THE MASTER BUILDERS
By KEN BURNS
VANITY FAIR - NOVEMBER 1998
America's greatest architect, Frank
Lloyd Wright led a truly epic life --- success, scandal, exile, devastating
tragedy, and renewed glory --- in pursuit of his precedent-shattering vision.
Nearly 40 years after Wright's death, KEN BURNS assesses the monumental,
intimate brilliance of structures such as New York's Guggenheim Museum,
Fallingwater, and the Johnson Wax Building; the emotional wreckage left by
Wright's abandonment of his first wife and six children; the subsequent horror
of the murder of his mistress and six luncheon guests; the cult like Fellowship
of his disciples; and the messy, glorious nature of genius itself.
In the mid-1930s, at the age of 66, when
most of his modernist rivals --- who openly disdained what they saw as his
hopelessly antiquated ideas --- assumed he was safely out of the picture,
Frank Lloyd Wright landed a relatively small commission. He was hired to build
a weekend home for a wealthy Pittsburgh department-store owner named Edgar J.
Kaufmann on a beautiful piece of land deep in the western-Pennsylvania woods
along a little creek called Bear Run.
He might not have gotten even that job had Kaufmann's son
not attended the architecture school-cum-spiritual foundation that Wright and
his third wife, Olgivanna, had set up to help pay the bills in the midst of
the Great Depression. Olgivanna, a striking Eastern European dancer, was a
disciple (as Wright himself would also become) of the charismatic
Greco-American mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who had attracted a devoted
following among the intelligentsia of England, France, and most recently the
United States. Gurdjieff believed that human beings spend most of their lives
asleep, unaware of themselves, subject to too many natural "laws."
These notions fit right in with everything the great but down-on-his-luck
Wright had been saying for years. The Fellowship, as he called the school, was
an amalgam of hands-on architectural work, manual labor, esoteric philosophy,
and the brilliant, if offbeat, ideas of its founder himself.
The senior Kaufmann was irresistibly drawn to Wright's
charming personality and mesmerizing sermons about buildings. In the summer of
1935, the architect visited the site of the proposed home, with its stunning
waterfall and dramatic vistas, and supervised the production of a "plot
plan," which showed the topography of the land and the precise location
of trees and rocks. But Wright, in typical fashion, did nothing further for
several months, ignoring the cautions inquiries of the apprentices who worried
that even this modest commission might slip through their hands.
Then, in the fall, Wright got a telephone call from
Kaufmann, who was in Milwaukee, just 140 miles from Wright's studio in Spring
Green, Wisconsin. Kaufmann said he was on his way --- and he wanted to see the
design for his house. Though Wright has as yet committed nothing to paper, he
remained completely calm. "Come along, E. J. .... Your house is
finished." Then Wright hung up.
A hush descended on the cavernous drafting studio as word
went out that Wright had begun to draw. For more than two hours, anxious
apprentices handed him pencil after pencil, quieted those acolytes who walked
in unaware of the unfolding drama, and watched transfixed as the Great Master
summoned up, in a remarkable moment of architectural alchemy, the designs he
had obviously been thinking about for some time.
"[Wright] draws the first-floor plan," Edgar
Tafel, an architect and student at the time, remembers, "and he draws a
second-floor plan and he ... shows how the balconies are ... and he says,
'And we'll have a bridge across, so that E. J. and Liliane' --- that was [Kaufmann's
wife's] name --- 'can walk out ... from the bedrooms ... and have a picnic
The apprentices were amazed as Wright continued his work.
"And he's putting the trees in," Tafel exclaims. "He knows
where every damned tree is." A few minutes later, a secretary announced
Kaufmann's arrival. Wright dramatically ushered him in. "Welcome, E. J. !"
he said expansively. "We've been waiting for you!"
Frank Lloyd Wright named the Kaufmann home Fallingwater.
It would eventually become the most famous modern house in the world --- and he
had drawn it all in less than three hours. But to do it, to make the drawings,
he had brought himself to the edge, forced himself into a nearly impossible
situation. It was something he had done since his earliest days, something he
would do until he died.
"Trying to find the genius of a man like that, who you
realize is a genius when you're talking to him, and more of a genius as you
get to know his work, is one of those things that probably doesn't go into
words," says the architect Philip Johnson, sitting in the Glass House,
his own modernist masterpiece. "It's probably a matter of how moved are
you by his work and by his personality. In this case, both. He ... I hated
him, of course, but that's only normal when a man is so great. It's a
combination of hatred, envy, contempt, and misunderstanding. All of which gets
mixed up with his genius."
Frank Lloyd Wright came out of an era
of big ideas and grand ambition, and he somehow managed to survive well into
an age when both those things had long since fallen out of fashion. The
buildings he left, still among the greatest of all American architecture, bear
witness to the originality of a man who thought it his duty to convert all of
humanity to his way of designing things, who tried passionately and
wholeheartedly to do so, offering his compelling Prairie houses, Usonian
buildings, and other works as evidence of a new, "organic
architecture" which would awaken people as well as provide shelter.
