A Wright for Our Time

The head of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation argues that the famous architect’s built legacy and concepts are surprisingly in step with today’s world.

Although born a century and a half ago, Frank Lloyd Wright is more relevant than ever. So says Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, founded in 1940 and run out of Wright’s Taliesin West compound in Scottsdale, Arizona, ever since. A Chicago native, Graff grew up with an appreciation for Wright’s aesthetics, which blossomed into outright admiration when he learned of the architect’s humble beginnings and how they mirrored his own. Subsequent study would reveal the prescience of Wright’s principles of organic architecture, among other concepts. Metropolis contributor Gretchen Von Koenig talked with Graff about his forward-looking vision for the foundation, making Wright’s philosophy available to a wider audience, and the milestone birthday celebrations happening this summer you won’t want to miss.

Gretchen von Koenig: What drew you to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation?

Stuart Graff: I have an unusual background, considering what I do for a living. I spent most of my professional career as an intellectual property lawyer, corporate counsel, and then as a business leader for various consumer products companies. So “how did you come to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation” is the obvious question.

As a young man growing up in Chicago, I had the privilege of being in an unusual program in the Chicago public schools; I had constant field trips to museums, art and culture institutions, science labs—you name it, we did it. At about eight or nine years old I had my first encounter with a Frank Lloyd Wright space, which was the Rookery Building. It had undergone renovations and then underwent several decades of neglect, so it was in quite a state of disrepair. But there was a photograph of Wright’s lobby in the building, and I saw something that I’d never encountered before, which is the way that the space and light could transform a heavy building. I wanted to know more about how that was done, and so I began to seek out Wright’s work, grab every book that I could get about him. He was a farm kid who had very little formal training, and then he goes on to revolutionize architecture and change the way we build and the way we live. Well, that just inspired me, a working-class kid, that I could actually go out and do something too. Wright acted as a role model for me.

Fast forward another 45 or so years and I’m sitting down to dinner with Lynn Rzonca, the intellectual property counsel for the foundation. She knew that I always planned to make a move into nonprofit, but I had all this inertia to overcome. She said, “Well, what about the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation?” What I had was 45 years in amateur study and a hell of a lot of passion. Apparently, that was what they needed—coupled with experience in intellectual property licensing, financial acumen, and good strategic management. I’m grateful to them because I have the greatest job in the world. I picked something that has been a lifelong passion, and I now make a living inspiring that passion in other people. It doesn’t get better than that.

GK: What steps are you taking to make Wright as relevant today as he was in the past?

SG: I would correct you, if I may, and say we’re actually trying to make him more relevant than he was in the past. I think too often Frank Lloyd Wright is presented as a historical figure.

When I arrived at the foundation, I worked at Taliesin and Taliesin West, which were essentially being presented to the world as house museums. While I appreciate the enthusiasm that many people have for house museums, house museums tend to be about the dead. They’re sort of like mausoleums. They look backwards, they try to summon up a time or a place and elements of a life that have been extinguished. But after talking with Wright apprentices—people that knew and worked with him—and reading everything I could get my hands on, what I kept on hearing reinforced my own view: this is a man who’s always looking forward. History might offer us some gifts, but it doesn’t constrain us. It’s a tool to enable us to move forward. Looking backwards as house museums do would be an injustice to the man’s legacy. That was my first objective, to have the man facing forward.

The second is to talk about how we live with the world around us. Nature offers us a view that we can borrow and incorporate into our architecture and design. There’s a type of cactus called the cholla that has a unique skeleton to it, a very thin stalk that can actually support a massive amount of weight at the top of the cactus. Wright looks at that structure and comes to the inspiration for the thin and yet incredibly strong columns of the Johnson Wax Administration Building. We could go on and on with examples, but he’s telling us that nature is offering us these wonderful gifts. He also admonishes us. He says that a building should be of the land and not merely on it. A building should be a blessing to the landscape.

That’s exemplified I think most beautifully at Taliesin and Taliesin West, where the buildings are actually so integrated into the physical landscape. Taliesin West was made from the rubble at the site and the mortar was composed of the sand from the washes at the site. There’s literally the desert floor folded up and made into walls. As our planet becomes more fragile, he’s teaching us to be gentle, to pay attention. We don’t have to do damage to the world to live fully and beautifully as human beings.

We see architecture or design that tries to dominate us rather than lift us up. The human scale was so important to Wright, that a building should enable our humanity, enable it to flourish. I keep thinking that these principles of Wright’s are more relevant than they have ever been. Couple that with the fact that so often the technology is only now catching up to his ideas. As we celebrate Wright’s 150th, this is the time, more than ever, when we need to pay attention to the man, because we can actually practice a lot of what he preached.

The School of Architecture at Taliesin West
Students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin West. Courtesy Jeff Goodman

GK: What kind of activities or promotional activities or events is the foundation doing to bring these ideals to architects and designers? And beyond the profession of architecture, how are you reaching new and expanded audiences?

SG: I’m very proud to say that one of the first things we did was to get many of the public sites around the country to act together, to promote this legacy. Most of them are owned separately, sometimes they’re owned by individuals, but we got enough to truly have a nationwide partnership and—with a couple of the sites in Japan—an international celebration of Wright’s work.

