Master Of All He Surveyed

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – October 5, 1992

Master Of All He Surveyed

TITLE: Frank Lloyd Wright
AUTHOR: Meryle Secrest
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 634 pages; $30
THE BOTTOM LINE: Despite Secrest’s sometimes trite prose, Wright’s rich life makes compelling reading.

When a shop selling nothing but biographies opened in Greenwich Village in New York City a few years ago, it affirmed both a well-established truism (Manhattan is a bookwormy hothouse) and a brand new one: as this century winds down, the number of biographies manifestly exceeds the supply of deserving subjects. How much did the world need an account of the life of Elton John, let alone the two that were published this year?

On the other hand, there is Frank Lloyd Wright. He was born to be written about, an authentic genius who was both prolific and profoundly influential, his life packed with dramatic incident and grand gesture. Yet while there have been Wright biographies (including his own maundering, portentous, 1932 memoir), his life hasn’t had the acute summation and assessment it deserves. While Meryle Secrest’s Frank Lloyd Wright is highly imperfect — her chats about his personality and architecture are trite almost without exception — it is still the best so far, a huge and definitive accumulation of fact.

Wright’s life-span alone is astonishing: his career extended from the beginning of the Gilded Age to the last days of the American Century, from the sod house to the shopping mall. Born in rural Wisconsin to a charming, feckless musician-preacher and a high-strung, single-minded mother — they divorced when Frank was a teenager — Wright was inculcated with an overweening sense of his talent and destiny. Anna Wright may have been the first atelier mother: she pushed him hard to become an architect when he was still a child, providing a special set of designer-in-training building blocks.

By the time Wright was 19 he was in Chicago working for Louis Sullivan, the most important American architect of the time. Hired as an $8-a-week draftsman, Wright asked for a 125% raise within a few months and quit when he was refused. Sullivan quickly capitulated and was soon paying him $60 a week, a preposterous sum for the time. All his life, no matter how much he made (and borrowed: friends and patrons lent him thousands of dollars at a whack), Wright felt poor, thanks to an unhesitatingly indulged taste for swank — chamois underwear, high-performance sports cars, whatever was gorgeous and rare.

Despite the cosmopolite profligacy, he described his architecture as the embodiment of some vague Whitmanesque mission, earthy and populist and “organic.” In fact, he did design an inordinate number of houses for an architect of his stature, and his best ones are married intricately and sublimely to their natural surroundings — Fallingwater, one of his masterpieces, seems not so much erected as extruded out of a stony patch of Pennsylvania forest.

Much of his greatest work, such as New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, is definitively 20th century, yet doesn’t fit easily into the standard modernist canon — Wright’s buildings are too craftsmanlike, too exuberant, too strange. Was he the greatest architect of the 19th century (as the young Philip Johnson twittingly called him) or the first great one of the 20th? Even as he was, years ahead of his time, denuding interiors and dreaming up schemes for mass- produced housing, he loathed the new abstract art from its beginning. Johnson planned to include Wright in his epochal 1932 Museum of Modern Art show on the International Style, but Wright peevishly pulled out, unwilling to be lumped with designers he considered hacks. Wright slagged his architectural descendants, calling the International Style “totalitarian.” Yet he remained by deep temperament a modernist, driven always by the urge to create novelty: the Guggenheim is far more a building of the 21st century than the 19th.

Just as Wright was a modernist who didn’t like the rubric, so too was he a prototypical modern figure in all the meretricious pop senses. He was a child of a dysfunctional family. He wore long hair and dressed expensively and eccentrically for effect: broad-brimmed hat, cape, velvet suit with lace collar and cuffs, immense bows, tassled cummerbunds, high heels. He was not just an adulterer but a free-love ideologue. He was a media celebrity; trains and theater curtains were held for him. And he marketed his fame: during the Depression he started charging devotees to come and work for him.

Wright managed to enrapture a particular type of rich man — Great Lakes ! mercantile magnates. Darwin Martin, a mail-order-soap chief executive from Buffalo, commissioned houses and offices and lent him tens of thousands of dollars. Fallingwater was the country house of Pittsburgh department-store owner Edgar Kaufmann, and for “Hib” Johnson of Johnson’s Wax he designed an enormous house as well as a corporate headquarters. Richard Lloyd Jones, the architect’s newspaper-publisher cousin, called him a “strutting, self- seeking, self-centered charmer” — but he loved the house Wright built him, even though it (typically) went 50% over budget and (typically) leaked. “Well,” Jones’ wife said, “this is what we get for leaving a work of art out in the rain.”

“Not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived,” Wright declared to a friend in the 1930s, “but the greatest architect who will ever live.” Faced with such hubris, Secrest is ever the earnest apologist. “Few people,” she writes about a similar outburst, “realized how compensatory those comments actually were.” But if anyone should be excused his megalomania, it was Frank Lloyd Wright. He created dozens of masterworks, and his influence on a century of architecture is unequalled. Low-slung suburban houses, cathedral ceilings, wide-open interiors, the blurring of the indoor-outdoor distinction, office-building atriums — there is scarcely any contemporary American architectural move that Wright’s work did not presage 50, 75, even 100 years ago. His was a vast, Promethean talent, nearly as vast and Promethean as he and his biographer reckoned it.