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By Jonathan Haeber
It’s a Saturday. Such an excellent day for documentary films. Of course, if I ever catch myself watching documentary films on Friday, Ganesh forbid, I will have to admit that my soul forever rests in the land of nerdom.
But it’s a Saturday. And a Saturday is a perfectly acceptable day for an edifying documentary film without losing any sense of hipness at all.
And if there is any documentary film that is perfect for a Saturday, let me just say, that Ken Burns’ eponomously titled documentary DVD, Frank Lloyd Wright, is a masterpiece edifice of its own.
The film follows the path of the iconic architect, even his less-than-glamorous history of philandering and his penchant for self-promotion. But, through it all, emerges a portrait of a man who did it to create beauty. And it is a uniquely American and transcendentalist notion of beauty — a perception of beauty that bequeaths “nature with a capital ‘N’,” in Wright’s own words.
So what did I most like about the film? The pictures of course! And which pictures, in particular? The one image that made my heart jump forthwith was the Larkin Building in Buffalo New York:
The beauty of this building really rests in its careful consideration of the worker. Its interior closely resembles the cathedral-like structure of a church — workers bustling away to complete orders, while the sun spills in from the six-story ceiling. But the story of Wright’s first big commission, at age 35, really rests in its demise. It is heralded as one of the biggest losses in American architectural history. The building was demolished in 1950 to make way for — what else — a parking area.
Said Douglass Swift, a partner in the company that is restoring other Larkin warehouses: “The ironic thing is that we, as a city, tore down a masterpiece to create parking space for a factory building. All of the other Larkin buildings, including ours, are still here and thriving. But the work of art is gone.”
All that remains of Wright’s Larkin Building is a 20-foot-hight pillar that once anchored one of the building’s corners. At one time that corner was one part of a 76-foot-high interior that rose to the sky and imbued workers with an ethereal experience via its double-glazed skylights.
But the Great Depression came, and the Larkin company, America’s fourth largest mail order operation (behind behemoths Montgomery-Ward, Sears, and others) simply fell by the wayside. By 1948, the deteriorated, unheated building was a haven for vagrants, and it was quickly becoming a nuisance, rather than a work of art. By 1949, the Buffalo Evening News found reason for editorializing:
“The area from street to street is carpeted with broken bricks, sticks, rubbish and waste. The parallel side streets are even more cluttered with fallen plaster, masonry and rubble. Groups of urchins have fun hurling brickbats and plaster chunks at one another and at visitors to the structure.”
Even Wright himself, by then 82 years old, felt indifferent about the building that he spent energy designing as a young, 35-year-old independent architect, “To them, it was just one of their factory buildings, to be treated like any other,” he said. So, in 1949, for the sum of a mere 5,000 dollars, one of America’s greatest architectural designs collapsed and was replaced with a parking lot. It was once the first air-conditioned building in the U.S., but by 1949 it had become a nuisance.
“Nobody cared,” University of Buffalo’s Jack Quinan says simply. “It was a time when people didn’t place a value on those things. There wasn’t much of a preservation movement in the United States at that time.”