Time in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright

Published in
Issue #02


This paper contains a first exploration of the question of time in the work of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.1 By way of introduction I will start by going back to the treatise of the Roman architect Vitruvius to find a first formulation of the importance of time in architecture in the form of the Latin tempus, meaning time of the day and time of the season. I will then expand on the entanglement of the concepts of templum and tempus, both related to the founding rites of the antique city. Finally, I will make the jump to modernity to see how these concepts still persist in the work of Wright, ending up in the Janus face of a geological and an atmospheric time of architecture.

Keywords: Wright, time, templum, atmosphere, geology 

Time has always been an important issue in architecture. This might sound remarkable after a century in which space seemed to be the only matter relevant for architects. If we reread Vitruvius, however, we might become aware of the central place time occupies in the profession of the architect. Vitruvius tells us that the founding of a city begins with the erection of a gnomon. The gnomon takes on different functions. In the first place, it enables the architect to determine the different orientations by constructing the perpendicular two axes, the decumanus (east-west) and the cardo (north-south). They direct the grid of the city. For Vitruvius, this procedure serves to achieve the construction of a healthy city. The cross ofthe cardo and decumanus is immediately transformed into a diagram of the winds. It functions as a compass. When founding a city, the grid must be oriented in such a way that favourable winds are used to clean the streets of bad air, while heavy or warm winds are kept out because they might hinder or even endanger the lives of the inhabitants.

The gnomon, however, is also used to construct a real sundial that gives us the hours of the day. Vitruvius recapitulates the geometrical knowledge necessary to make an analemma. The analemma will allow us to define the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes, it gives us the seasons. The moving shadow of the gnomon, with its varying length corresponding to the time of the day and the time of the year, installs the different rhythms of a chronological order of time. This order becomes the base of the social machine of the city. It is so important that the architect is supposed to provide alternative clocks for the periods when the sun hides. For that reason, Vitruvius describes the working of water clocks. Among them we find an anaphoric one, which even reckons with the length of the days during the journey of the sun through the signs of the Zodiac, and which also gives the month and even the days of the year: a complex mechanism, a real-time calendar. Reading the ninth of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, which teaches the architect how to synchronize life in the city with all the cosmological cycles, we sometimes get the impression that the architect is nothing more than a clockmaker.2

The heavens are overwhelmingly present in Vitruvius’ treatise, but this presence is a technical one, allowing us to take possession of our lives, to regulate and direct our existence. From many points of view, Vitruvius’ books must be seen as a proto-functionalist treatise, honouring utilitas. The gnomon splits into a clock and a wind-rose, both crucial for life in the city. We find deliberations of time at the very origins of urbanism and architecture. And when we say time, we immediately think of the fate of the Latin word tempus that in so many Romanic languages has assumed the double meaning of both time and the weather.3

There are only a few places where Vitruvius relates tempus to life inside the house. He mentions the late rays of the sun penetrating the bathroom and the library, in both cases warming the rooms and, if necessary, chasing out moisture and damp. Almost touching on aspects of sphere and an affective constellation in the house, even here atmospheric aspects remain functional, a question of sanitas. The tempus does not become a temper; the house is not tuned to the temperaments of the weather, possibly resonating with a mood implied in our activities.

Joseph Rykwert tells us that proto-functionalist deliberations were quite common in Vitruvius’ time, but they were little used in the practice of building cities.4 Obviously, it must have been a bridge too far to violate the cardo-decumanus principle by freely turning the grid to adapt it to a favourable direction on the wind-rose. Initially, the gnomon was not the turning point of a compass; the spot of its erection marked the umbilicus mundi; it was the center of an inauguration rite. That rite marked the very beginning of time, the time of a community of settlers and their colony. The instalment of a new clock coincided with the inauguration of a new world. Certainly orientation was a major issue in the rite but not directly for functionalist purposes.

It is said that before Vitruvius took his functionalist path, the gnomon, or its mobile version, the sciotherum, was derived from the staff of the augur. Beginning the founding ritual, he inscribed a cross and a circle in the soil in order to determine the direction of the divination rite. What part of the heavens should be taken into consideration? He then contemplated the sky. In fact this con-templation was a gathering of the four templa, the regions of the sky, in one templum. The four templa, determined by a cross in the sky, roughly marked sunrise as the morning, sunset as the evening, midday as the summit of the orbit of the sun, and the night. They marked the tempus of a day. In this way the templum framed the tempus, and language sealed this relation in their etymological bond.5

