Los Angeles. The scent of orange groves, the tang of Pacific Ocean mists, the clang of Red Car trolleys running from downtown to Long Beach. The Los Angeles of the early 1920s was a strange amalgamation of city and suburb. Frank Lloyd Wright found it a perfect place to experiment, what else was left to do for a tabloid hot-potato whose East Coast business was in tatters? Japan brought him his largest commission, but California brought him his first chance for radicalism.
The Hollyhock house built for Aline Barnsdale, a wealthy oil heiress who contracted Wright to design much more than a house. She intended for him to create a whole artist colony on Olive Hill, which she owned the total of, near Griffith Park. The complex that Wright designed included cottages, a main house, and theater space, all of it in a style reminiscent of Mayan structures; a vision for California both mystic and ancient.
Wright at this time in his life was emotionally conflicted, saddled with a manic-depressive artist named Miriam Noel. The extreme ups and downs of this torrid relationship encouraged Wright to spend more time in Southern California. Here he created a system of design involving concrete poured into pre-shaped wooden forms, the result of which he called “Textile blocks,” due to their method of construction involving metal reinforcing rods “woven” together for strength. Of these houses, the best is the Millard House.
“I would rather have built this little house than St. Peter’s in Rome.”
The Millard House stands in its ravine, blocks imprinted with crosses and deft cuneiform dashes. The window glass is framed with simple yet elegant tracery giving portal to Pasadena summers and rainy, muddy winters. The house is poetry in concrete reflecting Wright’s serious need to reinforce Nature’s place as the biggest part of man- not in dominion of, but integral to. Wright had always realized the need to combine the world around us with the world within us.
From these first experiments in concrete, Wright began to work on plans for a resort hotel in the desert of (what became) Chandler, Arizona named “San Marcos in the Desert.” This building would have spread out with two wings of guest rooms and a tall central tower embracing the sea of saguaro cactus and crimson rocks.
Wright traveled with a group of drafters and assorted workmen to prep the site and plans. He crafted for them a large campsite which he called “Ocotillo” after a large blossoming plant that grew in the area. Unfortunately the hotel never materialized- the only buildings on the site were the camp’s and they were only temporary much like the bright red flowers of the ocotillo fading away in the harsh sun.
Despite the failure of the hotel project, Wright loved his first taste of the rugged, arid world of Arizona. He saw potential in not only the area, but in how to build even more melodiously within the unvarnished realm of unspoiled nature.
“Buildings, too, are the children of the Earth and Sun.”
He would be drawn back to this romantic idea to create an oasis amongst the armadillos and deep blue skies, brown rolling hills and fever heat.
Some of Wright’s most unique and unusual ideas were created during the mid 1920s. His practice, already weakened by his romantic scandals was almost completely destroyed by the arrival of the Great Depression… wild speculation, spending on credit what you couldn’t afford in cash (things Wright himself was notoriously known for)- was irresponsibility so tragically overblown that the entire planet suffered for it.
When people have to stand in line for bread revolutionary ideas flow freely. Wright, one of the most revolutionary thinkers of his generation, did not shy away from sharing his opinions.
Thus, Wright began to write voluminous collections of ideas, theories– and an autobiography…but his story was not even close to being over, many more chapters were yet to be written.