THE FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT PROJECT
When Frank Lloyd Wright died at the age of 91, April 9, 1959, it was in a home of his design. He called it Taliesin West, building it on a slope of Arizona talus in the middle of pancake-colored desert. The sand, gravel, and stones were dredged from the site and combined with curved beams of redwood, arranged like the ribcage of a dried behemoth, the interstices linked by sheets of canvas. When his students began moving in to create their own architectures, they were housed beneath the roof of a dualism, to enclose the unenclosable. We now understand that Wright's death in his own home was another dualism, of mortality's reach for immortality. We believe Wright could not have died anywhere else.
Wright approached death whitened, with white skin, white tufts of hair, whitening glaucoma. Dying, he regretted he had not achieved everything he set out to do; if he had fifteen more years to him, he would change the world. He had far less than that, and he died as most do, believing there were vastnesses inside him he hadn't penetrated. He died believing the man who could explore his vastness, who could express his total potential free from time and decay, could change the world as it is, as it is understood, and as it will be. With the recent celebration of the Frank Lloyd Wright Project's bicentennial, an effort that has cost a septillion dollars since its inception, we begin quantifying the changes around us, inside of us.
Wright completed over eight hundred designs by the time of his death, of which roughly four hundred were brought to construction. Of the completed four hundred, one hundred were lost to fire, natural disaster, neglect, and demolition. The founding members of the Project, as we call it, began obtaining the schematics, notes, and pictures of the disappeared buildings. They collected references from biography, newscast, newspaper, review; they interviewed surviving persons who had lived in, worked at, or visited the spaces; they collated home videos, film reels, Polaroids, and personal ephemera with any reference to the buildings. Because they sought to rebuild the one hundred structures exactly as they stood in the past, all details were given equal consideration. The home video of a family visiting a Wright hotel, their children splashing in a pool with a vein of brown tiles curling along the bottom, and four plants stuck in red rock in clay pots the shape of thimbles, next to which the parents sat in dark wooden beach chairs with crescented arms, was considered as instructive as the building's schematics. The angles at which the chairs sat tilting in toward one another like courting lovers with their knees brushing, the bourbon-tinted burnish of the wood, the striations of bright and dark red potting rock circling around the stems of plants, were crucial to the Project's goal of fidelity. Thus the Project's democratization of detail: no detail was considered superfluous because, it was understood (and later proved), the total vision is an accumulation of overwhelming detail.
The one hundred disappeared buildings were reconstituted meticulously. Project members could dip their feet into the reflecting pool of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, demolished in 101 A.W. (1968 A.D.) for urban development, as its walls grew in the mirrored spaces between water lilies arranged like green fans dropped by careless geisha. The lily counts corresponded to extant photographic records; discrepancies in counts between certain pictures necessitated fidelity groundskeepers, men who subtracted and added to lily counts; who plucked up bushes that appeared in one film reel but not another, only to plunge them back into the ground the following day; who pedaled antique bicycles forward five feet based on conflicting sepia postcards. Because no master account existed for any one structure (such an account is a divine, unattainable, thing), Project members arrived at cyclical fidelity, making quantum changes to the grounds in accordance with the conflicting records. Thus, a sheet of moss could shrivel backward, as if slurped up an unseen straw, to reflect record disagreements in its shape, length, and mossiness. The science was imperfect and open to error, but in the cyclicality and repetition of every possible variation, we would stumble over truths. Consider a man told to speak the Name of God (we assume there is a Name); freed of time, the man will say the Name, the Name's mispronunciations, and every false Name. With cyclical fidelity, the Project believed it would approach Wright's total vision.