During his more than 70-year career, Wright created a
staggering and prodigious output: banks and businesses, resorts and churches,
a filling station and a synagogue, a European-style beer garden and an art
museum --- nearly 800 works in all. But he was never satisfied; all his life
Wright was looking, searching constantly for his own way to build. It was a
uniquely American style that he was after, growing naturally out of local
conditions, not based on models from the Old World. "Every great country
as it emerges into greatness develops its own architectures," said the
late critic and Wright biographer Brendan Gill. "it goes beyond style, it
goes beyond fashion.... There should be something coming out of the ground
that says, 'This is the way we build in this particular culture.'... Frank was
trying to say, 'We deserve an American architecture.'"
Wright challenged, indeed demanded,
all those who came in contact with him to see all of architecture anew; to
understand how a house "works"; to rethink the role of home, family,
and automobile in an increasingly complicated modern world. Finally, he wanted
to impart his almost Emersonian sensitivity and reverence for nature, which
was, in Wright's view, the supreme architect of the universe. He had developed
this deeply held respect during the summers he spent as a boy in the exquisite
and idyllic Wisconsin countryside, and it never left him.
"For [Wright], what an artist is," the historian
William Cronon says, "is a person who transforms nature by looking at
nature, passing it through the soul, and in the expression of what the soul
experiences in nature, something more natural than nature itself emerges.
Which is as close as we get to God."
The long, dramatic, challenging, tragic, and inspiring life
of Frank Lloyd Wright is a paradox. Despite his rich legacy of creation, there
is something inexcusable about Wright. A true and accurate rendering of his
story must necessarily take in the clutter that the great man left wherever he
went. All building leaves much material unused, like the sculptor's pile of
rubble when the statue is finished. This scaffolding and false work, the crude
residue of intention, are usually discarded at the end. The true artist,
however, always appreciates what is left behind, for it has been a part of the
process of creation. In the end, that "rubble" always speaks
volumes. Frank Lloyd Wright left a big mess.
Those closest to Wright --- his family, friends, professional
associates --- suffered what we routinely excuse as the necessary by-products of
artistic success and celebrity: his relentless self-promotion and narcissistic
self-absorption, his overweening ambition and periodic silly philosophizing,
and his lifelong inability to live within his means. Wright abandoned his
family with hardly a backward glance, took credit for work his mentor Louis
Sullivan had done with his partner, Dankmar Adler, borrowed money and rarely
paid it back. (The sheriff of Oak Park, Illinois, once had to spend a night in
Wright's home waiting while Wright scraped together the money to pay an
Wright's greatest biographer, Meryle
Secrest, is both troubled by and attracted to the contradictions Wright
manifested in nearly every gesture. "One can look at him and be awed by
the dimensions of ... the achievement," she says. "Because we are
looking at something we very seldom see in real life, which is a genius. On
the other hand, when you look at who he was as a human being, he was so
incredibly at the mercy of his emotions, he's at the other end of the
spectrum. He's barely a human being."
His ego never diminished. He would constantly and unhesitatingly
confess to his own brilliance, boasting to Mike Wallace in a famous televised
interview in 1957 that, given time, he would completely rebuild this entire
country. "He had to be onstage," Gill remembered, "and not only
onstage, but he had to be in the center of the stage.... When he would be
described, as he often was, as the greatest living American architect, he
would say, 'What's that about American?' and he would say, 'What's that about
living?' He said, 'I am the greatest architect that has ever lived. Forget
American. Forget living.' He knew, or thought he knew, or pretended he knew,
where his place was going to be in the world."
Wright admitted, "I had to choose between honest
arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance."
Frank Lloyd Wright was celebrated, then ridiculed and
forgotten, then celebrated again, as no other American architect has ever
been. His life was a roller-coaster ride of stunning success and fame,
vilification and exile, public humiliation and devastating personal tragedy.
He was controversial, notorious, provocative, and above all unpredictable, an
epitome of excess in an age of propriety. There is a sense among the survivors
that he was always trying to prevent, whether knowingly or not, his life
from becoming normal. He wanted to keep things vital, sustaining,
hot. Brendan Gill believed that Wright "felt so good on the edge,
the edge is ... what gave him the stimulus. Plainly his adrenaline was
filling him up to the brim when he was in desperate trouble."
Though it certainly occupies a
respectable place in the pantheon of celebrated human endeavor, architecture
is hardly the best-known or most respected of the fine or performance arts.
Yet it may be possible to argue that, despite its less eminent position,
architecture is the most important and influential of all art forms simply
because it works on us at all times.
