robert McCarter's Frank Lloyd Wright (AJ 18.12.97). Now comes a third and, keeping it in the family, it's edited by McCarter and includes essays by him and Levine.
Few of the 14 pieces are recent. There's Colin Rowe's 'Chicago Frame' (1956), contrasting Wright's emphasis on space with Sullivan's on structure; and Richard MacCormac's 'Form and Philosophy' (1974), exploring the impact of Wright's Froebel training - the wooden blocks - on his Prairie designs. Levine and McCarter's contributions predate their books, rehearsing arguments we find in them.
So, given that much of the material has long been available, why is this book so good? Simply because it provides a sustained focus on the 'ordering principles' that inform Wright's architecture, and, in getting to the heart of his design process, it becomes surprisingly relevant today.
In a book which, though text led, is well illustrated, it is not the usual full-bleed glossy photos that dominate but the many small (still legible) plans, often with the author's diagrammatic analyses.
Wright's two preferred plan-types, pinwheel and cruciform, develop in front of us. Geometry is the generator, but manipulated to create great spatial richness, as volumes partly fuse or interlock and expand the ambit of a single room. The sense of discovery that begins with an intricate entry sequence continues inside the house, even in the modest Usonians. But the surprises and enrichment are not the result of whim: they come from an ordering system, whose discipline permeates the whole.
While many central Wright topics (such as ornament and landscape) recur in the book, this emphasis on order and discipline is crucial, and provides the most valuable insights. Many people find the late buildings problematic, and McCarter has a reason why.
What's usually just put down as 'kitsch' is seen as Wright's retreat from discipline.
'The almost total lack of scale, order and formal control is unquestionably related to the lack of integral modular order of the cast concrete used in their construction, ' says McCarter. 'At the same time, the subtlety, invention, order and human scale of the Usonian houses must be related to the integral modular order of their materials: concrete block, brick, and wood.' Which leads neatly to Wright's relevance today: the way he rebukes what McCarter calls 'diversionary adventures of form'; the willfullness of wouldbe 'sculptors' who forget about users or the city.
Repose and rootedness may not be required of all architecture, but those fundamental qualities are found more readily when a governing order is present, even if it's only sensed. Wright proves that such order doesn't rule out invention - it can foster it.
This book may be architectural history but it couldn't be more pertinent.