The docent lead tour of the Darwin D Martin House complex, changed my opinion of Frank Lloyd Wright as the commonly presented arrogant architect, to a deeply interesting character, who was a masterful designer of space. In this construction of a seemingly ordinary residence, Wright built a living 3D symbol of Darwin's life. Wright's gift is to be able to create sacred space outside the normal confines of a church, where spirit and 'right' living, with or with out the "W", are as equally important, as the structure itself.
Wright's genius ability was not only to transform wood and stone into a buildings that no one had ever imagined before, but also to his deeply grasping his clients personal/spiritual needs. The easy architectural needs like the physical requirements of a home; number of bedrooms, size of dining room, office space, gardens, furnishing, garages, etc to Wright's masterful understanding of the spiritual needs of his client, that rare gift of creating volumes, which nonverbally convey a sense of awe and reverence, afford beauty and function, exude calm and steadfastness. Gone are the frilly gingerbread of Victorian homes, big rambling structures, that have their own unique "busy" beauty, instead long low homes anchored to the earth, hearths that fill living rooms and a spareness of chattel so as not to clutter the mind with worldly distractions.
Darwin Martin's mother died when he was about nine. Like all good fathers of the time, wanting a mother for his children, Darwin's father remarries. However the new wife/mother isn't fond of the "other" children and soon Darwin and his siblings are divvied up among other relatives. Feelings of abandonment and profound loss, mark young Darwin. The young boy who starts selling soap door to door, soon finds acceptance and an extended family at the Larking Soap company. So when he meets and marries Isobel, Darwin wants to create the home for his family that he did not have. Enter Frank Lloyd Wright.
Like many of Wright's projects, this one to started going over budget. The Martin family aware of their privileged position, were not wanting to flaunt it, and so letters were sent to Wright about modifying the enterprise to something more humble.Which of Wright's houses didn't go over budget? Money was not to factor into his work. Wright would argue it is for the sake of the building, that poor design and lack of balance/symmetry would not be acceptable architecturally and that financial convenience should not dictate to the needs of architecture. Basically suck it up. Originally the pergola and green house were features that were going to be abandoned, especially as the construction costs kept increasing.
Isobel wasn't fond of the Buffalo house. She wrote to Wright skillfully trying to orchestrate more natural light for her failing eyesight. I suspect there were many other womanly shortcomings, including closet space, that she wished Wright would improve. From what I understand Wright never corresponded to her personally about these issues directly, until the Graycliff commission, always replying to Darwin instead.
Riotous applause should be given to thank the trustees of the Martin Complex for taking on the massive undertaking of purchasing the land that the pergola and green house stand. It involved the removal of a perfectly good building, before even considering the building the reconstruction. And bravo to Wright who skillfully insisted that the Martin's continue with the project in it's entirely, because if he did not succeed, we would be missing some extraordinary insight into his brilliance…
I suspect that one of the reasons Darwin had such a good relationship with Wright was because of the pergola/greenhouse and what it offered him spiritually, because in reality who needs an 180 foot covered walkway to a little green house?
So, here's the metaphor, as I experienced it. My hope is that everyone who reads this and goes to the Martin house can be open to the same. Listen carefully and let your eyes, see and your heart, feel what Wright is creating, as a felt sense experience. Hear the story and follow it in how the architecture has been created to tell it, even without the docent's words. It's not about the taking of notes and remembering every little detail. His gift was architecture that contained the human experience, both physically and spiritually. Then, when you walk the pergola, you too can see Wright as the magician, and hopefully achieve the sense of sacred space that he has created in this residence.
As you enter the house through the front door, with the magnificent wisteria tiled fireplace to the right and staircase to the left, this little foyer holds you, hushes the sounds of the street creating just the slightest anticipation, as you acquaint yourself with the rest of the surroundings. The only immediate natural light is coming from straight in front of you. This is the doorway to the pergola and in the distance the white statue of Nike. But the statue is in the distance, small and almost unattainable.
