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Eric Lloyd Wright Seeking an Organic Way in Architecture--and Life

January 23, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer at Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." He spoke with Eric Lloyd Wright at the architect's home in the Santa Monica Mountains

When Eric Lloyd Wright was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, he applied for service as a noncombatant. On his application forms, he was asked for the name of his priest, minister or rabbi. Without hesitation, he wrote the name of his grandfather, Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was Frank Lloyd Wright, the premier figure in 20th-Century architecture, who taught Eric the value of understanding nature and working within it. The senior Wright created the theory of organic architecture. His buildings were meant to merge with their environment, in both the way they were designed and the materials used to construct them. And his designs have proved durable as well as aesthetic. When a huge earthquake leveled Tokyo in 1923, killing some 143,000 Japanese, one of the few buildings left standing was the Imperial Hotel, designed in 1914 by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank's son, Lloyd Wright, was also an architect. He designed the original Hollywood Bowl shell, and created the landscaping for the Dodd House, today the site of the Bel-Air Hotel. Lloyd came to Los Angeles in 1919, to help his father with the construction of the Hollyhock House, in what is now Hollywood's Barnsdall Park. He stayed and built a home on Doheny Drive, between Santa Monica and Sunset. His son, Eric, grew up there, playing in a bean field on the west side of Doheny.

Eric raised chickens and ducks, loved working in the family victory garden and wanted to be a farmer. Then, when he was 15, he spent a summer in Wisconsin, at his grandfather's studio, Taliesin. He decided then to follow in the family tradition of architecture. As soon as he graduated from Hollywood High, he returned to Taliesin, where, from 1946 to 1954, he was an apprentice to his grandfather.

Wright then returned to Los Angeles to work with his father's firm, which he took over upon his father's death in 1978. He has spent a considerable amount of time supervising the restoration of his grandfather's structures, including the Storer, Hollyhock and Ennis houses in Los Angeles. He's currently working on a Philadelphia conference center and a pair of housing developments in Riverside County.

Now 64, Wright lives with his wife, Mary, a painter, in a temporary structure on a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Pacific. He's building a home there. Made of reinforced concrete, with sod roofing, it epitomizes his interpretation of organic architecture, and is designed to withstand quakes and canyon fires. A large man, with a gentle and thoughtful manner, Eric Lloyd Wright has taken his grandfather's principle of uniting the elements of nature in design, and applied that dictum to the way he lives his life.

Question: We've just watched one of our great technical achievements--our freeway system--buckle and collapse. Have we been hubristic in thinking we've learned to conquer nature?

Answer: There is a tremendous power there that we just really don't understand. Perhaps we never will understand it, but our great mistake is that we have been unwilling to work with nature and are always trying to work against it, to dominate it.

A lot of our problems come from the fact that there are just so many of us. The population pressure forces us to create these gigantic, monumental constructions that grow beyond human scale. We have lost that sense of proportion to human scale--it's gone from our buildings, we've lost it in our education system. Everything has become mechanized, and we put too much faith in that mechanical side, and not nearly enough in the spiritual and emotional sides of our nature.

Q: Is it possible for people to apply your family's principles of organic architecture to a structure like a freeway--or is a freeway, by its nature, anti-organic?

A: No, we can apply those principles to freeways. Technology is a wonderful tool, and we don't want to throw out the baby with the bath, but I think what's happened is that we've allowed the tool to tell us what to do. Technology is controlling us; we don't control technology. What has to happen is that human beings have to apply their creative and artistic sides. Those have to be the moving forces, not the mechanical side.

Q: With all the talk about how we've been rudely awakened from the California dream, what's your sense of the collective Southern California psyche right now?

A: There is, right now, a slight sense of despair. We're living in a very difficult area, in a very difficult time. I'm speaking not just of the earthquake and the fires, but also of the economy.

There is a sense of loss there as well. I suppose what we have lost is a sense of stability. But that will not last. Our memories are short. We move on, and seem to forget what has happened.

In this case, we will beef up the building codes and try to make things stronger, but more people will come in, and we will huddle more, and build more high-rises. There will be more freeways, because we keep pushing in more people.

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