We notice our surroundings, sometimes, but usually fail to
understand the combination of oppressive and exhilarating forces that
speak to us, and change us daily through the choices that architects, past and
present, have made. If we care to pay attention to the backstage drama of the
form, it's also clear that most, if not all, architects build for money,
prestige, and a place in posterity's ranking. Frank Lloyd Wright, without a
doubt our greatest architect, was no different.
But unlike most of the others, he had an idea --- arrogant
at times, overreaching, but always passionately held --- that architecture
could teach, enlighten, and even transform the lives of everyone who came in
contact with it. In the humblest of private homes to the grandest of public
spaces, he worked to achieve the tangible manifestation of his continually
developing ideas, ideas that ask as much about where our place is in the grand
scheme of things as about where we want our closets. It was a startling naÔve
view for the most part. But it was one that Wright held for 75 years.
"Every house is a missionary," Frank Lloyd Wright
once wrote. "I don't build a house without predicting the end of the
present social order."
There is a cartoon many saw during childhood in which
Popeye approaches a very small conical tent in the desert. When he sticks his
head inside, he is amazed to see the interior of a huge Arabian palace, filled
with sheikhs, harems, and countless retainers. Stunned, Popeye immediately
pulls his head out and sends it (as one can do only in cartoons) around the
entire tent as if to confirm to himself that this is the structure he first
encountered. He then enters the still-gigantic space, and the inane plot
continues. It's a great moment, and it comes to mind as one tours many of
Frank Lloyd Wright's best private homes (and to a lesser extent other, more
public works). The sensation is especially there in the textile-block houses
in Los Angeles. The Millard House in Pasadena and the movie producer Joel
Silver's exquisite home in Hollywood (the Storer House) are perfect examples.
They are always much bigger inside than out, an infinite expansion of finite
space. There are half-floors, cul-de-sacs, surprising and unexpected porches
and patios; places to get lost in. After a walk through, one has to go outside
and, as in the old cartoon, send one's mind around the whole thing.
In the best of his public buildings, such as the Guggenheim
Museum in New York City, the Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax
Building in Racine, Wisconsin (to name only three), a curious corollary is
evident. These structures are simultaneously monumental and intimate. The Guggenheim,
when one first enters it, seems smaller than imagined; personal, familiar.
After a few minutes alone on the ramp, one marvels at the infinite complexity
of the building, but in another instant it seems small and knowable.
Of the Unity Temple, designed by Wright to replace his own
Unitarian church (which had been destroyed by fire), Vincent Scully, Yale's
acclaimed architectural historian and critic, says, "It's not a big
building, but I think it's the biggest space in America." It is an
architectural experience achieved in very few other buildings.
With a Frank Lloyd Wright building, one is always struck by
how different it is from other architecture. There is an intentionality in
every gesture, every moment, every choice, every corner. A Wright building
wakes you up, asks you to consider things such as moldings, color, entrances,
light, stairs, proportions, windows, rooms, beds, even flat walls, in a new
way. And it doesn't ever leave you alone. You never forget where you are in
his buildings; some feel this makes the prospect of actually living in a
Wright space daunting, if not exhausting in the extreme.
Wright honed his skills at the firm of Louis Sullivan, who
revolutionized urban architecture. During the course of his career, Wright
exploded the idea of what a home had been by opening up the entire lower floor
of his Prairie houses, eliminating walls to create spaces that appeared to
have no boundaries: big, evolving rooms that "seem to go on
forever," Vincent Scully says.
"When Wright began to be an architect," Robert A.
M. Stern --- one of today's pre-eminent postmodernists --- says of the
Prairie-house days, in the first decade of the 20th century, "the typical
house, say in Oak Park, where he lived, was on a relatively narrow lot, maybe
60 or 70 feet wide, maybe 100 or 125 feet deep. It had a front porch where
people could gather in a kind of semi-public relationship to the street....
Wright took that model and --- recognizing in part that the automobile changed
the nature of street life, that while you sat on a porch and talked to people
walking by or in a slow-moving carriage, an automobile destroyed that
relationship --- he turned the house 90 degrees to the street."
It was a revolution. He would eliminate front porches,
conceal his entrances, build sequestered private gardens in back, forcing the
families who lived in his houses to turn inward, away from the street and
community life. He often would design all the furniture and house wares that
would go into his houses, as well: dining-room tables with austere high-backed
chairs, candlesticks and vases, sofas, even napkin rings and the hostess's
gown. To his well-to-do clients, his houses offered what one critic called a
"safe and secure harbor to the family battered about on the uncharted
seas of modern life."
Wright's own modern life was hardly
safe and secure. Despite a doting mother who lavished praise and encouragement
on him ("Yours was a prophetic birth," she had told him), he was the
deeply scarred survivor of his parents' stormy marriage and tempestuous
divorce. He sided with his mother, never again speaking to his father, whom he
blamed for the separation. By his early 20s, when he was an up-and-coming
architect living in Chicago, Wright seemed determined to avoid his parents'
unhappy example and devoted himself to becoming a model of respectable
middle-class gentility. He had married well, to Catherine Tobin (called
Kitty), a beautiful 18-year-old from a prosperous South Side family. Within a
few short years, there would be six children, four boys and two girls, as well
as his thriving practice in the booming suburbs outside of Chicago.
After nearly 20 years of marriage, Wright inevitably became
restless. He and Kitty were growing apart. Although he emphasized
that the children were her job, he had come to resent the amount of
attention she paid to them. He hated being called "Papa" and was
ineffective at disciplining his children, complaining when they interrupted
his work. Wright later admitted that "I have been the father-feeling ... for one of my buildings ... but I never had it for my children."
Finally, in 1909, he ran away to Europe with the woman with
whom he had been carrying on an affair for years, Mamah Cheney, the wife of a
friend and client. Kitty and the children were devastated. Mamah would, in the
end, be the love of Wright's life, but in the ensuing scandal, which made the
front page in papers around the Midwest, his practice was nearly wrecked, and
he was forced to move his base of operations out of Chicago, to his family's
ancestral land in Wisconsin.
Driving west from Madison, you pass through the village of
Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, and Arena before you reach the little
town of Spring Green, nestled among a particularly stunning set of gently
rolling hills in south-central Wisconsin. Geologists call the Helena Valley
and its surroundings a "driftless area" because it was untouched by
a glacier that scoured the land as it retreated at the end of the last ice
The place does have a distinct feel: sheltered, intimate,
graceful, and reflective. It was in this valley that Wright's maternal
grandparents, the Lloyd-Joneses, settled and prospered in the early 19th
century. The neighbors called them the God-Almighty Joneses because of their
piety and the extreme seriousness with which they took themselves.
The young Frank Lloyd Wright had visited the Valley
frequently in the years after the Civil War. There he soaked up his relatives'
radical Unitarian faith, read Ralph Waldo Emerson, learned to hate farmwork,
and eventually fell in love with the surrounding landscape. It was a place he
would return to again and again for protection and escape, solace and
inspiration. "I feel my roots in these hillsides," he once said.
"Every time I come back here it is with the feeling there is nothing
anywhere better than this."
In 1911, just a mile south of Spring Green, Wright, who was
44 years old now, started building a large. rambling house on the side (never
the top, he always insisted) of a beautiful rise high above the Wisconsin
River. He named it Taliesin, Welsh for "shining brow," and it is
Wright's personal masterpiece, his statement to the world, his home and
headquarters for nearly half a century. Its outside walls and distinctive
chimneys were built from limestone quarried a few miles away; inner and outer
walls were covered with plaster made with sand from the banks of the
Wisconsin; the finished wood outside was meant to be the color of tree trunks
at dusk. "I wish to be part of my beloved Wisconsin," he wrote.
"My house is made out of the rocks and trees of the region"; it is
"part of the hill on which it stands."
To Wright, Taliesin was the perfect embodiment of what he
liked to call "organic architecture." Cronon believes we are likely
to misunderstand what Wright meant when he used the word "organic";
he fears we will think that it is something taken right out of nature. But,
argues Cronon, that's not at all what Wright meant. Nature was meant to
inspire the artist "to see beyond those natural forms, to some ideal,
almost divine form that lies behind the natural form."
For Frank Lloyd Wright, at Taliesin, architecture would be
worship: "Architecture, I have learned ... is no less a weaving and a
fabric than the trees."
There were no formal plans for Taliesin; it just grew.
Wright pointed his cane and the work was done. Over the years, he added wings
to his already meandering designs, built barns and other outbuildings, and
completed a massive studio and dormitories for his Fellowship, all
distinctively Wrightian in their design and function.
Initially, there is a closeness, sometimes a
claustrophobia, to the plan, with its unusually low ceilings imparting a kind
of mystery, an urge to follow, to discover. Then, suddenly, the corridors open
up to a room two stories high, with large windows commanding a view of the
Valley. Each new moment has a significance both temporal and architectural, a
gravity filled with intention. All the while, Wright never leaves you; you
feel viscerally his intensity, his obsession, his art. Entering a Frank Lloyd
Wright house is an exercise in obeisance; one bows literally to the low
ceiling and then again, perpetually, to the Master and his vision.
But if his building was meant to symbolize the highest
potential of the human spirit, to transcend the ordinary laws most mortals are
subject to, life within the walls at Taliesin rarely cooperated. Over the
years, the building would survive devastating fires and foreclosures, scandal
and controversy, and mass murder.
