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:

It was fun, but a glance from the corner of my eye showed me that an expansive mood was descending on him. At Marshall Field’s he saw a chair that struck his fancy.

  ‘One hundred and twenty-five dollars,’ read the sales person from the ticket that dangled from the arm.

  ‘I’ll lake a dozen, send them up to Taliesin.’ Next he ordered a dozen Chinese rugs. At Lyon and Healy’s he saw a concert grand piano. He caressed its keys with his Beethoven-like fingers, then ordered three ... Soon we were seated comfortably in the Pompeian Room of the Congress Hotel. The dinner Dad ordered was the envy of the gourmet who sat and stared at us ... The inner man satisfied. Dad leaned back in his chair – the picture of serene contentment. It had been a perfect day, he had succeeded in plunging himself in debt again and everything was normal once more.

Wright’s longevity and the productivity of his last years makes it easy to forget that by the early 1900s he was already in his thirties and an established architect. His first job, after an unsuccessful period of college education in Wisconsin, was with an architect called Silsbee. Then, in 1887, at the age of 20, he moved to the office of Adler and Sullivan. By his own account, he quickly became ‘the pencil in his’ – Sullivan’s – ‘hand’, producing sheet after sheet of drawings for the intricate abstract ornament which acts as fringe and pelmet to the curtain of Adler and Sullivan’s plain skyscraper walls. In Sullivan, Wright found a spiritual father; the lieber Meister was more than an architectural influence; and although their relationship was not overtly homo-erotic, there was some sense in which they loved each other. Sullivan must have confirmed in Wright his native sense of the obligations the world has to high talent. When he came to dictate his Autobiography Wright chose to tell his story in the third person, as Sullivan had done, and it was Sullivan’s mantle the he took on when he presented himself as the greatest American architect (and therefore the greatest architect) of his time (and therefore of all time). While still working in the Adler and Sullivan office he began designing houses, some under the names of friends, for this moonlighting was not approved. By 1901, when he was practising on his own and the Ladies’ Home Journal published his design for ‘a home in a prairie town’, he had produced work of the highest originality.

It is typical of Wright’s need to present himself as uniquely self-made that he was cagey about admitting influences – Sullivan apart. Gill’s book is particularly revealing about Wright’s knowledge of the work of his European contemporaries. Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s catalogue of the 1932 exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, famous for introducing the term ‘International Style’, assumed, in Johnson’s phrase, that Wright was ‘the greatest American architect of the 19th century’. This annoyed Wright, who was always looking forward, but when his career is followed from the bottom up, and his direct links through C.R. Ashbee with the Arts and Crafts movement in England, his knowledge of what the Secessionists were doing in Vienna, and of what Mackintosh was doing in Scotland, are taken note of, we get a truer picture. Looked at this way, his work has different consistencies. Wright the Modernist is the architect of long bands of windows, cantilevers, and open plans with many slim oblong elements. Wright the 19th-century aesthete who favoured flowing ties and collected Japanese prints never lost a taste for ornament and rich surfaces. He had to be dissuaded from using gold leaf on the balconies of Fallingwater and included complex finials, decorated concrete blocks and geometrical ornamentation in buildings right to the end of his life.

He did absorb new ideas, however. He denigrated most of his contemporaries (‘poor old Mies,’ he would say, about a man many years his junior), and doubtless genuinely disliked much of their work, but he was clearly influenced by it – and by that of Mies in particular. In architecture great geniuses are great borrowers. Denying influence, Wright denied one of his greatest talents.

His life falls into four acts (in describing it, it is hard not to follow Wright into the present tense). The young architect marries in the first act, raises a family and fashions a life for himself among prosperous, lively, respectable residents of the leafy suburb of Oak Park, outside Chicago. At the same time, in the ‘prairie’ houses, he creates a style for middle-class living which still strongly influences the American idea of a suburban house.

Act Two begins when he leaves his family for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client, and, pursued by Oak Park’s disapproval, escapes abroad. In Berlin he oversees the publication of a collection of drawings of his work; he and Mamah spend ‘a pleasantly idle pseudo-honey moon’ in Fiesole. Returning to America, he turns his back on Oak Park and builds a house for himself, Taliesen (‘Bright Brow’, from the Welsh, Wright said), on family land in Wisconsin. Built and rebuilt, altered and added to, it became, along with his command post in Arizona, Taliesin West, headquarters, estate, drawing-office and ashram. This second act ends with appalling violence. A Jamaican servant runs amok with an axe, kills five people, including Mamah and her children, and tries to burn down the house. These events share headlines with the outbreak of the First World War in Europe. He has by then been commissioned to design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a project which will dominate his working life for years to come.

Act Three opens with Wright beginning a relationship with Miriam Noel. It is to be one of his worst mistakes. The painful recriminations which mark it become a public scandal when a disaffected housekeeper gives letters between the couple to the newspapers. The press are pleased to show the underside of the artistic life – particularly as Mrs Noel has argued that she and Wright are showing noble disregard of bourgeois morality in being true to higher obligations. Wright must, Gill says, have been imprudently filling her with ‘lofty views about “love’s freedom” ’. They are pleased to have reasons to head for Japan and the Imperial Hotel job. When Wright’s divorce from Catherine, his first wife, was final, he and Miriam married. That came at the unhappy end of a relationship in which one was mad and the other self-absorbed.

