Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Grey Tree Returns

In case you happened to miss last Saturday's Buffalo News, here's a link to Steve Brachmann's story about the MHRC's latest art glass acquisition.  

The public dialogue (and I use the term loosely) in the Comments section below the story reads like a primer on the perceived pros and cons of architectural preservation and cultural tourism.  

For the record dear readers, although some public money was used to acquire this "Tree of Life" window, consider this:  at mid-range of anticipated visitation, the Martin House’s activities will generate a total annual impact of $17.6 million in economic output, of which $8.34 million will be earnings and wages of 198 workers.  This is largely new money to the region and to the State, which will in turn benefit state taxpayers.  Thus, the public investment in the Martin House will pay for itself in 3 to 5 years.

Photo courtesy of Bernhard Wagner, fotoGrafix

Preservation Trust Launches New Digital Resource

The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has just unveiled a new digital collection, "Images from the World of Frank Lloyd Wright."

With generous funding from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Preservation Trust digitized over 1,000 images documenting Wright's early career in the Chicagoland area, and has made them accessible online at  Students, scholars and Wright enthusiasts around the globe may now search the Preservation Trust's extensive collection of image resources, promoting a greater understanding of Wright's architectural legacy.  

A family of Robins making its home amid the detailed millwork of the pergola.
Photo courtesy of Janet Akcakal

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bird is the Word

The Martins were a family of bird lovers, or so it seems from a number of ornithological references in the Martin House Complex and related collections.  

First, consider the curious "martin" houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the roof of the conservatory (see last week's discussion).  Then, note that there are three Japanese woodblock prints with bird subjects that once hung in the Martin House (and exacting reproductions will hang there again).  Last but not least is a jewel of the Martins' extensive library;  as Darwin D. Martin notes in his journal:

At Christmas gave family Audubon's 7 vol. 1842 edition of "Birds of North America" of which but 1000 sets were published. (December, 1911)

Martin apparently is referring to the Royal octavo edition of Birds, available for the prodigious sum of $100, rather than the more rare "Double Elephant folio," one of which sold at Christie's in 2000 for 8.8 million dollars (a record price for a printed book).  Unfortunately, Martin's prized set of Birds does not survive in the Martin House collection today;  its ultimate disposition is unknown.

With Audubon's compendium on the shelves, hawk, crane and peacock prints on the walls and "martin" houses atop the conservatory, the Martins' interest in birds was evident in the design and decoration of their home - no mere flight of fancy.

L:  Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Birds of America
R: "Hawk in Pine Tree" print from the Martin collection

Friday, June 11, 2010

For the Birds

Cycling around Hoyt Lake yesterday, I spied a bird feasting on the swarms of small insects that I was trying to avoid inhaling:  a purple martin.  Of course, this brought to mind the "martin houses" that sit atop the conservatory of the Martin House Complex.  A popular anecdote has Frank Lloyd Wright designing these curious limestone sculptures as martin houses (for the Martin House - get it?), his architectonic rendition of the familiar, whitewashed communal housing that many bird lovers set up for martins.  

With this association introduced, two questions inevitably come to mind:  first, why are these "martin houses" not successful at attracting nesting purple martins?  Second, if not functional houses for martins, what is their significance to the Martin House Complex?

Looking into the first question, one finds that there is virtually nothing about the design, materials or placement of Wright's "martin houses" that would make them attractive to the species in question.  In terms of design, the cavities in the structures are not compartmentalized appropriately.  Martins like to live in small colonies, but they prefer a boxy-ness antithetical to Wright's Prairie principles (the open plan is manifest even here!).  The openings in these martin houses are much too large; martins prefer snug, round front doors.  Next, the materials are all wrong:  martin houses should be wood, and whitewashed to reflect sunlight and keep the interiors - and the residents - cooler.  Finally, the placement of Wright's four martin houses atop the conservatory puts them too close to human habitation, too easily accessible to predators, too close to trees, and too far from an open water source.  For all these reasons, discriminating martins in the market for "real estate" would quickly look elsewhere!

So, with low marks for functionality, how might these structures relate to the Martin family and the "domestic symphony" that Wright created for them?  Beyond the obvious free-association of the names (Martin-martin), consider the basic characteristics of the purple martin vis a vis Darwin D. Martin:  both are small (although the martin is the largest of North American swallows, it's still a relatively small bird), stocky, and frenetically busy.  Also, the communal nesting of martins seems an apt metaphor for Darwin D. Martin's ambition to create a Martin family compound - successful to the extent that he attracted his sister Delta to live in the adjacent Barton House. 

Although you won't see purple martins raising their young atop the Martin conservatory, you will see Robins determined to nest on the cantilevered cypress millwork along the pergola.  Did Wright intend these broad, sheltered wood shelves as prime nesting spots?  Hard to say, though I think he would be smiling quietly to himself to see these enterprising birds at work.

For more on purple martins, visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And I was just saying to myself, "I bet I'll never see Frank Lloyd Wright sandwiched between Ani DiFranco and Father Baker..."

A Genius by Any Other Name

genius \ˈjēn-yəs \ noun.  the term that is perhaps most over-used in describing Frank Lloyd Wright.

Etymology geek that I am, I was intrigued to encounter this Wright-worn word anew when reading Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome.  King's vivid history of the design and construction of the famous Duomo of Florence is at least as interesting for its footnotes as for its main text.  One note (p. 156) delves into the origins of the term genius.  As it turns out, the English word genius originates with the Latin ingenium, meaning a machine (or more literally "engine").  The related term ingeniator is one who designs or builds machines.  In war-torn Renaissance Europe, such engineering (another word in the ingenium family) expertise was highly prized by feuding Principalities.  Thus, to be a genius (or to be ingenious) was to be a clever cog in the military-industrial machine of the day.

It is with the Renaissance that this Latin word family becomes associated with architect-artist-inventors such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci, who designed flying machines, tanks and trebuchets, as well as timeless works of architecture, painting and sculpture.  Somewhat in contrast to the placid portrait of Renaissance humanism that often comes to mind, genius came to mean an inspired creator of many things, both sublime and infernal. 

So, with this etymology in mind, how apt a term is genius to describe Frank Lloyd Wright?  Wright's record as an engineer is checkered;  he is often maligned for his leaky roofs and sagging cantilevers.  But he did execute some amazing feats of architectural engineering in concert with skilled builders (e.g. Mueller and Unity Temple) and structural engineers (e.g. Polivka and the Guggenheim Museum).  In his late career, Wright envisioned mega-skyscrapers (the Illinois, or "Mile High"), futuristic cars and pod-like helicopters (in drawings published in The Living City), though these utopian fancies never got past the conceptual stage.  Neither Wright nor da Vinci provide much detail as to how these inventions might be constructed and operated (though da Vinci detailed his enough that working models have been constructed).  Both men were pacifists, but Wright differs from da Vinci in terms of integrity:  he never applied his design prowess to a military purpose.  

Above:  Da Vinci's drawing for a scythed chariot and an turtle-like tank.
Below:  Wright's drawing for utopian modes of transportation from The Living City.