Frank Lloyd Wright vs. Modern Kitsch

Recently I visited both Toronto’s Spadina House and Buffalo’s Darwin Martin House National Historic Landmark.

The Globe and Mail’s brilliant urban affairs columnist Marcus Gee lavished praise on Spadina House in his column of August 17, calling it an “overlooked Toronto jewel.” The house has been restored to its appearance in the Twenties and the tour focuses on the lives of the prominent Austin family, who occupied it then. With a few exceptions, I found the rooms dark and gloomy – especially in mid-summer – and I found the life-style of the Austin family, as recreated on the tour, utterly conventional. The tour channels the oft-repeated Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey stories.

The significance of the Darwin Martin House is that it was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early designs, built between 1903 and 1905, includes a complex of three houses, and is in the process of restoration. The tour focuses on both Wright’s architectural innovations as well as the lives of the Martin family, and the client-architect relationship between Martin and Wright. The architectural innovations include the horizontal prairie style, cruciform shape designed to maximize natural light, support through internal columns and I-beams rather than load-bearing walls, hidden entrances, minimization of the distinction between inside and outside, and long sight-lines. Taken together, these represent a rebellion against the strictures of Victorian architecture so much in evidence at Spadina House. The tour was a fascinating excursion into the mind of a creative genius.

Darwin Martin was an executive of the Larkin Soap Company, a corporate executive of comparable class and wealth to James Austin, founder of the Dominion Bank and Consumers Gas. Austin introduced Edwardian, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Colonial Revival touches to a Victorian property – in other words, a little bit of everything. There is a Yiddish word for it: ungapatchka, which the urban dictionary defines as “overly ornate, busy, ridiculously over-decorated, and garnished to the point of distaste.”

Martin contacted Frank Lloyd Wright, at that time a young architectural innovator, acquired a parcel of land, and took the risk of working with him to create something entirely new. The tour of the Martin House demonstrated what was so innovative about it, and how Wright’s work has affected architecture in the century since.

I looked up Wright’s corpus of architectural design and discovered that about 99 percent of it was in the US. His only work in Canada was a pavilion at Banff National Park, demolished in 1939, and a cottage in the Sault Ste. Marie area. Wright did some notable work in Japan, so it is reasonable to ask why he didn’t do more work in Canada. Perhaps the answer is that the rich and prominent in Canada were too conventional and unwilling to experiment.

As far as houses are concerned, I regret that little has changed in Toronto. This city is home to some notable modern architects – the KPMB partnership, Harari-Pontarini, Jack Diamond, Eb Zeidler – but most of their work is commercial and institutional. Most of the large new houses going up seem to be designed by what my wife and I have called Pseudo, Ersatz, and Faux Architects Ltd. We see this every day in the Don Mills neighbourhood and in particular our street.  Many of the Seventies bungalows are being torn down and replaced with houses that are derivative and ungapatchka. There are faux chateaux and heavy stone piles channeling manor homes in the highlands of Scotland. Not to mention the Italianate villas and Tudor country estates.

This desecration of the urban environment is tragic because originality is not more expensive than imitation.  What Toronto needs is visionary clients like Darwin Martin who engage with avant-garde architects. What we are getting, sadly, is endless iterations of the work of Pseudo, Ersatz, and Faux.


1 comment

  1. Spadina House was built in 1818 and was lovely for the time. We visited Colbourne Lodge recently and it was also very interesting as it shows a home that was built in 1837 and it gave me a sense of life at that time. It is in High Park and used as a country home.
    I do like Frank Lloyd Wright homes too.
    Personally I am very interested at this time in my life in finding out about people who are building environmentally friendly homes.
    We have friends who have a daughter and son in law living in Whitehorse and are building a solar heated home.
    Perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright was a step along the way to building a more environmentally friendly home.

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