October 20, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright's Boathouse: a Case Study in the Ontology of Art. In 2000, three rowers from Buffalo's West Side Rowing Club sought the approval of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for the construction of Wright's design for a boathouse, and it was realized last year. But a new Frank Lloyd Wright building raises some interesting questions -- when is it a FLW building, and when is it a reasonable facsimile thereof? What is needed to make a building a FLW?

There are a number of unbuilt FLW designs being realized, through the Foundation's approval and provision of a supervising architect (usually a Wright apprentice). Buffalo herself has two more. Given Wright's notorious control over a project, his attention to detail, and the site-specific nature of his projects, can we say that the building of an unbuilt design is really a 'Wright'? Or, given Wright's embrace of modern technologies and talent for self-promotion, would he himself approve of the idea of his works being created long after his death? It should be noted that in the case of the Fontana Boathouse, Wright made drawings after the turn of the century, revised them for a concrete building in 1929-30, and had a model constructed for his European speaking tour. Detailed plans were never made, leaving much of the project a matter of interpretation. Also, the building is unique in that it is his only Prairie Style work with a flat roof. Once the Foundation permits* a design to be used, that design is 'retired'. It all goes back to a question of ontology -- is this boathouse a 'real' Frank Lloyd Wright? Which elements of the process and construction need to be present to make a building one of his? Is it enough to use old drawings to say that it is a Frank Lloyd Wright work, or is it merely a 'Wright-inspired' building, or realized model? We may see parallels in the cases of the building of Da Vinci's machines or 'completing' an unfinished work of Mozart. Some Philosophy for a Monday morning... *The Foundation, as I understand, owns the copyright on FLW's drawings, but not the design as such, which presents interesting legal questions in addition to the ontological ones -- if the Foundation's 'approval' is necessary to the process, or if simply using the design is enough to make it a Wright.

  • It's a smart looking boathouse, but West Side rowers are wankers who can't stay in their own lane (at least they were in my day). I guess it's a Wright building as much as Free as a Bird and Real Love are Beatles songs.
  • (OK, this is the backside to the griping that there are no quality FPPs anymore. If you want the serious stuff, you have to give them some positive reinforcement and submit a comment or two to get the thread going. Admittedly, you never know what's going to attract comments or not, and not every non-fluff FPP is going to be to your particular tastes, but if serious FPPs are posted, and they come out stillborn with lack of comments, compared to absolute tabloid junk that attracts 'large' interest (comparatively speaking), there's some negative reinforcement going on. You want quality FPPs? Fine. Support them. Better yet, make some of your own. Sitting there and doing nothing does not stop the MoFi slide you're complaining about...) OK, I'm done now.
  • Sorry -- that second link was intended to go here. My bad.
  • Makes me wish I knew more about architecture than being able to identify a flying buttress. I guess the answer of whether it's a "real" FLW will vary. Poking around on the FLWF website doesn't seem to yield any kind of Official List™ of sites.
  • "It's my gradfather's old ax. I've replaced the head once and the handle twice but it's still my grandfather's ax." A decent starting point for figuring out what's going on here might be Walter Benjamin's essay. In particular, the notion of the "aura". What the crosslane wankers have purchased (in addition to a, guaranteed, leaky roof) is a measure of Wright's aura. Which is the fungible facet of any work of art. With multiple copies, the aura, and thus the cash value, is reduced. So the folks living off Wright's corpse perform the ritual of "retiring" the design after the first purchase. Like those "limited edition" Elvis beermugs advertised on late night television, the important thing that changed hands is the Certificate of Authenticity. Though in this case for a lot more than three monthly installments of $19.95.
  • Thanks for the suggestion, Kevvin. My knowledge of the area is largely restricted to Wollheim's Art and its Objects, which while an enjoyable read, doesn't particularly get us anywhere. (Assuming that's possible.)
  • You make an interesting philosophical point, my French friend. Perhaps we could consider the work of people such as Hirst or Koons, who employ others to create work in their name, and the age old tradition of studio assistants from whence this practice grew. Or, we could rassle.
  • We could also argue that such buildings can be read within the 'death of the author' philosophy, the 'text' of each building being created by those who view and / or use them. If their primary framing reference for understanding the buildings is FLW, then perhaps these ARE FLW buildings, just as a Hirst painting painted by another is still considered a Hirst and labelled and sold as such.
