Why are there no new Frank Lloyd Wright buildings?
August 3, 2009 5:38 PM   Subscribe

We just came out of a real estate boom where a lot of ugly buildings were built and sold for a lot of money, some by celebrity architects. Why weren't any recent buildings built from or based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs? I'm sure the estate or the foundation or whatever would charge a lot of money for licensing, but the cachet surely would've done wonders for sale prices.
posted by moonmilk to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is pure speculation, but it is likely due to the fact that many of his designs are obsolete. Think about the evolution of houses. They were once very partitioned, with a wall and a door in between each room. Recently built homes tend to be more open and flowing with minimal walls so that you frequently have a kitchen, den and dining room that all share space. Similarly, office buildings are much more open and have much larger floorplates. This allows tenants to finish their own space with cubes and common spaces as opposed a fixed corridor and many individual offices.

As for the cachet, I don't think it would do much for the sales prices. It would be quite easy to reconstruct Monticello or Versailles, but part of their appeal is that they reflect the era in which they were built. Someone would almost have to have funding from a historical organization to recreate any past designs since there are now more practical ways of building homes and offices.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 5:57 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another important point is that Wright emphasized working with the site, that buildings should be built to fit into the landscape they belong to, so, philosophically, it seems kind of incongruent to take one of his works and just drop it somewhere. Not to say that they didn't do that with the Third Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis...
posted by advicepig at 6:08 PM on August 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Here's a "Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired" home that may or may not really be, but it was built in 1996. Maybe now architects just take FLW's ideas much more loosely to fit the needs of what people want out of their homes.
posted by ishotjr at 6:17 PM on August 3, 2009

Without FLW overseeing it, who's to say it's a "real" FLW? Plus, it's all about fashion, and fashion is all about what's new and hot, not what's "classic."
posted by rikschell at 6:23 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm sure the estate or the foundation or whatever would charge a lot of money for licensing

You're assuming they even have a price. How does it help his legacy to have copies of his work made? People will inevitably want to change things to make them more livable, and then are they really FLW buildings?

where a lot of ugly buildings were built and sold for a lot of money, some by celebrity architects

Consider that's how FLW buildings got built in the first place. Ugly is all relative; his houses would still be considered too modern by most people.
posted by smackfu at 6:29 PM on August 3, 2009

My aunt and uncle lived in this Frank Lloyd Wright house. The ceilings went from 6' to 20'. My uncle was 6'7". The house had no shower so they had to put a shower in the entry to the carport.
Frank Lloyd Wright said "...anyone over six feet tall is a weed." My uncle called Frank Lloyd Wright "...an unwashed midget."
That said, it was a beautiful house with lots of built-in furniture, delightful views, and a leaky roof.
The city of Madison, Wisconsin finally built the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Monona Terrace in 1997, but it is by no means a pure FLW design.
posted by Floydd at 6:30 PM on August 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

They recently built a FLW house in my town, on an island. Fifty-seven years after he designed it, the house that Frank Lloyd Wright thought might be his greatest has finally been built by one determined fan. FLW designed this house for the space, but before it was completed, the client ran out of cash, so it was shelved.

FWIW: I hear that everyone in my town hates it. This may be because it's ugly, or because the construction company was really rude to the nearby people, or because the island was really nice before - I've heard different stories. But not many people who actually live in the area are happy with it, even if outsiders would (and did, to get it built!) happily pay boatloads for it.
posted by firei at 6:31 PM on August 3, 2009

I think part of it is that the aesthetics of the average American homeowner have changed. The vast majority of folks don't seem to care about having their homes being integrated with the nature around them or having sleek lines and a central fireplace. They are more interested in McMansions and cookie-cutter housing developments. They want brown and tan and white and BORING.

While the FLW Foundation may not be making any repro FLW Houses, you CAN find architects that were trained at Taliesin, which is still a functioning architecture school.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:43 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Frank Lloyd Wright houses look awesome but would suck to live in. They have super narrow hallways, low ceilings, no garage, and the bedrooms are barely big enough to fit the tiny little beds that he thought people should sleep in.

I have a friend who lives in a FLW house. This is pretty exactly right. It's dark, it feels cramped, cold, and hard, and the roof leaks... my friend loves it, but I wouldn't want it.
posted by not that girl at 6:44 PM on August 3, 2009

The more we pay for the land the less we can pay for building of the structure.

. . . and we paid an awful lot on the land this decade.

FLW was visionary, but I don't see why that vision can't be surpassed today. I'd guess if anything you'll see better architecture during busts than during booms.
posted by @troy at 6:56 PM on August 3, 2009

Best answer: The materials for a FLW house would be comparatively expensive - he used a lot of stone and timber, and while these can be faked, they wouldn't look as good.

The house plans would not be designed to meet current building codes, so it would have to be modified. The modification and building process would likely have to be overseen by a practising architect or builder, and architects/builder are generally reluctant to take on others' designs, because of the liability issue for later defects.

