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Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House: Architecture as Portraiture By Jack Quinan. Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 248 pp. £20

review

Amid much run-of-the mill publishing on Frank Lloyd Wright, this book stands out, writes Andrew Mead. The Martin House (1903-06) in Buffalo, New York, is the centrepiece of a complex of prairie-style buildings commissioned from Wright by Darwin Martin - a chief executive at the Larkin Company (and instrumental in Wright's appointment to design the Larkin Administration Building). Currently undergoing a $30 million (£15.7 million) restoration, it's one of Wright's most important early houses.

Drawing on the wealth of Wright-Martin correspondence that survives, art historian Jack Quinan traces the evolution of the design, the process of construction, and the fluctuating, sometimes fraught, relationship between client and architect. He also tries to counter the emphasis on 'formalism' and 'the abstract nature of the building' in most existing critical accounts by exploring Wright's repeated remark that he tried to make his houses 'a portrait' of the client; that in some significant way they were 'individualised', by means of Wright's intuition as much as the brief.

Extracts from the letters are often very entertaining: 'You are paying no premium for the 'peculiarities' of an architect after you are square with his brains, ' says Wright, as Martin complains (once more) about escalating costs. 'You fellows down there put a Chicagoan to shame with your get-there-gait, but be persuaded that the best results in building don't come with that gait, ' he responds when Martin complains (once more) about delays. But Martin gives as good as he gets: 'You do not have to court a Muse to produce detail for our stable door.' And as the house at last nears completion, he even spells out 'six principles' by which Wright might treat his clients better in the future.

The question of 'portraiture' only really surfaces towards the end of the book, and then rather speculatively. But if Darwin Martin was, to a point, 'portrayed' in the house, it's clear that his wife Isabelle was largely forgotten by Wright - and it was on her behalf that Martin later agitated for changes. Princeton's book is beautifully produced:

the paper quality, the layout, the many drawings and richly toned archive photographs, all add to its appeal.

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