The celestial templum was a vague area marked by words of incantation spoken by the augur, facing south.6 He indicated certain objects in the surroundings and recapitulated his words in the gesture of a comprising figure, a rough circle or half circle, or even a square. This figure functioned as a window in the sky; those attending the ritual waited for the signs of the gods to appear there. During the divination rite, it was not the augur himself who watched the sky; he was often blindfolded. There was a surveyor standing next to him. The surveyor gazed into the templum, registering certain celestial phenomena described by the augur, for example the flight of vultures or the movement of clouds.7 In the founding rite of Rome, it was Romulus who was the surveyor.8 The observations of the surveyor, in turn, had to be interpreted by the augur. If the signs were found to be favourable, the founding ritual could proceed. The surveyor, now the name-giver of the city, could extend the original circle and cross, which the augur had inscribed in the soil as the umbilicus mundi, to a real terrestrial templum, a sacred domain severed from the profane world. This terrestrial templum could pertain to the area of a city as well as to a temple in the strict sense of the word. The surveyor was the one who marked the boundaries. The Greek word templum is etymologically related to the Proto-Indo-European root tem: to cut, to sever. The temple severs the sacred from the profane.

What happened in this rite was not only the installation of a sacred space, a temenos. This space was founded in the time of the sacred divination rite: a time of suspense, of waiting. From the moment of inauguration, that suspended time would regularly interrupt the daily life of the settlers. In their celebrations, they remembered this original awaiting, this surrender to the temper of the gods, which was rewarded by the inclusion of their phenomenological world into the noumenal or numinous one9. The new world of the settler became stabilized in this answer from the human to the divine, the cor-respondence of the terrestrial and the celestial temple. We have a double movement here: the envelopment of earthly life in the tempus of the sky and the development of that cosmological, noumenal tempus in the terrestrial city. It may not be surprising that many of the Greek temples, certainly those devoted to the gods of the weather, were partly or completely uncovered, hypaethral. The temple inscribed the terrestrial templum in the open domain of the celestial templum, thus turning human time into a borrowed tempus.

Another crucial element is the double definition of the templum as a severing in the circumference and a gathering together in the cross. We still find these elements in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The famous Geviert is a crossing, gathering the mortals and the divinities, the earth and the sky. The idea of the enclosure, the space left free within its perimeter and brought to peace (gefreit as zum Frieden gebracht) repeats the idea of the severing.In the severing, the templum is completed, closed up; in the gathering, it is open beyond the perimeter. Or as Heidegger puts it, the peras is not where something ends but where its essence begins.10 We can see this double aspect in the Greek temple. The megaron or the cella (from the Latin celare, to conceal) is the closed sacred space, the abode of the divinity, while the perimeter remains open in the dashed lines of the peristylia, the colonnades surrounding the cella. The intercolumnia rhythmically connect to the landscape in which the voices of the gods insist. In the journal of his Griechenlandreisen, we read how Heidegger imagined hearing these voices and how he relived the time of these foundational bonds.11

With the division of the four templa and the corresponding times of the day, we get a first glimpse of the birth of the tempus from the templum. Of course this tempus can be read in the Vitruvian way, giving birth to a chronological time. But we may not forget that the founding of the terrestrial templum, the severing of an inside and an outside of whatever kind, entails the installation of a spherical time and an immunological space, to use the terms Sloterdijk develops in his Spheres trilogy.12 This safe space implies an atmospheric time, the mood of a community that started in the tempestus, the last or the right moment to take the omens. The establishment of such a safe space, the closing of the interior, is a real Ereignis,13 the formation of a new self, the appropriation of something all its own and as such, the beginning of a world and a history. The wall as the instrument of the templum includes but also excludes; it severs the proper and the appropriate from the improper or inappropriate, the solipse from the ‘difficult’ world outside. This was the case for the Roman city wall, the murus, which served to protect the Roman community of settlers from a possible enemy, but we also see it in Wright’s work, where every wall means a protective measure against the city. The Proto-Indo-European root mey means protecting, building walls. The immunized community pertains quite literally to the event of im-muring and com-muring, sharing the protective wall. We meet such walls in Wright’s Johnson Wax Company building and the Unity Temple, both in their own ways hypaethral, and both enveloping a community in a unique atmosphere.

