Frank Lloyd Wright’s Landscapes

While George Booth may have had carved “Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art” above the fireplace in his library, I’m not sure anyone adored nature as much as the inimitable Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his organic architecture, his buildings are sited to be viewed as one with nature. Wright went so far as to say “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.

In the Fall of 1941, Richard Raseman (the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary from 1932 to 1943) traveled to Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. In beautiful photographs he captured the balance Wright achieved between the desert landscape and architecture. In Raseman’s many photographs, foregrounds of cacti and sand with backdrops of mountains and sky form a nest for the rambling estate. Water also plays a part in these compositions, as it often did in Wright’s work.

raseman002

View of Taliesin West, Fall 1941. Richard P. Raseman, Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

No Wright project is as associated with water as the Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater“, of 1936 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Last week, I had the honor to meet with the head Horticulturalist from Fallingwater, Ann Talarek. She was in town on the invitation of our friends at Lawrence Technological University, to speak to architecture students there and assist in ideas for the historic landscape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House, owned by LTU. (A mere mile north of Cranbrook’s Woodward Avenue entrance, the Affleck House was completed in 1941 and Affleck’s son, Gregor Affleck, studied Painting, Design and Modeling at Cranbrook from 1944-45.)

Affleck House

View of Affleck House, c. 1945. Harvy Croze, Cranbrook Staff Photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

More than most historic house museums, for a Wright project the intimate association between site and structure means that maintaining the landscape is just as important as maintaining the building. When working on the landscape, you have to study both historic images and what you can see on the ground today. Ann let us know that one of the most important things you can do with a Wright landscape is to edit: “Keep the view sheds Wright would have been working with, editing out trees that may be pretty but block important views. It may be counter intuitive, but add by reducing.”

Today, the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research serves as the educational steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950 Smith House, just a mile west of our campus. Ann also visited the Smith House, where she was impressed (as most visitors are) by the majestic canopy of oak trees surrounding the house and the dappled light they produce. Whereas the Affleck House has lost some of its view sheds, the Smith House still retains its open views toward the pond dredged by Melvyn Maxwell Smith. She also noted how architectural the landscape was: its perfectly placed pond, trees, and the arc of shrubs along the western end of the house.

Smith House with Farmland

Smith House, c. 1952. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

What’s impressive about the Smith House is the stuff inside: the fine and decorative art collection of things acquired and displayed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, much of it from Cranbrook Academy alumni. After meeting with Ann and then looking through family photo albums of the house’s landscape, I realized that the grounds too were a project of the Smiths: he was constantly adding, cutting back, and reshaping the landscape. It’s most famous iteration may be an impromptu plan developed by the landscape architecture celebrity Thomas Church (for that story, sign up for a Smith House Tour!), yet like any site, the landscape has changed over the years.

Smith House later

Smith House, c. 1975, with landscape attributed to Thomas Church. Courtesy of Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith Family Albums.

Ann talked at the Affleck House about how they might eliminate certain invasive species (as she has done at Fallingwater) or how trees might be cut back. At Smith House, she helpfully noted some trees nearing the end of life, but suggested the historic photographs be studied to figure out what the Smith’s wanted. “Unlike Fallingwater or the Affleck House, the Smith House is ultimately suburban. What we now call invasive species would have been considered fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, and in a place as personal as the Smith House, you have to consider what Mr. Smith would have done as much as what Wright would have planned.” It’s an interesting idea. I think the most important goal is to make the architectural, landscape, and personal stories of the Smith House dynamic, relevant, and beautiful for visitors. That, and, as Ann said, “Don’t let anyone plant anything that’s going to overrun Bloomfield Hills.”

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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