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Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and the Future of the American City

Einstein’s reputation gained him a following among architects who were out to transform American architecture and design.

By Milton Cameron Published 2014

A portion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s model of Broadacre City, 1934–35

When Albert Einstein first met Frank Lloyd Wright, he mistook the architect for a musician. Leaping from his chair, Einstein announced that he was returning home to fetch his violin and would be back shortly to perform a duet. Only upon his return did he learn that Wright was not a pianist. It was early 1931, and the two men were guests of Alice Millard, a rare book and antique dealer. The setting, ironically, was the dining room of La Miniatura, the house that Wright had designed for Millard at 645 Prospect Crescent, Pasadena. But if the architect was taken aback by Einstein’s gaffe, he did not show it. Wright had just met the most famous person in the world, and was determined to exploit the opportunity for all it was worth.

Wright liked to groom important public figures to complement his social circle and support his campaigns. The latest of these, which would obsess him for the remainder of his life, was to replace congested, disease-ridden cities and their skyscrapers with a dispersed, horizontal form of development that would spread across the countryside and capitalize upon the increasing availability of automobiles. Wright knew he would need all the help he could get to achieve such a radical transformation of the fabric of American society. Einstein’s name and reputation was just what he required.

Both men were away from home. Einstein, who was employed by the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, was a visiting scholar at the California Institute of Technology. Wright lived at Taliesin, his country retreat in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and was in Pasadena to discuss the garage addition to La Miniatura with his client. The physicist and the architect only managed to exchange a few words that evening. Wright told Einstein about the school of architecture he was establishing at Taliesin, where, in addition to architecture and construction, his apprentices were engaged in farming, gardening, cooking, music, and dance. Like Wright, Einstein preferred quiet places, far away from the hustle and bustle of large cities, which he believed were not conducive to deep thought. Although he had an apartment in Berlin, Einstein spent most of his time just outside the city at Caputh, in a small weekend house designed for him by German architect Konrad Wachsmann.

As Einstein sat with Wright in La Miniatura, a tiny, romantic, Mayan-temple of a house with dappled light filtering through perforated block screens and a view over a pond bridged with stepping-stones, he was charmed by the architect’s enthusiasm and creative imagination. Wright asked if he would like to visit Taliesin. Einstein said he would try to come in the fall.

In February 1931, Wright sent a telegram to Einstein confirming his invitation. He offered to meet the Einsteins in Chicago, drive them to Taliesin, and return them to Chicago two days later, in time for their New York train. Elsa Einstein replied that their itinerary was full, and suggested that they spend a few hours together at the Chicago railway station instead. Wright obliged, and on March 3, he and his wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, sat and talked with the Einsteins in their Pullman car while they waited for their 20th Century Limited express.

When Wright’s new book, Modern Architecture (based on his 1930 Princeton Uni­versity Kahn Lectures), was published, he inscribed a copy: “To the Supreme Scientist Albert Einstein from Frank Lloyd Wright in remembrance of an hour together,” and mailed it to the physicist. In Modern Architecture, Wright critiqued historical eclecticism, commercial skyscrapers, and urban planning, and distinguished his own organic architecture from the sleek, machine-age aesthetic advocated by the Bauhaus School and European modernists such as the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Wright’s reasons for distrusting these “evil crusaders” were personal: at the age of sixty-four, he saw them as rivals and a threat to his legacy. Einstein’s view of European modernism was more nuanced. While he provided intellectual and moral support to the Bauhaus through his positions on the Governing Board and the Circle of Friends, he did this because he valued artistic freedom, not because he endorsed Bauhaus design. When Wachsmann had presented his preliminary sketches for the weekend house, Einstein declared: “I don’t want a house that looks like a carton with giant display windows.” Instead, he specified walls of brown stained wood, white window frames, white wooden shutters, and a dark red tiled roof. And when Wachsmann produced interior sketches by Marcel Breuer, Einstein added: “I do not want to sit on furniture that reminds me of a machine shop or an operating room.” 

When Wright had not received a response from Einstein by October 1933, he wrote again, reminding the physicist of his promise to visit Taliesin, and pledging congenial company amidst the forty young architects of the Taliesin Fellowship. Elsa replied from the Peacock Inn: they could not make the trip because they had just arrived in Princeton, where her husband was “fully occupied with his problems” at the Institute for Advanced Study. They hoped, however, that Wright might be able to visit them in Princeton.

Wright had a better idea: if Einstein could not come to Taliesin, perhaps the scientist could attend one of his lectures in New York? What a publicity coup it would be to have Einstein in the audience, and in his entourage for dinner afterwards! “I am to lecture at Columbia University on ‘creative America’ on November 20th,” Wright announced, “and I hope I may see you then.” Wright even organized tickets for the Einsteins, and another for Millard, who was visiting New York. Einstein replied that he was very happy that Wright was to give an important lecture in New York, and that there was to be a dinner afterwards to which he was invited. He regretted, however, that he could not attend because it would be too difficult for him to return to Princeton at night. Einstein invited Wright to pay an informal visit to their house, then at 2 Library Place, Princeton, instead. Wright put the letter—and Einstein—aside for the time being.

