I grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house--or it would have been an official one if he'd had lived a little longer. In a few tours that were given before the house was knocked down last year, people asked me what was it like growing up in an "organic architecture" home. I've thought about it a lot since then because my brothers and I didn't think of the house as art--it was just a house. Still, perhaps it has had influence on me in my own artistry as a novelist.
When my mother and stepfather called on Wright in the late fifties, FLW put them on a list for possible designs, but then FLW died in April, 1959. His wife, Olga, said the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation could follow through. Technically, it was Wright's Fellowship that took over. My mother selected Wright's chief draftsman, John Howe, to design a Usonian home for us. It was built in the early sixties.
My mother, who passed away last November--her birthday was yesterday--never told me until late in her life that she'd been an art major at Pembroke College, the female side of Brown University. I knew her as a businesswoman. She'd been one of the first women to take classes from the Harvard Business School in the early fifties. Women couldn't get MBAs then, but she earned a special certificate through Radcliffe, and in the early sixties began a long career as one of the first female executives in Minneapolis, unconsciously raising her four sons as feminists.
I later learned she'd written an undergraduate thesis on Frank Lloyd Wright, who she revered. In the late fifties, she decided to sell her Lake Minnetonka home for something Wright. John Howe fulfilled her dream. Howe, long known as "the pencil in Wright's hand," actually did a lot of the design work on Wright's later works, such as the Marin County Civic Center. He certainly took on Wright's goal of working with the setting. All of Howe's architecture, like Wright's, comes from first-hand experience of feeling where the house or building should go.
While some people call what Wright and Howe did as the Prairie School of Architecture, incorporating a lot of horizontal lines, overhanging eves, flat roofs, and windows grouped in horizontal bands, Wright called what he did "organic architecture." Wikipedia defines its primary tenet as "a structure should look as if it naturally grew from the site. Wright also felt that a horizontal orientation was a distinctly American design motif, in that the younger country had much more open, undeveloped land than found in most older, urbanized European nations."
Wright himself said, "I never design a building before I've seen the site and met the people who will be using it." One of his more famous quotes is, "No house should ever be on a hill, or on anything. It should be of the hill. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other."
That is my parents' house. It was nestled near the top of a small hill, with more of the hill rising above it. Our house had lots of light, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room and dining room, which was a radical idea for Minnesota, thanks to winters that reached beyond twenty below.
Thankfully, Thermopanes had been invented by the time the house was built, and the heat rose from the floor. There was nothing more amazing than awaking to the first snow of the year, and the small valley rose in a white blanket to the foot of the windows. We'd watch snows swirl and pound during blizzards as we sat around a roaring fireplace that an adult could stand in. The drama outside was our personal Cinerama.
In the mid-thirties, when the country was in the Great Depression, Wright created a type of home he called "Usonian," which were homes that could be made inexpensively. Typically, they were houses built on slabs with low roofs and open living areas. They had no basements or attics. My mother wanted a basement, though, and got one, which also had a bomb shelter. Hey, this was the sixties, and everyone was worried about the Soviet Union, even in Minnesota.
I came to know the house intimately because, to save on costs, my parents had none of the wood finished. I as the oldest at eleven was taught how to sand, stain, and polyurethane. Another brother later joined me. The house was all about built-ins. Built-in floor-to-chest cupboards edged the red polished concrete hallway that ran the length of the house. Closets and built-in bookshelves were in all four bedrooms. In short, most of the inside was wood, and all received the same medium walnut color. Maybe that's where I received my work ethic.
Some of what drove Frank Lloyd Wright seems to drive me. He said, "I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." I've known I can be obsessive, writing my latest novel Love At Absolute Zero, six times over six years, but I knew the feel of what I wanted-the humor, the drama-and it took that many rewrites until I was there.
Wright also said, "The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen." That's my book. God knows if I can do it again--I'm on draft three of my first mystery--but this is just the way I work.
Fellow novelist Janet Fitch, who was a colleague when I taught at USC, recently reviewed the Patti Smith autobiography, Just Kids, and wrote about being an artist. Janet said, "Patti Smith has always been my idea of an artist--that an artist is different from an intellectual. The artist's way of being in the world is not about mincing and dicing experience, but about allowing oneself to resonate with events, to be played by the texture of life, and seeing what one is naturally drawn to, and how that stimulates an artistic reaction."
Fitch and Wright seemed to understand artistry is extemporaneous, that you have to trust in your instinct to react to a setting--in a novel or in the world--and if you embrace that, you'll come up with the right thing. As the impresario character in Shakespeare in Love said about theatre, "Sometimes the magic works."
The house was bashed down before my mother died, though none of us told her about it. The new owners wanted a large, towering home, gothic. Still, the Usonian house hasn't left. It's inside me. Perhaps growing up with an organically designed home taught me to design my own stories organically. It's an always-interesting journey.
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