I'm standing on the pedestrian/bike path just below the brand-new Prairie Style bridge on East Washington Avenue. The Yahara River flows gently by, the occasional motorboat rustling the placid water. And the underside of the bridge, with its series of low-lying arches, creates the effect of an indoor swimming pool, a natatorium. Gone are the days when folks would use the banks of the Yahara as a junkyard. And gone are almost all traces of the cattails and muskrats, the quicksand and malaria that once got this part of town dubbed, rather grandiloquently, the Great Central Marsh. A little over 100 years after construction began on the Yahara River Parkway, which links Lake Mendota with Lake Monona, it has finally been completed.
And the centerpiece, it turns out, is a bridge that might have been designed by Wisconsin's very own Frank Lloyd Wright, who, as a boy, lived just down the street from the Yahara and who more or less invented the Prairie Style back when John Nolen, America's preeminent city planner, was trying to help clean up Madison's act. Nolen, drawing on the City Beautiful Movement that was sweeping the country, came up with a plan that, if adopted, would have turned Madison into one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the Paris of the Midwest. And although it was all a little too rich for the town's blood at the time, Nolen's plan has continued to guide us over the years. We may not have a Grand Mall and Great Esplanade, but we have the Monona Terrace Convention Center. East Washington may not rival the Champs Elysées, but it's looking more like a boulevard these days, with its brick-paved medians and modest landscaping.
And the bridge over the Yahara, once an afterthought, a slight rise in the road on your way into town, now feels like a true gateway to the city, framing the state Capitol off in the distance and bringing an element of dignity to the proceedings. Driving by in a car, what you notice are the lantern-topped columns, that and the large planters that seem to have been brought over from Monona Terrace. On foot, you can walk over to one of the four corner lookouts and watch the river traffic - boats, bikes and bipeds - pass by. But the best place from which to view the bridge itself is from down here, where the vertical columns and the horizontal span resolve themselves into a pleasing composition, and where the various elements can be seen to engage in a little spatial play, the corner lookouts sheltering the paths below, the columns forming various sets of two and four, depending on where you're standing.
Allusions to Wright's work abound. The lantern-topped columns, with their incised ornament, evoke - to me, anyway - the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, which famously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then was demolished in 1968. The ornamental motif itself, an abstraction of a sumac plant, was perhaps borrowed from the Dana House in Springfield, Ill., where it appears in a profusion of T-square variations. And all that creamy beige (the bridge itself) and rec-area green (the railings) are offset by discreet touches of Wright's trademark Cherokee red. Surely that alone would have inclined him to accept this belated apology from a town that didn't always know what to make of the genius in its midst. That he was a great architect was undeniable. Just ask him. Or just look at his buildings. But it must have been one of the great disappointments of Wright's life that so few of those buildings are in Madison.
Oh, we have our share: the Unitarian Church, the Gilmore House, the Pew House, Jacobs I and II. But when it came to securing commissions in what was essentially Wright's hometown, his reputation preceded him. And his reputation was that of a vain (porkpie hat, cape and cane), arrogant (not just the greatest architect of his time but the greatest of all time) scandal magnet whose roofs leaked and who, most notoriously, neglected to pay his bills. Only with the completion of the convention center, which either is or isn't a bona-fide Frank Lloyd Wright building, depending on your perspective, did Madison and Wright finally set aside their differences. It may not be the best building he either did or didn't design, but it links the Capitol to the lake in a beautiful, meaningful way. And it acknowledges the fact that, after all these years, we need him as much as he needs us.
If not more, for as everyone knows, Wright's reputation just gets bigger and bigger. Operas are written about him. Plays are written about him. Biographies keep coming out, drawing on the avalanche of academic scholarship that's been done. In 1994, New York's Museum of Modern Art finally mounted the full-scale retrospective that Wright couldn't quite talk them into when he was alive. And in 1998, Wright got the Ken Burns treatment, a worshipful documentary that, in its choice of background music alone, suggested a creative genius on a par with Beethoven himself. Meanwhile, retail sales of the Wright stuff - jewelry, scarves, mouse pads, you name it, all stamped with his decorative patterns - have turned into a cottage industry, the license fees from which Wright would have loved to get his hands on. Nearly 50 years after his death, Wright has reached the apotheosis of fame: He's become a brand.
