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Sam Hall Kaplan

Wright Stuff--In and Out of the Gallery

February 06, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

All is Wright these days in Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood.

On display at the park's Municipal Art Gallery through March 13 are two major exhibits of some of the more inventive projects master architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Los Angeles and in Wisconsin. Gallery hours are 12:30 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

Though the two exhibits are engaging, recommended and well organized, they are limited. To examine architecture through photographs, plans, drawings, models, films and words just will not do, particularly not for Wright's idiosyncratic designs.

To really appreciate Wright's designs you have to experience them, feel--in the massing--the power of the structure and materials, be lured closer by the detailing, be embraced by the entries and be dazzled by the interiors.

Just a few steps from the gallery, on the crest of the hill on which the art park sits above the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, is the brooding Barnsdall House, the first of a series of commissions Wright executed in Los Angeles.

Designed for Aline Barnsdall, an eccentric oil heiress, the rambling wood-frame stucco house incorporated a flowing interior focused on a monumental fireplace. The resulting open, bright layout reflected the flavor of the architect's earlier so-called Prairie School designs on which much of his success in the Midwest was based.

But Wright, in an apparent effort to capture the flavor of the Southwest, wrapped the house in a heavy and forbidding mock Mayan mass. Above the many large windows, Wright placed a brow of stylized cast-stone hollyhocks, the client's favorite flower, which lent the house its more common name, Hollyhock House. It was completed in 1921.

Barnsdall lived in the house, along with her daughter, 12 dogs and several servants, for only about a year. In time, she donated the house and the surrounding 36 acres to the city, which accepted it after several years of delay. The house is now operated by the city's Cultural Affairs Department.

Hourly public tours of the house are conducted by docents Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. For more information, please call (213) 485-4580.

Wright continued his mock Mesoamerican motif on several other houses in the Los Angeles area, combining it with an experimental pre-cast concrete-block construction system. The houses that can be seen from the street are the Millard, 645 Prospect Crescent, Pasadena; the Storer, 8161 Hollywood Blvd., above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood; the Freeman, 1962 Glencoe Way, in Hollywood Heights, and the Ennis-Brown, 2607 Glendower Ave., in the Los Feliz hills.

Of the four, the Ennis-Brown is the most monumental and imposing, and the most easily seen from the street. The sprawling, brawny building appears to be more a mountaintop fortress than a house, exuding a timelessness and an originality that marked Wright's genius. Operated by a public trust, the house is occasionally open for tours. For more information, please call (213) 660-0607.

Drawings, models and archival photographs of the Hollyhock, Freeman, Storer and Ennis-Brown houses are included in the gallery exhibit, which examines Wright's designs in Southern California. Also included are furniture from the houses, original molds for the concrete blocks and explanatory drawings.

The exhibit, appropriately entitled "Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles: An Architecture for the Southwest," was organized by Virginia Kazor and Jeffrey Chusid, curators, respectively, of the Hollyhock and Freeman houses.

The other exhibit focuses on Wright's innovative design of a complex of buildings for the Johnson Wax Co. in Racine, Wis. The buildings, constructed in the late 1930s and '40s, are considered architectural and engineering landmarks--romantic corporate cathedrals for which Wright orchestrated every detail, from the inventive furnishings to the dramatic structural system.

The exhibit was curated by Jonathan Lipman, who is also the author of a definitive book on the subject, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings," (Rizzoli: $35, hardcover; $19.95, paperback).

Along with the exhibits, there will be a series of lectures on Wright offered this month in the gallery's theater on select Thursday evenings at 7:30. Also scheduled are a series of films about Wright. Information: (213) 485-4581.

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