Turning significantly to the left, the living room with a massive hearth, the passion and heart of the home. A side step into Darwin's home office, with all the clever book cases, indirect lighting and separate entry. Through a servants doorway, the kitchen, completely unlike how it was, waiting for the funds to be refurbished. Then a climb upstairs, proceeding thorough the home's living space after living space. The use of the repetitive designed windows, low ceilings, wood trim features, public/guest areas and totally private ones leave you feeling invited and intimate with the home and its original owners. As you circle back into the foyer the only door left is the door to the pergola.
In leaving the mundane, that what was the family that Darwin had the ability to create for himself, with Isobel, in the earthly plane; the cool air created by the covered pergola greets you with a refreshing caress. Just having the door and the house behind you, creates a new sense of freedom. Every delicious step closer to the green house has it's own vista seemingly above the garden and immediate landscape. Every step enlarges the image of the Goddess, as you move forward. Just before entry into the green house, a few steps down, so what felt like floating through an ethereal plane is transformed to one of reverence, as one almost has to bow through the door frame.
What envelops you now, is the lusciousness of the greenery, the warm humid air and the close wet quarters of the foliage gently pressing in to greet you, creating the impression of arriving in the Garden. As you look ahead, thinking the luminous figure should be quite close now, Nike is surprisingly divided. But how is this? Her torso is cut in half. Wright's use of wood trim floating about the room for lighting, and for the illusion of adding height by dividing the wall, is crossing in front of Nike, slicing her in half, dismembering her, as symbolically as Darwin was separated from his mother.
It is only as you move closer, to the intersection aisle, like a transept of a church, where instead of the alter, do you see Nike in her full uninterrupted glory. Wright's hanging wood trim creates a perfect square above you with lighting in each corner. It is the place of transformation, the holy of holies with Nike in her resplendent glory, what a moment of Victory! It is only by moving toward what is incomplete in us, do we find the strength to change. Building this home and creating a new family with Isobel was Darwin's victory over his past. Wright created the entire story in architecture.
I can only imagine that Darwin wept when he first experienced this journey to Victory. Whether fully aware of what Wright had created for him, in his everyday living environment, I find it very interesting that Darwin assisted in the garden outside the house, until it was too much for him to tend to alone. I also find it amusing that Isobel wasn't fond of the house, claiming it too dark for her failing eyesight. I would venture that she felt the archetypal Mother energy in the earthly Garden of Eden, that Wright created for her husband just down the hall, was just something she could not appreciate - the other 'woman'.
Wright ended up building Graycliff for Isobel, with a window in every room, including the bathroom with its opening in the stonework of the chimney. Isobel preferred this residence over the Buffalo address, living here almost until her death.
Wright's genius was in creating what was deeply needed for the client. And sometimes that meant two homes, for those who could afford it. The Martin House for Darwin and Graycliff for Isobel. The Barton House was a social step down from the elaborateness of the Martin House's wealth, status and social position and with good fortune, the gardeners cottage was made available to the complex, so a visitor can see how the supposed working class, lived. The beauty in Wright's architecture and his philosophy was that everyone deserved functional and beautiful accommodation. Many details are carried through all three buildings, only changing the quality of materials rather than creating a hierarchy of designed space for those who have verses those who have not.
Wright's architectural understanding of space from a simple home to a place of worship transcended the basic concept of shelter, his brilliance often seen as arrogance, instinctively included what we as humans needed spiritually, often arguing that it was for the sake of the architecture, rather than for any other purpose. How clever he was.
Visiting a Wright house is very much a religious experience. And I would say equally stands along with any of the churches and cathedrals that did make it to the AGG tour list. Wright's use of stained glass may not have been figurative nor heavily painted, but it integrated into the architecture, working with it to create awe and reverence, permitting light and creating privacy, sometimes even better than a church plonking in a Tiffany window, for the sake of having a Tiffany. So do go and explore Wright's kind of natural and spiritually charged environments.