For a house, the severing also pertains to the roof. The Ereignis historically following that of the wall is that of the shield under which to hide from the gaze of the gods.14 As soon as our bond has been instituted and the gods have sanctioned our laws, we want to have a private life; we want to make our own decisions, and we can only do so by cutting ourselves loose from the heavens. Private indeed means being privatum, deprived of that authority and thus also at least partly freed from the laws of the community guaranteed by the gods. For that reason the house is a secret place.15

The saved space of a mundus has a special clock. Where in chronological time and its ‘order of the day’ we are synchronized with the cosmic clock, the time of a mundus is accumulative. It is the time of memory that is measured by the clock of remembrance. This remembrance may take the time of a repeated rite. In the founding ritual of the Roman settlers a hole was made at the original crossing of the umbilicus mundi, and some clods of soil of their native town were thrown in. Three times a year, the lapis nigris sealing that hole was removed, and the spirits of the ancestors dwelled among the living. The original severing was undone and some chaos was let in: mundus patet.16

After this introduction to the concepts of the templum and the templa and their bind with the tempus, we can ask ourselves: did architects ever stop to reinvent the templum? Is not every frame, every line drawn by the architect marked by that past of a rite in which an inside is sundered from an outside in order to establish a safe and sacred domain? An identifiable place, the place of something indivisible, something whole? Is not Sloterdijk’s concept of an immunological space a new version of that past? In the plan and in the section we see an inner space closing up.

On the other hand, does not every window open up again to the celestial templum?17 Does it not open the house for the unforeseen, the tempustempestas, which was never erased by the original templum? Deleuze and Guattari still remember that bond when they state that 20th century painting opened the house to let in the forces of the cosmos.18 Of course we do not think explicitly of that past when standing in front of the window and gazing out. But it is for sure that, musing by the window sill, just waiting for nothing in a Bachelardian reverie, we recover something of that past. We repeat the suspended time of gazing into the templum. It is in this posture, which we meet in more than one pre-Raphaelite painting, that someone is struck by a magic light that paints her face, like in John Everett Millais’ Mariana. Waiting for the tempestus, the right or the last moment to receive new omens for a new world? Suspended. Indeed, the window sill and all its substitutes like the desk before the window, the table top, and maybe even the floor, they are the true altars of the house. As templa they receive the light of the original tempus. How often do we return to that place at the window?

In order to become more concrete and see how these temporal relations still organize architecture today, we will now analyse the way in which the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright constructed and renewed the templa. We will begin by recalling the different kinds of frames we meet in his work. We will concentrate on the houses. However, some incidental references to the city cannot be avoided, because all Wright’s houses embody a flight from the city, and for that very reason remain marked by that origin.19

In the first place, in the horizontal section, we see that the terrestrial templum of the plan creates an interior space centred on the hearth, with its perimeter closed towards the city and opened up towards nature. In the early Prairie houses, many of them based on a Greek or Latin cross, the hearth is quite literally situated on the crossing of the axes of the four arms, just like an altar in a church, or the umbilicus mundi in the founding ritual of the city.20 In later works, the constellation becomes less formal, but the principles of gathering, closure and extension remain the same. The immunizing, closed wall, typical for many of Wright’s city buildings, often returns in the suburbs because each house has a public side, the side turned towards the city as the entrance side. The convex wall of the Llewelyn Wright house with its donjon, the streamline of the batten and board walls of many Usonian homes, the fortifying earthen wall of the Jacobs-II House, but even the closed north elevation of Fallingwater: they all testify to a defensive reflex against the city. In the Prairie houses we see a movement of retreat from the public realm, a stepping back beneath the cantilevering roofs or behind the parapet, like in the Robie House. All houses ‘begin’ with an immunizing gesture.21

We find the first opening up of this closed part of the templum in the entrance, which is often hidden, never representative, but not informal either. Entering the building entails a true ritualistic passage, finding a password to open up the cella of the interior: ‘seven times to the left, to the right…’22 In the house, in any building, we hide from the city. This hiding is an act of severing that promises us a new community, a new whole, the whole that can also be understood in its etymological entanglement with the wholesome and the holy, the uninjured. In the case of Wright, however, that whole is immediately broken up for a larger community, the communion with nature.

For this reason, the second opening of the hard perimeter is located on the other side, a side that usually corresponds to a more manifest presence of the horizon. This is the side that corresponds to Wright’s famous ‘destruction of the box’, the box being the closed interior of the Victorian house. The ‘destruction of the box’ means opening up the rooms inside the house to each other, room becoming fluid space continuing across the transparent perimeter. This opening up corresponds to two sorts of open frames: the multiplied glass door to the terrace or balcony and the horizontal band of multiplied casement windows. We should not mistake this opening up for the view, which has often been done. The horizontal windows give the feeling of being surrounded by, not of looking at or on nature.