Frank Lloyd Wright met and fell in
love with Olgivanna Ivanovna Milanoff Hinzenberg in 1924. As they embarked on
a passionate affair, his career went into a tailspin. The Prairie houses,
which had brought him acclaim in Europe and respect, notoriety, and a thriving
practice in the U.S., were 15 to 20 years in the past, and though his magnificent
Imperial Hotel in Japan had gloriously withstood a devastating earthquake in
1923, adding greatly to his fame, he had very few clients and even fewer
prospects. Many critics dismissed him as out-of-date. And, indeed, he seemed
to be. The Imperial Hotel, one of the last great handmade buildings of the
20th century, as well as most of his other works and projects in progress,
seemed romantic, from another time.
His personal life was in no better shape. He had lost Mamah
and his beloved mother had died, and he was trying desperately to separate
from his second wife, Miriam Noel, a wealthy widow who had become infatuated
with him: she called him "Lord of my waking dreams," Miriam turned
out to be violent, unstable, addicted to morphine, and they quarreled form the
Olgivanna moved into Taliesin, bore him a daughter, his
seventh child, Iovanna, and helped to settle Wright down. She never flagged in
her devotion to her husband, never wavered in her belief that he was a great
man. She was formidable, intimidating, and essential to his later success.
In 1932, Wright was 65. But he had no plans to slow down;
in fact, the next 25 years would prove to be his most creative. The Wrights'
immediate problem, however, was survival; the Depression was ravaging the
country, and though some buildings were going up in the big cities, few
companies were willing to trust an architect who was notorious for going over
budget, and who had a reputation for being difficult and overbearing.
Olgivanna suggested that they start the apprenticeship
program. It would attract eager and admiring students who would each pay $650
a year to live and work alongside the great man. The Taliesin Fellowship was
born. The Wrights hoped it would become a truly self-sufficient community. In
addition to working in the studio with the Master, all apprentices were
required to do at least four hours a day of physical labor in the fields,
tending gardens, repairing buildings, and cooking. Olgivanna supervised
everything: she planned the menus, picked the music that was piped into the
workroom and over loudspeakers in the fields, even chose the socks the
apprentices wore. She controlled many of the students' private lives, deciding
who could have a sexual relationship with whom. She also arranged marriages
and divorce. One female apprentice remembered Olgivanna as "the Queen
Bee," who killed everyone around her.
Critics charged that Wright gave no
formal architectural instruction at his school, that the students were little
more than slaves. But Wright insisted that the apprentices would learn by
doing. "They were all working from 7 in the morning till 10 at night and
they were all very happy about it." Meryle Secrest says, "I think
that Wright had a lovely idea in his mind of a kind of command lifestyle ...
which actually never quite transpired. I think that he really wasn't capable
of living the kind of ... simple farmer's life that he was so tirelessly
promoting. He wanted to be the head of an enterprise, and he was.
"They had hundreds and hundreds of acres; they had all
kinds of people who were constantly working the place. And they had their own
rather nice, elegant quarters. They decided that they liked the idea of eating
on a dais, a little bit above everybody else.... They liked the idea of hearing concerts on Saturday nights, and just ever so slightly raised above
Vincent Scully saw the early days of the Fellowship for
what they were, and he gets to the heart of Wright's outsize, 19th-century
Romantic bluster: "Wright wanted to be the chief. Wright created a
situation at Taliesin where he was the chieftain surrounded by his followers, surrounded
by his army. And it regarded itself as an army under siege. The rest of the
world was wrong, the rest of the world didn't understand them. They had the
right way of doing it. The Master was always right. It's not a civilized
situation, it's a heroic one."
Whether it was the success of
Fallingwater, which effectively answered the modernists' criticism that Wright
was no longer relevant, or the "heroic" satisfaction of being master
of all he surveyed in his Taliesin fiefdom, Wright's career was reinvigorated,
and new work began to come in. (Before that resurrection, Philip Johnson, then
a young architectural critic, sarcastically suggested that Wright might
already be dead. Wright gave as good as he got, accusing the American
followers of modernism of being slaves to Europe. He named the files that
buzzed around his drafting table MiŽs, Gropius, Corbusier --- before killing
them with a swatter.)
After Fallingwater came the Usonian houses, Wright's
attempt at making affordable housing ($5,500) that would be just as elegant as
the work he did for well-heeled clients. They were to be single-story homes,
built on monolithic concrete slabs and joined to a carport. Much of the
furniture was designed by Wright. ("It was like moving into a motel room
for good," one early owner said.)
The architect was sure these "houses for the
masses" could be constructed all across the country. The Usonians (named
for the U.S.) were a noble failure; Wright never seemed able to resist adding
details that drove up the price, and most people didn't rush to buy Frank
Lloyd Wright's ultimately controlling vision of how they should live.
In the end, only 60 Usonians were built, and Wright took to
calling the ordinary people who had rejected them "the mobocracy."
