Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Curiosity: Frank Lloyd Wright's Son and Los Angeles Cathedral

Some time ago on The New Liturgical Movement, we covered two previous attempts to construct a new Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, as well as an unexecuted design for an Episcopal cathedral by Bertram Goodhue. The first (1904) would have been a handsome Mexican baroque confection sitting on Ninth Street, while the second (1945), a rather generic exercise in Spanish Gothic, was intended for a site on Wiltshire. A third proposal was undertaken in 1931 by Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright's eldest son, and covered in the 1976 book Unbuilt America by Alison Sky and Michelle Stone. The death of the diocesan bishop apparently ended the scheme. (It is possible this may have been a proposal for the Episcopal, not the Catholic diocese; the writeup in the book is unclear, though it also refers to features that imply a Catholic client. Neither diocese appears to have had a bishop die or retire at any point between 1928 and 1947, oddly.)

When discussing the work of Lloyd Wright, it is difficult to avoid the gigantic figure of his father, especially considering to a casual glance, it is difficult to discern any significant stylistic difference between his work and that of his father's. Indeed, he worked very closely with Wright senior on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and helped develop the textile-block system so strikingly incorporated in Wright senior's Mesoamerican-inspired California houses.

Is the Wrightian style suitable for Catholic sacred architecture? Wright senior's principal ecclesiastical designs were for Unitarian congregations, and the architect's anti-hierarchical, humanistic beliefs produced an architectural style quite suitable to that denomination. These are precisely the attributes one does not want in a Catholic church. Yet it has to be conceded that Wright is one of the few more explicitly modernistic architects whose work has a warmth and something of a human appeal to it; he is the one twentieth-century architect the man in the street actually remembers. His work cannot be accepted uncritically by a classicist such as myself, but there is nonetheless much to admire and learn from there if one is careful. From an ecclesiastical perspective, though, some of Wright's more affected stylistic tics--the muted colors, the low ceilings, the lack of extensive figural ornaments--must be overcome or rejected to be really successful in a Catholic setting. Thus, it is intriguing to see Wright's son tackling the problem for a fully-fledged cathedral, and in a way that is not without its finer points.

Wright junior developed the design in tandem with the sculptress Margaret Brunswig Staude, later the guiding intelligence behind the Catholic chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, one of the few purely modernistic ecclesiastical structures which succeeds at an emotional and liturgical level, perhaps in part due to its clever incorporation into the landscape. As with Sedona, Staude suggested the prominent incorporation of the cross into the proposed cathedral. As with some of Wright junior's other work, a version of the textile block system (here enlarged to massive 16 foot square elements) is incorporated into the enormous cruciform.

The result is a monolith of concrete lace, inset with colored glass; transfixed and backlit by the afternoon sun, it might have even achieved a sort of brooding grandeur, as the architect put it, "a monumental shaft of glowing light, articulate with color and variety of expression, yet all correlated and totally integrated with the purpose and concept of the building and the symbol." The gigantic glass-faced crosses would have been illuminated at night. It appears the vast interior of the monolith would have been open to the nave floor; the result would have either suggested the majesty of Beauvais in a modern idiom, or (sadly more likely), simply resembled the inhuman chill of a thirty-story atrium hotel.

The rigorously symmetrical Greek cross plan would seem to obfuscate any ability to perceive the vast height of the interior as anything other than a well, lacking the processional motion of a longitudinal plan. Yet, the concept is intriguing, at least on paper. At the heart of the cross would have stood a large and spacious sanctuary (Wright calls it a "terrace" for some reason), centered on a high altar, bishop's cathedra, and stalls; given the immense rigor given to church planning during this period, it probably would have been rather successful from a liturgical perspective, and it appears the architect anticipated the use of a hanging tester (though he describes, rather oddly, the canopy "swinging in continual movement centered on the nave, and narthex symbolizing the path of the earth and other planets in the universe," a somewhat orthographically puzzling statement which I hope is an exaggeration, a rhetorical flight of fancy or a mistake.)

Wright junior was prescient enough to include a parking garage (one of the great budgetary drains of any contemporary cathedral complex, it seems), and also the rigidity of his plan nonetheless incorporates space for an episcopal residence, a library, a chancery, synod hall and offices, and a school, all harmoniously incorporated into cloisters clustered within the four arms of the cross.

Considered theoretically, the idea is not without merit, and has a certain genuine boldness and originality not present in most modernistic designs. It is definitely not an example of "the other modern" with its classical roots, but a partially-baptized modernism (in the architectural, but not theological, sense). It is monumental--but does it lift the mind to heaven? I cannot say. The cruciform decorative scheme is clever, and while I have the occasional tacky weakness for a neon halo in an old Sicilian church, the idea of 800 feet of illuminated glass seems to cross the line from triumphalism into vulgarity. There is a touch of building-as-billboard there which troubles me. It might have worked. The great glass-filled lattice of light might have been striking, but it just as easily might have turned out looking like the dormitory of a failed technical college going to seed in one of the more mildewy jungles of the republic of Costaguana. The symbolic vocabulary is also rather one-note: we may preach Christ crucified, but the great joy of Catholic culture is that we approach God not on our own but within the glorious mob of the saints. Part of me is very glad it was designed, and but another part of me is rather relieved it never got off the drawing-board. I leave it to you simply as a curiosity, or perhaps even an oddity.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: