What are we to make of the inscrutable and crypt-like houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Los Angeles in the 1920s, which together represent a radical departure from his earlier Prairie Style work in the Midwest? And to what extent was the design of those houses influenced by the tragedy that preceded them—the 1914 murder of Wright's mistress, Mamah Borthwick, and six others by a deranged servant at Taliesin in Wisconsin?
These are the provocative questions posed by "That Far Corner," a documentary that premieres tonight, March 6, on KCET-TV, and that was written and directed by Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times and an ARCHITECT contributor. The film is an ambitious effort to bring a nuanced piece of architectural criticism to the screen, and, not surprisingly, it includes the requisite beauty shots of eight of Wright's houses, all set to music by composer Adam Schoenberg. But at its core this is an intellectual investigation (Wright scholars Kathryn Smith, Robert Sweeney, and Thomas S. Hines all get screen time) that culminates with an unexpectedly emotional kicker.
"What I lacked in directing experience (everything!) I hoped to make up for by bringing to bear on Wright’s Los Angeles work the combination of reporting and informed speculation that drives all effective architecture criticism," Hawthorne wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times column. "I’m hopeful that the final product will be revealing even for Wright scholars. I don’t say that anticipating that every one of them will agree with [my] theory about the houses.”
Hawthorne contributed a primer about Wright's L.A. work for ARCHITECT as part of his reflection on the architect's legacy during the 150th anniversary year of his birth: "Whenever architecture becomes concerned with history—as was true in the 1920s, when Wright lived in a revivalism-crazed Los Angeles; in the 1980s, with Postmodernism’s ascent; and again today—there is nearly always a related effort to go back to prehistory, or a kind or primitivism. Wright examined the eclecticism rampant in Los Angeles and found it repulsed him; he tried to look deeper into history and produce an indigenous architecture authentic to the southwest, even if his quotations of pre-Columbian forms were sometimes scattershot or naive."
Wright's fascination with pre-Columbian forms is what drives the film to its charged, if controversial, conclusion. The documentary can be streamed here.