Wright and Wrong

Peter Campbell

  • Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright by Brendan Gill
    Heinemann, 544 pp, £20.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 434 29273 7

Those who have tried to make sense of Frank Lloyd Wright’s own account of his life will be grateful to Brendan Gill. He relieves us of doubts about our intelligence. As you read the Autobiography much does not quite fit. The feeling grows on you, as it must on the victims of confidence tricksters, that you cannot follow the story because you are stupid. Gill makes it clear that Wright was a fluent liar, an inventor and arranger of his past, and a re-writer of history.

Revealing this could be the basis for a deflationary biographical exposure. Gill’s book is anything but. He has the highest admiration for the architecture and gives an affectionate first-hand account of this monster of mendacity in his green old age. If he had not in some ways been the genius he said he was, his boastfulness would be intolerable. As it is, Gill makes you understand why clients who had buildings come in many times over budget and years over schedule, who found roofs leaked and cantilevers drooped, still had reasons to go back for more of the same punishment: a lot went wrong with Wright’s buildings, but the design as design – as voids and solids, light and texture – usually went right. ‘Pure architecture’ is hard to define, but easy to demonstrate. Even if the owners’ enthusiasm was misplaced, and the loyalty of patrons (like the Johnson Wax company who still proudly maintain their no-longer functioning research lower) mere sentimentality, the clarity of design which makes the best houses or the Guggenheim Museum so memorable would speak. Few other architects, working through into the second half of this century, have persuaded a large public to accept of modern works what they will accept without question of cathedrals and country-houses – that the experience of standing in them makes other shortcomings irrelevant.

The reader, not directly exposed to the snake-oil salesman’s patter and the seigneurial guided tours of Taliesin – the client’s prelude to, and softening up for, expensive and exhilarating architectural sorties – must find the egotism rebarbative. The man, distanced by print, is not easy to love. Perhaps his character was shaped by a mother, Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, who loved him too much. She is a hungry and forbidding presence in a number of family photographs, a devourer who never let her favourite child get further away than she could help (at 81 she caused considerable nuisance by sailing to Japan to nurse him through dysentery). Although she, the favourite parent, the wronged mother, is a saint-like Figure in the autobiography, Gill shows that Wright systematically distorted the record about his parents’ divorce. His father was more interesting and altogether nicer than Wright lets on; in many aspects of his character he seems to have inherited more from the small, spry travelling preacher and musician – always regretted when he moved on – than from his mother.

Architecture being what it is, however, it would be foolish to underestimate the usefulness of his mother’s wilful tenacity. Wright’s ability – sometimes, it seems, need – to live deeply in debt, and his insistence on having his own way, were as necessary to getting buildings up as inventiveness was to conceiving them. It was a kind of conjuring trick. Again and again a building which would never have been started if he had admitted how much it would cost, and which would have been drastically altered during construction if he had been less autocratic, turned out to be the masterpiece he had promised. This is true both of domestic architecture, where a single client (more often than not a woman) could be bullied, and of bigger jobs where he was working for boards and committees. To keep himself in training for life on the financial brink he avoided liquidity. Gill quotes a description from F.L.W.’s son John’s memoir, My Father Who is on Earth, of one instance of Wright’s behaviour when faced with financial nemesis. A sheriff was in the office demanding immediate payment of a debt of $1500 and the bank accounts were empty. Wright disappeared, and eventually returned ‘holding aloft a cheque for $10,000’. He had sold part of his collection of Japanese prints to a Boston collector he knew was in town. One debt was paid. Wright proposed they make the rounds and pay off some more:

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