Two weeks later, the New York Times Magazine published “A Noted Architect Dissects our Cities,” an article in which Le Corbusier savaged the planning and architecture of New York and Chicago. Wright had no problem with that, but was outraged by Le Corbusier’s proposed alternative. Wright believed that Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City,” a high-density arrangement of sleek, modern skyscrapers in a park, was simply a new version of the old industrial city that he detested. The American was invited to respond, and his riposte—“Broadacre City: An Architect’s Vision”—set out details of the decentralized concept that he had been formulating. In Broadacre, cities and towns would be “eliminated,” government reduced to no more than a county architect who would allocate land and construct basic community facilities, and every family would be allocated a minimum of one acre of land upon which to build a house. The houses, and almost everything else, would be privately owned. There would be no trains; everyone would drive a car or pilot an autogyro. Broadacre City would be a continuous, rectilinear grid of private enterprise development extending from coast to coast across the entire country. 

Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Albert Einstein in living room, Fallingwater, 1939

Meanwhile, Einstein was considering his own solutions to America’s housing problem. Based on observations he made during a 1923 visit to Rishon LeZion, the first modern Zionist settlement in Palestine, and Moshav Nahalal, a collective settlement designed by German architect Richard Kaufmann, Einstein became interested in the idea of cooperative communities. In 1933, he lent his support to a project instigated by Benjamin Brown, a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant. Einstein, Brown, and four other advocates petitioned the United States government for funding to relocate two hundred skilled Jewish needleworkers from the slums and sweatshops of Manhattan to the country. There, the workers were to be provided with housing, a cooperative garment factory, retail store, and community farm from which they could become self-sustaining. The government contributed a stretch of New Jersey flatland near Hightstown; German-born, Philadelphia architect Alfred Kastner and his young assistant, Louis Kahn, designed the project.

As he worked on the design, Kahn sat at his drafting table with a book by Le Corbusier propped up in front of him. The thirty-five small, white houses with flat roofs and large garment factory (comprising the first stage of the project) that Einstein officially opened in June 1936 were closer in spirit to Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus than they were to Wright’s organic architecture. That year, the Jersey Homesteads, as they became known, were included in an “Exhibition of Architecture in Government Housing” at the Museum of Modern Art, while an article in the Architectural Forum claimed they were “the most remarkable houses standing in the U.S. last month,”  “the most modern, functional houses ever erected by the U.S. government.” 

Einstein had not heard from Wright since he received the invitation to the Columbia University lecture in 1933, but the architect’s influence and legacy were becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. In 1937, Frank Aydelotte, President of Swarthmore College who served on the Institute’s Board of Trustees and who would become Director of the Institute in 1939, began searching for a suitable architect to design the new Institute buildings. One of the first people he contacted was the social historian Lewis Mumford. Mumford happened to be a friend and partisan of Wright, and through his writing was attempting to establish the American as the rightful father of the modern movement. Writing to Aydelotte, Mumford was effusive in his praise: Wright was “in a class by himself,” he said, the “outstanding architect in the world today: more fertile and vigorous at sixty-five [sic] than in his youth. A very positive personality: hence at his best only with a completely cooperative client.” Wary of the implications of Mumford’s last phrase, and because he wanted a conservative Colonial or Georgian style building, Aydelotte did not include Wright on his shortlist.

In January 1938, a confident looking Wright appeared on the cover of Time magazine, a dramatic sketch of one of his houses looming over his right shoulder. Later that year, the Museum of Modern Art devoted an entire exhibition to the same house. Edgar J. Kaufmann’s weekend house in rural Pennsylvania, better known as Fallingwater, was Wright’s most accomplished residential work. Einstein visited Fallingwater on June 13, 1939, while attending a conference convened by Kaufmann to discuss the protection of Jews trapped inside Nazi Germany. Set deep within a forest, and comprising a dynamic composition of overlapping, projecting volumes cantilevered from a high rock ledge over a waterfall, Fallingwater confirmed Wright’s extraordinary ability to imagine space. Perhaps the outrageous cantilevers, which stretched reinforced concrete technology to its limits (and sometimes beyond), caused Einstein to reflect momentarily upon what might have been. As a boy, he had planned on becoming an engineer. 

Einstein was now familiar with three of Wright’s most iconic buildings; before meeting Wright in La Miniatura in 1931, he had stayed in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo during the 1922 Tokyo Chrysanthemum Festival and had admired Wright’s entrance lobbies and geometrically carved Oya stone panels. But the vital question remained: was Wright’s unquestionable genius as a manipulator of space and surface sufficient to convince Einstein of the architect’s broader credentials in regard to urban planning?

The irrepressible Wright believed that it was. In January 1943, anticipating the shortage of housing and infrastructure that would exist after World War II, he stepped up his campaign for Broadacre City. Writing again to Einstein, Wright enclosed details of his proposal, plus a petition for which he hoped to receive the famous physicist’s support. “A Citizen’s Petition” urged the Roosevelt administration to declare Broadacre City a “worthy national objective,” and to grant Wright carte blanche to produce sufficient plans, models, and drawings to explain the proposal to the American people. Einstein’s reply (translated by the architect Erich Mendelsohn), stated: 

I have read with great interest the proposal of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright whose creative imagination I always have admired. However, I do not believe in the possibility of a decentralized production at least if it is based on private enterprise. In spite of my sympathy and great esteem for Frank Lloyd Wright, I am terribly sorry to say that in all conscience I cannot support his plan.