They were destroying the country with their lack of taste, he said. He was
partly right: lesser architects, inspired by his designs, would spread the
single-story ranch house all across the country. "He was trying to pull
the masses above themselves," Cronon says, "and as a result there's
something deeply impractical, and in some ways anti-democratic, about his
democratic vision." Still, he tried to do something egalitarian,
something for people who weren't wealthy. "How many other serious
architects ever bothered?" asks Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The
In 1936, Wright was commissioned to
build what would become one of his great masterpieces, the Johnson Wax
Building in Racine, Wisconsin. Herbert Johnson, president of the progressive
company, wanted a new administration building, and Wright leapt at the chance.
Wright would bring two innovations to the new work:
specially manufactured Pyrex glass tubing (43 miles of it) to be used as
skylights, and hollow reinforced-concrete columns of astonishing slenderness
to support the great ceiling. The columns presented certain problems. Nervous
state inspectors insisted that they could not possibly bear the weight that
Wright's plan called for. Insulted, the architect arranged a public
demonstration. Wright piled on 10 times the weight required before the column
All of it took far more time and money than Herbert Johnson
had bargained for. "At first Mr. Wright was working for me," he
said. "Then we were working together. From now on I'm working for
him." But it was worth it. The Great Workroom, still used by dozens of
clerical workers more than 60 years after its completion, reverberates with a
silence usually found in the great cathedrals. And it looks new, or, more
precisely, timeless. The "lily-pad" columns are wonders of the
modern world, magical when light enters through the tubing. It would be
"like working in a glade in a pine forest," Wright said as he
declared his finished building a masterpiece.
He got no argument from his old modernist adversary:
"My favorite building of Wright's is the great Racine Johnson Wax
offices," Philip Johnson says. "What he did was something that's
unheard of in the business world.... What did he do?... He built a palace, he
built a church. He built something that just soared. It's the finest room,
maybe, in the United States."
After the building that Edgar Tafel, echoing those who have
compared Wright's unruly talent to Beethoven's, called "his Ninth
Symphony," there was no stopping Wright. He set up a second Taliesin in
the Arizona desert outside Phoenix, where he would move his Fellowship during
the winter, and over the next 20 years he and his apprentices turned out
drawings and plans for more than 350 buildings. Some would not be built. Some
would not be completed until after he died. But all would be provocative
and controversial, and all would bear the unmistakable stamp of Frank Lloyd
Wright. Asked once how he could possibly conceive and oversee so many
different projects --- more than at any other time in his career --- Wright
just smiled and said, "I can't get it out fast enough."
His ego and his ambition never diminished. "Wright was
a media figure before there were media figures," Goldberger says.
"He got himself out there to keep his name in front of people all the
He was a relentless self-promoter, grabbing the spotlight
whenever he could find one (he was one of the first serious artists ever to be
interviewed on television), delighting in shocking everyone around him with
the outrageous and the controversial. "I defy anyone," he once said,
"to name a single aspect of the best contemporary architecture that
wasn't first done by me."
'I went out into
the unknown," Wright said many years after he had abandoned Kitty and the
children in 1909 for Mamah Cheney, "to test faith in Freedom. Test my
faith in life, as I had already proved faith in work." His family was
destroyed. All he left, Wright's son David remembered, were bills to be paid.
Frank Lloyd Wright had never forgiven his father for
deserting his family; now, at age 42, after nearly two decades of marriage, at
what seemed like the height of his success, he did precisely the same thing.
One son attacked Wright as he tried to leave, all the children were damaged in
some way, and Kitty spent the rest of her life dreaming that he would come back. He
The lovers fled to Europe for a year, leaving in their wake
a massive and very public scandal. Newspapers published editorials condemning
them. The Chicago Tribune held Wright responsible for what it called
"an affinity tangle ... unparalleled even in the checkered history of
soul mating." In Oak Park, a Presbyterian minister preached that such a
man as Wright has "lost all sense of morality and religion and is
damnably to be blamed." Frank Lloyd Wright was stunned by the
ferocity of the attacks, but he never gave up. Mamah was his true partner.
In Berlin, he found some interest in his work; his Prairie
houses seemed refreshing to a handful of young architects, and he prepared a
portfolio of his drawings for publication by the German house of Ernst Wasmuth.
He then traveled to Italy, where he drank in architectural history.
In 1910, Wright abruptly returned to Oak Park. He was out
of money and eager to see his children. Mamah stayed in Europe. Kitty desperately
hoped for a reconciliation, but Wright would not consider it. He began work on
Taliesin, which he intended to share with Mamah once she was divorced.
Besides, with the notoriety the scandal had brought, he could not possibly
live in Oak Park, and so he found himself back in the Valley of his ancestors,
building his most personal and, for some, best work, a fortress sequestered
form the storms of his own making.