Proponents of the Project were at first inappositely called preservationists. Critics saw, in the reconstitution of demolished, burnt down, and extinct buildings, the madness of a man grasping at ghosts. The preservationist wants to preserve a building because he resists the idea of change. To him, the world would be better if it were stuck—in time, in motion, in deterioration. Why, these critics wondered, did Project members want to resurrect dead buildings? But the Project was never interested in preservation, nor in the imprisonment of time (impossible because time, in its infiniteness, would need a container larger than infinite). The universe is uninterested in nostalgia, the preservationist's Achilles heel, and the Project models itself after the universe: it seeks change, movement, destruction.
Following the completion of Wright's one hundred disappeared buildings, shaped once more into rigid solidity, Project members walked the manure-scented grounds, ascended in cable elevators with golden dials ending in arrow-point, sat in front of yellowed windows that splashed light stains on their knees, strolled through halls vaulted by Mayan concrete pylons, took lunch on cantilevered balconies, and watched performances in theaters with emerald velvet curtains patterned by Wright. The buildings were deemed lovely, some more successful than others, and it was agreed that even the failures, those that seemed in discord with their environments, that did not warm the spirit upon entering, that felt dated, were as necessary to the totality of Wright's vision as his successes.
Excitement infected the founding Project members. As they entered Wright's spaces dredged from cynical public housing works, municipal abominations, and blights of urban development, sat in chairs of Wright's design, took tea on adobe patios opening on Arizona desert the color of the orange slices in their cups, their conversations turned from the pragmatics of planning and building to the hypotheticals of philosophy. Wasn't it remarkable that they were bringing Wright's visions back into the world? Art's aim, to move from the now to the what could be, to knife the crystal rim of the world and let it resonate newly, failed because no artist had ever realized his total vision. Project members recalled Wright's dictum, from within outward, and as their shoes crunched across peppered gravel, their chairs creaked beneath the weight of their bodies, and their spoons tinged in their drained teacups, they saw one another for the first time.
Wright maintained an absolutist's control over all details. Expressed as Organic Architecture, Wright engaged dialectics between building and place, man and nature, inside and outside. His architecture would shelter as it attempted a god-like expression, to transgress beyond humanness. Wright saw no detail too minor, and a bump in his vision's smoothness would interrupt the effect. He designed the furniture, picked the plants that would spout like green cataracts between spans of wood, cinderblock, rock, and concrete, sketched the insect-winged geometries of stained glass windows, and modeled glass lampshades blown into opaque and gleaming balloons, fitted to iron lamp stands also of his choosing. Wright's meticulousness extended beyond his buildings, from the custom yellow Raceabout he careened through streets at high speeds, to the tailoring of suits he sketched and appended with pleated capes that lifted as he walked.
Work began on the four hundred remaining projects conceptualized by Wright but never brought to construction. Because these designs were unresolved, lacking in notes, schematics, and eyewitness accounts, the Project had to extrapolate and guess at Wright's intentions. Extrapolation was never ideal because it introduced error and misdirection. The Project stumbled in this period, even as scientists—mathematicians, number theorists, actuaries, physicists, biologists, behavioralists, bathymetrists—worked over the problem of extrapolation. We were saved by the Wright Machine, arguably the greatest achievement spurred by human desire. We say saved because the failure of the Project, its giving up, would be unimaginable to us. Damnation would be better. In 177 A.W. (2044 A.D.), Project scientists introduced the first Machine, a gray cube measuring five by five by five feet with two slits situated as antipodes. A question was written on a ribbon of paper and fed into the slit on the cube's left side. A moment later, a ribbon of paper exited from the cube's right slit, bruised in purplish ink by a sentence of the Machine's doing. The first questions were compared to the historical record: What will Wright's 245th constructed building be? The answers were always correct, and the Machine always responded. But the Machine was not limited to answers verifiable with the historical record, as its skeptics balked. It could surmise the links of lighting fixtures for buildings Wright had never finished, the splash-shapes of sweetbriar spilling over black-iron balcony rails, and the choice of fabrics on chairs Wright hadn't gotten around to choosing. The wonder of the Wright Machine frothed in the shadows of the buildings, rising vertically or crashing horizontally, a near-chaos of vision allowed total freedom.
