THE NEW WEST: Wright at 150

By on June 21, 2017

A local place-based builder reflects.

Frank Lloyd Wright

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Who in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is advancing extraordinary architecture? What does their work, and the people dwelling inside of it, say about human values? These are questions likely to provoke spirited discussions.

Earlier this year The Saturday Evening Post asked me to pen a cover story on the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright came into the world on June 8, 1867, and died in 1959. He is, of course, widely regarded as the most consequential American architect of the 20th century.

My assignment, which included reading several tomes, including Wright’s own autobiography, provided a ripe opportunity to also interview a cross-section of people involved with American architecture.

One of them was Dr. Lori Ryker who, besides being a talented designer and fine artist, has taught architecture at several universities and is fast gaining a name for herself as a national thought-leader in “place-based” commercial and residential construction.

In the Greater Yellowstone region, particularly around Jackson Hole, Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, Ryker is best known for founding The Artemis Institute (artemisinstitute.org). Its hallmark, Remote Studio, immerses students in pastoral and wild landscapes, then asks them to ponder how inserting a structure might enhance or detract from a given setting.

Ryker became fascinated by Wright as a teenager when she visited some of his early works in Chicago and later when she toured Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, the desert studio that served as Wright’s winter retreat. It, in turn, had been inspired by his famous personal sanctum, Taliesin, in his native Wisconsin.

Wright is most acclaimed for his organic architectural philosophy. From his revolutionary ideals reflected in Prairie Style homes to his masterpieces Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and his grand finale, the Guggenheim Museum, in New York City, he was a brilliant creative visionary and yet, in so many ways, a controversial deeply-flawed character.

“Wright gave us the modern architectural language of ‘fitting’ and ‘belonging’ to nature and the critical understanding of how we generate unique responses to the place we live— not only aesthetically but as a broad cultural expression,” Ryker explained.

“His real gift was in calling out the need to pay attention to the places where architecture is located, to understand the qualities of the landscape, even urban environments, and work with those as a continuity of place through architecture, rather than as statements standing in stark aesthetic contrast.”

There is no doubt in her mind that Wright’s design work paralleled ideals advanced by naturalists of his era: Walt Whitman, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to name a few.

By conscious intent, Wright drafted blueprints that magnified magic moments drawn from natural elements. “Water, light, earth, sky, color, change in season is really what his architecture is about. The mistake is to experience his architecture merely as objects unto themselves,” Ryker says. “The real value of his architecture is the experience, to witness the architecture fade into the background while the natural world comes forward, to spend time immersed in nature’s exuberance, to treat architecture as a temple for experiencing the natural world.”

Ryker ticked off a list of noteworthy architectural firms across the country that practice Wright’s ideals, including Carney, Logan, Burke, the Jackson Hole firm behind the award-winning meditative “chapel” at the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton National Park.

Would Wright be impressed?  Ryker thinks he would, though he was notorious for finding fault in the work of his competitors.

“Wright pushed against the ‘machine age’ of minimalism in his architectural propositions to argue for a sense of beauty in the world that was being lost every day as society and culture became more and more mechanized,” she said. “However, it’s not that Wright was a Luddite. He just didn’t think these shifts in engineering and mechanization were ends in themselves, but a means to discovering a voice that was ultimately poetic.”

Unfortunately, she noted, Wright’s fervent belief that architecture respond to and draw from nature, place and landscape is fading as architects struggle to respond to the issues of sustainability, energy use and resiliency.

“Architecture is becoming more hi-tech, highly-produced and mechanical in an attempt to care for the world,” she said. “The loss of poetry in design will, over time, prove to be a huge loss to our humanity.”

Wright the engineer, she said, never lost sight of the need for true art in architecture. “Art is necessary to make sense of the world—science alone cannot inspire empathy and transformation,” she says.  “Poetics help us recognize what will be lost if we don’t pay attention. Architecture should aspire to both: the technological innovations to directly address the stress on the planet, while reaching for poetic expression and truth through the experience of being in a special place.” PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned Jackson Hole photographer Tom Mangelsen. Autographed copies only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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