The second thing that we’ve done is expand the range of the work that we license for commercial release, so that people can incorporate elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy in their own homes, offices, structures. And there’s a number of new products that are about to be announced or that have been announced already in the building product space.

The third thing that we’re doing is more in the academic space. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture has been a part of the foundation and is the outgrowth of Wright’s own apprenticeship program. We’ve ensured its continuity, which was in doubt a couple of years ago; we have managed to sustain it with continuing accreditation. It will be spun off, in order to retain that accreditation, into an independent entity known as the School of Architecture at Taliesin, with the foundation continuing to donate the use of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sites at Taliesin and Taliesin West to house the school, so that the students can continue to work there, to bring life to these sites.

We’re participating in new forums. Instead of just practicing these things at our own sites, we are working, for example, with the Chicago Architecture Biennial to do a celebration of organic architecture, asking what its future is. I’ve been really looking forward to that so that we can have a group of thought leaders express their points of view about how organic architecture remains relevant and how it can be practiced today.

GK: Speaking of education and the school, what prompted the return of summer camps to Taliesin West?

SG: I think that a museum of any kind—and the foundation is partly an historical archive or repository of Wright’s intellectual property—should exist to change minds, and it’s most influential when it can change young minds. As I reflected on my experience, largely being educated in libraries and museums, what occurred to me was that we absolutely needed to do that for another generation. We have the architect, and he’s the only architect that most Americans can name, so we have this wonderful platform from which to engage youth and really teach them at a lot, and Wright’s designs lend themselves very strongly to teaching physics and engineering principles. Think about all that goes on in the construction of the cantilever and you’ve got a pretty darn good physics lesson going on.

But I also think we look at Wright’s role in history. Here’s the farm kid with little training who goes out and changes the world. It speaks wonderfully to American inventiveness and ingenuity. We also can look at how Wright was trying to reflect American democratic values. We would build fine things, use the technology available of the day, use new materials to create quality, not just for the wealthy person, but for the working person.

Wright employs one of the first licensed women architects America, in his studio, Marion Mahony. About a third of people who were working in his studio were women—at a time when women weren’t employed in the field.  He cared about what you could do, not what your identity was. So there’s this wonderful, wonderful, rich American story about our nation’s values, and we can use Wright as a way to teach youth about those values and about our history.

Taliesin West summer camp
The foundation has launched STEAM-themed summer camps at Taliesin West for students. Courtesy the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

So much of his work is influenced by the work of the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. We have at Taliesin West, right as you enter the property, a quote from Walt Whitman that is titled “Thou America” from Leaves of Grass. And it’s just a small couple of stanzas that speak to American values. So we can talk about literature and the history of American philosophy when we talk about Wright.

The summer programs are just the beginning of what will become, over the next several years, a fully realized education program that we’d like to make available to the other Wright sites around the country and  put elements online.

The summer camps are going to be the way we can bring our mission into the future, to affect future architects and thinkers. I know the impact we can have on the lives of kids. Even just a few of those kids will change the way we live for the better. That’s what we’re out to do.

GK: There’s a STEAM component, correct? How is science, technology, and engineering being integrated?

SG: They may learn, for example, how to design from nature, how to look at the patterns that are available in nature, understand them, and use those as the inspiration for design. They design their own dream space. What should it look like, how should it work, what’s important to them? How did that become a part of what they do and what they have in their space? We have a course at Taliesin Spring Green, Wisconsin, where we have kids designing a Mars colony. You’ve got a different kind of landscape, you’ve got different materials, you’ve got limits on what you can bring with you. It gets kids exercising not only their creative juices but thinking analytically and think critically, to work as team members. We just unshackle their creativity and let them have at it.

We want to get their juices flowing, we want to get them excited about the opportunity to be creative and that creativity doesn’t mean you forget about engineering, it doesn’t mean you forget about science. You’ve got to think about perspective and physics, and these are things we should be teaching our young people. We should be showing them how their analytic process, when combined with creativity, is where ideation comes from. Together, creativity and tough analytics make a pretty powerful combination.

GK: For the 150th birthday,  you are planning all kinds of events—which ones are you most excited for?

SG: At Taliesin West and a bunch of other sites around the country are giving $1.50 tours all day, because we want to invite people who might otherwise not come. The Museum of Modern Art has taken a group of young scholars from non-traditional Wright scholars, as well as some experts in the field, and sent them deep into the archive to find new ideas and new stories beyond the ones that we usually hear—it’s going to be a fabulous exhibition. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is running a symposium in New York in September, an academic symposium on Wright’s work and its relevance today. Many, many different things over the next few months.

But I tell everyone, the best way to get involved is to find the Wright site near you and go turn out to support that site. And then if you have an opportunity to travel, go find a Wright site in a completely different part of the country and look at the way that Wright responds to the design challenge in another geography, how he responds to it differently but using the same principles. When you compare and contrast those, you really start to get an understanding of what his design philosophy was and how rich this 70-year career made his work and made our lives, as the inheritors of his legacy.

If you liked this article, then you may enjoy learning how Frank Lloyd Wright’s product designs are being re-imagined today.

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