In the fourth act the hero, brought low by his own misjudgment, fights on. Old in years but not in spirit, supported by a new young wife, he triumphs. Photographed among the apprentices at Taliesen or on the cover of Time Magazine, he dresses the artist’s part and plays that of the Master. He also does some of his best work.

It is the Wright of the last act of whom Gill has personal recollections: a spry figure who reminds one of Bertrand Russell, another small genius who ended up surrounded by young men, and looked to youth for the confidence and enthusiasm his vision of the future demanded. Wright was a populist who wanted to see a de-urbanised America where every family lived on its one-acre suburban plot, and a megalomaniac who designed a mile-high skyscraper for Chicago. It was the seer, the architect-as-bard, in Wright which made it possible for him to weather the long commissionless desert of the Depression and war years. By setting up the Taliesin Fellowship, he sold his reputation as a guru when he could not sell his talents as an architect.

In the plan for the Fellowship, which opened in 1932, he announced a limit of 70 apprentices: in the event, he settled for 23, which ‘not by coincidence matched the number who actually began the programme’. The young men and women who paid $1100 for the privilege of learning from Wright knew that they would learn by doing – the prospectus said that apprentices would be expected to contribute at least four hours of physical labour a day, ‘whether on the ground, in the fields, felling wood, cooking, or waiting on table’ – ‘but,’ Gill writes, ‘the amount of doing must have astonished and dismayed many of them ... Perhaps it consoled them to observe that Taliesin was in a state of conspicuous disrepair ... Wright claimed to find some sort of primordial virtue in physical hardship; if the fires went out, he, too, shivered.’ The act of faith which drew students there was based on something other than the expectation of an architectural education, and Olgivanna, Wright’s third and last wife, who had been one of Gurdjieff’s disciples in France, had, Gill writes, ‘learned much from her years of sitting at his feet in the feudal establishment that that fiercely mustachioed old tartar had created at Fontainebleau’. When the time came, she showed a sure and self-protective sense of the intimacies and distances which must be set up between master and disciples, and later of the management of his legacy. In particular, Gill says, ‘she took care not to introduce Gurdieff’s initiatory sexual revels with young female neophytes seeking transformation. Olgivanna kept Wright on a short leash even when sexual fantasy may be assumed to have taken the place of sexual activity.’

Taliesin, even now, preserves not just the archive and the place but also the festivals of the Fellowship. This preserved presence apart, what was Wright’s legacy? The split-level ranch house, Gill says. Open planning perhaps, the kitchen as part of the living space, bands of windows and glass doors opening onto patios – these have formal beginnings in the Oak Park prairie houses, and practical realisation in the small Usonian houses. Wright’s other innovations established a style for industrial America. The Larkin building of 1906 was the first air-conditioned office, the first with wall-mounted lavatories, glass doors and steel furniture, and he was in with new materials – often rashly so, as problems with the pyrex-tube windows of the Johnson Wax Offices and plastic sheet in the Beth Shalom synagogue proved. But his thinking was predicated on patriarchal rurality: it was to the exiled Europeans and their followers that corporate America turned when it evolved the grey flannel architecture of the curtain-walled high-rise centre-city office and the prism in-a-park out-of-town headquarters.

Egomania and wilfulness made Wright a difficult man to deal with on any but a personal level. When he got corporate commissions, the job was managed through intermediaries who became implicated in the design process and neutralised as critics. The individuality is now what is valued – and replicated. Copies of buildings are run up on sites quite unlike those he planned them for – fair enough, you might say, when you find out how often he himself dusted off old drawings to fill new commissions – and old buildings of his are dismembered, pieces of glass and joinery turning up in collections as bits of Italian churches once did. Like Mackintosh, he is a gift to the fine art business. Through authentic originals and licensed replicas his style has leapfrogged that of the younger old masters of modern architecture into Post-Modern design.

The architects of the International Style praised the repetitive, the elemental and the vernacular. They preferred Georgian terraces to Victorian rectories, and mud huts and the Doric to stucco and the Corinthian. They were individualists who wanted to build for conformists. They suffered anxiety about the client’s taste in drapes, and were happiest with an organisation which could exert discipline, issue rules about the level of the Venetian blinds and forbid family snaps on desks in the typing-pool. Wright was a bully of a different sort. His interior trim was liable to be emphatic and his furniture unstable – Gill is particularly scathing about chairs which combined discomfort with danger – but his buildings are robust enough visually to stand being lived in by non-believers. Gill has visited them and talked to the people who live in them, sometimes to those who commissioned them. Among the biography’s many excellences one is particularly useful for architectural historians: the relations of architect and client are described by an impartial referee. In this account both parties gain. Darwin D. Martin, a self-made businessman who was responsible for Wright’s getting the Larkin commission, managed him better than any other client: rebutting his nonsense, bearing with fortitude the usual rising costs and missed completion dates, neither bullying nor being bullied.

Although, as the years pass, the complaints of clients become repetitive, and Wright’s avoidance tactics predictable, at the heart of each relationship was the joint endeavour to make a building which would enhance the life lived in it. The men and women who had commissioned houses from Wright – now an aging breed – come to life when remembering those times, often describing them as the best in their lives. Even the one old lady who hadn’t a good word to say about Wright coloured and became unwontedly animated at the memories of battles past.