Frank Lloyd Wright was a complex individual to understand. He was celebrated as a genius architect, which he undoubtedly was, but he was also an incredibly multi-layered and flawed individual.
Wright is undeniably on the top of the list of the great architects of history. He designed some of the greatest buildings of the twentieth century including Fallingwater, The Guggenheim Museum, The Imperial Hotel, the Johnson Wax Office Building, and his groundbreaking Prairie Style and Usonian houses. His buildings were an attractive organic-looking alternative to the boxiness of conventional Modernism. He used natural materials, preserved ornament, and hand-craft in construction. He emphasized the horizontal over he vertical, against the grain of the growth of skyscraper oriented cities, which he detested.
All the same, there was definitely a dark side to Frank Lloyd Wright. This is what makes his legacy so complex. He told many lies and made many exaggerations about his own history. He wanted to live up to his own expectations in the minds of others and himself, even if he didn’t in reality. Shame was an emotion he didn’t take much stock in and he was a master of egotism. He called himself the greatest architect who ever lived and believed it. He believed morality was flexible and the creative life meant no fixed notion of it. The construction of a biography was as much a creative act for him as designing buildings. He left his wife and children for his mistress (who was tragically murdered by their servant). Despite its importance as an important training center in mid-century architecture, he created an almost cult-like atmosphere in his apprenticeship program at Taliesen, the home he had designed for himself, and discouraged his apprentices from joining the war effort during World War II. He denied having any influences, claiming that all of the ideas he had came out of his own head, something he himself contradicted in his own writings. He even claimed that he had invented Modernism, a style that he often discounted as irrelevant but later incorporated into his own.
Being as arrogant as he was may have been detrimental personally but it gave him the kind of professional drive to weather the bad times and take as much advantage as possible of the good. His career lasted from the 1890’s until his death in 1959 and many of his greatest buildings were completed in the last ten years of his life. During times of setback, Wright would act as if he was flush with clients in order to actually attract clients. He even lied to clients to about projects designed by his mentor, Louis Sullivan, claiming that he had designed the buildings himself.
Despite his shortcuts, Wright did have a tireless work ethic. He was a skilled architect as well as an equally skilled draughtsman and engineer. He would work for 3-4 days at a stretch making drawings for a single project. Wright stated boastfully that he could shake buildings out of his sleeve, that he could rebuild the whole country if he wanted to. At the same time he sometimes procrastinated to force himself to finish a project at the last minute. For his most famous house, Fallingwater, Wright waited until his client, Edgar Kaufman Jr., was driving to his office to even get started on drawing the project, all the while telling Kaufman that the plans were ready. In the end, he finished designing the project in twenty-six hours and was able to complete the plans with incredible skill and finesse before the client arrived. He would often lose himself in his work in this way, completing projects with incredible speed.
It has been remarked, however, that there were many problems with his constructions, design flaws that led to issues such as leaky roofs and sagging cantilevers. Since he dashed off so many projects at such an incredible pace, it was argued that he didn’t pay attention to these and other important details. For some reason this didn’t seem to bother the man much. To complaints about leaks, for instance, he would tell the complainer to simply move their desk. He said that was what happened when you left a masterpiece out in the rain. Such blind indifference to errors in design shows Wright’s unshakable confidence and belief in his own ability as an architect and it also shows his interest in higher ideals than what he saw as trivial practicalities of building. Many of these problems have been alleviated by advances in modern technology, which shows how far ahead of their time his designs were even if they had major problems when they were created.
On other details, Wright was not indifferent but actually defensive and controlling. He would construct elaborate demonstrations to show what kinds of stresses his daring innovations could handle. He would often attempt to flip the client and architect relationship so it was as if the client was working for him. Much of this was because of his incredible charm. He was definitely a hustler. He dictated everything a client could have in their home down to the furniture, the china, and even what gown a hostess could wear to a dinner party. He even went so far as to go into houses when the owners were away and rearrange the furniture. He also manipulated clients into conforming to his vision, whatever the financial cost for them. Wright was not only indifferent towards thrift when it came to architecture. He was a wild spender personally, ever in debt.
But Wright didn’t use his often dubious and manipulative powers merely for evil but for a sense of greater good. The hype that Wright created for himself through his writings and media appearances almost completely stands up in the face not only of the buildings he designed but by his very well conceptualized and delineated concept of architecture. He was a protégé of Louis Sullivan. Sullivan, an early innovator of the modern skyscraper, emphasized the importance of all parts of a building being a elements of an organic whole, and that any architectural or decorative detail on the exterior or in the interior of a building must be formally appropriate to its intended function. For Wright, these lessons were essential and he would apply them consistently to his own designs.
What was also imperative for Wright was the importance of Nature. Unlike the European Modernist architects who believed in a new formalism centered around a reverence for the rationality of the machine and the grid, in other words for synthetic modern forms, Wright took Nature for his grounding principles, inspiration, and materials. His buildings gestured metaphorically to the landscape, were built out of natural materials such as wood and stone (concrete and steel would come later), and often incorporated Nature itself in the form of hills, plants, rocks. and water, into the buildings themselves. He spent much time as a child among Unitarian relatives who revered the land as God’s creation and was interested in the works of Emerson who like Wright made Nature his religion. He wanted to enlighten people with this natural formal sense and sense of space that he painstakingly demonstrated in his buildings.
He was also very interested in music, especially that of Beethoven, and believed it to be a natural force. He also claimed that music was constructed in a very similar way to architecture and tried to emulate the methods of composition used in music in designing his buildings. Nonetheless, he thought that architecture was the supreme art-form and all others were subordinate to it. This can be seen most distinctly in his design for the Guggenheim Museum where Wright cared much more for ideals of the natural spiral design of the overall building than he did for its function of displaying art in a way that was most congenial to it. Wright didn’t care much for modern painting and sculpture. Although the Guggenheim is a beautiful building these opinions were reflected in the design as the building itself takes precedence over what it was designed for: the exhibition of artworks. In this way he we went against the credo instilled in him by Louis Sullivan, that form follows function.
The difficulty with Wright is how to define him. There were so many Wrights with so many different personalities, many conflicting. He combined an incalculable genius and skill with egotism, stubbornness, selfishness, and sometimes stupidity. But would he have been so bold, so inventive, so successful, and so persistent had he been a less ruthlessly ambitious man? It is hard to know. What makes him such a complex figure is that all these issues are tangled up together, impossible to separate. Creativity, while often a good thing, can come from dubious moral groundings in the individual who embodies it. Is it possible to be a great man without being a good man? In the end perhaps it is the end result that matters, the finished product that counts. Frank Lloyd Wright is still a hero to many and that is because the greatness of his works and his drive for greatness rise above the complex flaws of the man himself.