Vol. VII, No. 4

February, 1995

The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion - A Review

by H. Eiteljorg, II

The CD-ROM entitled The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion is a serious attempt to provide information and, at the same time, to present that information with the aid of a computer so as to make the presentation more effective. Published by Prairie Multimedia, Inc. (1-800-764-5010; $75), the CD runs under Windows (a MAC version is planned) and is based on the work of the same name by William Allin Storrer (University of Chicago Press, 1993). In fact, it is so closely based on the book that the text seems essentially unchanged; for instance, the preface contains a reference to typefaces used in the book but irrelevant for the computer presentation.

There are three inter-linked sections to the CD - a building-by-building narrative grouped to match the periods of Wright's career, a map showing the locations of Wright's structures, and a chronological list of the structures. There is also a group of terms and definitions, but it is not accessible as a group; instead, the terms and definitions are linked to their uses in the text. Similarly, there are discussions of concepts employed by Wright, and there is a brief historical overview of his career. These things are, however, available only by searching the index. Although that can be done automatically, there is no way to know in a simple, direct way what is there.

The basic section is the narrative, a building-by-building discussion and description. This is presented in a multi-part window, with text on the right, a small illustration in the lower left, and navigation aids in the upper left. When one reads through the text and advances to new buildings, the illustrations and navigation aids change as required.

For each building there is a single illustration called up automatically; others are available, and a list of available plans and illustrations can be called up easily. If desired, any of the illustrations may be seen at larger size. The quality is very good in general (though one should definitely configure one's graphics system to provide the maximum number of colors). Unfortunately, an illustration cannot be kept on screen when another is called up. As the system works today, at least, only one illustration can be seen at a time. There are some video clips as well.

Terms highlighted in the text are defined for the user, and the definitions can be called up by simply clicking with the mouse on the appropriate term. (As noted above, one cannot access the definitions directly as a group.)

The location (city and state) of each building is provided both in the text at the end of each description and in a box beneath the illustration shown in the base window. One may click on the location to see a map of the area, and one may move about the map, click on any highlighted city, and go directly to the description/illustration of the Wright building erected there. The interaction of map and text is one of the especially well designed parts of the CD, and one may even use location rather than chronology to work one's way through the buildings.

The plans are not up to the quality of the illustrations. They were made with a drawing program called Canvas, a program with considerable power, most of which has been wasted. Canvas would permit the user to determine the sizes of rooms or structures, but the drawings have been made in such a way as to negate that possibility. Similarly Canvas uses layers, as do most CAD programs, to separate parts of a drawing, and the layers can be turned on and off to allow users to see specific parts of a drawing in selected combinations. However, the layers are used inconsistently from drawing to drawing, and the way they have been used is generally not helpful. In my admittedly biased view, real possibilities for using this technology to enhance the understanding of Wright's structures were missed.

This CD-ROM is a valuable tool for studying the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The buildings are well described, and the photographs are generally good. The links between and among the maps, illustrations, chronological table, and text are excellent. The reader may move from item to item, resource to resource with ease, and one's path may be retraced as well. In addition, one may insert markers to return to specific points any time in the future, and one may even add notes - without feeling guilty about writing in the margins.

Text, illustrations, and drawings can be copied from the CD for use elsewhere.

The presentation is marred by organizational problems inherited from the book and by the poorly planned use of Canvas, which also reflects the CD's origin as a book. The vocabulary, the discussions of concepts, and the historical overview of Wright's career are all but buried. Although the search schemes will find the information, there is nothing to lead one to them or even to make one aware of them (which was also the case in the book). A simple description of the product sent along with the CD could go a long way toward correcting these problems (something the publisher has indicated will be done), but the inept application of Canvas is more serious in that one cannot learn from the drawings what the author has not put into them. The product is still valuable, but the chance to use technology to make a true qualitative change was missed. CAD (and Canvas can be used about as well a CAD program in two dimensions) could have allowed users to explore dimensions, differentiate and examine parts of plans, check relationships of storeys to one another, and much more. As it is, however, one has plans of roughly the same value as those on a printed page. The drawings are different in that they can be enlarged; so one may see more detail, but the base view is still rather small.

For anyone interested in the career of Frank Lloyd Wright this is a very worthwhile tool, with clear advantages over the book. But it could have been so much better. I take it to be a harbinger of better things yet to come.

For an index of other CD and Web site reviews available on the Web pages of the CSA Newsletter, see the review index.

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