The gestures are very precise here. If we look at the terrace doors of the Robie House, we see that the upper parts are filled in with stained glass, dispersing the glance, while the view through the lower part is obstructed by the parapets of the balcony: there is no view. Certainly: the view is not impossible but it is broken up, it partakes in a general orientation. There is no confrontation, no view from a subject objectifying nature or the earth outside into an image, turning it into a landscape, a picture, like the Renaissance window did. The horizontal band of windows corroborates this idea by consistently going around the corner, turning the entire house into a bay window, protruding into the surroundings.

The built-in seats, which we often see in Wright’s work, repeat this ‘not-looking at.’23 Their backs are turned towards the window because we are gathering around the hearth, the umbilicus mundi in the centre of the house. This ‘inversed’ position, where nature outside is nothing more than a vague image at the back of our minds, allows that same outside to come close, to ‘near’, to use Heidegger’s words. It draws its imprint on the façade outside. In the Robie House, the prairie flowers from the surrounding fields engrave their image in the stained glass. The horizon touches the house in the repeated horizontal of the stressed eaves and windowsills, and the deepened horizontal joints in the masonry. We recognize Wright’s signature: the horizon as a tattoo on the body of the house. The distance implied in the view is annihilated, the far inscribed in the near.

If we want a view, we have to go outside. The repeated terrace or balcony door pointedly invites us to go outside. Going outside, however, we enter a new frame, directed upwards because the parapets of the balcony are closed: unconsciously we repeat the act of the augur, placing ourselves in the great cosmic outside, looking up to gather the templa. The edge of the parapet becomes the terrestrial boundary of a celestial templum, marked by some signs in the surroundings, but from there on going up into the sky. We become part of a meteorological tempus. Meta-orizein signifies the movement of going up in the sky, of leaving the orizein, the horizon, to re-enter the celestial templum.

Wright’s balconies are often suspended between the earth and the sky. In late works they often cantilever. In some drawings with a mole’s eye perspective, such as the one for the first design of the Oboler House – Eaglefeather – they give the impression of pateras: our time on the balcony, leisure time, is a time of offering: we are lifted into the original templum, delivered to the temperaments of the weather gods.24

Before going outside, onto the balcony, we must complete our investigation of the interior templa. The horizontal window is marked by a diastole, the expanding force of going outwards, counterbalanced by the systole of the contracting, gathering force of the hearth as the umbilicus mundi. Circling in and circling out. In the ground swell of this spatial dynamics, of room gathering and space extending, there is a need to draw new templa to save our souls. Hence the character of Wright’s furniture: the smallest templum, the last frame, defining a new interior, a new sacred space. Look at that beautiful dining table in the Robie House, with tall legs crossing the table top and crowned by four lamps. A new place of celebration, for eating-consuming the earth, like the fire in the hearth. The chairs with their heightened backs install a new temenos. Saved again. Gestures of holding, of making room within space. The gestures of the famous sofa are striking too. Its back folds to become a flank holding the body. At the same time, an excessively large cantilevering upper rail, continuing in the arm layers, functions as a collar, folding the back horizontally. It stretches out to go with the centrifugal flow. Finally, the heightened ceiling marks a containing, a moment of suspense in the flow; the repeated lamps, defining a sort of halo, hallow that sacred, uninjured place, holding in the play of spatial forces.

In many of Wright’s houses, this halo finds its architectural translation in the clerestory window, the old church window, corresponding to a heightened part of the ceiling. This ring of light again gathers the templa. In some prairie houses such as the Dana house, the high windows are again partly filled with stained glass. Wright uses earthly colours. Ochres, light browns, sienna, moss greens. In its contrast, the transparent glazing tends to emit a white light. This division between transparent and coloured parts corresponds to a transition of the celestial templa to the terrestrial templum, breaking the cosmic fire into a terrestrial multiplicity of colours. However, the white light never becomes abstract. It remains bound to atmospheric aspects, to the hours of the day, the temper of the weather, and the seasons of the year. The earthly colours seem to be offerings, little bits of earth burning in that light. The clerestory windows function as an atmospheric clock, placing the house in the long temporal cycles of the tempus, the circles of the days and the seasons, and the short turbulent ones of the tempestas.

The ring of high windows allows the house, as the earthly temple, to become tuned, ‘Gestimmt’, to the celestial one. In the later Usonian homes, where the stained glass is left out, the atmospheric clock becomes even stronger: we meet low bands of clerestory windows, going around corners and covering most parts of the regions of the sky.25 The glass is often set in wooden panels with cut-out patterns, the somewhat capricious contour eating the vibrating light, and as such, making the same connection between the earthly templum and the heavenly templa.

A last frame must be mentioned: that of the ‘skylight’. Although there are very few real skylights in Wright’s houses, we find many substitutes in the form of built-in lighting fixtures with panels of leaded glass.26 This electrical ‘skylight’ corresponds to the idea that a house does not merely find a place under the sky but must also be considered to be a ‘receiver’ in an electrified ether, in which man opens up to a modern world. We sometimes find such ‘skylights’ in front of the fireplace and its chimney, but because of the leaded coloured glass, we cannot see the chimney going up as a vertical structure, an axis marking the centre of the house.27 If there is an axis mundi, it is surely not a patent one. The hearth is marked by the same horizontality as the rest of the masonry, contributing to the floating character of the interior. The electric ‘skylight’, bathes the interior in a weak and artificial light. It often ‘drifts off’ from the chimney to find a place above the dinner table or any other spot, becoming a new, more mundane focus in the interior. 28 The house, centred around the hearth as the crossing marking the umbilicus mundi, is decentred in the ‘electrical skylight’ as a second crossing.

The first time we met the templum, it was that vague area marked by the gestures of the augur, inaugurating the area of divination. But Herman Usener reminds us that in Greek texts, including Homer, we find the same word, signifying a crossing of beams in the construction of the roof,29 gathering the directions of the spans. We may be sure, then, that it is no coincidence that many of the electrical ‘skylights’ in the Prairie Houses bear the pattern of a cross or of a regular or irregular fourfold, a templum gathering ‘ether frequencies’, the regions of an electrified world. Both meanings of the templum coincide here. If the electrical ‘skylight’ embodies a special crossing in the roof, repeating the celestial templum in a material, constructed one, the heavenly span in an architectural one, it is at the same time marked by a displacement vis-à-vis the terrestrial crossing with the hearth at its centre. The terrestrial and the celestial templum do not coincide spatially.

This shift, or even fracture, in which the virtual vertical axis is dislocated or doubled, gives us the beginning of a movement, a drifting away from the hearth. This rupture corresponds to the possibility of turning away from the fire and leaving the community for ‘the great outdoors.’ It opens the possibility of a second focus, of a first ‘and’, a ‘many’ resisting the unifying force of the umbilicus mundi of the hearth. In the interior we act like the vestals, devoting our lives to maintaining the fire, consecrating place as the centre of a communal life. The life around the hearth is sacred, the circle magic. From Bachelard’s psychoanalysis of fire, we know the flame to be the very image of interiority, the heart of life.30 However it is the fire itself that pulls us in ever wider circles of distraction corresponding to Bachelard’s reveries. We drift away. From the 1930s on, even the chimney itself is fractured, broken as a geological or tectonic relief continuing in the walls and so multiplying the verticals. The multiple doors also define multiple ways out. In Fallingwater, the balconies are multiplied to accommodate that ‘many’; they all frame their own part of the sky. Going outside, we become the many.

We are on the balcony again. We look up, like the augur or his surveyor. Suppose it is night this time. The fourth side. The nocturnal side, the northern side of the templum. Taking over the other sides. We might find some phase of the moon, a first clock ticking. Some figures from Vitruvius’ Zodiac maybe, giving us a second cycle of nocturnal time. The stars are also the very image of a multiplicity, a multiplicity of universes even, according to Vitruvius’ peer Lucretius and his later descendant, Whitehead, Wright’s contemporary. A multiplicity of times, ours only being a local one? A multiplicity of ages certainly. Time of times. Gathered together on the balcony. In Heidegger’s first ‘Feldweggespräch’ (cart-track-collocation), his essay on the ‘Umgebung’ (surroundings/environment), we find a beautiful image of the night being the ‘Näherin’, both the needlewoman and the one that ‘nears’, who makes all things near each other. It is the veritable image of a sewing together of the different times of the stars, the ages of the universe or the universes.31 The night is the patchwork of eternities.

Of course we could ask ourselves if this gathering of a multiplicity of times happens solely on Wright’s balcony. Does it not happen on every balcony or terrace, or in fact, at every spot where we gaze into the fathomless depth of a clear night, like on Heidegger’s Feldweg? Sure. But it only becomes architecture when that instant is framed and when the frame itself is struck by that multiplication. When that multiplicity of tempi is captured by a multiplicity of templa. In short, when a building explicitly bears the sign of a multiplicity.

