In the Cause of Architecture, II. What “Styles” Mean to the Architect
An essay from February, 1928, by Frank Lloyd Wright.
From Architectural Record, February, 1928.
In what is now to arise from the plan as conceived and held in the mind of the architect, the matter of style may be considered as of elemental importance.
In the logic of the plan what we call "standardization" is seen to be a fundamental principle at work in architecture. All things in Nature exhibit this tendency to crystallize—to form and then conform, as we may easily see. There is a fluid, elastic period of becoming, as in the plan, when possibilities are infinite. New effects may, then, originate from the idea or principle that conceives. Once form is achieved, that possibility is dead so far as it is a creative flux.
Styles in architecture are part and parcel of this standardization. During the process of formation, exciting, fruitful. So soon as accomplished—a prison house for the creative soul and mind.
''Styles'' once accomplished soon become yard-sticks for the blind, crutches for the lame, the recourse of the impotent,
As humanity develops there will be less recourse to the ''styles'' and more style,—for the development of humanity is a matter of greater creative power for the individual—more of that quality in each that was once painfully achieved by the whole. A richer variety in unity is, therefore, a rational hope.
So this very useful tendency in the nature of the human mind, to standardize, is something to guard against as thought and feeling are about to take "form,"—something of which to beware,—something to be watched. For, over-night, it may "set" the form past redemption and the creative matter be found dead. Standardization is, then, a mere tool, though indispensable, to be used only to a certain extent in all other than purely commercial matters.
Used to the extent that it leaves the spirit free to destroy it at will,—on suspicion, maybe,—to the extent only that it does not become a style—or an inflexible rule—is it desirable to the architect.
It is desirable to him only to the extent that it is capable of new forms and remains the servant of those forms. Standardization should be allowed to work but never to master the process that yields the form.
In the logic of the plan we see the mechanics that is standardization, this dangerous tendency to crystallize into styles, at work and attempting to dispose of the whole matter. But if we are artists, no one can see it in the results of our use of it, which will be living and "personal," nevertheless.
There is a dictum abroad that ''Great Art" is impersonal.
The Universal speaks by way of the Personal in our lives. And the more interesting as such the deliverer is, the more precious to us will that message from the Universal be. For we can only understand the message in terms of ourselves. Impersonal matter is no matter at all—in Art. This is not to say that the manner is more than the matter of the message—only to say that the man is the matter of the message, after all is said and done. This is dangerous truth for weak-headed egotists in architecture who may be in love with their own reflections as in a mirror.
But why take the abuse of the thing for the thing itself and condemn it to exalt the mediocre and fix the commonplace?
All truth of any consequence whatsoever, is dangerous and in the hands of the impotent—damned. Are we, therefore, to cling to ''safe lies"? There is a soiled fringe hanging to every manful effort to realize anything in this world—even a square meal.
The Universal will take care of itself.
Let us tune up with it and it will sing through us, because of us, the song man desires most to hear. And that song is Man.
The question is now, how to achieve style, how to conserve that quality and profit to the fullest extent by standardization, the soul of the machine, in the work that is "Man." We have seen how standardization, as a method, serves as guide in the architect's plan, serves as a kind of warp on which to weave the woof of his building. So far, it is safe and may be used to any extent as a method while the ''idea" lives.
But the process has been at work in everything to our hand that we are to use with which to build. We can overcome that, even profit by it, as we shall see. The difficulty is that it has been at work upon the man for whom we are to build. He is already more or less mechanized in this the Machine-Age. To a considerable extent he is the victim of the thing we have been discussing—the victim, I say, because his ideas are committed to standards which he now wilfully standardizes and institutionalizes until there is very little fresh life left in him. To do so is now his habit and, he is coming to think, his virtue.
Here is the real difficulty and a serious one.
What fresh life the architect may have is regarded with distrust by him, suspected and perhaps condemned on suspicion, merely, by this habituate who standardizes for a living—now, and must defend himself in it. The plan-factory grew to meet his wants. Colleges cling to the "classic'' to gratify him. His ''means" are all tied up in various results of the process. He is bound hand and foot, economically, to his institutions and blindfolded by his ''self-interest." He is the slave of the Expedient—and he calls it the Practical! He believes it.
What may be done with him?
Whatever was properly done would be to undo'' him, and that can't be done with his consent. He cannot be buried because it is a kind of living death he knows. But there are yet living among him those not so far gone. It is a matter of history that the few who are open to life have made it eventually what it is for the many. History repeats itself, as ever. The minority report is always right—John Bright pointed to history to prove it.
What we must work with is that minority—however small. It is enough hope, for it is all the hope there ever was in all the world since time began, and we believe in Progress.
