In a bitter diatribe published in the May 1914 issue of Architectural Record, Frank Lloyd Wright harshly criticized former employees for plagiarizing his architecture. While the accusation may have been justified in the cases of some of Wright's draftsmen, Barry Byrne and, later, John Howe stepped out of the master's shadow and successfully developed their own personal interpretations of organic architecture. Byrne worked in the Oak Park studio during the early days of Wright's independent practice. Howe, years later, became the “pencil in Wright's hand” at Taliesin. The positions of these two men in the story of midcentury modern architecture have remained largely overlooked until now.
While a generation separated Byrne and Howe, numerous parallels connect them. Both came from relatively poor families in the Chicago area and developed their interest in architecture as young boys, spending free time visiting modern buildings. Both talked their way into Wright's office as teenagers without any formal training and then quietly learned the trade by listening and observing, eventually rising to become central members of the studio staff. Both were industrious and diligent workers, “lacking the architectural ego” of their employer, as Vincent L. Michael observes of Byrne in The Architecture of Barry Byrne (2). And both went on to have successful independent careers, producing their own aesthetically accomplished, functional architecture. Two recent monographs provide new insights into the careers of these designers. Both books are valuable resources for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of midcentury modern architecture and, more specifically, the work of these former Wright employees.
Francis Xavier Ignatius Loyola Walter Barry Byrne (1883–1967) came to Wright's Oak Park studio with no previous training in architecture or construction. Having experienced the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition as a child, Byrne later recalled, he would have been “desperately unhappy” had he not become an architect.1 Impressed by the large display of Wright's work exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1902 as part of the annual show presented by the Chicago Architectural Club, Byrne sought employment with the architect. Wright hired him as an office boy, and after several years of hands-on training, the bright young apprentice became a full-fledged member of the practice, spending much of his time producing working drawings and supervising construction.
While Michael's book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe touches on Byrne's time with Wright, most of the monograph addresses his later, independent career. Michael focuses mainly on Byrne's innovative, ecclesiastical building designs and his writings on modernism and developments in progressive Catholic church architecture during the first half of the twentieth century. As Byrne's grandson-in-law, Michael had unprecedented access to family stories, photographs, and various documents that allowed him to build on the work of previous Byrne scholars.2 The book also benefits from photographs taken by Byrne's granddaughter, Felicity Rich. These include the stunning color plate of Christ the King Church in Cork, Ireland, that appears on the book's jacket cover.3
As Michael informs the reader, Byrne “believed in modernism” and throughout his career remained “dedicated to the principles of ‘organic’ architecture espoused by Wright and Louis Sullivan” (2). Like many of his progressive European counterparts, Byrne believed a major component of modernism was the rejection of past styles, and unlike many others who had worked in Wright's Oak Park studio, he avoided the popular historical forms of the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, he did not eschew all ornament, siding in debates with those who believed that modernism was a process and not something distinguishable solely by formal characteristics. The expressionist nature of much of his architecture shows close ties to the work of Europeans such as Erich Mendelsohn and Hans Scharoun. The most successful of Byrne's buildings were those directly connected to his Catholic faith. Their designs formed important fusions between the conservative nature of Catholic dogma and the more liberal leanings of modernist architecture. As Michael points out, by finding the intersections between these two areas, Byrne became a central player in the architectural development of the modern church and helped to open the way for later designers such as Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer. The significance of Byrne's ecclesiastical architecture is indicated by the inclusion of two of his churches in the May 1929 issue of Architectural Record, alongside Karl Moser's modern concrete masterpiece, Saint Anthony's Church in Basel, one month after the journal discussed the ferroconcrete churches of Auguste Perret in Paris.4
The Architecture of Barry Byrne begins with a brief discussion of the architect's early life and career, including his role in the design and realization of Wright's Unity Temple, which gave him a strong foundation for creating innovative church designs. In addition to a discussion of Byrne's time at the Oak Park studio, Michael explores his early partnership with former studio colleague Andrew Willatzen in Seattle, his time with Wright's sons John and Lloyd, his exposure to the work of Irving Gill in Los Angeles, and his working relationship with Walter Burley Griffin back in Chicago. Griffin, in particular, played a significant role in Byrne's architectural education during his days in the Oak Park studio and shortly afterward.
In the early 1920s, Byrne began designing buildings for Catholic institutions, including the all-girls Immaculata High School and Saint Thomas the Apostle Church, both in Chicago. He strove for a sense of clarity and openness in his designs, particularly in plan. Michael discusses how Byrne learned from his work on Unity Temple and incorporated that building's emphasis on unity into the designs of his Catholic churches. Byrne dismissed the traditional basilica plan, with its columnar divisions and sense of hierarchy, and attempted to integrate Catholic clergy and parishioners within one unifying space by pulling the altar forward into the auditorium—an innovation that anticipated reforms adopted at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) by forty years. Through his architecture and his later writings, Byrne played a key role in the modern liturgical reform movement.