Mamah Cheney got her divorce in the summer of 1911 and
moved into Taliesin, igniting the scandal once again. A reporter noted that
Wright had been spotted carrying Cheney across a stream and that she had
exhibited "a good deal of lingerie of a quality not often on display in
that part of Wisconsin." Finally, on Christmas Day, a defiant Wright held
a press conference to explain his actions to the world. "The ordinary man
cannot live without rules to guide his conduct," he said. But he, Frank
Lloyd Wright, was not ordinary.
The lovers would live together at Taliesin for three years.
She worked on her own writings and enjoyed her children's periodic visits. He
tried to make amends with his own children, and struggled to rebuild his
practice. Wright managed to land the commission for the Midway Gardens on
Chicago's South Side --- a whole block to be transformed into a European-style
pleasure garden. Assisted by his son John, Wright hurled himself into the
What happened next, on an August
weekend in 1914, while Frank was in Chicago and Mamah was entertaining her
children and dealing with some workmen at Taliesin, is almost unspeakable.
Wright had hired a West Indian named Julian Carlton to serve as butler and
handyman at Taliesin; Carlton's wife was to be the cook. Then something went
wrong; no one would ever know precisely what. Mamah may have told them they
would have to leave. Meryle Secrest describes it best: "The final meal
that they were to serve was lunch on Saturday.... Julian Carlton appeared in
his white jacket and served lunch as usual. He then asked permission to clean
some carpets with gasoline. He was given permission; he went outside, and
instead of pouring it on the carpets, poured it all the way around the outside
of the windows and doors."
As Manah and the others continued lunch, Carlton quietly
bolted the doors and windows. Then he lit the gasoline. In seconds the house
was engulfed in flames. When those inside tried to flee, Carlton hacked them
to death with an ax. "If you can imagine, this all happened in a fraction
of a second," Secrest continues. "He had killed Mamah ... by
splitting her skull. He also did the same with her son. He attacked her
daughter. Everything was in disarray, people were screaming, trying to jump
out of windows, [but] they were a story and a half above the ground. One man jumped
out, broke his arm, was in flames, was rolling on the ground. Other men were
being butchered.... Of the nine people who had sat down to luncheon, seven
were dead or dying."
In his grief, Wright refused to let the undertaker touch
the body of the woman he had loved. Instead, he had his own carpenters fashion
a simple wooden box for her. There was no funeral either. The coffin was
placed on a plain farm wagon, covered with flowers, and drawn by horses.
Wright's son John and two cousins helped him bury her in the little cemetery
behind his mother's family chapel. "I wanted to fill the grave
myself," Wright remembered. "No monument yet marks the spot where
she was buried.... Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?"
"It wasn't his nature to suffer prolonged bouts of
whatever cause," Gill said. "He bounced back. He liked to be on the
edge and this was another case where tragedy provided an edge and then he came
back and started life over."
As Wright would say, "In action there is release from
anguish of mind." Taliesin would be rebuilt.
But he never forgot the woman who inspired it. Nobody, not
Olgivanna and certainly not Miriam Noel, could make him do that. Today, a
small stone against a protecting tree modestly marks the grave of Maham
Cheney. It is in view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, which continues to
obstinately survey the Valley from its spectacular perch a half-mile away.
Just a few yards from Mamah's is Wright's own impressive grave site --- only,
the grave is empty.
We study the past not to undo it. No
amount of study can change the strange days and hard events of Wright's life.
We are drawn particularly to biography. which Thomas Carlyle described as
history, because we sense that in the pursuit and investigation of those who
have gone before us lies example. Frank Lloyd Wright's life and work, the
intimacy and grandiosity, greed and generosity, bombast and wisdom, triumph
and tragedy, are suffused with his outsize heroic example.
Our own age mistakenly sees the hero as perfect, delighting
--- indeed, salivating --- over the prospect of error and fault, forgetting
what history has always told us: that in the hero we find a perverse and
utterly fascinating study of strength and weakness, a riveting psychological
drama in which contradictory, opposing, even warring traits negotiate for
supremacy and ultimate authorship. We are in a sense privileged to accompany
such a great man as he makes so many mistakes. It is in the frustrating and
sublime interplay of art and mess that the real lessons of Frank Lloyd Wright
begin to emerge.
In 1943, Wright got his most difficult and most important
commission: designing a museum in New York City to house the vast collection
of nonobjective paintings amassed by the copper king Solomon R. Guggenheim. It
was his first great commission in a great American city, and Wright was all of
76 years old. Perversely, perhaps to distance himself even farther form his
betrayed mentor, Louis Sullivan, Wright had openly but rather disingenuously
disdained the city all his life: it was, he said, "a place fit for
banking and prostitution and not much else ... a prison-house for the
soul." The dominance of the modernists further fanned the flames of his
apparent disgust. Striding along Fifth Avenue, gesturing with his cane, Wright
was happy to dismiss everything he saw, especially when reporters, whom he had
learned to manipulate with startling aplomb, were nearby. The Manhattan
skyline was merely "Boxes next to boxes ... a glassified landscape ... style for style's sake by the glass-box boys."
