The isolation of Frank Lloyd Wright's 'complete works of art'

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

Ten years in the making - or does one say 10 years in the remaking, or 10 years from demolition to crating, to uncrating, to restoring and resurrecting - what does one say of the Frank Lloyd Wright living room opened last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

One can state the facts: the Francis W. Little House came down from its Wayzata, Minn., site in 1972, 60 years after its design; was packed away for a decade; then reframed and redetailed down to the banks of Wright-made stained-glass windows and furnishings. And now, Wright's biggest room, 30 by 45 feet, is boxed forever into America's biggest museum.

One can go beyond the facts to describe the impression of the place in a less-happy fashion. Entering through the Museum's American Wing, siphoned to the side by a rope arrangement, one encounters environs that are bland to the point of being wan. If beige were a state of mind and not just a color, the word would apply to this pallid canvas from the architect's oeuvre.

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One must certainly also state the controversy that surrounds all period rooms. ''Cut down all the trees, put them in a tree museum,'' goes the folk song. And those who espouse the cause of architecture, endorse it in situ - in its space of origin rather than its entombment in museums.

Wright, above all, resists museum excerpting. His aims were contextual. ''Organic'' is the operative word. His site plans made sure that levels slotted into landscape, landscape into house. Isolation undermines all that.

Moreover, if ''destruction of the box,'' as he put it, mattered, what do these boxy extractions say of his aims - of progression, openness, of chambers intended to flow into one another; in, out, left, right, surprising, changing as the walker moves.

To have one Little house room here; another, the library, sold to the Allentown, Pa., museum; windows at the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts; and the master-bedroom hallway in the Dallas Art Museum multiplies the distortion. Does one chop and crop a Picasso? Must one now play Humpty Dumpty and travel cross-country to put the Little home together again?

In this case the building was doomed, and the Metropolitan did perform a rescue act of a costly 300-foot-long structure.

But the reported $500,000 to $1 million cost for a more gargantuan than glorious Wright house makes one wonder.

Especially so when another, far better, Wright work, the Ward Willits home in Highland Park, Ill., has an uncertain fate, facing demolition or ''museumification.''

While some of Wright's surviving 300 or so homes (of an original 400) suffer from the poverty of their citifying neighborhoods, the Ward Willits home, like the Little house, is plagued by affluence. The costliness of its site - compounded by the owners' willingness and capacity to sell off fragments like the 100-plus stained-glass windows to art-loving vandals - jeopardizes the home.

It is, as Carla Lind, director of the Wright home and studio in Oak Park puts it, a travesty.

For the work of the man who called for the complete integrity of art and environment before the Bauhaus was born to be treated so is an added irony; for the work of one who would design a room down to its tableware and the dress fabric on its owners to be gypsied by the success of these artifacts (including their value to museums such as the Met) is the final insult.

Despite such aesthetic mockeries, the reputation proceeds apace. The office and studio in Oak Park has raised all but $400,000 of the $1.5 million needed to restore the place, and work proceeds apace. The third Saturday in May some 3,500 visitors will head there to tour the interiors. This year on April 14, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will hold a panel on Oak Park alone.

Although the 50th anniversary of Wright's atelier passed largely unnoticed last October, the somewhat mysterious followers at the Foundation in Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., attract 30,000 visitors a year and plan to start a drive to add a library to hold Wright's papers.

Meanwhile, charting the diffused doings that have made ''Wrightiana'' a word, the Frank Lloyd Wright Association's handsome newsletter, now five years old, goes to 4,000 subscribers ($20, PO Box 2100, Oak Park, Ill. 60303). Projects from a bridge repair to real estate ads appear there, and editor Thomas A. Heinz , an architect, has himself restored 35 homes and shared in the Metropolitan's endeavor.

In some ways, Wright remains more a folk hero than an architectural one. Although one trendsetter placed Wright in the post-modernist roster by dint of his eclecticism, and despite the fact that such structures as the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla., with shifting designs on four sides, make him a model for architecture's latest high-rise hipsters, Wright has yet to secure the appreciation he deserves.

Heinz, for one, cites the technological inventiveness of the man, the experiments that made every house embody a new idea. The cantilever arrangement that tied the clerestories of the Little house to support both the skylights and the house as a whole were a marvel and a discovery to Heinz - and even more so in Wright's day.

''When Mr. Wright knocked the corners out of the box and thereby created a cantilever - that was revolution!'' as Edgar Tafel wrote in ''Apprentice to Genius.''

New in mechanical systems, new in lighting, new in the structural design of posts, columns, beams, trusses, Wright's work has yet to earn its proper ''Study in Architectural Content,'' as the recently reissued book by that name by Norris Kelly Smith (American Life Foundation) puts it. Today's leaky roofs stem from shoddy construction, as Heinz says; Wright's infamous ones from pushing invention to its outer - and still instructive - limits.

''This is the modern opportunity - to make of a building together with its equipment, appurtenances and environment an entity which shall constitute a complete work of art, and a work of art more valuable to society as a whole than has before existed,'' the architect wrote six years before the Little house appeared on the landscape. Again one wonders what he would have made of its disruption from this complete state in the museum.

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