One noteworthy section of Michael's book is his discussion of Byrne's 1924 travels in Europe with artist Alfonso Iannelli. Through letters Byrne wrote during that trip to Chicago artist Annette Cremin, whom he was then courting and later married, Michael retraces Byrne's footsteps to sites of architectural significance in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In doing so, he sheds new light on the architect's important role as a link between progressive designers in Chicago and those in Europe. Byrne's letters reveal that he was completely taken by the “emotional clarity” of the medieval churches he visited, particularly Chartres Cathedral, whose stained-glass windows he called “dreams of heaven” (72–73). He found kinship in the expressive work of the Amsterdam School and the designs of Mendelsohn and Hans Poelzig in Germany, and he was impressed by the work he witnessed at the Bauhaus in Weimar, then undergoing a transformation from its expressionist roots to the rationalism of New Objectivity. Throughout his travels, Byrne met and found acceptance as a peer among some of the most prominent avant-garde designers in Europe, including J. J. P. Oud, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Mendelsohn. The impact of the trip on Byrne is revealed in the increased presence of expressionistic masses and volumes in his work, including in the broad and unadorned expanses of wall in his design for the Church of Christ the King in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1926), and in the designs of his later, more streamlined churches for Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Paul, Minnesota, with their smooth walls and symbolic fish-shaped plans.
In 1927 Byrne received his most significant commission and his only European project: the reinforced concrete Christ the King Church in Cork, Ireland. Lewis Mumford had discussed Byrne's ecclesiastical work earlier that year in an essay for Commonweal magazine titled “A Modern Catholic Architect.”5 The piece may have caught the eye of Bishop Daniel Cohalan, who commissioned Byrne soon after the article's publication. In a letter to the bishop, Byrne laid out the practical considerations that informed the design of what became recognized as the “first overtly modern church to be built in Ireland” (95). These included seating accommodations, placement of the high altar in a dominant position close to the congregation, acoustics, and economy of construction. While the basic concept of the plan recalled his earlier ecclesiastical designs (a unified open space with a forward-projecting communion rail and altar), Byrne increased in scale the serrated edges of his previous brick churches, transforming the zigzagging forms into dramatic setbacks in both plan and elevation. These changes reflected new forms in American skyscraper design and a melding of Byrne's personal interpretation of expressionism with the Jazz Age energy reflected in contemporary art deco designs. On the front of the church, the flat planes of the façade dramatically step back and down from a soaring bell tower. An abstract bas-relief of Christ with outstretched arms, created by artist John Storrs, welcomes parishioners into the central entrance portal beneath it.
Byrne considered Christ the King his best building, viewing it as “practical functionalism imaginatively treated” (95). The church received positive notice in contemporary publications, including American Architect, but its influence on modern architecture (beyond other religious designs) was minimized, as Michael observes, by a number of factors, including the onset of the Great Depression. While Byrne's buildings revolutionized the design of modern churches in ways that his progressive European contemporaries’ architecture did not, particularly in plan and in the use of natural light, his religious work did not receive the attention it deserved from architecture critics. Ironically, Byrne's ecclesiastical buildings looked too much like churches and not enough like machines or factories to fit the idiom of modernism codified by the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne and promoted by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their influential 1932 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. As Michael observes, for Byrne, beauty was not simply structure, and function was not simply space defined by need.
The Depression had a severe impact on Byrne's practice. With few commissions coming in, he moved to New York City in December 1932. He supplemented his income by working as a building inspector and supervisor for a government agency and by writing articles that appeared in both religious and design publications; these included a regular column on the arts in the Catholic magazine America and occasional pieces for Liturgical Arts and Commonweal. Byrne had no qualms about penning his opinions on the current state of modern architecture, and in doing so he helped to shape the discourse on the topic. Near the end of his life he reflected on his architectural roots and early relationship with Wright in several articles. One, a review of Arthur Drexler's The Drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, appeared in the May 1963 issue of JSAH.
Just as The Architecture of Barry Byrne reveals how one of Wright's earliest draftsmen went on to further the concept of organic design while effectively developing his own architectural identity, John H. Howe, Architect: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design offers an in-depth look at the successful, independent career of one of Wright's later employees. Howe claimed to have experienced two “lifetimes” in architecture, the first while working for Wright at Taliesin and the second during his independent practice in Minneapolis. Authors Jane King Hession and Tim Quigley, each a past president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, explore both eras of Howe's professional life in their monograph on this gifted designer.
