This past weekend, I caught a documentary called Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo (it’s airing on PBS currently). It’s about the the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his friend and client Darwin Martin. It chronicles Wright’s struggles and eventual ascent as a prominent architect.
As Wright’s design sensibility matures, a tension is revealed. Wright viewed his work as art. Every excruciating detail was accounted for. It was a clear vision that could not be compromised in Wright’s eyes. The budget for the Martin House spiraled out of control as Wright replaced his client’s requests with his own grand vision. Practicality gave way to an ambition to attain something uniquely austere. Darwin Martin’s wife, who was nearly blind, complained over its impracticality, most notably the lack of sunlight allowed into the home.
Most creative art, whether paintings, theater or music,is created for passive observation. We, the intended audience of art, rarely interact with the creative work. We listen to music; watch a movie; observe a painting; etc. Architecture, on the other hand, is highly interactive. We often live within, and live with the creative work.
In many ways, architecture is the precursor to interaction design. It’s one of the few early art forms that contends with that tension of creative expressiveness and basic practicality. Wright had a personal vision that blew away conventions of the day. His work was derided as impractical and heralded as groundbreaking all at once. What fueled Wright’s tangent away from conventional design was not just a simple desire to be different. He sought to create a memorable work that evoked emotion. He wanted its inhabitants and the occasional visitor to feel something about the place. Utility took a backseat.
We can learn a lot about respecting this tension as designers – and feeding both ends of it. It isn’t easy to create something both beautiful, emotionally-evoking and at the same time useful, intuitive and practical.
During the program, one of the commentators summed up this tension perfectly (I’m paraphrasing):
What Wright sought was to somehow reach a place where the awesome converges with the everyday.