Frank Lloyd Wright assumed that we would be kind to each other

We enjoyed a visit from old friends yesterday evening. Angela’s childhood friend Amy and Amy’s sister Julie toured the Elizabeth Murphy House for the first time. Amy and Angela were classmates in high school. Julie is a self-described Wright-o-phile who has toured many public sites and vacationed to see Usonian homes, is herself trained in design, and is curious and well-informed on architectural history. For example, she had facts on the enigmatic and misunderstood Russell Barr Williamson on the tip of her tongue. She especially appreciates Williamson’s later Mid-Century Modern contributions, which are ample. We had a great time.

After Amy and Julie left, Angela and I reflected on what a privilege it is to share the key elements of Wright’s simple Elizabeth Murphy House with visitors. Of course, on every tour we highlight the mistakes of the American System-Built project, like the Pebble-Dash stucco and now-flashed upward-canted leaky window headers. But more and more, we find ourselves focusing on the elements that assume that people come from a place of kindness. For example, we always point out the Place of Greeting (our name, not his)- a key feature in this house – that directs visitors and hosts to stand at the very center while saying hello.

Think about that. Imagine that you are inside when someone rings the bell. Instead of peeking through a teensy hole in the door or just cracking the door open (to the chain) to check who is there, you open the door wide, turn, and you and your guest walk single file down a compressed path, and then you pause where the path releases into the social space, then say hello, shake hands and take their coat to hang it in a nearby closet. It is only another 10 steps to sit on the couch in front of the mantle and start your conversation. Most greetings in most homes happen at the outside edge of the space. Greetings in the Elizabeth Murphy house happen at the center of the home.

Through elements like the Place of Greeting, we can see that Wright assumed that working-class people – the people with modest means who would live in his ASBH designs – were inherently kind, trusting and trustworthy. But he wasn’t limiting his thinking to the occupants; Wright also assumed that visitors to these spaces – neighbors, delivery-persons and newcomers would be equally kind, inspired perhaps, during their trip along a Path of Discovery on the way to that Place.

Wright’s ASBH Model A203 (Designed in the years 1915-16) starts from a place of optimism and opportunity and intentionally works toward long-lasting friendships. This was a bold and daring statement, just a year or two after his love Mamah Borthwick was murdered in the 1914 Taliesin fire. It has been written that Wright began to design for defense after the catastrophe and while that may be true, we see that for common folk like us, he also doubled down on designing to build social capital.

This, we are learning, is what it means to democratize architecture. Art is for everyone. Everyone deserves a chance. Art engages and changes. And every time friends like Amy and Julie visit, we are reminded that the work is ongoing and worth doing.

About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House is a 103 year-old American System-Built Home and the protagonist in the book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House.” (What readers are saying.)

Finally, if you missed our recent virtual tour, you can replay it here and see the Compression and Release and Place of Greeting for yourself. This link should take you to minute 28:38, when the tour begins.

Image used with permission: American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives: architectural drawings, ca. 1885–1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) 1506.056

7 thoughts on “Frank Lloyd Wright assumed that we would be kind to each other

  1. As far as I know, Mr Wright did not utter or pen the phrases “compression and release” or “prospect and refuge” or “path of discovery”; each of these encapsulations could be traced to some source post-Wright, usefully if sometimes cloyingly employed as shorthand to convey a quality or effect found repeatedly in Wright’s domestic work. (“Sense of shelter” is indeed found in the Autobiography, it should be noted.)

    Now we have a new one: “Place of Greeting.” Before this too enters the Wrightian lexicon and becomes a fixture, perhaps you could remind the reader how and from whence this phrase arrived to grace (at least) your bit of Wright’s domestic Eden ?

    1. Stephen, I am quite clear in the book that the expression Place of Greeting is our own creation… something springing from the experience of living in the space. I don’t credit Wright with it nor suggest that it was something he said. And I’ve tightened the language in this post to be clearer. Good?

  2. Thank, Nick, that’s what I hoped to hear. (And the dialog here inspires me to go and look for the earliest appearance of the other phrases I mentioned !) Now I hope your guests aren’t taken aback when you decline to embrace them until they arrive at the designated spot !

    I’m sure others are as thrilled as I am to be taken into and through your home, its every feature in turn being examined and plumbed for possible meanings and rewards. Until I can see it for myself, I am quite content to have the Elizabeth Murphy House described for me by its very perceptive and welcoming stewards . . .

  3. I’m a Wrightchatter and hooked up to this blog from there. Ritchings is a great contributor and I pay attention to anything he says. I think Nick is on to something here, but not sure how to talk about it yet. One thing that raises a cautionary flag for me, off the bat, is the term “inherent kindness” associated with the working class – but want to think more about before going further. Yet Nick’s piece seems to associate the conscious direction of movement designed by Wright in the house explicitly with some sense of a cultural/social aspiration. This falls into a category that Wright and Wright scholars talk about as architecture having the ability to improve the human condition – the moral imperative in the architecture of Wright, but I need to review some of this writing before going further.

    The ASBH work is something I know next to nothing about. This blog has sparked me to change that. It is impressive, still in 2021, what Wright does inside a tiny rectangle of a house. Why he concerned himself with something so modest is important. The last project in the Monographs goes to this issue as well.

    Much appreciate your labors Nick and hope with Ritchings we can advance the conversation.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I’m glad to have the vocabulary used by architects to “improve the human condition.” Very helpful. And I must add that our suggestion of an assumption of kindness is less rooted in any starry-eyed view of one man’s genius and more in how we see guests behaving the space, and the way it forces us to behave with guests. A sense of welcome and gratitude is palpable every time.

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