Saturday, March 19, 2011

Portrait of a Genius

My son and I just finished reading Up Close: Frank Lloyd Wright, a Twentieth Century Life by Jan Adkins. The kids in his fourth grade class had to do a book report on a biography from the point of view of the subject, and who better for Theo to pick than his hero and favorite architect.

Despite catching a couple of glaring factual errors, the book was a terrific read. Its candor was surprising to me given that it is intended for a younger audience. None of the hero worship you hear in the sycophantic FLW tours of Oak Park or Taliesin East and West, much to its credit, Adkins' biography is a no holds barred exploration into the psyche of a complex, troubled genius.

Adkins describes Frank Lloyd Wright as an immoral scoundrel, a charlatan, a master manipulator, a feverishly driven, egotistic, selfish, ruthless, brilliant and visionary architect. Two anecdotes that illustrate the extremes of Frank Lloyd Wright's amazing life stick out in my mind:

Wright became acquainted with Stanley Marcus, the co-owner of the department store Neiman Marcus. When FLW visited Marcus at his home in Dallas, he was struck with the climate of the city in December. Marcus assured him that they were experiencing unusually mild conditions for that time of year. Marcus mentioned to Wright that he was having a new home built for his family. Wright told him that he could design a home for $10,000, a fraction of what he had planned. Thrilled, Marcus hired him. Typical for Wright, he completely overextended himself and the project dragged on and on. After much cajoling, he finally produced some drawings. Much to his amazement, Marcus discovered that there were no bedrooms in the plan. Frank Lloyd Wright told him that since the weather where the house was to be built was so mild, he and his wife should sleep outdoors. After Marcus convinced the architect that he and his wife preferred to sleep indoors, the next set of drawings had bedrooms but no closets. Wright told Marcus that he should just throw away all of his clothes. Marcus told him that as the purveyor of fine clothing, his job required that he wear a different set of clothes every day. Wright again reluctantly acquiesced but by now the cost of the project skyrocketed to $150,000. Wright blamed the problems on the contractors whom he insisted; "couldn't read my plans." Marcus wondered aloud; "whose fault is that, theirs or yours?" Not surprisingly, the project was eventually dropped and Marcus built his house, presumably complete with bedrooms and closets, with the help of another architect for $40,000. After learning this, FLW tersely wrote Marcus: "I'm surprised you settled for so little."

Wright was known for occasionally describing his creative process as "shaking a design out of my sleeve."

The architect was introduced to another department store mogul, Edgar J. Kaufmann, by Kaufmann's son who briefly apprenticed with Wright at the Taliesen Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The elder Kaufmann asked Wright to design for his family a summer home on land they owned outside of their home in Pittsburgh. Running through the land was a stream called Bear Run which tumbled over several large boulders forming a waterfall where the family loved to gather, sunbathing and cooling themselves in the summer heat. In conversations about the project, Wright suggested the audacious idea of building the house directly on top of the waterfall. Taken aback at first, Kaufmann was eventually convinced by the persuasive architect. Again terribly overextended, the project moved along at a snail's pace. One day on business in Milwaukee, Kauffman phoned Wright in Spring Green asking him how the project was going. Not fazed in the least, Wright in a chipper mood said to Kaufmann; "Come Along E.J. we're ready for you." This came as a surprise to the Taliesin fellows who all knew that not a single line had yet been laid down on paper for this project. As Kaufmann drove from Milwaukee to Spring Green, Wright began to work. In Adkins' words:

His apprentices sharpened his pencils as he dulled them with his busy lines and cast them aside. He erased, brushed the dust away, redrew. A plan, a shape, a conception gradually appeared on the paper like a ghost emerging from a cloud. It was something whole and exciting. It came together as if it were a favorite scene drawn from memory, and yet it was like nothing Frank Lloyd Wright had ever designed in form or structure or engineering principle.

In the two and a half hours that it took Edgar J. Kaufmann to drive from Milwaukee to Spring Green, Frank Lloyd Wright would create what would become not only his best known and most beloved work, but also an icon of American architecture, the home that he would name, Fallingwater.

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