Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Mies van der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert (Photo: The Canadian Centre for Architecture)
Following her visit to the Darwin Martin House in April Phyllis Lambert kindly sent me a copy of her new book, "Building Seagram" (Yale University Press, 2013). I used to think that the Martin House had claim to being the best documented major building in the entire history of architecture but I was wrong, Seagram is. Ms. Lambert objected to her father's initial choice of architect (she wrote an eight page single-spaced typed letter to him from Paris in which she insisted "NO NO NO NO NO NO," and as a result, at age 28, found herself in New York supervising the process so as to ensure that her architect of choice, Mies van der Rohe, would get to build the building he envisioned). She also meticulously recorded every step of the way, and her account is beautifully written. Imagine if Darwin Martin not only saved all of his letters to Wright and those from Wright, but also became a licensed architect and wrote a book about building the Martin House. "Building Seagram" is that and more.

Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Seagram Building, N.Y.,1954 (Photo by Ezra Stoller)
Frank Lloyd Wright weighed in when he learned through his son-in-law Kenneth Baxter, a Seagram executive (and father of actress Anne Baxter), that the company was planning its headquarters on Madison Avenue.  Although he was deeply involved with the Guggenheim Museum project, Wright offered to build them the tallest building in the world, and boasted that it would be worth a million dollars in advertising. Samuel Bronfman, president of Seagram, was skeptical: "I don't want to meet my maker so soon." For a representative view of Wright by the Seagram executives at the time Lambert quotes Ellis D. Slater : 

Wright will undoubtedly design the most unique building in New York and it will surely be good architecture... but he cannot get beyond the sketch stage...the roof will probably leak; the heating system and the lights probably won't work; he will make it extremely difficult to house your employees because he will place them where he wants them, not where they are practically located. When you get through (if you ever finish it) it will cost twice as much as any other building.(Lambert, "Building Seagram" p. 28)

Slater was probably right in many respects but the Seagram Building, clad in anodized bronze and crafted like a Stradivarius, did cost twice as much as any other building and it was well worth it.
What Wright had in mind? "The Mile High" 1956 (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

Friday, June 21, 2013


Christopher Vernon (Photo by J. Quinan)

Marion Mahony Griffin (photo by Frank Lloyd Wright)

Christopher Vernon gave a fascinating presentation on Wednesday in the Greatbatch Pavilion of the Martin House on the  careers of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, two American architects who met and worked in Frank Lloyd Wright's office, established their own practice in the midwest after 1906, won the competition to design Canberra, the new capital of Australia where they moved in 1913 and 14 and established another practice that was so successful that Griffin appeared on an Australian stamp and Marion, alas, should have as well. Christopher's talk skillfully wove Griffin's work on the Martin House landscape into a larger narrative that led the Griffins to set up a third practice in India where, after two years, Walter tragically died leaving Marion to return to the United States where she lived until 1961. While it is well known that Marion was one of the finest draftspersons in our history Vernon took pains to point out that she has never been given her just due as an architect and was frequently maligned in the 1950s and 60s by (male) historians for being unattractive. 
Walter Burley Griffin

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Gina Neureuther

While pursuing an M.A. in History (2008) with a concentration in Museum Studies at Buffalo State College Gina Neureuther spent two years as a volunteer at the Martin House. Then she was off: A summer on Nantucket as an education intern, two years at HistoryMiami (formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida), another two years as Education Program Coordinator at the Orlando Museum of Art, followed by an adjunct professorship in the humanities at Valencia College in Orlando. Now she has returned to Buffalo and the Martin House. Yes, internships (and experience) are good, and we at the Martin House and the public  -- especially the many children who will experience the house -- are the beneficiaries. Welcome Gina Neureuther!

Friday, June 14, 2013


Eric and Mary Lloyd Wright (photo by Susana Tejada) 

Eric Lloyd Wright and his wife Mary, an artist, paid a visit to the Martin House early this week, their second in the past few years. Eric was highly enthusiastic about the restoration and indefatigable during a tour that lasted three hours. He brings an interesting perspective to the whole house tour enterprise. Typically, tour groups walk through the buildings while listening to a docent talk about the architect, the client, and the architecture, but there is little or no opportunity to experience the building from a seated position owing to the historic and monetary value of the furnishings. Eric reminded us that his grandfather said "you must sit down in my buildings to appreciate them." Eric's solution  -- bound to be controversial -- is to remove the original furniture, turn it over to a museum, and have each piece reproduced so that people can begin to experience the house as it was intended. He points out that his grandfather designed the furniture but he didn't make it. The drawings (for the Martin House) were sent off to firms like the Matthews Brothers in Milwaukee for production. 

Over dinner Eric reminisced about visiting and working on Taliesin West when he was ten years old. Although he attended UCLA he was very much a product of the Taliesin Fellowship and the tutelage of both his grandfather and his father, Lloyd Wright, one of the most original and successful interpreters of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic approach to design. Through his own firm, which is often involved in the restoration of the works of both his father and grandfather, Eric has been increasingly involved in the green architecture movement as an outgrowth of Frank Lloyd Wright's organicism.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Wright and apprentices in the 1950s
  • Wright and Walter Gropius were two of the most influential figures in architecture in the 20th century but Wright held Gropius, Le Corbusier, and the rest of the European modernists in disdain as "the white box boys" because they took many of the ideas that he had developed around 1900 and abstracted them into a modernism that was alien to nature. Gropius was a particular target for Wright's wrath because, having left Germany in 1934 he became the chair of architecture at Harvard in 1937 where he profoundly influenced several generations of architects including I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, and Ulrich Franzen. Lynda Waggoner, the director of Fallingwater, recently sent me this statement  that Gropius wrote sometime in the 1960s regarding a visit to Wright's Taliesin:

Walter Gropius

 Gropius writes:  Just two years before that, I had visited the city where the renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had worked. He was a great artist and his wife continued to run the school after his demise. I went there and found from 60 of its students that each drafted a second or third-rate design a la Frank Lloyd Wright. This was a sign of “Assistant upbringing” and not the upbringing of an independent artist. The contribution of the Bauhaus was that we composed “what I would like to call an optical science” of objective things, which emerged from human psychology and physiology where we started laying down particular things which are applicable to every individual and thus equipped young architects with specific observations and visions, based on which they had to form their own perceptions. This was the essence of the training. I also realized the need to connect the new production-making.

We have to wonder why, in spite of his feelings about the European modernists, Wright was friendly to Mies van der Rohe, Gropius's successor at the Bauhaus.

Wright, an interpreter, and Mies at the Johnson's Wax building site c1937