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Engineering the Organic: An Investigation into the Collaboration of Jaroslav J. Polívka and Frank Lloyd Wright

Friday, January 5th, 2018
Jaroslav Josef Polívka circa 1920’s, photo courtesy of Polívka family private collection.

Architecture, by its very nature, is a collaborative effort. In any project, an architect seldom steps up to the plate alone. He or she teams with the client, site-planners, engineers, contractors and tradespeople. Like a coach, an architect sets the game plan, designs the plays, and may be involved in selecting the best players to move the effort forward. On the playing field of the built environment, the result can be seen in a victory, a defeat, or simply in the legacy of leaving a great set of game plans.

Jaroslav Josef Polívka at work with Frank Lloyd Wright, February 20, 1957.

Frank Lloyd Wright, thought by many to be America’s greatest architect, collaborated throughout his career with others who helped realize his daring vision of an organic architecture. However, Wright was seldom generous in acknowledging the value of his collaborators’ contributions. In the late 1990’s, I set out to explore the relationship between Jaroslav J. Polívka, a celebrated Czech-American engineer, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the consummate American architect. Theirs was a partnership that had apparently escaped the attention of most Wright scholars.

Documentation of this relationship is based on my study of first-hand original materials held by the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art & the Humanities and the unique collection of J.J. Polívka Papers in the University Archives. The UB collection was generously donated to the University in 1982 by the Polívka’s children through the courtesies of Katka Houdek Hammond, Jaroslav’s granddaughter. As my research continued, I began to uncover strong evidence documenting the significance of Polívka’s work to Wright’s career. Encouraged by this discovery, I sensed that my research would be substantive enough to give irrefutable credit to Jaroslav Polívka, and to finally give him the attribution he clearly deserves.

Included in the University Archives’ collection of Polívka papers is an array of correspondence (letters and telegrams), notes, drawings, calculations, assorted documents, invoices for professional services, original photographs, as well as clippings from popular magazines and professional journals. The papers cover a period from 1945-1959 and illustrate a working relationship between the two men that evolved into a respectful friendship. Most significantly, this substantive evidence provided me with proof of a collaboration in which Polívka’s input and support to specific Wright projects merits consideration. Although Wright never publicly credited Polívka for his work, this evidence documents Polívka’s involvement and confirms that credit is due.

Polívka was born to humble beginnings in Prague. After earning engineering and doctoral degrees, Polívka began his professional career which was interrupted when, at age 31, he was conscripted to serve in World War I. Returning to Prague after the war, he opened an architectural and engineering office where he developed hands-on skills working with new materials, including reinforced concrete and steel, precast forms, and glass as a structural element.

His prolific practice began to flourish in the atmosphere of the European architectural avant-garde. Their new visual language of design tended towards Functionalism, a principle whereby the form of a building is determined by its function, and Rationalism, expressed in simple rectangular volumes with the intentional avoidance of ornament. Two particular projects gave Polívka international exposure. First, he partnered on the design of the daring Czechoslovakian Pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1937, where a sleek steel skeleton was sheathed in a smooth skin of glass. Another major project, the Czech Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 gave him the opportunity to emigrate to America.

Czechoslovakian Pavilion, designed by Polívka, for New York World’s Fair, 1938.

As a researcher and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Polívka founded the Photo-elastic Laboratory where he continued to refine advances in his stress-analysis specialty. An ardent admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Polívka’s ability to adapt and his knowledge of latest technologies gave him significant credibility and success.

Then, a simple event changed the course of his career. In 1946, Wright was quoted in Architectural Forum as saying that engineers were “complete damn fools!” Although this insult must have been offensive to many engineers, Polívka sent Wright an enthusiastic letter: “I am writing as an old admirer of you and your work.”

Polívka’s Czechoslovakian Pavilion designed and built for Paris Exposition, 1937.

Referring to Wright’s comment, Polívka wrote, “You may be right since the engineers in their structural conceptions are very seldom guided by eternal laws of Nature. Take for example cobwebs of a spider which definitely should be studied by an engineer whose specialty is to build suspension bridges, he continued… The average engineer knows only beams, girders, columns, and any deviation from these every day tools is considered as unusual, crazy, or dangerous. For many years I was grappling with this prejudice. Your work confirms and fortifies my ideas and that’s why I am so grateful to you.” The letter resulted in an invitation to Wright’s home at Taliesin, launching a relationship between the two men that continued until Wright’s death, more than thirteen years later.

What, then, was the nature of Polívka’s role in his collaboration with Wright? Wright became celebrated for his use of concrete, a material with which Polívka was very familiar. My research focused on seven specific projects on which both men worked. Those case studies can function as lenses through which to view their larger relationship. Depending on the project, I demonstrated that Polívka’s involvement ranged from playing a minor role and acting as a consultant to Wright, to that of being the catalyst who conceived the project, brought it to Wright, and then assumed multiple roles and the dynamic force towards its fruition. Two examples of the latter are the Guggenheim Museum and The Johnson Wax Tower.

Polívka’s work with Wright remained unrecognized for years because of the very nature of collaborating, or more specifically, the very nature of collaborating with Wright. In addition to his other talents, Wright was a master of self-promotion, and, no matter how talented, a mortal like Jaroslav Polívka could merely stand in his shadow. While respectfully recognizing Wright’s incomparable status as one of the world’s premier 20th-century architects, it is important to challenge traditional views of history when armed with new evidence. The J.J. Polívka Papers in the University Archives, coupled with the cooperation and accessibility of Archives staff provided me with the tools to accomplish that challenge.


Barry A. Muskat, (M.A. University at Buffalo, B.A. Penn State University), is a business leader in the Buffalo area, architecture critic for Buffalo Spree, and a senior docent at the Darwin D. Martin House. Muskat acknowledges UB Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Jack Quinan for his research guidance and friendship. Muskat and Katka Hammond are collaborating on a book that examines the Wright-Polivka relationship.