A web site exclusive, composed in August 1997 (1266 words)

Frank Lloyd Wright Wronged

Why don't architects care about artifice?


Can dead men design? Earlier this month, the city of Madison, Wisconsin dedicated Monona Terrace, a new $67.1 million lakefront civic building. At the ceremony, city officials were presented with an unusual "certificate of authenticity" asserting that the building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It will be framed and hung inside the building along with an existing plaque that already highlights the identical point.

Why such great pains to illustrate that the building is a Wright design? Because it's not. Wright died in 1959 while his plans for Monona Terrace were being thwarted by a host of local opponents, including environmentalists, property tax foes and Senator Joseph McCarthy. It took Wright partisans decades to pass a 1993 referendum allowing construction of the building. By then, Wright's original scheme for a government offices and an auditorium was unwanted. However, Madison needed a convention center. With Wright long dead, the charge of adapting his design to this new purpose fell to Wright's former apprentices, Taliesin Architects.

The task was akin to guessing how an author would write the ending to an unfinished manuscript. While the white curved facade and arched windows of the exterior look generally the same as Wright had sketched, the architect had never really designed an interior. So Taliesin Architects were forced to invent one. Their guesswork included major decisions, such as room alignment, to Wright's trademark details, from the shape of the ceilings to furniture. They ended up ripping off portions from other Wright buildings at the time such as the sand-colored finished walls.

As for the final product, it's futile to argue whether or not it accords to Wright's "organic" vision of architecture or whether Wright would have made the same decisions if he were alive. The main issue is that with so many other hands making crucial decisions in Monona Terrace's design, it's clearly not the Wright stuff. In fact, Monona Terrace represents artistic interpretation unprecedented in the architecture field. While Taliesin Architects had erected other Wright designs after his death, such as the Guggenheim Museum and a variety of vanity houses for rich patrons, all those structures had detailed construction drawings, says chief architect Anthony Puttnam, who started working for Wright in 1953. None of the architectural historians I spoke with could remember another contemporary instance where a building's blueprints were brought out from dusty archives, changed substantially, and erected.

Yet Puttnam, along with other members of his firm, denies any portion of credit for Monona Terrace. "It's too powerful a concept for someone else to come along and say it's my building,'" insists Puttnam. His firm was the one which handed Madison officials with the meaningless authenticity certificate. Depending on one's point of view, this represents the firm's humility (deferring the accolades to their teacher) or hubris (equating their own anonymous work on par with Wright's.) Either way, it's inaccurate to pass off such a modified structure as a bona fide Wright work.

What's even more surprising is that no one seems unruffled about this improper attribution for a major civic building. In other artistic fields, this kind of meddling with a posthumous master's work would produce shrieks of corruption. The Hollywood community went berserk over the practice of adding color to old black and white movies. The fever pitch spurred Congressional hearings on the matter. With Monona Terrace, there are no defenders of authenticity. In fact, all parties are complicit in this fraud: Taliesin Architects, the city of Madison, and the architecture community.

When he died, Wright left explicit instructions for a creation of a foundation to continue his legacy. Today, his foundation houses the country's largest archives devoted to a single artist, and has spun off a for-profit arm, Taliesin Architects. New aspirants to the firm still adhere to Wright's training: in order to appreciate nature, apprentices sleep in tents. Even though architecture historians believe that virtually all of Taliesin's work (mostly houses) are pale imitations of Wright's, the architects believe that they're executing Wright's will.

Wright's foundation has some entrepreneurial gumption too. They've been criticized by architectural historians for selling off some of the drawings in its collection in order to raise $5 million for renovations Wright's former estates in Arizona and Wisconsin. The foundation also vigilantly sues for any unauthorized use of his name and controls the licensing arrangements on details as mundane as the architect's signature. Both the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Taliesin Architects are motivated by zealous need to promote Wright and to make money. In fact, Monona Terrace may soon lead to future commissions. Officials in Chandler, Arizona, for instance, have already contacted the firm about erecting some additional Wright designs from the 1950s.

An interest in glory and money also motivates tourist-hungry Madison. The convention center business has grown viciously competitive over the years. In the late 1970s, only 100 cities offered convention centers; today, more than 300 do. A so-called Wright work provides a celebrity marketing edge versus other cities' centers. Although officials concede that rental costs for the Monona Terrace won't cover operating expenses (as is the case with virtually all convention centers), Madison hopes that conventioneers will spend $20 million a year with local restaurants and merchants. But meeting this projection is iffy in part because Madison stuck so closely to Wright's exterior. Since Wright never conceived Monona Terrace as a convention center, his successors didn't include an adjoining hotel, considered a necessity today. This may hurt Monona Terrace's drawing power during the winter months when gatherers realize they will have to trudge to their meetings through chilly Wisconsin weather.

It's a bit more mysterious why the normally-persnickety architecture world seems indifferent to this undeserved hype. There is the usual conspiracy theory that professors and critiques are loathe to criticize the foundation publicly lest they lose access to the archives for scholarly purposes. But while academic needs may silence a few tongues, it seems more likely that the Wright disciples are regarded as such a strange and uncharacteristic sect of modern architecture that they aren't paid much heed. "It doesn't bother me that they call it a Frank Lloyd Wright building," says Vincent Scully, the noted Yale University architectural historian. "Late in his life, his apprentices were doing more and more of his work anyhow." Adds Jerry Berggren, the former chair of the American Institute for Architecture Historic Resources Committee, "Without Wright available, you have to do the best with what you got." This apathy is why some major architecture journals are ignoring Monona Terrace. Architecture Magazine published a news brief about the building but doesn't plan to formally critique it. "Not too many architects can get excited about a Frank Lloyd Wright design that been carried out by his studio," says Deborah Dietsch, editor in chief, of Architecture Magazine.

In the end, the silence of the architecture world combined with Madison's marketing program will dupe the ignorant public, who won't be able to discern ersatz Wright from his genuine work. If buildings are supposed to markers of history, Monona Terrace's resurrection replaces achievement with myth. Yet even if the imitation was publicly known, it might not make any difference to a starstruck public. Retro-chic is evident throughout popular culture and fashion and new technologies are making bastardized art more popular than ever before. The first Beatles anthology, featuring the studio-enhanced voice of the late John Lennon singing with Paul, George and Ringo, was dubbed the Beatles reunion; the disc was also the second best-selling recording in 1996. Society seems generally more willing to put aside concerns about reinventing a master's work when a project is linked to a virtuoso. No wonder that with the help of Wright's allure, Monona Terrace has already booked conventions through the year 2003.

Copyright 1998, Warren Cohen (application pending.) All rights reserved.

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