This is exactly what happens in Wright’s architecture. It is even one of the main developments in Wright’s oeuvre. From the original crossing and its simple fourfold of squares or rectangles, we go to a constellation of overlapping and interfering frames drifting around multiple centres in the plan.32 It happens in the later work such as the Usonian homes. If we look at the house Wright designed for his son Llewellyn, we see a set of circles or circle fragments and lens-shaped figures resulting from overlapping circles. These lens-form figures alone already tell so many stories. The first one is that of the hull of the house, constituted by the overlap of two large circles, with their epicentres far outside the house: the first one referring to the city, the other to the landscape. The house becomes a lens through which the city sees nature. This is a clear sign that every inhabitant of a Wright house, even if prepared to undo the original severing of man from nature, still always remains a citizen bound up with city life. Paradoxically enough it is exactly the closed front wall that corroborates that fact. This wall, with its donjon, is a city wall, and by passing it, we re-enact ourselves as beings ‘of the border’. In the first scheme of the house, we see the carport extending from the wall and harbouring the cars of the commuter, showing the house as an annex of the city. But on the other hand the wall also protects, immures-immunizes the house from the city, inaugurating a ‘natural habitat’. In its functional organization, the house certainly belongs to the city, with its chronological clock, every day punctually sending back the citizen-inhabitant to the great city-machine with its ruthless rhythms. Even our sleeping and resting time is measured by that clock. But somewhere in the house, approaching the doors of the balcony, we change roles and become the augur again, this time inaugurating an atmospheric, ‘older’ time in which we celebrate our membership of the larger community of natural life. The two circular templa and their corresponding communities alternate and interfere in the house.33

All the lens-shaped elements in some way refer to this double. Sitting on the poufs, little boats, we shuttle between the interfering circles of a family-meeting around the hearth and of a bubble of some wandering life in the wilderness. Finally, at the edge of the balcony, we see a lens-shaped pond, cut out by the intersecting circles of the balcony-parapet and an unidentified perimeter finding its centre in … we do not know, maybe in some tree on the wooded slope. The pond is filled with lilies. Overlapping sets of time. All lenses together a set. A set of sets of circles. All frames bear the mark of diversified times: times profane and times sacred, urban and private times, times of negotium and of otium, artificial clockwise times and atmospheric times, times materialized in heavy earthly masses and times framed by light wooden hulls, times of caves and times of tents.

This multiplicity finds its most explicit sign in the pied carpet. It appears as a pattern of circles of which the overlaps change colour. The circular patch, with its centre in the hearth, immediately doubles in a larger one, which gives birth to many smaller, contained ones, but also larger, intersecting ones. The carpet gives us the fundamental break, the de-cision of the doubling centre, giving birth to a multiplicity in a veritable foam of colour patches. A fragment of the iris of the earth Ruskin wrote about.

This brings us to our last considerations concerning time in the work of Wright. We know that Wright considered the earth to be a building in the verbal sense of the word. Something built, still building and forever so. Man adds only one layer. Man, when building, contracts a past, the past of life forms building their homes in the crust of the earth. The river and its canyon, the tortois and its shield, the tree finding its cantilevering principle. These are all techniques or styles that may become examples in building a new building. Millions of crustaceans buried at the bottom of the sea, crushed into layers, tectonically reappearing as limestone.33 All past lives, genii loci, spirits of place will inhabit in the human house. Designing for Wright meant plumbing the strata, fathoming the temporal layers of the earth. The textures, patterns, and forms of local flora and fauna and the materials of the crust of the earth had to be sampled and reshuffled in the design. He abstracted the patterns of the barrel and the staghorn cactus to make them the ornaments of a desert house.34 The rustic masonry of the wall echoes the layered textures of the sandstone. He made the house a true ‘Lied von der Erde.35

Wright loved to work with local materials. He dug out the sandstone on the spot, or from neighbouring quarries. He piled it up in the heavy walls of his houses. He took up the boulders from the desert and put them in the formwork to pour cement over them, and so produced ‘desert concrete.’ In passing these walls, which frame the time of our own lives, we feel lithic ages passing us.36 In their geological substance, these walls frame millions of years. We become geological fossils ourselves, found in some layer. If nature is the unconscious poetry of the spirit, like Schelling says, or a multiplicity of spirits, which he sometimes seems to point to,37 it is the task of architecture to convoke these spirits. The genii loci building the earth.38 Architecture becomes the framing of geological times. That is what happens in Wright’s interiors. When we gather around the hearth, we do not only look into the fire consuming our own time as the time of a human oikoumenos. We also look at the stones of the hearth and the sandstone surrounding us; we also see nature constellated in some ornamental pattern, and we are held safe by its techniques. We descend into time and become part of a larger oecumene. We meet the tree as our forebear constructor, who teaches us the principles of cantilevering beams. We meet the tortoise, who teaches us to decorate our shields. We learn to capture and to pattern light from crystals. We meet our ancestors by descending the life-lines of evolutionary time, sympathizing and empathizing with creative evolution.