Also, a practising architect who took on building FLW plans would be, I think, castigated by his/her peers for their lack of originality and for trying to trade on the cachet of a great architect.

The FLW may not own the designs/plans - I am not sure how things worked when he was practicing, but these days, the plans cease to be the property of the architect once the project is complete.

And finally, the perceived value of a FLW house would diminish with every copy that was built.
posted by girlgenius at 7:15 PM on August 3, 2009

They're not really "Frank Lloyd Wright houses," but bungalows and houses incorporating the visual elements of FLW and other aspects of the Prairie School are not uncommon in Chicago. I think this is "Modern Prairie Style."
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 7:30 PM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For a number of years Taliesin Architects -- the going concern operated by Wright until his death -- completed designs he had originated and also built a lot of mostly imitative works. (This is probably closest to what you have in mind.) The interest in Wright's architecture diminished over the years, though, and they eventually folded as a fellowship, although there is still an actual entity that serves to coordinate or something like that. A few are listed here.

Why weren't any recent buildings built from or based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs?

This is a deeper question, though. For one thing, finding an architect willing to execute the vision of a man born in the 19th century, rather than his own vision, would be a challenge in itself. For another, those designs are often impractical. For yet another, many people would be quite happy with a Wright-inspired design, and a trip through -- say -- the North Shore of Chicago's suburbs will turn up scores of these.

Ultimately the group of Wright fans is a devoted one, but small. Larger is the group of people who recognize the genius or at least the name, but would rather have a signature design for the 21st century. A Wright retread won't win many awards, but a fresh design incorporating some of his ideas would have a decent chance.

many of Wright's designs are obsolete since they were designed for the building codes, design trends, construction abilities, and the materials available of the time.

To some extent this is valid, but it's probably more accurate stlll to say that Wright was always pushing the envelope of what was standard, expected, or allowed. His lilypad pillars at Johnson Wax, for instance, famously were rejected by the engineers of Racine -- until he held a demonstration with a crane to put several times the weight onto a single pillar than it was required to support. Today, such overengineering is actually considered wasteful, and by the same token, materials are completely different. In a way it would be like recreating the Wright Brothers Flyer in an era of composite 767s.
posted by dhartung at 9:26 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not all of Wright's houses were custom built for a site and/or wealthy clients. He designed some smaller and simpler row houses which still exist on the south-side of Milwaukee.

Also consider that Monona Terrace was finished in 1997, 59 years after it was originally proposed and many years after the architect's death. It's details were modified from the original to update it to modern standards but the design was all FLW. So yeah this can be done and has been done.
posted by JJ86 at 6:10 AM on August 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers! I went to the Wright exhibit at the Guggenheim yesterday and kept wondering about this.

I grew up in an Eichler subdivision - those houses must have been strongly influenced by Wright. (Ah, yes: "He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple Robert Anshen" - wikipedia)
posted by moonmilk at 7:21 AM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: lots of good commentary above, but to correct some things:

- Wright's custom homes were always one-off and site-specific, but his buildings could certainly be adapted to sites other than the one they were designed for (ie Gammage Auditorium). Moreover, Wright himself designed a series of homes that could be adapted to many sites and mass-produced for a wide audience (the usonian homes).
- there are plenty of architects who work in styles other than their training or preference would indicate. Just look around at the various pastiches of tuscan villas and tudor mansions that are so commonplace. The vast majority of architects despise these poor reproductions, and nobody is trained to build in these styles anymore, but the market is driven by the consumer. And actually, many architects wouldn't mind a stylistic reproduction if it was approached with an eye for authenticity and quality.
- most architects (depending on local laws) do (or at least can choose to) retain ownership of their drawings and designs. A drawing set is referred to as an instrument of service, with various rights reserved or licensed (so to speak) in a similar manner to other copyrighted works.
- modifying an existing design isn't necessarily more expensive than designing from scratch, but any custom design is much more expensive than a mass-market home, and not only in design costs. Materials and techniques are so dramatically different between custom and mass-market that anyone who would have the money for a faithful reproduction is likely to want to spend the money on something unique instead. A custom home is an ego trip, and a copy of something else (even something else that's very good) probably doesn't give the same high.
- In the secondary or speculative market, the market for a particular reproduction (FLLW vs. Mies vs. Palladio etc.) is small because tastes vary, and modern designs tend to evoke strong opinions (someone may not care a whole lot if they buy a tudor or a tuscan villa, but they have much stronger feelings about traditional vs. modern).
- Also the segment who would pay a premium for name cachet on a reproduction is exceedingly small. Just like you can buy copies of famous paintings for cheap at the "painting with oil!" store at the mall, the value is not in the pattern so much as the single original incarnation of an artwork.
- Someone might pay for a reproduction if they were a fan AND it happened to be the best home for them, but as many noted, Wright's designs were beautiful but idiosyncratic, and few today would accept the compromises required to live in a Wright design. Ditto for something like Johnson's Glass House or the Villa Rotunda. They're just not practical.
posted by Chris4d at 6:57 PM on August 4, 2009

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