Though the Wright Machine solved the problem of fidelity to Wright's incomplete designs, it seemed to malfunction when asked irrational questions. Project members attributed this to the Machine's inability to not provide an answer, but it was wondered over when the Machine was asked, as a test to define its limits, what building Wright would design next, and, a moment later, a ribbon emerged from the right slit of the cube like a white curl of Delphic smoke, The Glass Cathedral shining on it in wet, purple ink.
The staggering reach of Wright's incomplete designs, brought to completion, became apparent. The Mile High Illinoispierced into the Chicago skyline, an upward sprawl of 528 stories that was higher, more daring, more tempting, some said, than the Tower of Babel. Terraced gardens every hundred stories leapt from the edifice like green-costumed tumblers, while a system of five boxcar-sized elevators whirred up the western edifice, bringing people a mile into the air at its pinnacle. At the heart of the building a counterweight was fastened to keep it from falling over, like a foot pressed down on a child's toes who would otherwise run away. Project members were said to weep upon reaching the summit as the brass elevator doors slid open and, through the solarium windows, Lake Michigan confronted them as an ultramarine bellow, more massive, beautiful, and terrible than they had ever imagined.
Half-buildings were also finished in the epoch of the first Machine. Several of Wright's incomplete schematics, half-drawn or otherwise abandoned, were brought to construction, despite criticism that to do so would be like performing unfinished plays, the curtain falling in the middle of a sentence. When Project members questioned the Machine about a particular building, a sketch on a tumbler-haloed cocktail napkin never returned to, the Machine would answer it was as finished as it would ever be. So we have wandered through many-floored buildings without staircases, the unreachable levels weighing on us like unsolvable riddles, placed our hands as if pulse-searching against the walls of rooms without windows or openings, and let our feet dangle over the edges of hallways ending in sky and earth. These spaces remind us that a total vision must contain its half-formulations, that true art cannot be reached without abandonment.
The Project would see a great push into the unknown with the second Machine, introduced at the completion of the Automobile Objective, a ziggurat—the inverse of his iconic Guggenheim Museum design—with a driving path curling up the edifice like the glazed terraces of a cinnamon bun, the inside originally to hold an aquarium, planetarium, nightclub, waterfalls, or some combination thereof, left empty because Wright never settled on a thing to fill it, and instead adorned by Project members with a sodium-vapor discharge lamp dangling on a wire at its core, programmed to pulse light against the hollowed inside. The light was likened to a search-lamp lowered into the darkness of a dream or, some said, a nightmare. The second Wright Machine was a black, ridged box attached by a rubber cord to a viewing screen. The paper ribbons of the first Machine, printed with an anemic vocabulary using words to describe ineffable architectures, were replaced by images of schematics, patterns (to be stitched into rugs, blown into glass, carved into chair arms), and tracts on the aims of architecture. By then, Project members agreed the illogic attributed to the first Machine's answers was based in an untenable assumption. This was of time's linearity, that it, time, progressed like a mercury spear in a thermometer, and that time passed irrevocably the numbered past. The assumption has endured because we are involved with the past through remembering it. The future thrums in front of us, like a stranger's refrigerator waiting to be opened. But what if the future has happened, is happening now? We must concede the possibility that we have forgotten it. Work began on The Glass Cathedral, a Wright design he could not conceptualize in his life. When the second Machine was asked what should fill the hole inside the Automobile Objective, the answer confirmed that Project members had been right: Fill it with fractious light.
