WRIGHT-MINDED

St. Louis architect William Adair Bernoudy learned his trade as a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright but came away with a style all his own

Frank Lloyd Wright -- the name itself has become synonymous with American architecture. No other architect commands such instant name recognition. He is to architecture what Picasso is to art: an iconic figure who seems in retrospect to have invented his art rather than merely practiced it.

Of course, commanding historical figures such as Wright and Picasso tend to cast huge shadows. In Wright's case, that shadow has obscured a number of other architects who studied under and worked with him. Apprentices at Wright's famous Taliesin studio are rarely given their due; their works are too often hastily dismissed as "derivative" of Wright's style.

Noted architectural historian Osmund Overby sees this as the unfortunate effect of Wright's legacy. But Overby is working hard to change this pattern. He has written a new book on William Adair Bernoudy, a St. Louis architect who was apprenticed to Wright at Taliesin. The book is beautifully illustrated by Sam Fentress' photographs, which document the architect's roughly 50-year career of designing mainly domestic structures in the St. Louis region.

If you've never heard of Bernoudy, it's not your fault; blame it on Wright's shadow effect. You'll have your chance to get better acquainted with the architect's work starting on Thursday, Dec. 16. At noon, Overby will deliver a lecture on Bernoudy at the Sheldon Concert Hall and will sign copies of his book, William Adair Bernoudy: Bringing the Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright to St. Louis. The lecture will also mark the official opening of an exhibit of Fentress' Bernoudy photographs at the Sheldon's aptly named Bernoudy Gallery of Architecture.

William Adair Bernoudy (1910-1988) was born in St. Louis and showed an interest in architecture from an early age. Despite a less-than-stellar academic record (he flunked out of Washington University after only one year), Bernoudy was accepted in 1932 as a charter apprentice at Wright's Taliesin studio. Bernoudy's three-year tutelage by Wright was an experience that shaped -- but did not limit -- his development as an architect.

Bernoudy learned from Wright the principles of organic architecture: expressive use of materials, sensitivity to site and the value of blurring the distinction between "inside" and "outside." These tenets had been forged by Wright in the development of his own Prairie Style architecture in the early 20th century. Wright blended such buildings as the Robie House and the Willits House into the stark, horizontal landscape of suburban Chicago while still providing them a central focus and an essential warmth in the form of a substantial hearth.

According to Overby, Bernoudy diverged from Wright's habits in significant ways. Whereas Wright adamantly rejected historicism and local color, Bernoudy wasn't against acknowledging vernacular traditions -- he liked to build houses in St. Louis using those rich red irregular bricks. And whereas Wright was known for asserting total (even totalitarian) control over his designs, sometimes disregarding the wishes of his clients, Bernoudy actively sought their input, wishing above all to create a thing of beauty that reflected the clients' vision as much as his own. Overby remarks that "Bernoudy's personality was never as intrusively present as Wright's."

Bernoudy took what he learned at Taliesin and fashioned an individualized architectural style from it, a style that continued to evolve throughout his career. One of his earliest designs was the Pulitzer pool and pavilion in Ladue, designed and built for Joseph Jr. and Louise Pulitzer between 1948 and 1951. The structure is nothing short of a manifesto of 1950s classic modernism. It combines the best of Wright's philosophy of organic modernism with the cool classicism of Mies van der Rohe's International Style.

The Pulitzer Pavilion is a simple, horizontal spread of enclosed spaces that flows gently and logically into a serene pool of water and an open expanse of land. Aesthetically, the structure is characterized by its understated window walls, vertical mullions and horizontal roof lines. It declares an affinity with the subtle, classical designs of Mies' 1929 Barcelona Pavilion (the rectangular pools are identical) and that architect's more aggressively modernist steel-and-glass Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. But Bernoudy's works lack the sterility of much International Style modernism. His houses maintain the warmth and intimacy of the best of Wright's works, as well as a sensitivity to landscaping and the natural characteristics of a site that Mies was never interested in.

Bernoudy's style continued to evolve throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Overby describes the Klein House, built in suburban St. Louis in 1965, as a more formal design that marks Bernoudy's middle period. It is nestled into its site but features a gabled roof and a fireplace on the floor plan's axis, unlike earlier designs.

A milestone of Bernoudy's career came in that year, 1965, when the firm of Bernoudy-Mutrux-Bauer broke up. Bernoudy continued his practice under the title of Bernoudy Associates until the year of his death, 1988. During that final period, Bernoudy appears to have become somewhat more experimental in his designs. He created the arcaded Kiener Memorial Entrance to the St. Louis Zoo, the Beaumont Pavilion on the Washington University campus and the United Missouri Bank of Ferguson on Old Halls Ferry Road in St. Louis.

Overby's book on Bernoudy is a milestone in architectural scholarship. As he himself notes, the book is the first one written on a Wright apprentice by an "outsider" -- that is, by a scholar, not someone intimately involved in the architect's practice. Overby never met Bernoudy. But his beautiful descriptions of Bernoudy's life and works will make you forget that detail; Bernoudy comes alive in Overby's book.

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