Writing Wright’s Legacy: Edgar Kaufmann Jr. on Frank Lloyd Wright
Presented by: Elise King
Frank Lloyd Wright remains one of design history’s most studied figures. In the past scholars have relied on the Wright canon—the common narrative developed in the years before and directly following the architect’s death. These seminal texts provide a valuable but narrow view, often colored by authors who had personal relationships with Wright. Today, scholars are only beginning to reexamine this loop of information that has been repeated, generally without question, during the more than fifty years since Wright’s death. To better place Wright in the history of architecture it is imperative to examine those who have shaped the conversation about his work and influences. Among the most important of these was Edgar Kaufmann jr. [sic].
Kaufmann is the lens through which many, unknowingly, view Wright. From the 1950s until his death, in 1989, Kaufmann authored thirty publications on Wright, the most of his contemporaries. In addition to writing, Kaufmann also exerted influence through his management of Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater. As the only son of Edgar Kaufmann Sr.—the department store magnet who commissioned Wright to design Fallingwater—Kaufmann was responsible for managing the property after his parents’ deaths. Following his father’s wishes, Kaufmann bequeathed the home to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, working closely with the organization to establish its tour program. Fallingwater continues to operate under Kaufmann’s explicit guidelines. This includes the material discussed, and omitted, on tours as well as the physical presentation of specific furniture, accessories, and art. For the nearly five million people who have visited Fallingwater, their experience—from the design of the visitor’s center to the location of the parking lot and content of the tour—was dictated, in large part, by Kaufmann.
Common themes in Kaufmann’s writings and Fallingwater’s tour program offer insight into his understanding of Wright, and the image of Wright that he sought to convey. Of Kaufmann’s thirty publications, the majority focus on Wright’s “organic” period—dating from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Influenced, no doubt, by his intimate relationship with Wright during this period, Kaufmann places an inflated importance on Fallingwater and Wright’s other “organic” projects, suggesting this to be the pinnacle of Wright’s career—a belief many scholars have repeated, with little evidence. Kaufmann continues to discuss organic architecture in his most well-known work, “Plasticity, Continuity, and Ornament” (1978). Here, he serves as Wright’s interpreter, explaining the meaning behind the architect’s often contradictory and cloudy rhetoric. Kaufmann’s definitions of plasticity, continuity, and ornament—key Wright concepts—have been rarely questioned, now an accepted part of the Wright canon.
Kaufmann remains primarily associated with Fallingwater. But his influence extends beyond the house to his seminal texts on Wright, introduction of Wright’s work in museums, preservation of Wright-designed homes, and several exhibitions. Regarding Wright as a personal friend and teacher, Kaufmann had a unique perspective among scholars. Examining critically Kaufmann’s writings and dissecting his methods of analysis reveal his biases as well as his contributions to the Wrightian narrative.
- Fallingwater: A Frank Lloyd Wright Country House. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.
- “The Form of Space for Art—Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.” Art In America 46 (1958- 1959): 74-77.
- “The Usonian Pope-Leighey House.” Historic Preservation 17 (May-June 1965): 96-97.
- “Frank Lloyd Wright: The Eleventh Decade.” Architectural Forum 130, no 5 (June 1969): 38-41.
- “Frank Lloyd Wright: Plasticity, Continuity, and Ornament.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 37, no 1 (March 1978): 34-39.