  • That would actually go a long way to explaining why Degas bronzes are considered Degases at all, when he could have easily have had them cast in his lifetime, but for whatever reason chose not to, leaving his heirs to produce them instead for whatever reason they chose to (i.e. big bucks). (Or francs, rather.) Much of it has to do with the fact that we want there to be more FLW buildings. Perhaps this is out of respect for the man and his work, but perhaps also for the architect having become a brand. It could also be that we have finally 'caught up' with the ideas that FLW was working with 100 years ago, or we look to the past for a comforting pseudo-nostalgia, which is nothing new in the history of architecture, either. Dunno.
  • Yeah, look, I'm all serioused out. Let's go pick on someone.
  • OK. I'll go ahead and put something dumb on the front page, piss people off.
  • Yee haw. I'm off to loiter in there.
  • If someone were to discover a Mozart concerto, nicely scored and written out but never played (as far as we know), and at least never recorded, would it still be considered a Mozart piece if the London Symphony recorded it?
  • Like this one.
  • The perception of a work of art has been problematic for art ontology. A piece of music may be seen as dependent on its being performed, either in concert or by being read, etc. Of course, that begs the question of what something like this Mozart piece was for those centuries in which it was unknown – was it a Mozart piece when it was just sitting there, or did it depend on its being perceived? (Which is a roundabout version of the tree-in-a-forest-making-a-sound-thing, which it totally doesn’t.) The same thing can be asked of the visual arts, if they need to be perceived in order to be somehow realized as art. Some would argue yes, others no. An example in that case would be something like the paintings in a pharaoh’s tomb, which weren’t being viewed by anyone, but were art at the time (assuming that that pharaoh wasn’t sitting around appreciating them in the afterlife). Problems with a viewer-inclusive element to art ontology are circumvented by going with an approach that is based in the creation of a work, that it is the creative process which determines if something is art or not. Using that approach, the FLW boathouse becomes problematic. A building is not just the product of an architect. It is produced in the context of a architect-client relationship. It is produced in accordance with certain demands and limitations – site location, materials, labour force, money, etc. The FLW boathouse was produced in a very different context than what was originally created. Elements are shared between the two, obviously, but what is standing there is not what FLW created as a solution to a now-nonexistent set of problems. In this, the boathouse is different than a Mozart piece. With a creation-based approach to art ontology, the circumstances of Mozart’s creation of the work are completely independent from differences in performance – it is the same work when it was performed originally, as it would be in being performed in Los Angeles centuries later. A creation-based approach would suggest that there was a work which FLW produced, and then that work was adapted to meet new production criteria. It would be derivative of FLW’s original piece – and necessarily different from that original piece. Taking the opposite approach, however, that a work of art is dependent upon a perceiver in order for it to be art, the FLW boathouse would need to be realized as a three-dimensional work. Of course, we could sidetrack that altogether and say that the work that FLW produced was the drawing, which most definitely is a work of art and one of FLW’s, and that the construction of the boathouse is entirely independent of that drawing. Now let's snog.
  • It's further complicated by the fact that detailed plans weren't drawn up, isn't it?
  • "is not what FLW created as a solution to a now-nonexistent set of problems." And that's a pretty important point in this case. Architecture is primarily engineering and engineering is the simultaneous solution of a large number of competing problems, only one of which is "it needs to look pretty." Maybe what this boathouse has done is taken Wright's solution to the "it needs to look pretty" problem (as well as one or two others like "it needs to hold boats" and hopefully "can we do something about the leaky roof this time") but everything else has been worked out with the new architect. So it becomes a Wright-as-artist work. But not Wright-as-architect.
  • Architects are never the sole creators of buildings. Few would stand if they were. Buildings are a collaboration between architects and engineers. One is primarily responsible for the aesthetics and form, the other for function, safety, and constructability. Now, just because FLW liked to micromanage the engineering and construction of his designs when he was alive, and wasn't able to with the West Side boathouse; that doesn't mean the boathouse isn't a "real" FLW. As long as his original paper design wasn't changed significantly in the final construction, I'm perfectly willing to call this an FLW structure.
  • > ... a roundabout version of the tree-in-a-forest-making-a-sound-thing, which it totally doesn’t. Does too.
  • If an pilotless drone breaks the sound barrier in a deserted place, is there a "boom"?
  • What did you call me?
  • Al?
  • ...a taxi cab? ...late for dinner?
  • ...irresponsible?....Ishmael?
  • ...on the line? ...any anytime?