The Auto as Architect's Inspiration
"Frank Lloyd Wright with his model of the Guggenheim Museum."
COLLECTING exotic cars is practically a prerequisite for celebrities, but Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have no patent on that pastime. Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect whose birth in 1867 preceded the gasoline-powered automobile’s by about 20 years, was an early adopter of the internal-combustion engine and an auto aficionado all his life.
He was also eerily prophetic in understanding how the car would transform the American landscape, and his designs reflect this understanding. Wright often designed both for and around automobiles, and his masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, owes its most distinctive feature, the spiral of its rotunda, to his love for the automobile.
This year is the 50th anniversary of both Wright’s death and the opening of the Guggenheim, which is presenting an exhibition of his work, “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward.” After a half-century, the Guggenheim still stands as a testament to how the automobile helped transform architectural space.
Wright was seduced by the combination of beauty, power and speed, whether powered by hay or by gas. He owned horses, and his first car, a yellow Model K Stoddard-Dayton roadster, was the same model that in 1909 won the very first automobile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Called the Yellow Devil by his neighbors, this was a 45-horsepower car capable of going 60 miles an hour. Wright and his sons seemed to enjoy that horsepower with abandon: “Dad was kept busy paying fines,” his son John observed. So enamored was Wright of his automobile that he installed gas pumps in the garage of his home and studio in Oak Park, Ill. At least one of them can still be seen today.
In 1909, Wright left his wife and six children to go to Europe with Martha Cheney, who was known as Mamah and was the wife of one of his clients. John Wright actually laid some of the blame on the Stoddard-Dayton for encouraging the affair. “I think this car had something to do with Papa’s leaving home,” he wrote in his book “My Father Who Is on Earth.” “Papa was a handsome figure in the driver’s seat with linen duster, goggles and his wavy hair dancing in the breeze. One night he took his fair companion riding and kept right on going.”
Despite setbacks, his architectural career continued to grow, along with his love of luxurious cars. In the early 1920s, Wright owned a custom-built Cadillac and later bought a 1929 Cord L-29, which he praised for its sensible front-wheel drive. Besides, “It looked becoming to my houses,” he wrote in his book “An Autobiography.” He seemed to have a special bond with the Cord. “The feeling comes to me that the Cord should be heroic in this autobiography somewhere,” he wrote.
Wright’s Cord can be seen today at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind.
Over the course of his life, Wright also owned cars from Packard, Bentley, Mercedes and Jaguar. But the car he is probably most identified with is the Lincoln Continental.
According to the biography “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Meryle Secrest, Wright walked into a Chicago car dealership around 1940 and ordered not one but two new Lincoln Continentals, customized to his specifications and painted in Cherokee red, the signature color he used on some of his cars and homes. Other published accounts, however, say he bought the cars separately and that after one was involved in an accident, Wright had the body shop make several alterations that made the car stand out. He had the rear window filled in, had side opera windows added and reduced the height of the windshield and back seat. The car eventually ended up with the movie producer Joel Silver.
Wright designed with the automobile in mind long before it became a ubiquitous accessory to American homes. The Robie House in Chicago was designed in 1908, with an integrated three-car garage. He also coined the term carport and often incorporated them in his modest homes of the 1930s.
Though a gas station in Minnesota and Max Hoffman’s Manhattan Mercedes-Benz dealership on Park Avenue are on his résumé, the architect’s prescience about the place of the car in American culture emerged most fully in his theoretical work.
Wright imagined his utopian Broad-acre City in 1932 and worked on the plans until the end of his life in 1959. His fundamental idea was that the mass-produced automobile permitted universal car ownership, so that urbanism itself was a doomed concept. He wrote that the “complete mobilization of our American people is one natural asset of the machine, fast approaching,” and he believed that the automobile would decentralize the American way of life.
Wright’s love of the automobile inspired some of his most innovative architectural concepts and ultimately his most radical design, the Guggenheim. He recognized the most important architectural fact about the automobile: its need for smooth surfaces to travel on. The ramps developed for human movement by such International Style architects as Le Corbusier are necessary for an automobile to travel vertically.
Wright explored the spiraling ramp as early as 1924, when he designed the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, an ambitious project for Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. Wright conceived it as a terminus for a scenic drive up the mountain, for, as he put it, “people sitting comfortably in their own cars in a novel circumstance with the whole landscape revolving about them, as exposed to view as though they were in an airplane.”
Buried inside was a vast dome — 150 feet in diameter and housing a planetarium — that supported the cantilevered ramps whose curves tightened as they wound their way up to a viewing platform. Wright envisioned aquariums, natural history exhibits, restaurants and lounges to complete the experience. Although the Automobile Objective was never built, no previous architectural design had considered the essence of automotive mobility to such an extent.
As unlikely as it may seem, the design of the Guggenheim can also be linked to the mundane parking garage. Wright enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Edgar Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store magnate who is best known as the patron for Fallingwater, the beloved Wright house in Pennsylvania, which was built in the 1930s. The civic-minded Kaufmann in 1947 also enlisted the architect to design a downtown Pittsburgh redevelopment project that Wright titled “Point Park Coney Island in Automobile Scale.”
Everything in it — sports arenas, theaters, shopping, gardens, aquarium, marina — was easily accessible by car, and to that end Wright designed huge bridges, ramps and parking facilities. Kaufmann also commissioned Wright in 1949 to design a parking garage for his department store. The design was a giant, off-kilter layer cake of ramps, with concrete ribbons snaking around a central parking core.
Like the mountaintop drive-up planetarium, the Kaufmann redevelopment project and parking garage were never built, but have clear design connections to the Guggenheim. Wright always intended that visitors should take an elevator to the top of the ramp inside the Guggenheim, and then allow gravity to help them in their gentle centrifugal descent as they admired the artistic scenery. The Guggenheim may not be a drive-in museum — though one is inclined to think that Wright would have loved such a challenge — but the smooth forward motion and uninterrupted spatial flow of the ramps are an architectural equivalent to automotive motion — the “automobile objective” turned outside-in.
Like a highway for art, the Guggenheim’s ramps brought Wright’s visionary automotive projects to reality. Here, he created a new viewing paradigm informed by our shared American love for life experienced through the windshield.
When Wright died, did he get to heaven in style? His son John (inventor of Lincoln Logs) thought that he would. In John’s book, he envisioned his father arriving in heaven in the customized Lincoln: “Dad prodded his Lincoln Continental in the upward climb, up on over the heights between the peaks; up on toward the stars; on toward the Great Silence.”
When Wright arrives at the pearly gates, he disapproves of their proportions, then calls out to St. Peter:
“ ‘Mr. Wright — Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright, waits without!’
“ ‘Without what?’
“ ‘Without gas!’ ”
The “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward” exhibition will be at the Guggenheim Museum at 1071 Fifth Avenue through Aug. 23. More information is available at www.guggenheim.org.
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