OF ALL THE VIRTUES OF ARCHITECTURE, permanence ranks among the highest. Throughout history, cultures have relied on it to impress upon the future values of the past. This is why we know so much more about Egyptian kingdoms, Greek democracy, and Roman jurisprudence, than, say the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. Where the former built with brick and stone and later concrete—materials that outlast the onslaught of time—the latter did so using reeds, harvested from waters gathered at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The former is permanent, the latter inherently impermanent and subject to the perennial cycles of biological life.
It is said that the Roman emperor Nero, CE 37–68, intentionally set Rome on fire just so that he could rebuild it using materials more robust and lasting than the ones in place, and to match in architectural grandeur Rome’s imperial power. That story was never fully corroborated, except that it was well known that Nero hated Rome’s meek and rickety appearance. He wanted more.
Some claim the same happened in nineteenth-century America, when cities simply did not match in power and ambition the locomotion of industrial expansion across the country. Every year a new devastating fire seemed to consume yet another town, taking down rickety buildings and laying bare the potential for a new civilization. We know of the big one in Chicago, the “great fire” of 1871, which took place just about that time when the city was quickly acquiring power as the “economic hub of the great Midwestern hinterland,” as one historian put it. “Through the 1880s, lumber companies continued to cut white pines in the great north woods of Wisconsin and Michigan and float them by barge down Lake Michigan to Chicago …” Old, flimsy buildings couldn’t do anymore; they lacked the ability to inspire the imagination and complement in strength and promise the activity on the ground. They had to go in favor of sturdier and more sophisticated structures. The fire was blamed on a cow which allegedly tipped a candle. If so, it is likely that someone with a mind for renewal coaxed the cow in that direction.
Closer to home, Spokane suffered the same fate in 1889, the fire there taking out 32 blocks, just in time for the great mining and lumber prospectors to set up shop and rebuild anew, with more permanent materials. Which they did, including an auditorium building and several great mansions to rival similar ones in Chicago. Investors took note, as far away as Holland, impressed by the plan underway. Of this change, one investor said, “I have never seen a small town which offers such an overwhelming impression of monumental buildings.” To be sure, it was not the fire that first inspired the Dutch to invest in the Inland Northwest, but the arrival of rail. Still it was the fire and the promise of building activity that kept the foreign bankers around.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the late iconic American architect, had a different take on longevity and permanence. Born to a maternal family steeped on Ralph Waldo Emerson and other transcendentalists, he believed that the essence of things lies not in their material presence but in the ideas that gave rise to them. This naturally meant the need to let go of things, precisely so that their conception can stay on, perhaps forever. Enjoy them while they last but also celebrate their demise.
Wright called the process “organic,” borrowing the term from the likes of Horatio Greenough, Emerson, Thoreau, and other nineteenth-century American thinkers. Like a plant, architecture, he thought, must grow from the seed out, feed a need and a culture, but then return to the soil. To think and do otherwise was to risk suffering the consequences of obsolescence, ridicule, and, perhaps worst of all, a culture too eager to turn everything into a spectacle. As arrogant as Wright may have at times seemed, the last thing he wanted was for his buildings to fall victim to commercialized worship. Better let buildings go than turn them into tourist attractions, putting the onus on the present to bear fruit. The design of a house should emanate from a clear understanding of current conditions, be they related to site, family, budget, and more. Once gone and those parameters are no longer valid, however, the house should subside, its power and worth now a function of the lessons it affords, not the style it had put up.
It is not for nothing then that, when asked which of his buildings he liked the most, Wright always answered “the next one,” the last one, and all previous ones, having already entered a process of decay. What worth they had, it was embedded in the way they inspired a new generation of buildings. It is also not by accident that when he came to design walls and roofs, he often made them paper thin, and this to invite nature in, quickening the process of erosion. Clients often complained, calling the architect at odd hours, unhappy about the fact that water had entered the building and ruined their dinner. Upon one such call, Wright simply asked the client to move his chair three feet to left and ended the call. Absurd and insensitive, absolutely, but profound nonetheless in the way that Wright urged Americans to contend with the forces of nature. Too often they resisted it, shutting the world out and inhaling bad air. To be sure, Wright never designed anything with the intended purpose that it should leak or fall apart, but he did, at least conceptually, challenge the distinction between inside and outside and with it modern resistance to weather and time.
In California, in the 1920s, he would quicken the effect and give us what in essence were architectural ruins. These were homes designed for modern and progressive clients but which looked like they had been around for 3,000 years, synonymous with some of the more prominent Mayan ruins in Mexico. Dubbed the “textile homes,” for the way Wright designed their cladding to look like woven fabric, they seemed to succumb to the march of time. The results were influential, impacting more than one architect around the world, most famously the Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa, active throughout the middle of the twentieth century. No sooner did Scarpa come across Wright’s work early in his career than he adopted it as his philosophy back in Italy, appropriately so, given the historic context of that country. Unlike other modernists who produced polished works, using glass and steel, he followed Wright and gave us what amounted to ruins. At the Brion Cemetery, near Trevisio, Italy, he would step the concrete back and forth in such a way to achieve that effect, as if the whole mass of the building had been eaten by time and restored back to nature.
In the end, and despite Wright’s passion for dissolution, his work had acquired a following, loved across the world and certainly America. As much as he wanted it to subside and return to the soil, a whole nation had rallied to protect and keep it around. In the 1980s a small group of scholars and architects, but also from other walks of life, would gather and form the F.L. Wright Building Conservancy, to preserve as many of the architect’s buildings as possible. Hard work on that front was soon underway in earnest, finding great accomplishment in 2018 when eight of Wright’s most iconic buildings were finally selected to become UNESCO World Heritage Sites, on par with the likes of Babylon, the Parthenon, and Chartres Cathedral.
Cultures have always had a contentious relation with architectural permanence: in one sense an important contribution to heritage and national identity, on the other a shackle from which to break and find intellectual freedom. America has had a particularly bad case of the conundrum, on the one hand seeking financial power and prestige through novelty, renewal, and indeed the end of things; on the other, doing everything it can to preserve history, forever insecure about its European counterparts’ outsized supply of which, justifiably of not.
In their book On Weathering, Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow start by writing, “No building stands forever, eventually everyone falls under the influence of the elements, and this end is known from the beginning.” How true and yet also how difficult to accept, not least because we need monuments to help us shape cultural identities. Perhaps, in the end, what matters is less permanence or impermanence but the manner with which we pace the transition between the two. Not all structures need to stay but all deserve a measured return to the earth, commensurate with the pace of those who had lived and come to rely on them.
Ayad Rahmani, professor of architecture, has been at Washington State University for almost 25 years. His book, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Transforming the American Mind, is due out this fall from Louisiana State University Press.