Frank Lloyd Wright & Lewis Mumford: Thirty Years of Correspondence
By Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer & Robert Wojtowicz

June 09, 2003 /
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What began as a simple letter, a mid-career architect's comments to a young writer, turned into a 32-year correspondence, by turns amusing, inflamed, and conciliatory.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford, two pivotal figures in 20th century American architecture and urbanism, were both passionate writers, keenly aware of world events. Their 150 letters from 1926 to1958 covered a wide range of topics, including Wright's position in the history of American architecture and contemporary practice, their friends and rivals, the invention and spread of the International Style, and political events in Europe and the US.

Wright first wrote to Mumford in 1926, when he was in his 50s and already renowned, and Mumford was in his 30s and making his name in cultural criticism.

Although Wright is nearly thirty years Mumford's senior, the two men established common ground quickly on matters, ranging from the professional to the personal.

2.jpg©Frank Lloyd Wright Archives
Frank lloyd Wright at his desk, Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin, c. 1924

Your pen seems pointed in the right direction and could I wield mine as effectively I might be a better champion of a cause where I am confined to a hod of  mortar and some bricks - as the matter stands./FLW (August 7, 1926)

3.jpg©Estate of Lewis and Sophia Mumford
Lewis Mumford, c. 1938

It seems to me, at a distance, that most of the foreign critics have misinterpreted you by reading into your work a rigorous mechanistic tendency which, in fact, you have passed beyond. They have merely caught up with the machine; whereas you have carried the machine, as it were, into a new phase./LM (August 23, 1926)

"You will be glad to know I am no longer walking the New York streets, hat in hand.  Taliesin is regained.  We are established here, again at work, - interesting work, - not to brag about it, but to reassure you; - Working on the Desert Resort Hotel in the simon-pure Arizona desert, - half million dollar commission for Dr. Chandler at Chandler, Arizona near Phoenix, - (cactus among cacti), nearby where I established the textile-block construction in the "million dollar" Arizona Biltmore, now nearing completion; - A new house in spirit and letter for my editor cousin at Tulsa, Oklahoma; - A twenty-three story copper and glass apartment-tower for your barbaric New York City; - St. Mark's Tower in the Bouwerie; - "the architect triumphant over the machine, - let us hope; a school house for the Rosenwald Foundation....."
FLW (1928)

Mumford, who focused much of his writing on architecture and urban planning, greatly admired Wright's work as "the exemplar of organic design, built in accordance with the rhythms of modern life"; the two men shared ideas and interests, though Mumford resisted getting too intimate in order to preserve his critical integrity.

"The first rough draft of my book is done, and, since the chapter on Building more or less leads up to you, I have one or two questions to ask you.  How far were you hindered by Sullivan's example?  How much of him did you have to throw overboard?  Did you do this consciously or unconsciously?  Which of your buildings represents to you the climax of your work - if any single building so stands out?.... This philosophy of the arts is the toughest problem I've set myself yet, and I am afraid there'll be snow on the ground before I've even half done with it.  Then I shall go on a bust and write poetry again an finish a play!"
LM (July 1930)

"To answer your questions...
Helped rather than hindered by Sullivan - because - though pupil, I think I was never his disciple. (It is the disciple who is hindered by his master.) Sullivan is on record as gratefully acknowledging this.

No building as "climax."  All are quite complete in themselves but index to those yet to come near fulfilment.  There seems to me a very consistent quality in them all - as expressions - in varying materials under changing conditions, - the "plastic ideal" of an organic architecture.  Every building I have built bears witness in some way to the working of that ideal - and from first to last.  Of course I've more "data" now (the fruit of experience) - more science.  Future buildings will sure be more direct and more complete synthesis of same ideal."
FLW (July 1930)

4.jpg©Estate of Lewis and Sophia Mumford
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Kanda Temple in Snow", c. mid-nineteenth century.
Color woodblock print inscribed by Frank Lloyd Wright to Lewis Mumford.

A fallout over isolationist politics in the early 1940s led to a 10 year gap in their exchange, and when it resumed, the two were on an entirely different footing; Wright, the elder dean of American architecture at the height of his creative powers, and Mumford, an established critic in late middle age, deeply committed to rebuilding a humanist outlook in the aftermath of World War II.

They maintained fondness and admiration for one another up until Wright's death in 1959.

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer is Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation,Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, AZ.

Robert Wojtowicz is Chair of the Art Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

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Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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