Two projects in New York, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Massaro House and Louis Kahn’s FDR Memorial, were realized long after their creators died. The former project, the Massaro House, is a vast residence on a private island notable for its dramatic cantilever that extends out over the water. The latter, Kahn’s FDR Memorial, is a public project in a highly visible location, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. Despite their obvious differences, both projects raise similar questions as to whether architects should be in the business of resurrecting the unbuilt work of other architects, in this case two masters of 20th century architecture, after they’re gone.
First, the background on both projects. Kahn’s FDR Memorial, also known as Four Freedoms Park, was one of the last buildings Kahn designed before he died in 1974. Conceived in 1973, it was to be the pinnacle piece of a much larger redevelopment project, the transformation of what was then Welfare Island into what is now the vibrant community of Roosevelt Island. Kahn’s untimely death coupled with New York’s ensuing fiscal crisis in the 1970s put a kibosh on the project. It wasn’t until 2005 that the idea of resurrecting the project surfaced, brought to life by William vanden Huevel, a Roosevelt admirer, who raised $53m to carry it out.
In contradistinction to Kahn’s FDR Memorial, Wright’s Massaro House has been widely criticized, and in this way it is more controversial. Located 47 miles north of Manhattan, it sits on a
private, heart shaped island in upstate New York. Wright designed the 5,000 sq ft sprawling residence in 1949 for A. K. Chahroudi, an engineer, who couldn’t afford to build it. So Wright instead designed a small cottage there where Chahroudi lived until he sold the property to businessman Joseph Massaro, who built the home Wright intended for the property during the period of 2003-2007. The house, which is now fully realized and currently for sale for a cool $19.9m, has many Wrightian features, such as a large cantilever that juts out over Lake Mahopac, the incorporation in its interior of a large native rock reminiscent of Wright’s approach at Fallingwater, a general low-slung and site-hugging presence on the landscape despite its enormous size, and rooms lined with window walls that blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor space. Sympathetic? Perhaps. But is it a Wright? Hmmm…
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation says no. In fact, it sued Massaro and they settled out of court with the upshot being that Massaro can no longer call the house a Wright but instead must refer to it as ‘Wright-inspired’. But if Wright were alive today would he have built this house? And if so, would he have built it in this way? Wright was famously known for being a hands-on architect who made adjustments to his projects in the field as they were being built. That being the case, there is no way for any of us to know what if any changes Wright would have made to the house. And, as the house was built much later than the period in which it was conceived, there is also no way to know what if any new materials and technologies Wright would have brought to the equation.
For me, the lapse in time between when the Massaro House was conceived and when it was built is particularly problematic, lending a ‘cartoonish’ appearance and an artificial character to the house. As in the film Blue Velvet, where in one scene we see the overlapping of trappings from three different eras brought together in a single frame, the superimposition of this house on that site at this time seems oddly out of place. Lastly, there is one additional issue to building posthumous work that I personally find troubling. I would argue that in both these cases, Wright’s Massaro House and Kahn’s FDR Memorial, the record of ideas, the architectural archive that is, has been muddied by constructing these buildings.
For me and I suspect for other architects, the intentions of projects are as important as the built work. I can only speak of my personal experience along these lines, which has helped me clarify my own position on posthumous architecture, which I am clearly against. My colleague, the architect John Nastasi, and I designed a garden structure, a folly really, for Cornel West some years back. It was part of a larger project intended to reinvent a vacant lot for community use while that site’s future was being determined. As a structure, it was quite modest; a simple honeycomb structure built of aircraft grade steel that came to the site in a long skinny strip and was expanded, much like an accordion, to create a honeycomb like
enclosure that was light and airy and highly reflective, giving those who ventured inside a parallax view of their surroundings, superimposing images of themselves with images of the neighboring Baptist church, with which this structure was in dialogue. On a site visit to the project, I was aghast to find that it had been modified, and inappropriately so, by the architect overseeing the entire group of follies. That modification consisted of the insertion of a new golf green (replete with putter!) that formed the folly’s floor. The architect in question put it there ‘to keep dirt off the shoes of the visitors’. He clearly didn’t get it. Not only were the intentions of the project irrevocably changed by this move, the modification itself was insensitive to, and inconsistent with, the narrative of the project, which sat on threshold of the wealthy, well-to-do part of town and the historical African American neighborhood where it negotiated between and was intended as commentary on those territories. In our case, another architect clearly jumped in where he didn't belong.
And I would argue that the architects who brought the Massaro House and the Kahn masterpiece to fruition did much the same thing, regardless of how well-intentioned they might have been. Completing someone else’s work is a slippery business fraught with problems. True, there are examples of works that were built over centuries and by many that are considered masterpieces; Chartres Cathedral comes to mind. But things were different then. There was not, for example, the emphasis on single authorship and branding that there is today. Thomas A. Hines, the architect and Wright scholar who realized the Massaro House built a ‘FrankenWright’; a building that is not a Wright but rather one informed by Wrightian ideas and carried out with little original documentation, leaving too much room for others to fill in the blanks. The FDR Memorial, realized by Mitchell Giurgola, is perhaps more successful on this front, shored up as it was with detailed documentation to guide it. Still neither one is authentic.
These projects illustrate some of the challenges inherent to building posthumous architecture. They also illustrate how dramatically different the results can be. Lastly and importantly, they demonstrate that architects have choices when it comes to such matters. When confronted with wicked problems as these, it’s best to take the high road. When given the opportunity to build someone else’s work that is no longer living, think of your own legacy and act accordingly.
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