~Part One of a Multi-Part Essay Series~
"I remember how, as a boy, primitive American architecture—Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca—stirred my wonder, excited my wishful imagination..."
~Frank Lloyd Wright, 1930
When you get a chance, I highly recommend you watch That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles, an engaging and thought-provoking 56-minute documentary available in full on YouTube. Released in 2018 and directed by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, it concerns Wright’s architecture in Los Angeles, of which there are five structures that remain standing—all of them homes. You've seen one of them before at least once (above), but probably many times, even if you weren't aware of it. Its name is Ennis House and it was built in 1924. It’s Wright's most famous structure on the West Coast, and through the years it has provided the setting for gobs of films, including House on Haunted Hill and Blade Runner and The Karate Kid III. It has been drawn into the South Park universe. It was featured in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer's TV show and its video game, and it has even been meticulously reconstructed, block for block, within Minecraft. Ennis House exists in and occupies various worlds, both real and fictional, and even within the collective realm of the social imagination.
Because Ennis House exists in the collective unconscious as one thing, onscreen as another, in Los Angeles as yet another,it “works,” for lack of a better verb, in some of these worlds better than it does in others. In ours, the "real world," it mostly fails because of its inability or unwillingness to commit to tangibility. Prior to a recent reconstruction, it crumbled on its Los Angeles hill in desperate need of repair—yet it existed elsewhere in pristine condition at the same time. Ennis House is a Babadook; it does not view itself as beholden to us and therefore does little to accommodate us.
If you think I sound crazy for writing about a house as if it were alive, much less as if it were in a position of power over us, first I need to ask if you’ve ever met a house? Even prefab homes you enter into only in suburbia, made from cookie cutter templates, are unique. And just as when you glance at another person, you can’t always tell what you might find inside them, but somehow, sometimes, you can, the same is true—perhaps even more true—for houses.
Take one glance at Ennis House and you’ll see how its personality is so strong, its character communicated so directly, that you intuitively know its interior must be hard, cavernous, cold, a bit damp—the kind of dampness that manifests as condensation. Better yet: the house’s exterior suggests its interior must be clammy. This must be due to Wright's design; he must have built the house so its dwellers could stay cool during California heat swells in the period just before air conditioning was available on a mass scale. That's what I, the son of a family four generations deep in HVAC installation and maintenance, see. Even if you envision something different, whatever you image to be inside Ennis House is likely a far cry from the space you and I call home, lightyears away from hygge. It is a formidable, monolithic structure.
Brendan Gill, the late critic, said Ennis House was "better suited to sheltering a Mayan god than an American family." Why did Wright build Ennis House like this?
In his documentary, Hawthorne claims it helps to know the circumstances under which Wright had come to LA in the first place. In 1910, Wright abandoned his family to be with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a client's wife who broke off her marriage to be with Wright. He and Mamah faced scrutiny from the national press and their community members for remaining unmarried—concern of which wasn't helped by Wright's wife, who rejected his repeated requests for a divorce, and spoke with newspapers about how he just needed to get the fling out of his system. To escape the negative attention, Wright moved Mamah and her children, an eleven-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl, into a complex called Taliesin, which he built on family acreage in Wisconsin, so they could live in peace and work in privacy. From Taliesin, Wright continued to advance the Prarie School of architecture to much critical and commercial success, even considering the negative press surrounding his partnership with Mamah. For her part, from Taliesin, Mamah translated and published several good-selling editions of the writings of Swedish feminist Ellen Key.
Their picturesque life at Taliesin was short-lived, however. In 1914, on a day when Wright was in Chicago for work, Mamah and her children were awaiting lunch on their patio when a member of their kitchen staff, a Black man named Julian Carlton (whose own life story I’d like to return to in future essays), approached the three in a rage. He held a hatchet. He struck Mamah once—directly in the face—with it, and she died instantly. Before Mamah's boy could get up from his chair, Julian killed him, too. Mamah's girl ran but didn't make it further than the garden before Julian caught and killed her. He dragged her body back onto the patio, piled the three still-bleeding bodies together, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire. This caught Taliesin on fire. As the home burned, Julian continued on his rampage with his hatchet, eventually murdering four other day laborers, including one their thirteen-year-old children, age 13. Then he swallowed a vial of hydrochloric acid.
Julian survived, barely. Just a few weeks later, he died of starvation in jail; he could not eat due to severe burns on his esophagus and stomach from the acid. He never spoke about the attack before he died. Police held his wife in custody, for questioning, for just one day. She was distraught and claimed to have known nothing in advance of the murders that might have explained them. One source I read claimed that upon her release, she took a train to Chicago. Then she falls out of the historical record completely. Unlike Wright.
When he returned home that evening, he found his family and most of his staff dead, over half of his home in ashes. The studio wing of Taliesin stood more or less untouched, as the same neighbors who had previously been less-than-kind to he and Mamah managed to put out the fire with gardening hoses. Heartbroken, Wright buried Mamah's body himself, in a plain, pine casket in an unmarked grave on the property. He did not hold a funeral service for her, and afterward he fell into a months-long period of depression that included extended bouts of insomnia, weight loss, and temporary blindness that kept him unable to work. Eventually, when he was well enough, he moved to Los Angeles and started working again—albeit abandoning the former Prarie style of architecture he’d become known for, the tradition in which he’d built Taliesin.
Knowing this context, Hawthorne claims, helps contemporary audiences interpret Ennis House and Wright's other Los Angeles works. "If my experience as a critic has taught me anything," Hawthorne says in voiceover, "it's that if you spend enough time in a building and listen closely enough to what it's saying, it will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. And you'd have to be putting your fingers in your ears not to hear how clearly Wright's Los Angeles houses are communicating their more funeral aspects."