And maybe it's as a brand that he's starting to reappear around town - in houses, condos, commercial and public buildings. Or maybe it's as an architect whose vision continues to light a path to a better tomorrow. Either way, he's back, mostly as the headmaster of the Prairie School, an approach to architecture that Wright pretty much abandoned in 1909 when he ran off to Europe with his Oak Park mistress, Mamah Cheney, leaving behind a wife, six children and a growing national reputation. There are exceptions, of course. Monona Terrace draws on the last phase of Wright's career, when gentle curves and perfect circles flooded his imagination. And the glass prow that juts out from the museum end of Overture Center, which was Cesar Pelli's nod to the local talent, is derived from the Unitarian Church. Otherwise, it's the earth-hugging horizontals of the Prairie Style that we seem to be harking back to.
A question naturally arises: Why would we want to hark back to the Prairie Style? It's been gone for almost 100 years, washed away by the wave of nostalgia that hit the country after World War I, leaving row upon row of colonial houses in its wake. Why bring it back now? When it first appeared, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, the Prairie Style was considered forward-looking, progressive, a rejection of the historical styles that dominated American architecture at the time. Now, it's a historical style itself, and to build in it seems backward-looking, regressive.
But is there perhaps some timeless quality that the Prairie Style embodies? Are its design ideas - horizontal lines, sheltering eaves, natural materials, open interiors - as relevant as ever? Does Frank Lloyd Wright, whom we preferred not to listen to when he was alive, still have something to tell us a half-century after his death?
I'm standing in the newly refurbished terminal building at Dane County Regional Airport, and what strikes me first is how calm it feels. The space, although it has the size and shape of an airplane hangar, is carved up just enough to give it some intimacy. And the palette - earth tones, mostly - is nicely muted without lulling you to sleep. Airports like to soar, for obvious reasons, but this one seems more interested in arrivals than departures, the desire to get down on our hands and knees and kiss the ground, if only metaphorically. And yet there's been an attempt to liven up the ceiling, with variable heights, a slight coffering and, way up there, some stained-glass light fixtures. Wright's Unity Temple may be the touchstone, and although this doesn't begin to match the complex simplicity of what the master achieved there, one has to salute the desire to distract us from all that acoustic tile.
There are other touches that make you appreciate the airport's willingness to go the extra frequent-flyer mile. Many of the doors and windows bear the etched-glass imprint of a prairie plant (sumac again?), which helps break up the monotony (there's a lot of glass) and reduces glare. And the ticket counters have a nice sleekness, thanks to the thin horizontal bands of aluminum that offset the cherry-wood panels. I would have done more with the floor-tile design, which appears to have derived its rectangular motif from the carpet in Chicago's Robie House. And that embedded "W" or "M" (depending on where you're standing) was a moment of weakness on somebody's part. But the exhibition space, which now features a wonderfully informative show about Wright's lifelong love affair with Japan, is no mere touch. It's a major commitment in an airport this size. Wright would have loved it.
What he would have thought about the rest of the place...well, let's face it, he would have hated it, both because he tended to hate anything that didn't originate on his own drafting table and because, for all the nice little touches, the terminal's interior doesn't really hang together. Neither does its exterior, by the way. It's a lot easier to redo the inside of a building than the outside; and the outside of this one, though not without its moments, is stuck betwixt and between, not quite what it used to be, not quite what it wanted to become. Overall, the airport renovation seems less Prairie Style than Prairie Styling - stamped on. But considering all the other styles that might have been stamped on, it's almost a relief they went with this one, not just because Wright's one of our homeboys but because the serenity that the Prairie Style lends itself to is a welcome state of mind when one hops on a plane these days.
A ship sailing by
Out where East Washington crosses Highway 51, there's a much more successful example of neo-Prairie Style: the Home Savings Bank branch building designed by Linville Architects. Perhaps no local architect has done more than Ed Linville to keep the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright alive. His Yarmouth Crossing Retail Center, at the corner of McKee and Fish Hatchery Roads, suggests the Prairie Style is adaptable to that architectural kudzu known as the strip mall. But with the bank branch, Linville was apparently allowed to let his imagination roam a little bit, and he seems to have landed on the Robie House, which is generally considered the culmination of Wright's Prairie period. Stretched out along East Wash, like a ship sailing by, the more-or-less rectangular building (with a low-lying wing jutting out the back) presents a complex interplay of overlapping planes and intersecting volumes.
