Once a month or so Marie and I have dinner with a group of old friends, all of whom happen to be particularly interested in theater and other creative arts. The subject of architecture in general and Frank Lloyd Wright in particular popped up during one such recent gathering over Indian food. Our friends burbled enthusiastically about their past visits to various Wright buildings and how beautiful they are.
I got into trouble when one friend mentioned in an admiring tone that repairs to Wright’s buildings often involve meticulously dismantling structures and restoring them when the repair is completed. The others nodded approvingly, but I thumped my fist on the table (gently so as not to splatter my curried chicken, but firmly enough to get their attention) and said “Time Out!!”
“These buildings are notorious for needing constant repair that wouldn’t be necessary if artistic design had only been coupled with sensible construction. It was old F.L. himself who replied to a client’s complaint that the roof leaked with the famous answer ‘Of course it leaks. It’s a roof.’
“I’ve been spending time this week repairing something on a neighbor’s house that had already been fixed unsuccessfully twice before. The repairs looked great, but the ceiling below leaked because the repairs didn’t start by solving the underlying problem.
“Art is wonderful, and our distant ancestors created art on the walls of their caves. Modern buildings need to be beautiful too because people won’t take care of them if they’re not. But we need buildings to protect us (and themselves) from the elements. If they don’t do that they don’t work. First things first, please.”
My friends around the table looked at me as if I were beating my cat.
The Beatles had it right (“We all live in a geodesic dome”). Remember: we need to manage the elements, not invite them in for a cold one and a bowl of chips.
The tens of thousands of American Foursquare homes that are found all across the country can be beautiful as well, and they can do so without screwy dormers and what-have-you. So can the ranch houses and the cape cods. And many of them need remodeling, retrofit building performance improvements, and repairs required not because of their compromises of durability for the sake of art but because they’re old. Anybody out there doing that sort of work?