One week after he graduated from high school, John “Jack” Henry Howe (1913–97) applied to the Taliesin Fellowship, and in the fall of 1932 he became one of the school's original apprentices. He brought with him a natural talent for drawing, which allowed him to spend much of his time at Taliesin by Wright's side, absorbing his mentor's lessons, while his classmates were busy with the more mundane chores of cooking and tending fields. Howe's ability to design and render, along with his pleasant nature, helped propel him four years later into the position of Wright's chief draftsman.
Hession and Quigley recall the well-known stories of the often cultlike conditions of the Taliesin Fellowship, but a more significant contribution of their study is a detailed discussion of the design process in Wright's office and, more specifically, Howe's role as the chief assistant. This process, according to Howe, often began early in the morning with a sketch from Wright, who then left the young architect to flesh out the design while he headed out for a walk or horseback ride. Upon Wright's return, the two men would go over Howe's drawings before further work ensued. Once the design met Wright's approval, Howe would painstakingly lay out a three-point perspective that served as “the armature, or underlay” for the final drawings, which he or another apprentice would complete using color pencils (34). Details, including landscaping, clouds, automobiles, and people (Howe particularly hated drawing people and cars), would be incorporated, and shading was added to simulate the impact of daylight, using stippling or a hatching technique. Finally, the drawings received lettering. Wright then reviewed the renderings, sometimes adding vegetation and other landscape features. While his name did not appear on any of the drawings that came out of Taliesin, Howe deserves significant credit for many of the fine, frequently published presentation drawings of Wright's later work.
One of Howe's first steps out of Wright's shadow came during World War II. As Hession and Quigley discuss, the war had a major impact on Wright's office and on those who worked within it. In March 1941, twenty-six members of the Taliesin Fellowship signed a petition expressing their intent to become conscientious objectors to the compulsory military draft, arguing that their architecture was their service to America. The request for a collective exemption was denied by the draft board, which viewed the petition as subversive. As a result of his refusal to go to war, Howe—along with Taliesin fellows Allen Lape “Davy” Davison and Marcus Weston—was tried, convicted, and sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota. Away from Wright, Howe used his time in prison to develop his own architectural ideas and design forms. His paper architecture included a summer house for a fellow inmate and his “Big Project,” a large-scale mixed-use complex designed with the automobile in mind.
The second half of John H. Howe, Architect provides an overview of the architect's independent work, which began in 1967 and consisted primarily of residential designs. Howe had continued working at Taliesin even after Wright's death in 1959, until 1964, when Wright's widow, Olgivanna Wright, made conditions there unbearable for him. He then spent several years in San Francisco, in the office of former Taliesin apprentice Aaron Green, before moving to Minnesota and opening his own firm. The output of his successful office included approximately 120 projects completed over the course of twenty-five years. More than Byrne's work, Howe's mature architecture recalled that of Wright, particularly in its use of materials and relationship to site. As Hession and Quigley note, Howe was clearly conscious that the organic principles he absorbed during his time at Taliesin permeated his independent work, but he repeatedly stated that he had no intent to merely imitate his mentor's style. He informed architecture students at Catholic University that “true followers search for new expressions, realizing that the solution for any problem must come from within the problem itself” (150).
Like Wright, Howe designed using an inside-out process, beginning with the plan. He took to heart his mentor's view that a building should “take inspiration from and be in harmony with the land on which it stands” (2). He started each of his designs with an underlay of a topographical map of the site and then identified the cardinal directions and locations of trees before selecting a geometric module that could generate the best plan for the conditions given, which often included hilly, lakeside, wooded landscapes and harsh winters. Howe favored using a triangular module, as it made possible the projection of rooms out into the landscape, as well as dramatically sloping roofs and flowing interiors. Even more than Wright, he developed complex interwoven spaces in his designs that took full advantage of outward views. The results were often strikingly situated buildings of wood, brick, stone, and stucco, such as Sankaku, Howe's own home built south of the Twin Cities along the shores of Horseshoe Lake. While some of Wright's former employees and apprentices did go on to design inferior copies of his architecture after they left his office, Howe, like Byrne decades earlier, embraced the lessons of organic architecture and incorporated them into his own midcentury designs.
While John H. Howe, Architect includes dozens of illustrations of the architect's renderings and built designs, the book's color photographs, although of high quality, do not do the work justice. Like Wright before him, Howe created architecture that emphasized space and connections to the landscape, design elements that do not easily lend themselves to the two-dimensional limitations of photographs. The book's authors admit that, although “tranquil they may be, Howe's houses are complex and cannot be fully grasped on first encounter” (10). In fact, as with Wright's buildings, both Byrne's and Howe's architecture must be experienced in person, ideally multiple times, to be fully comprehended. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic pursuit for most of us, but we can at least achieve a better understanding of their work through these excellent publications.