The architect is the “public artist” in the widest sense – if more people are aware of his work than that of other artists because of its free and inescapable visibility, it is also true that more people have a voice in the fact and form of its existence than they have in the other arts. Unlike writers, painters, or composers, who can produce finished works of art and then wait and hope for future recognition if need be, the architect is dependent on the immediate availability of patrons and clients and is constrained by their needs, funds, and wishes. Certainly a study of these patrons and clients is a vital if neglected part of architectural history, and this book marks an end to this neglect by revealing in depth the backgrounds, personalities, and attitudes of two groups of clients involved in the dramatic confrontation between Frank Lloyd Wright and the established eclecticism around the turn of the century.
One group of clients consists of individuals who commissioned private residences from Wright. The other, a control group, roughly similar to the first in their economic means, had their houses designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, one of the ablest of Wright's conventional contemporaries. In investigating these clients, the author makes use of not only historical methods but the techniques of social psychology and analysis as well. In particular, he has interviewed dozens of former clients and their offspring as well as others with intimate knowledge of the area and the era. The results are presented not as cold statistics but in the form of lively vignettes. In each case, the clients are studied first as a group, and a composite type emerges. They are then individually sketched in their social contexts. In each case, some sociological surprises emerge.
Many of Wright's clients are “house-hold names” in architectural circles, because the famous prairie houses have come to be known by the names of their first owners: Robie, Coonley, Winslow, Roberts.... Typically, the Wright client was an independent self-made businessman. Only rarely was he a professional or academic, and most likely he was not a college graduate. He was technologically minded, and somewhere in his family there was a developed taste or talent for music, but, again, only rarely was he a pillar of official community culture. Politically he was conservative. And if many regarded his dwelling as outlandish, he was in no way eccentric in social behavior.
Shaw, conventional and conservative, something of a society architect, was nevertheless a man of great ability and competence, fully worthy to uphold the defense of the status quo. His clients tended to be socially settles, financially secure, active rather than introspective, “clubby,” and involved in civic and cultural affairs. They were better educated than Wright's clients, and there were more professionals and academics among them, including, somewhat unexpectedly, a number of University of Chicago faculty members.
In an important first chapter, Eaton deals with the general historical questions of architectural innovation and revolution and the factors (including patrons) that encourage or restrain it. This original treatment of the emergence of Gothic and Renaissance architecture sets the stage for understanding the aborted character of the Wrightian revolution, despite its wide impact.