The second Machine called for The Glass Cathedral to be built at the summit of Piz Bernina, the colossus of the Eastern Alps, part of a Switzerland valley shaped by sliding glaciers that dissolved into the Mediterranean. Glass pylons were blown and fitted together, supported by a ribcage of glass pillars that elevated the mountain peak another thousand meters into the air. Glass, all of it: from the glass pews that encircled a glass dais with a glass table on which a glass bowl and decanter, filled with glassy water, rested, to the glass floor where every footstep was a preparation in falling to a shattering end at the snowy crags that glistened from below. The first visitors to watch the rising sun were said to have screamed in the light shimmering all around them. They felt they were being devoured by light. Even as they shut their eyes the light got through their eyelids and pried, as if the light were angry at the proposition of shadow. Project members wondered what would be worshipped in the cathedral, but when they asked the Machine, the answer appeared as a rectangle of spotless white.
As the Project began work on Wright designs he hadn't designed, some members wondered if the Project had become too myopic in its focus. These members argued that artistic vision never exists within a vacuum; it is nurtured and stymied by the billions of cumulative effects composing an artist's life. These members separated from the Project's first limb, to build, to the Project's second limb: to follow the avenues of Wright's life unrelated to architecture, from the curation of racer cars housed in a spindled tower of Wright's (never designed in the mid 200's A.W.), to the curation of Meiji-era folding screens depicting peafowl made from turquoise stones and gold leaf, to the writing of a Bildungsroman novel exploring the memories of a boy named Geromé from childhood (his first memory is of wrapping himself in his mother's silk curtains) through adolescent loves, three years in London where he fails to become a novelist of boy adventures (he cannot write a balloon chase or a motorcar race scene without diverging into thoughts of the metaphysical or of consciousness), to a marriage of comfort with a woman so meek and in love with him that she asks every night for his permission to fall asleep, to an escape to Paris at the age of 67 and a brief romance with a model who, one morning as he descends the lobby stairs in pants that smell freshly of lemon soap, he sees with her arm threaded through another man's, to his death in an aluminum bed—its frame peaking out from the holes in its white paint—where he says over and over the name of a beloved blanket from his childhood (though in his failing mind he has misremembered its name) and that the nurses, exhausted and nearing the end of their shifts, listen to with sterile annoyance. The novel was poorly reviewed; a few thousand copies disseminated among Project members who opened it noncommittally, moved and unmoved simultaneously by its opening sentence: "Once there was a boy named Geromé, who got to being born in the middle of the 20th century, an epoch of indifference, finned automobiles, and the Cold War, a boy so engrossed in the dream of himself that he would feel for most of his life that his birth and its timing had been all wrong because he hadn't had a say in it."
So the Project could be divided between buildings and not-buildings, the center of Wright's artistic vision and its periphery. Construction continued on over a hundred works extrapolated by the Machine, including The Hourglass, two kilometers tall in the shape of its namesake, with two glass teardrops (each one kilometer tall, the size of small mountains) meeting in a pinch at the center, the top teardrop holding 192,301 (the significance—or in-significance—of this number still wondered over) glass globes stained brown like sand granules. Each globe contained something, from a gallery of early-Romantic paintings of burning forests to sculptures conceived by Wright to a library of books on East India Trading Company piracy in the 18th century to trees pinned in soil with their roots running like giant white worms along the glass bottoms, all of which rolled downward along a glass track into the lower teardrop like a crystal maelstrom, so that the building, when invaded by sunlight, appeared as a glistening, monumental timepiece. A massive axle in the center flipped the hourglass at noon and midnight. At its first turn, members reported the sky had folded into itself. The arrangement of the globes as well as the things they enclosed was puzzled over, dismissed as eclecticism, and studied for observable patterns, contiguous themes, and meaningfulness. Several globes, thousands apart from one another, were empty; one held a doll with a torn-away arm that kept crying out for its doll-parent; another a stuffed giraffe in a Serengeti diorama with animated eyes that blinked away phantom flies; another a marble altar on which rested a book detailing the creation myth of an unknown god called Blaythe, so fast he could catch light and shake from it the earth, the seas, and all the living, meaningful things.