He continues, "What’s more, the vocabulary that has grown up around the houses, some of it from Wright himself, is consistently dark and even macabre: “drama of Sophocles,” “brutal,” “sinister,” “tragedy,” “lacking joy.” Part of what’s happening here, I think, is that scholars are understandably reluctant to embrace the crude caricature of pre-Columbian culture and its various death cults, especially that of the Aztecs, that was an important part of the way Americans understood those ruins during Wright’s day. Yet there’s no doubt that those caricatures shaped Wright’s understanding of pre-Columbian designs and their meaning."
Wright, born in 1867, was raised well into a period of a massive, pan-American surge of interest in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. This interest piqued after the end of the American Civil War due, in part, to scientific advancements in photography and photographic reproduction, which fed from yet even another transnational swell: that of interest in the academic fields of cultural anthropology and archaeology centered on Mesoamerican cultures that were then considered extinct—a perspective which inherently ignored that descendants from those conquered cultures still lived. Key to popularizing this surge in consideration for pre-Columbian cultures were John Lloyd Stephens' travel narratives, which included illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, published in 1841, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, from 1843. Each of these texts were made available for mass consumption and devoured by Americans of European descent and even the continents' scant, yet present, population of more upwardly mobile inhabitants with indigenous roots. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the parties responsible for the texts did not consult any of these still-living descendants.
Whether or not Wright was aware of it, the dictator Porfirio Díaz's Mexican state kickstarted the continental trend of blending various architectural styles from Mayan, Toltec, Zapotec, Aztec, Totonac, and Teotihuacano cultures with wild abandon in building projects to construct new Mexican state buildings during his periods of reign between the 1880s and 1910s. Even still, these actions contain shots of irony: nearly an entire millennium in the past, the architects of the cultures Díaz' regime cited had done exactly the same. We now know that the Aztecs were fascinated with the abandoned city of Teotihuacan and constructed their civilization around these ruins, and that the Mayans found inspiration for their own civilization-building projects in remnants left behind by the ancient Olmec. History is no flat circle that repeats itself time and time again, even if human nature often makes it seem as if this were so.
Naively ignorant nineteenth-century architects throughout the Americas—Wright included—retrod this history as they took inspiration from those nineteenth century books with their illustrations and photographic reproductions that circulated about. They recycled thousand-year-old habits when they drew influence from plaster casts and charcoal rubbings of ancient brickwork. Any biography of Wright is quick to admit that Wright wasn't just steeped in these practices, wasn't only living adjacent to these books and academic resources which circulated about the Americas throughout his formative years: he avidly consumed them and studied them and lifted pieces from them that he deployed into his architecture, and he outwardly and vocally admitted his fondness for them. He admitted this frequently.
In turn, Ennis House defies notions of what a home should be for a twentieth-century American family because the Mesoamerican architecture it's based upon was never built to house families. Nor can Ennis House by its very nature be seen as a kind of objective, intellectually rigorous representation of those Mesoamerican cultures, which become swallowed up in its vacuum and get lost somewhere deep in its damp, cavernous interior, to exist now only as a void—an absence, an omission.
The result of finding answers for why Wright's LA architecture, including Ennis House, is the way it is reminds me of a conclusion Toni Morrison comes to in her lecture "Being or Becoming the Stranger: "When we speak or write," Ms. Morrison claims (and for this essay's purposes, I'll add the additional qualifier build), "of the stranger, we should keep in mind what the relationship signifies [...] the spotlight turns away and shines not on the object of degradation," (in Wright's case the crumbling Mesoamerican architecture he cites in his LA work) "but on its creator."
Put simply: Ennis House tells us more about Wright and our culture than it ever could about the cultures that it references.
For now, I need to send out my newsletter, which I'm writing this piece for, so it's time to wrap this piece up. And I'll be frank: this essay, as I'm sure some readers may have long since realized, is, in a way, a "got ya!" But only in a way. It's in fact just the first installment in a grander essay series, which, of course, will be about perfume. But I haven't touched on perfume yet because I've learned over the past few months that sometimes the best method for talking about an issue in the field of perfumery is to talk about something else altogether. This baffled me at first. But now it makes sense if only because it's a strategy which emulates perfume itself—a medium in which one thing, like Ennis House, is used in order to accomplish another thing altogether, in which material objects are presumed up-front to be unstable and not constant, and in which meaning is always capable of potential atomization.
So I made a choice to write about Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture and Mesoamerican civilization and not perfume. Not yet. I did so because this discussion provides an exceedingly close, nearly one-to-one analogue to an issue inherent to the perfumery we enjoy in our time, today. This analogue is close enough, even, so far as I can tell, that it carries with it the ability of exposing willful self-deception with the left hand, and deceptive bad actors with the right.
For if all makes sense thus far, if readers accept the Frank Lloyd Wright narrative and analytic perspective on it given above—that Ennis House is not about Mayans, it's about grief and it is more of a temple or masoleum for his dead lover than it is a work of appreciation—then the same who agree leave themselves so little room to insist on the continued deployment of a concept that remains in-use as a marketing strategy for perfumery. This concept can be summed up in a single word—one which makes all kinds of different people squirm, for all kinds of different reasons.
I've typed the word out below, in black text highlighted with black. Do whatever it is you have to do to reveal it. On my end, I can simply highlight it in my browser. and it appears faintly. If I copy and paste it into a word processor I can change the highlight color to reveal it that way, too. The word is: