Vol. IX, No. 3

November, 1996

The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright, America's Architect -A Cd Review

Gair Tourtellot
Boston University

Unlike The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion CD-ROM reviewed here by Harrison Eiteljorg, II, in February, 1995, The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright, America's Architect CD-ROM consciously and successfully attempts to develop and apply the "organic" integration that makes Wright's architecture so deeply satisfying (or dictatorially oppressive). Frank Lloyd Wright, himself, would not have approved the CD's title, for he saw no need for the limitation "American" !

The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright (Microsoft Home, $35) requires Macintosh System 7, 8MB RAM, 256-color 14+" monitor, and QuickTime 2.0 plus SoundManager 3.0 (both supplied), or an IBM compatible with 486 or better processor, 8MB RAM, with MPC-1 sound card. It loads faster if 2.3MB of files are placed on your hard drive.

One touchstone for evaluation of a CD-ROM is whether it improves on a printed book. This program does that in spades; at worst it is based on six recent books in contrast to the one (different) source for The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. Along with the expected hyperlinks to illustrations and a glossary, there are audio clips, narrated videos of 11 buildings, animations, and even a small 3D CAD program preloaded with Wrightian construction elements to play with. (Sorry, it's not a CAD program on the cheap; it neither imports, saves, nor prints, but it will make screen dumps.)

The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright has broad, if not deep, coverage. It is organized into six main Topic "Menus" (i.e., screens): Life and Times (timeline, world events, and details of Wright's often scandalous life), Wright Works (chronologically arranged buildings, sculpture and a bridge, plus hyperlinked state locations, and decorative arts), Structural Elements (the most analytic and text-heavy topic, comprising types of sites, patterns and sources, materials, types of buildings, and excerpts from Wright's philosophy expressed in his whimsical grammar), Walking Tours (animations of the Robie, Larkin, and Ennis Buildings), Modelling Wright (the 3D CAD), and Library (searchable text of six books, lacking their illustrations). In addition there is the invaluable, ever-present Index button, which brings up not only a hyperlinked index of illustrated Works, but also access to photo credits, a large bibliography, and contact information for 51 works open to the public. I found the Index the easiest way to jump between Works, find specific photos, seek videos, or get back to something noted in passing.

The illustrations are mostly photographs, fixed in size, usually color, and often original. All photos have name, date, and place captions, plus pop-up supplementary information or interpretation, well and concisely expressed. Screens rarely contain more than one photo. None of Wright's beautiful perspectives is included, nor are any other drawings, not even when discussing the grid geometries that are absolutely fundamental to understanding the generation of Wright's designs.

A worse problem is the general absence of plans, sections, and site maps, a crippling omission for understanding an architect who was above all a master manipulator of all dimensions (including color, texture, and sound: recall Fallingwater, poised above a waterfall). The omission is particularly ironic because the opening audio has Wright saying, "Everything has its plan!" (The problem is not entirely the CD producer's fault; access to Wright's archives remains limited.) The Walking Tours show what could have been done, with live sections and plans that show exactly your position and orientation as you walk through a building and make choices. While these three tours provide a remarkable sense of what Wright's spatial progressions are really like, all other works are left with inadequate context. It's a shame that the producers fail to include Grant Hildebrand's stunning 3D layered CAD renderings of circulation patterns, even though the Library contains his masterly spatial analysis of refuge-and-prospect, The Wright Space.

Another touchstone for evaluation is whether we can learn anything to improve our own digital publications. Yes. This is an inspiring program, with a gorgeously smooth and quick interface and many ways to move around.

The navigation interface is largely iconic, melding images and text windows with automatic pop-up labels. Screen designs are inspired by one of Wright's glowing art glass windows - the famous "balloon and confetti" windows. Their gray and unfocused illustration elsewhere is one of the few really disappointing images here. The Menu screens use beautiful thematic pictures and category labels; clicking them leads you to the appropriate sets of pictures and text. Particularly slick is the way icons automatically bring up unobtrusive labels or menus when touched by the cursor. Photo captions expand in a similar manner. An especially graceful effect is that, as the cursor passes over selectable virtual window panes in the Menus, the vague images glimpsed beyond them magically snap into focus. Below many illustrations is a "More About ..." pop-up menu accessing the Index hyperlist of related illustrations.

A Control Bar includes Quit, Index, and Help buttons, along with Previous and Next. The latter two only operate within the current topic loop (they will not take you back and out of the loop). The Back button takes you up the hierarchy of opened topics (not necessarily to your previous screen), requiring no more than three clicks to return to the Main Menu. There is no easy way to retrace all your steps exactly. A few text windows employ additional Previous and Next arrows for scrolling, and the CAD modeler has quick zoom and rotate controls. Help is for navigating the current screen, or jumping topics. Clicking words colored red pops up an otherwise inaccessible glossary entry. (In the Index, red words take you to an illustration.)

The readability of text is very good. Illustrations and videos are small and clear enough, but some decorative arts photos suffer from excessive pixilation. None approaches print quality. Pleasant synthesized music accompanies Menu changes, but the computer is otherwise blissfully silent.

Interaction with the content is limited chiefly to the Walking Tours and CAD topics, or to searching the Library, but bookmarks, check boxes, and note-taking are absent. One complaint is a dearth of shortcuts within topics, particularly the inability to scroll faster than seriatim. Although topic headings are always visible, there's no way to know how many images lie within, or where in that loop you are. Furthermore, a glaring seam lies between the virtually stand-alone Library and the other five topics: there's no way to jump from text or illustration while in one topic to related text in the Library's books, or vice versa. There's excellent material buried in those books, but you have to find it yourself using keyword entry.

The heart of any publication on Wright is his buildings. This CD includes over 145 works, plus furnishings (a good selection of famous and representative examples, but less than one third of those actually completed). Each work has one to seven related photos available (usually a general view, details, and furnishings) and occasionally an audio or narrated video clip. This is not much depth, but a very satisfactory introduction. I found no way to determine a priori which topics or photos include voice-overs, but video clips are listed in the Index. A specific building included in The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright can be accessed by name from the Index. From Wright Works it is accessible indirectly by date, by state, or via associated decorative arts. Many of the images are also brought up automatically within other topics, like Life and Times.

The most exciting feature of The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright is the use of interactive animated tours of three famous buildings. The Walking Tours have a little of the mystery and technique of MYST: constrained step-throughs, amazing sequences of eerily uninhabited spaces, accompanied here by live section and plan views. The detail is simplified, and occasionally deviates substantially from published illustrations, but the effect is glorious. This is undoubtedly the next best thing to being there, absent complete video tours. (The 12 narrated videos here are brief.)

The most unusual feature of The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright is the dedicated CAD application. It lets you manipulate a library of primitive masses in simultaneous outline, plan, and elevation views, and then apply typical Wright elements to each elevation (steamship windows, flat roofs, French doors, etc.). One cannot work from the inside out in Wright's manner. There is no way directly to model from, or compare your pastiche with, one of the illustrations elsewhere on this CD. Perhaps this mini-application might be a way to ease people into CAD use and develop their three-dimensional sense. This CD does not aim at kiddies, despite the superb graphics, for the text is college level and there are no puzzles, games, or quizzes.

In sum, The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright is a beautiful and inexpensive introduction to Wright's work and to critical comment about him. It is well integrated in most respects, and invites exploration. The Walking Tours and CAD program are innovative and helpful to understanding the genesis and effect of Wright's buildings. The dearth of plans most definitely is not. Only by this huge flaw does the CD belie Mr. Eiteljorg's expectation of "better things yet to come."

[Though still available in retail channels, this CD has been discontinued by Microsoft. - ed.]

For other reviews of CD's and Web sites, consult the index of reviews.

Next Article: AIA Computer Workshops at Annual Meeting

Table of Contents for the Nov, 1996 issue of the CSA Newsletter (Vol. 9, no. 3)

Master Index Table of Contents for all CSA Newsletter issues on the Web

Return to CSA Home Page