Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's concern for form and design are legendary. Less known is the interest he took in portraying a patron's inner personality.
Some architectural critics have said Wright only claimed an interest to curry favor with clients. But Wright historian and University at Buffalo art history professor Jack Quinan disagrees, and in his handsome new book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House: Architecture as Portraiture," (Princeton Architectural Press, $34.95) he makes his case.
Quinan does so by examining Wright's views on portraiture and exploring the relationship between Wright and Darwin D. Martin, a high-ranking executive of the Larkin soap and mail-order company in Buffalo. Martin had helped Wright land the commission to build the Larkin Administration Building, which would be one of his towering achievements, before asking the Oak Park, Ill., architect to build a prairie-style complex in Buffalo's Parkside neighborhood.
Quinan taps into more than 400 letters exchanged between Wright and Martin, shedding light on the Martin House's birth. The book boasts more than 100 black-and-white photographs and drawings of the Martin House printed on coated stock, including some never before published. That alone makes it a must-have for Wright aficionados.
"Wright wasn't the first to annunciate portraiture theory, because others said it in passing," said Quinan, who is also curator of the Martin House and a founding member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "But Wright went farther than just saying it as a way of accommodating himself with a client."
Quinan found seven instances prior to and during Wright's prairie period, in which the architectural master said his buildings were individualized portraits of his clients.
In one case, he discussed the idea by comparing his work to that of the artist John Singer Sargent:
"A Sargent might paint a hundred portraits without a signature, and the moment we see the work we might recognize it as Sargent's," Wright said. "But no less, for all that, each portrait (would be) a revelation of the individual soul of the subject."
Quinan discusses how Wright brought that desire to the Martin House, putting aside familiar design elements found in most of his prairie houses to accommodate his vision for Martin.
The overall design of the Martin House, Quinan wrote, was for Wright to create a home so wonderful it would draw Martin's father and siblings to move to Buffalo, helping him to heal wounds from a painful past.
Martin's passion for learning was made visible through the elevation of Martin's library and the distribution of his rare-book collection throughout the house, including on shelves located within his famed pier clusters.
Martin's penchant for working hard was reflected in an obscurely positioned and carefully detailed office that ensured privacy and little distraction. It was one of only a few Wright- designed offices among his 60 prairie houses.
Wright sought to connect Darwin's work and his home life, using design elements purposely found in the Larkin Administration Building. Among the similarities was a statue of Nike of Samothrace, which Quinan speculated could have also been a metaphor for victory, and how Martin had overcome a difficult upbringing to reach familial and financial success.
It's such speculation that fuels Quinan's fascination with Wright. His extensive writings on the man widely considered to be America's greatest architect include 1987's "Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building: Myth and Fact."
The letters between Wright and Martin, he said, are illuminating.
"You get to see Wright in all kinds of guises and moods. He was clearly a person who could be immensely charming and seductive -- you just sense how magnetic he was.
"He could also be insanely contrary. He had a running battle with almost every architect and practice in the United States for most of his life. He just couldn't resist being demeaning and nasty about their work."
Nor, apparently could he resist being that way with Martin, both a business associate and friend who Quinan describes as being "drawn mothlike to Wright's flame."
Wright was in Martin's debt if for no other reason than he helped secure him jobs during lean periods and would over the years loan him tens of thousands of dollars.
"Martin is somewhat of a sycophant, but there are times when Wright treats him so badly," Quinan said. "There are letters that are so insulting."
Quinan is currently working on a catalog of 43 Wright projects that involved Buffalo, including 30 that made it to the drawing stage.