These slaves to the Expedient are all beholden to certain ideas of certain individuals. They tend to accept, ready-made, from those individuals their views of matters like style and, although style is a simple matter, enough nonsense has been talked about it by architects and artists. So ''Fashion" rules with inexorable hand. The simple unlettered American man of business, as yet untrained by ''looted" culture, is most likely, in all this, to have fresh vision. And, albeit a little vulgar, there, in him, and in the minority of which we have just spoken, is the only hope for the architectural future of which we are going to speak.
The value of style as against standardized "styles'' is what I shall try to make clear and, to illustrate, have chosen from my own work certain examples to show that it is a quality not depending at all upon ''styles," but a quality inherent in every organic growth—as such. Not a self-conscious product at all. A natural one. I maintain that if this quality of style may be had in these things of mine, it may be had to any extent by Usonia, did her sons put into practice certain principles which are at work in these examples as they were once at work when the antique was "now.'' This may be done with no danger of forming a style—except among those whose characters and spiritual attainments are such that they would have to have recourse to one anyway.
The exhibition will become complete in the course of this series. The immediate burden of this paper is properly to evaluate this useful element of standardization with which the architect works for life, as in the "logic of the plan," and show how it may disastrously triumph over life as in the "styles" in this matter that confronts him now.
This antagonistic triumph is achieved as the consequence of man's tendency to fall in love with his tools, of which his intellect is one, and he soon mistakes the means for the end. This has happened most conspicuously in the architectural Renaissance. The ''re-birth'' of architecture. Unless a matter went wrong and died too soon there could be no occasion for "re-birth." But according to architects, architecture has been in this matter of getting itself continually re-born for several centuries until one might believe it never properly born, and now thoroughly dead from repeated "rebirth." As a matter of fact, architecture never needed to be born again—the architects who thought so did need to be; but never were.
A few examples may serve to show ''architecture" a corpse, like sticking a pin into some member of a cadaver. Such architectural members for instance as the cornice—pilasters and architraves—the façade and a whole brain-load of other instances of the moribund.
But architecture has consisted of these things. And architecture before that had the misfortune to be a non-utilitarian affair—it was a matter of decorating construction or sculpturing, from the outside, a mass of building material. At its worst it became a mere matter of constructing decoration. This concept of architecture was peculiarly Greek.
And the Greek concept became the architectural religion of the modern world and became so, strangely enough, Just when Christianity became its spiritual conviction. The architectural concept was barbaric, unspiritual—superficial. That did not matter. Architecture was "re-born" in Florence on that basis and never got anywhere below the surface afterward, owing to many inherent inconsistencies with interior life as life within, lived on. I am talking of ''Academic'' architecture.
Of the three instances we have chosen, the cornice would be enough to show—for as it was, the other two were, and so were all besides. We are now attacking the standard that became standardized.
It was a standard that, to the eye, had grace and charm but to the mind had, never, organic integrity. It was "exterior'' as thought, however exquisite the refinement and refreshing the play of light and shadow, or enticing the form—or seductive the nuances of shade. It could live only on the surface—and thrive as a ''cult." It was aristocratic as such. Sometimes an applied, studied elegance, it was often a studious refinement.
But it had no interior vitality to inform new conditions and develop new forms for fresh life. The cornice, a constructed thing, constructed as a form for its own sake, became fixed as the characteristic architectural expression of this culture. The cornice was a gesture—a fine gesture, but an empty one. What original significance the cornice had was soon lost. It had come by way of the eaves of a projecting and visible roof. It stayed for ''the look of the thing" centuries after its use and purpose had gone. It was said to be "a thing of beauty.''
It became the last word in the ''language'' of approved form, regardless of interior significance. And it hangs today in the eye of the sun, as dubious an excrescence as ever made shift. It has said the last word for "exterior'' architecture. For the cornice has all but disappeared, and with it disappears a horde of artificialities no nearer truth.
Another concept of building enters in this coming era.
The building is no longer a block of building material dealt with, artistically, from the outside. The room within is the great fact about the building—the room to be expressed in the exterior as space enclosed. This sense of the room within, held as the great motif for enclosure, is the advanced thought of the era in architecture, and is now searching for exterior expression.
This is another conception of architecture entirely. It is probably new under the sun.
Here we have a compelling organic significance instead of seductive imposition-of-elegance.
Architecture so born needs no "re-birth."
It will work out its own destiny at all times, in all places, under all conditions—naturally.
It will not fail of style.
This concept is a minority report in this democratic era. But it is the natural one for that era because it is consistent with the nature of the highest spiritual and ethical ideal of democracy.
To make clear to the young architect this "interior'' initiative which is now his, is necessary to any comprehension on his part of the opportunity that is now to his hand in what may rise from his plan.