Frans Sturkenboom

Frans Sturkenboom is an architect and a lecturer at the Academy of Architecture in Arnhem and the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam. He teaches architectural theory and history. He is also a researcher for the Professorship in Theory in the Arts at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem. His publications include essays on Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, Francesco Borromini, and Aldo Rossi.  He has just published a book on gesture in architecture, ‘De Gestiek van de architectuur (Arnhem, Artez Press, 2017) in which he analyses the late twentiethcentury shift from an architecture of space to an architecture of (deep) surface. He is currently doing a PhD (‘Time in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright’) at Delft University of Technology 


I am currently writing a dissertation on this topic at Delft University of Technology: Time in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright: Geology, Geography and Geometry of Architecture.

Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1998).

Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), p 1. Rossi speaks of the double meaning of the Italian tempo, while Michel Serres regularly returns to the intricacies of the French temps, time and weather. Among others: Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998 [1992]), p. 27.

Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988 [1976]), p. 41.

Hermann Usener, Götternamen: Versuch einer Lehre von der Religiösen Begriffsbildung (Bonn: Cohen, 1896), pp. 191-192.

As Reported by Varro. Quoted in Rykwert 1988 [1976]. p 46.

For all these aspects: Rykwert, The Idea of a Town, pp. 41-50.

According to some stories there was a competition between Romulus and Remus, with Romulus standing on the Palatinus, Remus on the Aventinus. Romulus won because he saw more vultures. Livius, Zonen van Mars: De Geschiedenis van Rome I-X, trans. F. H. van Katwijk-Knapp (Amsterdam: Atheneum, Polak & van Gennep, 1997), p. 30.

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Brace and World, 1963 [1957]), pp. 73-74

Martin Heidegger, “Bauen, Wohnen, Denken,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main: Neske, 1978 [1954]), p. 149, my translation. ‘Ein Raum ist etwas Eingeräumtes, Freigegebenes, nämlich in eine Grenze, griechisch peras. Die Grenze ist nicht das, wobei etwas aufhört, sondern, wir die Griechen es erkannten, die Grenze ist jenes, von woher etwas sein Wesen beginnt.’

Martin Heidegger, Aufenthalte (Frankfurt am Main: Klosterman, 1989).

Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären I, II, III (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998-2004).

The word Ereignis is used by Heidegger to mark an event that really changes something. This means both a disappropriation (Ent-eigenung) of who we are and an appropriation (Er-eignung) of who we become. But we can only become who we are. The true Ereignis is a contraction-expansion, a heartbeat of Being. In: Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie, Vom Ereignis (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1994 [1989]).

Rykwert, The Idea of a Town, p. 100: ‘The conrectio of the town, the division into four regions, presumably placed it under the tutelage of the law-guaranteeing sky.’

Vilem Flusser, “Durchlöchert wie ein Emmentaler,” in Vom Stand der Dinge (Göttingen: Steidl, 1993), p. 79: ‘…und die Mauer hat das Geheimnis von dem Unheimlichen zu schützen.’(‘…and the wall has to guard the secret from the uncanny,’ my translation)

Michel Serres, Biogea, trans. Randolph Burks (Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2012 [2010]), “Gaping Mouth” chapter, Kobo.

Of course this also goes for all the digital windows we open in the house.

Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Paris: Minuit, 1991), p. 173, p. 176.

Cf. James Ackerman, who rightly contends that all Wright’s houses must be seen as villas. James Ackerman, The Villa, Form and Ideology of Country Houses (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990).

The first to have noted the importance of the concept of the crossing in Wright’s work is Franscesco Dal Co. “Notes Concerning the Phenomenology of the Limit in Architecture,” in Oppositions 23 (Winter 1981), pp. 36-51.

Wright’s stance on the city is too complex to detail here, but is often seen as extremely negative. For Wright, the metropolis was the ‘Moloch that knows no God but more’. A positive interpretation is, however, not impossible. We can find one in Neil Levine, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

As it is said for many cases, among them Unity Temple, the Heurtley and the Robie House. See: Donald Hoffmann, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Nature (New York: Dover Publications, 1986), p. 46.

Those in the living room of Taliesin North are exemplary.

The mole’s eye perspective for the Huntington Hartford Sports Club and Play Resort is another example, this time in a more public project. The swimming pool becomes a real libation.

This is the case in the one-storey houses above all, for instance (among many others): Jacobs I (1936), Winckler Goetsch (1939), Lewis (1939), Pope (1939), Rosenbaum (1940), Schwarz (1939), Maxwell Smith (1946).

As far as we can see, the skylight in the Barnsdall house is the only real one.

