About twenty years ago I read a fine book, The American Home by David P. Handlin. David's being a high school friend gave me the impetus to start reading, but once launched, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The American Home shows how the unspoken foundations of American home design — lawns and shrubbery, living rooms and parlors, master bedrooms and flush toilets — were not God-given laws, but grew instead from theories and experiments developed over decades by architects and designers trying to find the perfect bricks-and-mortar expression of what "home" could mean in our democratic, upwardly striving society.
What I remember most about The American Home, however, is that just past the halfway mark, Handlin launches into a long (30-page) chapter on Frank Lloyd Wright: who influenced him and how he has influenced us. Reading the Wright pages, I could feel the writing leap up in vigor and enthusiasm. Handlin likes the other architects, I sensed, but he loves Frank Lloyd Wright! I finished the book without analyzing how he conveyed his love of Wright, but over the years I've often wondered: if I reread American Home, would I be able to find in the text the surge of excitement I remember so vividly? Recently I decided to try. My summary report: yes, it's there as plain as the nose on my face.
For American Home's first three hundred pages Handlin keeps up a jog trot narrative, a good pace considering the century of territory he's got to cover. He dispenses interesting information of all kinds in admirably clear English prose:
As Chicago took shape, no overall plan guided the many decisions about where to locate what types of buildings.
Scott's perfect community was not a version of the great metropolis but instead an idealization of the suburban village to which many American families were first attracted in the 1860s.
Most communities have always had some rules that touch on issues such as the minimum setback of buildings from streets and the height of fences that divide property.
He takes us calmly into the emotions of several of his architect/designers, here Charles Mulford Robinson:
Robinson understood the need for and supported such legislation, but he was not altogether happy with the divisions it created.
He lets us know when he supports their views:
Robinson recognized that the rectilinear subdivision had many virtues. It was easily extendable, and it defined economically sized lots.
— and when he doesn't:
Those who entertained visions of the great metropolis as a large village could not really complain about a concentration on the home. But that emphasis had devastating consequences on broader ideas of what a city could be.
Page after page David's tone is quietly modest, even when I sense he may be chuckling softly to himself:
For Scott the central feature of any well-arranged planting scheme was a lawn. He felt that it was always necessary to preserve a large expanse of uninterrupted grass.
Then Wright makes his bold entrance on page 299, and the prose instantly becomes firmer and more declarative. In 1893, when architect Louis Sullivan's practice and influenced was declining:
Frank Lloyd Wright assumed the position of leadership that his former employer had occupied.
A page or two later Handlin praises Wright's "striking" use of tiles in stucco, especially one "marvelously intricate geometrical pattern of yellow and red tiles." His concrete houses built in Chicago "stand out" from other such buildings of the time, but "his superiority was not limited to houses made of concrete":
Wright's buildings have style. All of them are easily identifiable as the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and no one else, but they also have style in a sense that transcends personal authorship. They have an immediately recognizable quality that all great works of architecture possess.
Such high praise of Wright — "fluent architecture.... dynamic quality.... strong and supple" — runs continuously in the text, yet Handlin expresses his love of Wright with more than praise. He tells Wright's life story in more detail than he allows his other architects and designers. Wright had a tough childhood, it seems; his father was an itinerant preacher whose restless wandering strained a marriage that finally ended in divorce. Wright got off to a quick start as an architect, but then he left the mother of his six children for a neighbor's wife. The new couple settled into Taliesin, one of Wright's most famous creations, until one fateful night in August 1914, when a madman set fire to the house:
When Wright, who was in Chicago at the time, rushed back to Wisconsin by train, he found that the few who had escaped the fire had been murdered by the crazed cook. This horrendous event marked the end of Wright's early period.
By relating such highly emotional, even tragic, facts, Handlin opens Wright up to us readers, brings us close to the man inside the architect. We may not end up loving Wright as he does, but he's given us the chance empathize with Wright's soul struggles. In contrast, Handlin devotes fourteen pages to landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, telling us much about his ideas and little about his life.
"Wright extolled nature," Handlin writes, "or, as he called it, the organic, as the basic source of all architecture." To capture Wright's love of life, Handlin adopts an earthy vocabulary:
[Wright's] buildings are thus seen through a screen of trees. From this perspective the roots, trunk, and boughs mirror the house's three basic horizontal bands, which in turn reflect the flatness of the prairie.
— in less than a page uses four flowery images to convey the vibrant beauty of Wright's buildings:
When their plants are in bloom, they both accentuate and soften the horizontal lines of the building.
Wright achieved efflorescence.
He also tried to make the building itself blossom forth.
Even Wright's windows effloresce.
— and shows that Wright even knew how to make a brick wall come alive:
He accentuated the linearity of the bricks by raking the horizontal mortar joints and by coloring the vertical ones to match the brick. Often he set alternating courses in different planes to create a distinct pattern of shadows.
Handlin leaves Wright struggling to recover from the tragedy of the murder of his mistress and the burning of Taliesin. Wright's future may have been unknown, he concludes, but "there was nothing equivocal" about his past:
a body of work...that summarized and epitomized a century of thought about the home...[houses] that were, and still remain, the most outstanding contribution to domestic architecture since Palladio built his villas in the Veneto at the end of the sixteenth century.
Selected out during a slow re-reading, Handlin's expressions of love and admiration become obvious, but I didn't notice a single one when I first read American Home; all I got then was an overall impression of David's fervent affection for his hero.
That, I think, says something true and interesting about how writing communicates. Writers struggle to get the right words down in the right order, to put every comma, or nearly every comma, in its proper place; and readers follow the writers' final sequence of words and commas as printed on the page; but what happens between writer and reader is far more amorphous, more emotional than the precision needed for the process would suggest. Handlin's big statement — I love Frank Lloyd Wright! — got to me though the writing twenty years ago; the writing technique that got it through to me was invisible. Fortunately, however, if we slow down and hunt for the love that pushed Handlin's pen so eagerly, it's right there in the words.