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By Robert McCarter
368 pages, $79.95

Robert McCarter's "Frank Lloyd Wright" has the stunning dust jacket, sumptuous color plates and hefty price tag of the coffee-table book, that anomalous genre of modern publishing that cries out to be owned but somehow defies reading.

Because similar books on Wright have been turning up with increasing frequency in recent years, a reader very well might ask: Is this the book on Wright? Does McCarter have something new to tell us about the renowned architect? The answer to these questions requires some digression.

At his death in 1959 at age 91, Frank Lloyd Wright left a legacy of 22,000 drawings and 198,000 letters and documents that are now housed in the Archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of the archives, spent 25 years photographing and cataloging this material before the archives were finally opened to scholars in 1980. The result has been an avalanche of books and articles on Wright.

Led by Pfeiffer, who has published nearly 60 books on Wright since the 1970s, much of the bookish outpouring has featured brilliant color photographs of Wright's buildings and their furnishings interlaced with skeins of worshipful prose. Wright is easily mythologized because he gave us such a vigorous head start in his own writings and public utterances.

The result is an extraordinary proliferation of books on Wright's work (to say nothing of calendars, ties, T-shirts, mugs, CD-ROMs, videos, etc.). There are guidebooks to Wright's 400 extant buildings, biographies, monographs on individual buildings, collections of his writings, photo-essay books, books on his decorative arts, his lost works, his planning, his clients, his treatment of the landscape, his drawings, his urbanism and the experience of being a Taliesin Fellow. But despite this lavish attention, Wright's work has stubbornly resisted comprehensive treatment.

The first attempt, by Grant Manson, began as a projected three-volume study in 1937, was interrupted by World War II, and finally materialized in 1958 as the classic "Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910." Volumes 2 and 3 were never written. Henry-Russell Hitchcock's "In the Nature of Materials," published in 1942, dealt incisively with Wright's work up to 1941, but Wright confounded Hitchcock -- and everyone else -- by living another 19 years and by producing as many buildings in that period as he had in his first 73 years.

With the opening of the Wright archives in 1980, a comprehensive study became inevitable. Robert McCarter's "Frank Lloyd Wright" is one of two books published in the past two years in which the authors have attempted to deal with Wright's entire career in architecture, a formidable task when one considers that Wright designed more than 1,000 buildings, of which nearly 500 were built. The other study, Neil Levine's "The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" (Princeton, 1996), will be discussed shortly.

McCarter, an architect who chairs the department of architecture at the University of Florida, explains at the outset that he has undertaken to write a book that will enable us to understand the experience of Wright's space, essential aspect of Wright's work.

This is a worthy goal but an extremely difficult one. The experience of architectural space is a total, enveloping one that involves not only movement and the visual senses, but the tactile, the aural and even, to some lesser degree, the sense of smell. An approximation of spatial experience is highly resistant to the confines of the printed page, and Wright's work is unusually difficult in that regard because every aspect of his buildings, including space, materials, structure, landscape, furnishings, uses of light, color and mechanical systems, is fully integrated in the design. To isolate the spatial experience is to diminish the work. It's worth doing, however, because it provides another way to understand Wright.

McCarter has organized the book in 15 thematic chapters, among them "The Development of the Prairie House," "The Introverted Public Space," "The Extroverted House," "The Courtyard Dwelling," "The Concrete-Block House" and "The Cantilevered Tower." This allows him to move chronologically through Wright's career while giving focus to his concern with spatial development and allowing him to account for Wright's ability to work simultaneous in several different spatial-structural modes.

Within the development of these thematic chapters, McCarter provides the kind of fresh insights into Wright's thinking and his architectural development that only another architect could make. Most of Wright's major buildings are discussed expansively, and benefit from analyses that are informed by McCarter's incisive eye for detail and his ability to interpret the developments in Wright's style.

McCarter treats the Buffalo buildings -- the Barton and Martin houses and the Larkin Administration Building -- quite fully. In fact, his nine pages on the Darwin Martin house include the kind of effusive praise that historians traditionally have been reluctant to offer. "The Martin House," he begins, "is without doubt one of his greatest achievements, a solution to his efforts to define appropriately open yet monumental forms for American architecture, rooted in the suburban landscape."

Following a detailed discussion of how the Martin house functions spatially, he concludes: "What I have been describing at the Darwin Martin House, built in 1904 -- where Wright achieved perhaps his most complete synthesis through the integration of structure, construction, utilities, built-in furnishings, glasswork, landscape and the extraordinary interpenetration and layering of spaces, all tied together through our movements in occupying the house -- no longer exists, except in black-and-white photographs.

"Today the Martin House stands stripped of all its built-in cabinets, most of its stained glass and light fixtures, and all its carpets and furniture; on the exterior, the pergola, conservatory, plantings and garage are gone, replaced by new apartment buildings. The incomprehensible gutting of this house and its site, destroying forever both the definition of the interior spaces and the relationship of the house to its landscape, it surely one of the saddest mistakes of our often short-sighted generation."

While it is gratifying to have the historical significance of the Martin house so effusively acknowledged, McCarter is obviously unaware of the recent acquisition of the Barton house and the "new apartments" by the Martin House Restoration Corp., the existence of about half of the stained glass and furnishings, and the current efforts to restore the entire complex.

"Frank Lloyd Wright" is rich in insightful analysis of Wright's architecture, but it is flawed in a way that calls into question its presentation as a coffee-table book intended for the public. McCarter's concerns and means are highly specialized and are likely to be comprehensible and interesting only to a narrow audience of architects and students of architecture.

McCarter's principal strategy for providing the experience of Wright's spaces is descriptive. That is, much of his text attempts to lead the reader into and through the building space by space, step by step. But McCarter found it necessary to round out his themes and typologies by including descriptions of more than 100 Wright buildings, including a number of projects that were drawn but never built. You may be daunted, but keep in mind that the book is anchored in highly illuminating discussions of the major buildings.

McCarter's book is usefully compared with Neil Levine's "The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright," a study that is based on broader themes such as Wright's use of historical precedent, myth and the four elements, as well as Levine's own explorations of modernism and time, abstraction vs. representation, traces of New Theory and more.

McCarter dismisses the work of Wright's final decade in a chapter titled "Integration and Disintegration in the Late Work," writing, "Yet the effect of his increasingly isolated situation (physically, intellectually and socially), the vast increase in the amount of work coming into the office, and the absolute ban Olgivanna (Mrs. Wright) imposed on any kind of criticism of Wright's ideas, no matter how inappropriate or superficial they might be, led inevitably to the decline in quality of many of Wright's designs." McCarter goes on to demonstrate this decline convincingly.

Levine's final chapter, "Signs of Identity in an Increasingly One-Dimensional World," covers the same period in Wright's career but is much more optimistic and treats such late works as the V.C. Morris Shop in San Francisco, the redesign of the city of Baghdad, Iraq, and the Marin County Civic Center north of San Francisco as richly developed designs that draw upon history, the nature of the setting, the emerging significance of the automobile, the exploitation of materials and pure design innovation. Two authors could not agree less, yet in the end both books serve as testimony to the richness of Wright's work, and we are the ultimate beneficiaries.