Thursday, July 6, 2017

Staying in a house with the Wright stuff...

My wife is a really hard person for whom to buy gifts. She always says she doesn't need anything, and I already help her pick out clothing, as she says I'm a pretty good judge of what looks best on her. She never likes a big fuss made for her birthday, although since she was born on July 4, a big fuss is pretty much built into the scheme of things. This year was a little different.

We are both interested in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I had read a lot about him when I was much younger, and then, early in our married life, we visited Fallingwater. On that same tour, we learned of another local Frank Lloyd Wright home that had just opened to tours--Kentuck Knob--and we toured it, too. SO, when I stumbled across a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that could be rented for a couple of nights, I jumped.

For a bit less than a small fortune, we spent two nights and three days in the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby, Ohio. Mr. Wright designed one of his "Usonian" homes (smaller and for "common folk") for Penfield, a 6'8" portrait painter. Wright had never designed a home for such a tall man, and Wright's homes tend to have low ceilings to accentuate the wider horizontal lines he designed around. So, he kind of went crazy with the Penfield house, putting a 20 foot ceiling in the living room area with an entire wall of glass looking out onto the 29-plus acres of woods behind the home. While the whole Penfield house is only about 1800 square feet, it is long and "tall," just like Mr. Penfield. It has many Wright trademarks including a suspended staircase to the second floor, hot water heat in the floors, lots of windows, and skinny doors. Wright designed small kitchen areas, as they were not meant to be "lived in." Being that the Penfield house is a Usonian home, it has a carport instead of a garage. And, of course, Mr. Wright designed all of the furniture in the house. It fits in wondrously, gives it that famous Frank Lloyd Wright "look," and is some of the most uncomfortable stuff I've sat on in a long time. Still, the aesthetics are amazing.

And just outside the entrance is the famous Frank Lloyd Wright Cherokee Red signature tile:

I have to say that staying in the Penfield House was a magical experience. If you have any penchant for arguably the most famous American architect, just sitting there and taking in his other-worldly use of space, color, form, and lighting is almost a religious moment. Like the music of Bach or Mozart, Wright's designs lead one to believe he was a true muse, like these composers. One afternoon, I sat on one of those uncomfortable chairs to page through a Weintraub coffee table book entitled "The Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright." As I opened the massive volume to the opening two-page flyleaf, I was looking at Weintraub's photo of the exact view before me! Coincidentally, I was seated about where the photographer must have set his camera to take the photo of the magnificent living room in the Penfield House. Here's what I saw:

Dara and I had a great time just drinking in this place and the genius behind it. The inspiration it brought will be with us for a long time. Here are a few things I observed in our stay:

1. Mr. Wright designed art. He was a visionary who really didn't care what others thought of his work, including his clients. Generally, clients were his "patrons" who made his art possible. He listened to their desires and needs, but then designed from a vision that was much larger than both. And in the process designed something that is timeless. That sounds like a wonderful model of effective leadership to me. As a pastor, I hope and pray that my inspiration is a combination of my vision, God's vision, and the synergy with my people and their hopes and dreams. However, if I only "design" the church to meet the needs and desires of the people I serve, we are all being cheated. 

2. Much needs to be said for inspiration. While someone has said that inspiration is two-thirds perspiration, sometimes inspiration takes wings on its own, and one has to catch the "kairos" moment and go for it. Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater in three hours. THREE HOURS, and it is considered the most significant modern period home in the world.

3. Mr. Wright designed for the context in which the home would be built. Context was everything. This also made each of his homes unique. As a theologian and preacher, I applied this to interpreting scripture. Scripture comes "alive" when its two contexts are considered: what did it mean when it was first written, and what does in mean now in this time and place. Even as is the case with Wright's architecture, awareness and use of context of the then and now makes scripture come to life and gives it a unique timelessness. A hundred years from now, people will still be marveling at Wright's designs. The same is said for the Living Word of God.

4. Mr. Wright did not "obey" many of the conventions of the architecture of his day. He stretched the limits of the materials available at the time, sometimes to the breaking point. He used different forms than others were using, and looked at the world through very different "glasses" than those who were very happy conforming to the existing "laws" and mores of his field. Maybe it is this "Wrightian" method that can bring the Christian Church back to life? Or at least the United Methodist branch of it? 

5. Always sign your work. That bright red tile is unmistakably Frank Lloyd Wright. We live in an age when many are reluctant to own--let alone sign--their vision and work, hoping then to place the blame on someone or something else should it be a bust. We are in a time when a bold, clear vision is needed, and no "design" for it should be rejected out of hand.

6. If I ever get a chance to stay again in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, I will jump, again, at the chance. I may--just may--sneak in my own comfy chair, though.

What's Next?

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