The red brick of the Robie House has given way to a more variable palette, including a yellow-orange brick that makes the top half of the building appear to float over the bottom half. And the wide cornices, painted a dark green, draw attention to the fact that Linville has gone with flat roofs rather than the hipped roofs that help make the Robie House all about shelter. Flat roofs are a hallmark of the International Style, of course, and the bank branch definitely leans in that direction. But the belvedere, with its wrap-around clerestory windows, would seem to be a direct quote of the Robie House's third-floor bedroom suite. And the Robie House's celebrated porch, with its dramatically cantilevered roof, has become that thing Wright liked to give clients in place of a garage: a porte-cochere, here used as a customer drive-through. Overall, what Linville has done is update the Prairie Style, adapted it to his needs.
It's fun to imagine what kind of designs Wright would be coming up with if he were still alive today. Would he be at the forefront of green architecture? He certainly anticipated it with what he called organic architecture, the idea that a building should emerge naturally from its environment, like a plant. But would he have found a way to spiff up, say, walls made out of straw bales? Computer-aided design would have forced Wright to put down his beloved T-square, but the ability to twist, fold and curve space, à la Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, might have taken him far beyond his own Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. (And you think it's hard to view the art now!) Does Gehry have the career Wright might have had? Or does Santiago Calatrava, whose Milwaukee Art Museum is of the lake, not on the lake?
It's hard to say, but I suspect Wright would have graduated from plane to fractal geometry by now - the fractal geometry of leaves, tree branches, snowflakes, ocean waves, mountains, coastlines. And he'd have wrapped it in a building philosophy that still invoked the great American-soil tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with a little John Muir, Aldo Leopold, even some Wendell Berry thrown in for good measure. Architect/impresario Philip Johnson, who opened the gates so that the life-in-a-box International Style could invade our defenseless country, famously referred to Wright as "the greatest architect of the 19th century," a kiss worse than death, given that we were well into the 20th century when he said it. But the fact is, few architects have seen so far into the future while keeping both feet so firmly planted in the present.
But was Wright's vision, with the benefit of hindsight, 20/20? Not always. For example, his vision of the American landscape, as the prairie gave way to cornfields gave way to housing subdivisions, was a little off. Broadacre City, his stab at urban/suburban planning, in which everyone would get his/her own broad acre to build on, turned out to be a recipe for sprawl. We don't have the room to maneuver that we once had. Verticals have become as important as horizontals. But can we build for today while holding on to yesterday and looking toward tomorrow? Can we keep Wright with us while letting him go?
Prairie Land, USA
I'm walking down Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue, the main drag in Middleton Hills, developer Marshall Erdman's attempt to take neighborhood design both back to the future and forward to the past. To my left are the commercial spaces - a Copps grocery store, the Prairie Café and Bakery, a Starbucks - that still haven't quite put the "urban" in New Urbanism. The buildings themselves seem a little emphatically designed, storefronts in a theme park called Prairie Land, USA. But to my right is one of the most charming collections of houses in the history of architecture. Perhaps too charming: A sameness starts to set in, not just because the building code allows such a narrow range of architectural possibilities but because the mind can only handle so much beauty before it craves some ugliness, a crack in the Golden Bowl.
As a social environment, Middleton Hills may or may not be the newly old-fashioned community that Erdman envisioned; only its residents know that for sure. But as a built environment, it's like a fantasy of how things might have turned out if Wright - the early, Prairie School Wright - had had his way. He would have wanted to spread things out a bit; he liked his houses to breathe. And he would have wanted the occasional house to stand out a little more, as his always did. (Some do, of course, but not as much as they would in just about every other neighborhood in America.) But surely he would have preferred this over the acre upon acre of ranch houses that have turned out to be his most lasting contribution to American architecture. I used to tell my friends that I grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and I did. It's just that mine used a sliding-glass door to blur the boundary between inside and outside.
It also had a picture window, a slanted ceiling, a dining area instead of a dining room and our very own version of the Prairie palette: burnt orange, harvest gold and avocado green. In the grand architectural scheme of things, the place didn't amount to much, but it was our home, and it suited the informal lifestyle that we had no choice but to adopt. What strikes me now, though, is that it worked so well not because it was in the Prairie Style but because it drew on some of the principles behind the Prairie Style. And maybe, as Madison continues to welcome back its prodigal son, it should think not just about the styles he designed in but the principles behind those styles.