Once this interior viewpoint is grasped, his own nature will gather force from the idea and, with experience, become truly potent as a creative factor in modern life concerns.
''What significance?'' This should be the question through which everything in the way of "form'' should be sifted in imagination before it is accepted or rejected in his work.
Contrived elegancies the weary world has obediently borne and worn and regretfully cast aside in plenty, with undefined but inextinguishable hope.
But expressions of human life, rooted in that life, to grow and beneficently expand in human thought, compelled by our principle as great trees grow in their soil and expand in the air according to their interior principle, beguiled by the sun—that is what the world needs and what democracy must have. This is the very meaning of democracy, if it is ever to have any meaning.
The word "democracy'' is used far from any such interior significance as yet. But once born into the soul and mind of American youth, this sense of architecture will grow fast and become strong as only law is strong, however weak man-made laws may ever be and pusillanimous his ''enforcements.
To show this ideal at work in concrete form it is unnecessary to arouse animosity or give pain by illustrations of the falsity of the old conception, or, to be fairer, let us say the superficial character of that concept.
If we show the principle at work in certain new buildings—and it may be seen there, clearly—we will have no occasion to molest tradition or dissect the forms that are now sacred. We may leave all decently in their shrouds where architects, urged by the idea of "re-birth'' have, for centuries past, wantonly refused to leave them.
Beyond what has been said of architectural members we will not go. We will go forward and then whoever will, according to his disposition, at his leisure, may look backward.
Apropos of "style"—let us take—say—Unity Temple.
Style I have said was a quality of the form that character takes, and it becomes necessary to explain what character means.
Any consistent expression of an organicentity, as such; any animal, tree or plant has "character" we may observe. In varying degree, this character may appeal to us as beautiful. It may even be what we call "ugly'' and possess the character which is the secret of style.
Character is one of our strong words. It is loosely applied to any manifestation of force. Properly, it is used to signify "individual significance.''
To be insignificant is to have no "character." Observe that we may use the word character" for "style" and the word style'' for "character'' with no great inconsistency. The words are not interchangeable, but applicable to either case. Character is the result of some inward force taking consistent outward shape, taking form consistent with its nature. The exterior any initial life-force naturally takes, reveals character.''
Character then is the significant expression of organicentity. Yes but—
That sounds complicated—let's try again
Character, like style, is the quality of ''being" one's self—or itself—. That—too—but again incomplete.
Character is the result of nature—expression of the soul or life-principle of anything organic" whatsoever—to the degree that the idea or life—impulse achieves consistent form to our senses—to that degree will "character'' be evident.
Character then is not only fate—
As a final definition we may say that "character'' appears to he nature's ''art.''
We may observe it in the smooth, dark-green water-melon, its swelling alchemy of pink flesh maturing in the sun, its multitude of black seeds, as we see its polished oval lifted above the surrounding tracery of grey-green vines,—or in the garter-snake darting its forked tongue from among the fretted leaves. How similar may be the markings, the "decoration'' of both!
What, then, if all style must have character and all character has style—is the difference between character and style? Well—the difference is the difference between Truth and Beauty—both are forms of the same thing and inseparable from each other in any final analysis as the light ray is inseparable from its source. But we may enjoy the light, ignorant of its source, and speak of it—for that purpose we have the word style. Or we may look to the source, ignoring its consequences. To speak of that we have the word character.
Style is a consequence of character.
The serpent has "style.'' Bees as well as butterflies. So has the scarab that tumbles its ball of cow-manure in the hot sun of the dusty road. The white crane, the horse, the rat, every flower, any tree—even human beings, when they are natural—have it, because they are genuine. They have character. Buildings often have it when they too are genuine, not posing as "architecture."
The rear of the New York Public Library has something of this quality of style, while the front has only "styles.'' The Woolworth Building would have had it to a degree but for professional Gothic prejudices and predilection. The Suspension Bridge from New York to Brooklyn has it. Some aeroplanes have it and some steamships: by no means all of them. Many grain elevators, steel plants, engines have it, and occasionally an automobile. The Wainwright building of Saint Louis by Adler & Sullivan, as a tall building, had it.
There are many tall buildings, now, that are stylish to some degree but all more or less marred by "styles." Unity Temple, for a shameless instance, has style without prejudice or predilection. How did it get it? First by directly acknowledging the nature of the problem presented and expressing it with a sense of appropriate shape and proportion in terms of the character of the materials and the process of work that was to make the building. It does this consciously and sensibly, all in its own way, simply because there never is any other way.
Let us follow this building through the thought that built it, from the beginning—when Dr. Johonnot, the Universalist pastor, called and said he had always admired the little white church with a steeple as seen in the ''East'' and wanted something like that—follow its evolution to final form.