Fallingwater, the Heurtley House, the gallery of the Dana House and many more.

We find electrical ‘skylights’ above the dining table in Wright’s first home in Oak Park (1898-1895), the Willits House (1901), the Boynton dining area (1908), the Evans House (1908).

Usener, Götternamen, p. 191.

Gaston Bachelard, La Psychanalyse du Feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), p. 87.

Heidegger himself would probably never agree to such an interpretation in terms of a multiplicity of universes. Martin Heidegger, αγχιβασσιη, Ein Gespräch selbstdritt auf einem Feldweg,” in Martin Heidegger, Feldweggespräche (1944/45), GA, band 77 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1995), p. 157. ‘Die Nacht ist die Näherin, die nährend näht. Sie arbeitet nur mit Nähe, die das Ferne fernt.’

Insofar as I can see, Michael Desmond is the first to have remarked on that tendency towards multiplicities in the late work of Wright. Michael Desmond, “Abstracting the Landscape: Galesburg, Above and Below the Surface,” in Frank Lloyd Wright:Unpacking the Archive, ed. Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray (New York: MoMA, 2017), p. 137.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 20.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. 20.

Barry Bergdoll & Jennifer Gray, eds., Frank Lloyd Wright:Unpacking the Archive (New York: MoMA, 2017), p. 37.

‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (the Song of the Earth) is the title of a famous composition by Mahler. In my dissertation (see footnote 1) I will try to assess the Romantic calibre of Wright’s architecture.

Already very early on, Wright must have been aware off these time scales: in Gannet’s The House Beautiful –a book graphically redesigned by Wright in 1897, they are part of the considerations in chapter 1. Integral text can be found in: John Lloyd Wright, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Dover Publications, 1992 [1946]), pp. 145-166.

Slavoj Žižek and Friedrich von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World, trans. Judith Norman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009 [1811]), p. 155.

My idea of a house as harbouring a gathering of past spirits, the spirits of place in my case, might be seen as a variation of that theme formulated by Lars Spuybroek, Grace and Gravity: Architectures of the Figure (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020). In Gannet’s The House Beautiful, these spirits are called the ‘builders who build not by hand’ (Chapter 1).


  • Ackerman, James, The Villa, Form and Ideology of Country Houses, London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
  • Alberti, Leon Battista, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1991 [1988].
  • Bachelard, Gaston, La Psychanalyse du Feu, Paris: Gallimard, 1949.
  • Bergdoll, Barry and Jennifer Gray, eds., Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, New York: MoMA, 2017.
  • Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  • Dal Co, Franscesco, “Notes Concerning the Phenomenology of the Limit in Architecture,” Oppositions 23 (Winter 1981), pp. 36-51.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980.
  • ———, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Paris: Minuit, 1991.
  • Desmond, Michael, “Abstracting the Landscape: Galesburg, Above and Below the Surface,” in Bergdoll and Gray, Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive.
  • Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, New York: Brace and World, 1963 [1957].
  • Heidegger, Martin, “αγχιβασσιη, Ein Gespräch selbstdritt auf einem Feldweg,” in Martin Heidegger, Feldweggespräche (1944/45), GA, band 77, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1995, pp 1-159.
  • ———, “Bauen, Wohnen, Denken,” in Vorträge und Aufsätze, Frankfurt am Main: Neske: 1978 [1954], pp 139-156.
  • ———, Aufenthalte, Frankfurt am Main: Klosterman, 1989.
  • ———, Beiträge zur Philosophie, Vom Ereignis, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1994 [1989].
  • Hoffmann, Donald, Architecture and Nature, New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
  • Neil Levine, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Livius, The History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita), book I. Dutch translation: Livius, Zonen van Mars, De geschiedenis van Rome I-X, Amsterdam, 1997, Atheneum, Polak & van Gennep.  Translation F.H. van Katwijk-Knapp
  • Rossi, Aldo, A Scientific Autobiography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.
  • Rykwert, Joseph, The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988 [1976].
  • Serres, Michel, The Natural Contract, translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998 [1992].
  • ———, Biogea, translated by Randolph Burks, Minneapolis, Univocal Publishing, 2012 [2010].
  • Sloterdijk, Peter, Sphären I, II, III, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998-2004.
  • Spuybroek, Lars, Grace and Gravity: Architectures of the Figure, New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
  • Usener, Hermann, Götternamen: Versuch einer Lehre von der Religiösen Begriffsbildung, Bonn: Cohen, 1896.
  • Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, New York: Dover Publications, 1998.
  • Žižek, Slavoj and Friedrich von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World, translated by Judith Norman, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009 [1811].