Wright wrote back immediately. Surely there must be a mistake, he said. Perhaps the great man had misunderstood his proposal? Or perhaps Mendelsohn had not explained it clearly? After lecturing Einstein about the benefits of decentralized private enterprise, Wright tried another technique: “Thoughtful people,” he said, who did not agree with all of his principles, might sign his petition anyway, because allowing him to develop Broadacre would be valuable to democracy. Hoping that it might help his cause, Wright signed off with a gentle reminder: “I remember with pleasure a little dinner with Mrs. Einstein present at Alice Millard’s in Pasadena. Do you? Perhaps you will come to Taliesin—someday?” 

Einstein did not reply, but it made no difference: Wright went ahead and included the scientist’s name on the petition anyway. Despite Wright’s constant badgering, Einstein never did make it to Taliesin.

When Le Corbusier visited the United States, Wright did not invite him to Taliesin—in fact the American refused to meet Le Corbusier on three occasions, claiming: “Corbu’s influence in this country is just terrible, and he has no business here. I don’t want to have to shake his hand.”

Paradoxically, it was Le Corbusier, not Wright, who visited Einstein in Princeton, showing up on his doorstep one day in May 1946. Le Corbusier had not traveled to Princeton to discuss Broadacre City, nor the Radiant City. He wanted to talk to Einstein about another project that was just as ambitious. Le Corbusier wanted Einstein’s endorsement of Le Modulor, a system of idealized proportions that he was developing, to which he wanted all prefabricated components for architecture and industry to conform. Le Corbusier was confident: “full of great hope that his hour had come—the time at last to do great things in this big country.” He had already arranged to meet Henry Kaiser, the American industrialist and shipbuilder, and was hoping to collaborate with him on the design of prefabricated houses based on Le Modulor. Kaiser had claimed he could produce up to 10,000 houses per day (three million in a year). All Le Corbusier needed was Einstein’s blessing. But the architect, who lacked confidence in mathematics, was uncharacteristically nervous in the presence of the world famous physicist. He became confused when trying to explain his grid. Einstein picked up a pencil and began to calculate. An agitated Le Corbusier kept interrupting him. Einstein eventually replaced the pencil, the calculation was lost, and the conversation turned to other things. Le Corbusier was devastated. He thought he had missed his opportunity. The physicist, however, was generous. “It is a new language of proportions,” he said, as Le Corbusier was about to leave, “which expresses the good easily and the bad only with complications.” Le Corbusier beamed at this, and asked Einstein to write it down. He obliged, and they posed in the rear garden at 112 Mercer Street for Le Corbusier’s colleague to capture a photograph.

F.L.C./ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2014

Le Corbusier and Albert Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey, 1946

Le Corbusier proudly included Einstein’s quotation in Le Modulor (1948) and Modulor 2 (1955). Wright, naturally, was not impressed, claiming that he had always used a similar tool: “We called it a grid,” he said. “Now a Swiss gentleman has written a book on it and called it the Modulor system . . . I sat at the kindergarten table with it.” Le Modulor was not widely adopted by the construction industry. Kaiser changed his mind and decided to build cars instead of houses. Wright’s utopian metropolis of Broadacre City was never realized, but the architect and his apprentices kept on tinkering with a twelve-foot-square model of the project, removing buildings and structures and replacing them with newer ones as Wright developed them.

By contrast, Jersey Homesteads, the housing project that Einstein had advocated, was conceived and built amidst controversy and economic hardship. While it failed as a cooperative venture, the residents managed to build a strong community. Renamed Roosevelt in 1945 in honor of the late president, the town gained a reputation as an artists’ colony, and in 1983 was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1955, the year that Einstein died, Wright (who was twelve years Einstein’s senior), was still working on grand projects. His latest was a Mile High Tower to accommodate 100,000 employees of the State of Illinois in Chicago. A tower this high could be justified, Wright argued, if it was spaced sufficiently apart from other structures and, more importantly, if he designed it. Fortunately for Chicago, the Mile High Tower remained a figment of Wright’s boundless imagination, and testament to the maverick architect’s ability to reinvent himself. This was the same architect who, in 1931, had mailed Einstein a copy of his book Modern Architecture, which included a chapter titled “The Tyranny of the Skyscraper.”

Recommended Viewing: “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dis­persal,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through June 1, includes a twelve-foot by twelve-foot model of Wright’s Broadacre City plan.

Milton Cameron, Visitor (2013–14) in the School of Social Science, is researching ways in which modern architects and architectural historians sought to associate themselves with Albert Einstein to gain intellectual credibility for their own work, or attempted to use aspects of Einstein’s theories as meta­phors for their own thought processes or as cata­lysts for paradigm shift within architectural design.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2014