Despite the massiveness of its enterprise and the buildings that rose from (and dipped into) the earth, many members called the Project a failure. Was the world any different now than a hundred years before, when Wright claimed he would change it? When nations invaded other nations, or when famine devastated a remote village, or when twin sisters held hands and leapt to their deaths in the drinking well, what, if anything, had changed? But the Project was not started to end war, to bring peace (peace for who—what?), or to solve the problem of happiness. These concerns were incidental to its actual aim, expressed by Wright's three-worded mantra, from within outward, that white hum that filled the world, that we could imagine hearing from everywhere around us, the sound of all the oceans, lakes, and rivers heard at once, crashing toward us, a total sound. The Project aimed to change us, to violate order, and yet—and yet we were not-changed, or half-changed, or waiting-change. These members saw Project dictates as flawed and the Wright Machine a demonic prophet. Splintering themselves from the Project, they argued change could only be gained through dismantling, that the violation of order could not be achieved through its continuance, and that the true aim of the Project, of chaos and the world turned over, required chaos. Their first explosives detonated in synchronicity around the world, erupting through the walls of Wright buildings, turning the spires of The Glass Cathedral into confetti that sparkled red and blue as it polyped into the air, toppling the Mile High Illinois into Lake Michigan. The detonations, hundreds of undoing machines to rival the Wright Machine, operated in accord with the mantra, fiery ripples moving from within outward. The terrorist dismantling constitutes the Project's third limb.
The Project's third limb was asymmetrical, like an opened locket hinged to a missing sister-half, necessitating the creation of the Project's fourth limb, reconstruction. As buildings disappeared to explosives, reconstruction began within their charred and still-warm foundations, so that Wright structures seesawed up and down, rising vertiginously above us before coming apart in obliterating light. The Project saw this balance between creation and destruction, of completion and eradication, as a better model for total artistic vision. If new truths were revealed to us as we entered the Wright buildings, ascended their many levels, and explored their rooms, the debris they became untaught us, revealed the new truths as tenuous as layers of concrete, iron, and wood. A work of art was inadequate if it could not be refuted by destruction. If, as art lifted us with its dreams of transcendence, it could not be removed from beneath, like a carnival platform dropping into a water barrel because a bright red ball has struck a tin bull's-eye, the art was disregarded.
The third and fourth Project limbs became inextricable from one another, and to this day Project terrorists and Project builders move among one another, exchanging responsibilities, so that a dynamite bundle will be switched for a hammer and drooping tool belt, a building schematic replaced for a diagram detailing detonation. Terrorists break for lunch beside builders, chewing their white sandwich triangles so that it is inscrutable who is who, what is what, until a building reaching into the air begins to look like a chaotic explosion, and a disintegrating one resembles a careful design.
The announcement of a third Wright Machine reverberated excitement through members. The promise of a new Wright Machine meant progress, advancement, evolution to something greater. The mechanics of the first two Machines were abandoned, and the third Machine was revealed as an amber fluid in a hypodermic syringe, injected into the shoulder. Tiny calculus machines swarmed the blood and bridged the synapses of the brain, building a microscopic and internal architecture. The results were staggering in their scope: for the first time the Machine worked with everyone, ten billion questions and answers given simultaneously, a mass dream dreamt by the world simultaneously. The third Machine let the Project expand exponentially; ten billion new buildings were dreamt every day (as well their explosive refutations). The third Machine revealed ever more implausible architectures plied apart from place and time, buildings on undiscovered planets left to cry out at alien landscapes colored indigo, viridescent, and cochineal; structures to be completed thousands of years ago in star systems swiped away by supernova; whole cities constructed in the mind and kept standing by the focus of thinkerers, Project members who conceive the concrete and iron supports, the cookie-cutter shapes of foundations, the trillion divots furrowed into the faces of screws and bolts, the footstep sounds made on room-length rugs with art nouveau flowers (bloomed in the minds of still more thinkerers). The destructions of these inchoate buildings were also thought over in total detail, from the splinter-shapes made in wood shattered apart to the din of concrete, glass, furniture, brick, light fixtures (too, the dangling bulbed switches attached to the light fixtures), every material thing sent flying apart, together, and incinerating, as well the bulging shapes articulated in the rising smoke, dissolved by winds blown in the minds of still more thinkerers.
