MANITOGA: “A Temple to Ecological Design”
— 22 December 2022 by Nick Lomax
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— 22 December 2022 by Nick Lomax
“I believe with religious intensity that good design is for everyone.” So said Wright. Not Frank Lloyd Wright, but American Industrial Designer Russel Wright. He became spokesman for an extraordinary business design partnership with his wife Mary Einstein Wright who tragically died of cancer aged 47 when their adopted daughter was only two. As industrial designers, the Wrights, separately and collectively brought the fantastic legacy of “American Modern design”, the most widely sold American ceramic dinnerware in history (Russel) and “America Designs Inc”, an organization that supported the works of American industrial designers (Mary) and who collaborated together on the best-selling book “Guide to Easier Living” published in 1950. Their design and promotion of homeware encouraged Americans to embrace Modernism through the 1930 to 1950s in much the same way as Terence Conran did in the UK later.
On a planned visit to my younger daughter and her husband in New York, the team suggested I should write, upon my return, about the most profound place that I encountered there. In a very exciting 2 weeks I was spoilt for choice but I decided upon a little known house and garden that stands out for its sheer importance in its innovative celebration of design, place and naturewhich is where Russel and Mary Wright fit-in.
An hour upstate from New York City, on the edge of the Hudson River is the most remarkable woodland garden known as Manitoga, meaning “place of great spirit” in the indigenous language of the Alongquin, set in an abandoned quarry and former logging site. In the middle of this hilly 77-acre landscape sits a timber house and studio called Dragon Rock. The site was developed from 1942, when the Wrights purchased the site, through to 1976 when Russel Wright died, and whilst Mary was very much involved with the conception of the project through a shared design ethos with Russel which imagined a home that would best serve their family within the context of the site, the house was only completed nearly 10 years after her death. The lapse in time, and what I believe was Russel’ dedication to the project in memorial to his wife after the initial grief and the collapse of his world, has contributed to this unique house and wooded garden, adding a poignant background to the whole conception.
Although both had a very clear view of what they wanted and were designers with some architectural education, Russel went onto collaborate on the design of Dragon Rock with David Leavitt of Leavitt, Henshell and Kawai, an architect chosen for his experience and knowledge of Japanese architecture. Russel was his own general contractor, and the house took three years to build, giving him time to experiment with interior design and create what he called a "design for living". The house is literally “rooted” in the site and enhanced through unusual lighting, walls of pine needles, plastic panels with leaves, grass, bamboo and other natural materials, and even adopted a Japanese custom of changing décor from season to season. He used stone from the original quarry inside and out and told his architect he “wanted a flat roof covered in vines”, and so the modern-day green roof was conceived.
By the time he was consulting David Leavitt, Russel had already selected the site for his home, perched on a quarry bluff with the best possible views of its surroundings, dammed up the empty quarry to make a natural swimming pool, and rerouted a stream which ran through the site to create a waterfall on the opposite side of the pool. At the time of the purchase, the quarry was filled with rubble with the surrounding site thickly forested. Stones cleared out from the quarry were used in Dragon Rock’s construction - boulders were moved to support the house, while rocks from the site were used inside as walls, fireplace surrounds, and flooring materials. A tree from the property provides a ceiling beam support. It was not only built from the inside to out, but from outside to in, creating a seamless and creative harmony with nature.
As an example of the transfer of design skills from one discipline to another, and be pioneers in both, the body of the Wrights’ work must be very nearly unsurpassed. The disciplines come together with the Russel & Mary Wright Design Gallery displaying the Wrights’ new trend designs for the American home in this unique setting where Russel said, “my desire is to add to American culture an intimacy with nature”.
Russel dedicated over 20 years to the site, developing sustainable biodiverse practices for the woodland garden and its trails. He avoided the use of pesticides and non-native plants working very strictly within what was indigenous and natural to the site. He demonstrated the power of land reclamation, respect for the environment, and integration in design.
He celebrated the natural setting and worked to enhance it. He installed simple bridges and created meadows. He cleared trees along the trails originally created by Native Americans, who historically hunted in the area, opening up views to the Hudson River through layered seasonal foliage. He created “incidents” along the routes by clearing vegetation around sculptural boulders and introducing vernal pools with cultivated wetland planting that provided a unique habitat and incubator for valuable plants and wildlife. He adopted these landscape management practices allowing nature to take its course with modest interventions in preference to lawns and non-native vegetation where humanity imposes upon the natural environment. He fittingly combined design with stewardship, by designing with purpose in a unique way for its time.
Manitoga Inc and the Open Space Institute describe it “as a learning laboratory about the importance of living in harmony with nature and the value of good design in everything and for everyone”. The prescient Ian McKarg, an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of landscape architecture and ecological planning, described Manitoga as “a temple to ecological design, an exemplar for all designers and landscape architects, and for all ecosystems waiting to be idealized and appreciated”. That is some legacy.