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Cloaked in Ambiguity

Architecture Review

Apr. 23, 2008
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 Hollyhock House, a residence in Los Angeles that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for oil-rich heiress Aline Barnsdall in 1919, is not among the architect’s most celebrated works. Indeed, it belongs to what has been considered by some historians as a less illustrious, almost anomalistic period of his career. However, within the last decade or so, there has been a resurgence of interest in the building, culminating in an exhibit by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs that includes the Hollyhock House drawings in its possession as well as photographs by Edmund Teske, a friend of both Barnsdall and Wright. Through June 15, some of these drawings and photographs can be seen at VillaTerraceDecorativeArtsMuseum.

 The exhibit does little to dispel the mystery of why Wright chose to depart from his gentle, earth-hugging prairie homes in favor of ponderous, ornamented, temple-like structures. It’s unlikely you’ll gain a clearer idea from this collection of how he came to design the building or how it might have contributed to his later work. There are no models or large-scale plans through which to gauge the internal arrangement of spaces, so crucial to appreciating Wright’s work. Instead, the collection offers a good general overview of the building’s appearance through elevations and perspectives, as well as a number of plans of interior and exterior details such as the mantelpiece molding, attesting to Wright’s almost obsessive command over every aspect of his buildings.

 The most interesting drawing in the exhibit is a rather hurried-looking series of views of Olive Hill, the site on which Hollyhock House is situated. The drawings include a group of buildings that Barnsdall had originally asked Wright to design, but of which only a few were actually built. They form a stepped topography, evoking a temple or palatial complex. From the north and south they appear to cascade down the hill in a series of stepped terraces, with a string of artist garrets appearing as ramparts buttressing the earth. From the east the dwelling would be shielded by a screen of trees that act as a backdrop for the theater and as flanking structures centrally positioned at the base of the hill like a ceremonial gateway. Perspectives of the building’s southwest elevation uphold the idea of a monumental palatial complex aging gracefully amid burgeoning overgrowths and hanging plants.

 However, Teske’s photographs of Hollyhock House amplify the building’s solemn beauty far better than the drawings. Though cloaked in a darkness that casts the structure in ambiguity, certain elements stand out in remarkable clarity. Parts of the west faade appear almost as bones unearthed from the thick overgrowth clinging to them. The gem-like quality of leaded glass is picked out of the inky shadows of the building’s interior. Teske uses light to emphasize shadows in much the same way Wright used apertures in this building to stress rather than dispel the solidity of the walls.

 The curators at Villa Terrace have augmented the exhibit with some Sullivanesque terra-cotta tiles, of which one is the real deal—a fragment of a stair stringer from Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Although these don’t directly relate to Hollyhock House, they offer some point of reference to the ornamental bands Wright employed in his own building. The exhibit could do with more of such points of reference. Still, it offers a good introduction to a strange and fascinating building that perhaps, like Teske’s photographs, benefits from being cloaked in ambiguity.


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