The increase in Project activity possible with the third Wright Machine concealed a growing point of contention: Project progress did not introduce simplicity so much as complexity, that as we progressed we seemed to move further from completion. It struck members that there would be no end to the architectures and their demolitions teased by the third Machine. The completion of one building augured the existence of a zillion incomplete buildings, all waiting to be dreamt. Listlessness plagued these members, the same people who shook inconsolably when told the universe did not have an end and that there were other endless universes, infinites shuffled into other infinites, and they spoke of futility, of impotence, of the billions of hollow people searching a hollow existence for something to fill them. Despairing, they instituted the Project's fifth limb, calling for the abandonment of further designs and a return to life before the Project. These members began work on miniature and personal visions, of lives devoted to grocery lists penciled on receipt backs, the subtleties of numismatics, gardening, skillfulness in tennis balls served across nets, and personal works of art. Thus the Project expanded beyond its aim of achieving a singular, total vision—Wright's vision—to encompass the achievements of everyone else. Consider: you reading this are a Project member; your children's children will be members; their children's children will be members. To have existed, to exist, and to probably exist, is to be welcomed into the Project, to be part of the greatest human endeavor ever attempted. We understand Project membership as a very large number; it is the final number counted (by Who? What?) at our extinction.
Two hundred years after its inception, the Project continues to evolve, moving beyond this planet. The completion of a diaphanous city made of ignited hydrogen, on a gaseous giant revolving around a star five times the size of our own, confirmed solidity, that foundation for ancient architecture, had been conquered. We move forward into shapeless architectures. We herald the end of form. And with the achievement of time dynamos, we halve time like a grapefruit, opening jeweled places not available to us in this now, savoring possibility's acid-sweetness, of finding long-gone and not-yet places to expand Wright's vision. There is talk of the universes touching this one, and of others theorizing my existence (do we exist only in the other's writing? You reading this: are you the author or the authored?), members of a Project as vastly interested as our own. We will one day pierce into these universes like needles through fabric, and we will have to start in these new places everything we have finished here, everything we wait to do.
The prophecy of a Final Wright Machine torments the Project; we tremble at the mention of the Machine that will unite the five Project limbs meaningfully and reveal the end of Wright's vision, likened to a door opening into a room blanched by light. So we are moved by an image of stepping through, of closing doors behind us, of entering new rooms. But the Project has anticipated limitless doors and blanched waiting rooms beyond this one. And it is possible, even likely, that the Project, including its five limbs, is one limb of a greater Project we cannot understand. We must concede there could be limits to our understanding, that our understanding could be fenced-in, and that innumerable things could teem beyond it like the mysterious yards and homes of our neighbors in the late summer light, with clipped grass we will never step across, rust-capped grills making prison bar-charred burgers we will never eat, Avon-red doors we will never open, couches we will never sit in, with waiting-to-shimmer quarters hidden beneath cushions we will never flip, daughters and sons we will never love, listening to spinning records in rooms above us we will never enter. We must concede our limits.
Finally, the Project has shown us the most important truth, a truth we continue to refine. This is the truth that we are moving toward something, an indefinite object, a chimera roiling on the horizon, and that the movement is difficult, long, and tinged with the bitterness that we will not reach it, nor the people who come after us, nor the people after them, that we enlist a chain of failed pilgrims who will never arrive at their sacred place, but that we will be moving toward it all the same, always getting closer.
This piece grew from a visit to the Guggenheim's Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition. Wright's many unbuilt diagrams struck me as poignant, madcap. I knew I had my subject when I discovered Wright wore capes of his own design.