The glass-box boys, their painter friends, and the critics
were hardly enthusiastic about Wright's great plan for the Guggenheim, a
gigantic spiral (a design he had flirted with for years), an American ziggurat,
where the interior was to be one continuous ramp. Visitors would start
at the top and work their way down. One writer called the architect
"Frank Lloyd Wrong." Twenty-one well-known artists, including Willem
de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, opposed the design, arguing that it would be
impossible to display their work properly on the museum's curved, sloping
walls. Wright replied by denouncing the "incubus of habit" that
beset their minds; painters would produce finer art, he said, if they
knew it would be in his museum.
In the end, Robert Moses, the man in charge of all major construction
in New York City, would have to exert his considerable influence to get a
recalcitrant board of standards and appeals to go along with Wright's
unorthodox design. ("I want the Guggenheim built" was Moses's
alleged commandment to the board.) In 1956, 13 years after it was purposed,
with Wright nearing 90, ground was broken for what some still described as "a
washing machine" by the park.
By the spring of 1959 the Guggenheim
was almost complete, and Wright was supervising the final details from his
studio at Taliesin West in Arizona. Though his eyesight had begun to fail, he
still rose every morning eager to get back to the drafting table.
When his first wife, Kitty, died that spring, his son David
withheld the news from his father for a day. Wright wept when he finally heard
what had happened to the woman he had abandoned half a century earlier.
"Why didn't you tell me as soon as you knew?" he asked. "Why
should I have bothered?" David answered. "You never gave a goddamn
for her when she was alive."
Not long after, Wright complained of stomach pains and was
hospitalized in Phoenix. Surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction was
successful, but five days later, on April 9, 1959, Wright died quietly in his
sleep. He was 91, and no one in the immediate family could quite believe him
gone. "My feeling towards my grandfather," Eric Lloyd Wright says,
"was that he was ... almost immortal."
Wright's disciples loaded his coffin into a pickup
truck and drove for 28 hours to Wisconsin. At Taliesin, he was carried on a
flower-strewn farm wagon, just as Mamah Cheney had been. He was laid to rest
within yards of her, and not far from his mother. A Unitarian clergyman read
one of Wright's favorite passages from Emerson: "Whoso would be a man
must be a nonconformist.... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of
your own mind."
Olgivanna, his third wife, died in 1985, and her ashes were
placed at Taliesin West. Her followers, granting her dying wish, secretly
exhumed the body of her husband, had it cremated, and had the ashes
transported back to Arizona, where to this day they rest next to hers in a
garden wall. Many family members and associates were outraged; David Wright,
the son who had struggled for so long to understand the difficult man who was
his father, called it "grave robbing." Even in death, Frank Lloyd
Wright was at the center of controversy.
'My father taught me," Wright
once said, "that a symphony was an edifice of sound. And I learned pretty
soon that it was built by the same kind of mind in much the same way that a
building is built. And when that came to me I used to sit and listen to
Beethoven. He was a great architect. The two minds are quite similar because
they arrange and build ... plot and plan in very much the same way."
Frank Lloyd Wright was sui generis, and critics,
family members, historians, and apprentices have noticed the similarities
between Wright and Beethoven. They both seem to have sprung up relatively
unconnected to discernible, inheritable schools of influence, both lives were
filled with perhaps unnecessary Sturm and Drang, and both left few clues as to
how one might follow in their footsteps. The architecture lived heroically,
monumentally, flitting imperiously among the mere morals and leaving a legacy
of stunning art and conflicting emotion.
Cronon finds the key to coming to terms with Wright in his
lifelong passion for nature and in Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendental
vision: "There's a wonderful passage from Emerson, which seems to me to
come closer to capturing Frank Lloyd Wright than any other... in which he
says, 'Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and
beyond its world a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you: build,
therefore, your own world.' And that vision of the Romantic genius, the
artist, taking the world and reinventing it, making it in its own right ---
following that personal idiosyncratic vision is utterly what Frank Lloyd
Wright is about."
Brendan Gill understood: "What an architect is said to
be about: provide your fellow human beings with the best possible shelter as
the lowest possible cost. Frank really believed that, and then in the making
of temples, very ambitious temples, true temples like the [Beth Sholom]
Synagogue [near Philadelphia] of the Unity Temple in Oak Park, other temples
of art, like the Guggenheim, ... he was able ... out of his arrogance to
create something which is selfless. Of course, he designed those things, but
they are purged of him. They are not his monuments, they are monuments for all
of us and all of us gain from these monuments in a way that is not that simple
act of egoism on the part of a great man."
Burns, Ken. "The Master Builder." Vanity
Fair. 459 (November 1998), pp. 302-318.