Much has been written about Unity Temple, including the ornament of the external piers that have been described as stylized examples of Mr. Wright’s love of flowers, particularly hollyhocks. Be that as it may, I’d like to propose another source for these ornaments, a source not found in gardens and the wilds of the Northwestern United States, but as the first foray by Mr. Wright into the representation of Mexican pre-Columbian architecture. The so-called Avenue of the Dead is a recently excavated and published site, just north of Mexico City at Teotihuacan. This archaeological investigation between 1900 and 1910 and its heralding publications show an Avenue some 130 feet wide and about 1.5 miles long, aiming at the peak of Cerro Gordon, an extinct volcano, several miles distant.
Archaeologists named it the Avenue of the Dead because it was the path the human sacrifices took and the diminutive pyramid temples/tombs that line both sides. A large pyramid designated the Pyramid of the Moon is the central point of emanation or culmination of the Avenue. This composition fits and suits the Unity Temple piers as stylized sculptures perfectly. Mr. Wright created this relief sculpture as a stylized and geometric rendition of the site of Teotihuacan, not as an archaeological plan.
As a widely read and astutely aware architect, Mr. Wright’s foray into the most current discoveries and discussions of the archaeology of Aztec sites should not come as a surprise. And his sense of stylizing these abstractions as cubist not only fits his architecture but even predates paintings by Picasso and Braque by a few years when the sculpture by Richard Bock on the entrance landing of the Dana House, from 1903 in Springfield, Illinois, is considered.
Using Mr. Wright’s cubist vocabulary, the pier relief image can be viewed as a flower or ornamentation and not a reference to a religious site which would not support its function on Unity Temple as a related symbol from another culture. It’s also outside the physical interior, separated by a stained-glass screen or transparent shield, so it is not directly related to the proceedings inside of Unity Temple.
Mr. Wright was aware of current intellectual activities and participated with his interpretation of contemporary vocabulary from the color use of Impressionists to forms by Cubists. He was a very up-to-date, both nationally and internationally aware intellectual. I think Mr. Wright was highly interested in Native American archaeology, as led in part by Franz Boaz, the director of what became the Field Museum in Chicago, before going on to Columbia University and inventing physical anthropology, which was highly intellectual and fashionable at the time of the design of Unity Temple more than in flower gardening.
Lastly, hollyhocks are Turkish and European, imported to Britain and the United States. The native American hollyhock is found in the Northwestern United States along riverbanks. It is not a typical American Midwestern plant. Mr. Wright would have known this. The flower arrangement of the Hollyhock is also awkward to reproduce as a geometric image. They are not nearly as regular as a monumental path with temples on both sides.
By Rolf Achilles, Art Historian, Author & Scholar
For further information:
A Complete Guide to Visiting Teotihuacan from Mexico City