Paul Goldberger’s new biography of Frank Gehry, Building Art, published by Knopf in September, is currently No. 1 in Amazon’s “Books on Individual Architects and Firms” category. But it’s unlikely that it will equal the success of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster), which was Amazon’s top overall seller in 2011. This is no reflection on Goldberger’s writing; architectural biographies are rarely bestsellers. It’s true that the general reading public is not knowledgeable about architecture, but that could hardly be the reason; one of the most acclaimed biographies of modern times, Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Power Broker (Knopf, 1974), a life of Robert Moses, dealt with the arcane minutiae of municipal politics and public works.
The only architectural biography to win a Pulitzer Prize—back in 1956—was Talbot Hamlin’s Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Oxford University Press). “Latrobe, the man, is never for an instant lost sight of,” wrote Wayne Andrews in an admiring New York Times review, “no matter how rich the detail with which his career is sketched against the history of his times.” Since then there have been biographies of H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Daniel Burnham, although these scholarly studies have not received the same acclaim. Franz Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe (University of Chicago Press, 1985) is good on the work but it does not plumb the depths of the taciturn master builder—it would take an Ibsen to do that. Neither Meryle Secrest, Brendan Gill, nor Ada Louise Huxtable’s popular biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright managed to pin down that elusive genius. Nicholas Fox Weber’s Le Corbusier (Knopf, 2008) is lively, although we are never quite sure what to make of its subject—driven idealist or unprincipled opportunist?
Living architects have not fared much better. Schulze’s Philip Johnson (Knopf, 1994) did not fully capture that mercurial gadfly; Michael Cannell’s I. M. Pei (Clarkson Potter, 1995) was hobbled by its author’s lack of access—Pei did not speak to him; while Deyan Sudjic’s authorized biography, Norman Foster (Overlook Press, 2010), had the opposite problem.
For Building Art, Goldberger, Hon. AIA, spent many hours interviewing Gehry, FAIA, and he preserved his editorial independence, although his friendship with his subject is apparent. Nevertheless, the TorontoGlobe and Mail reviewer, Alex Bozikovic, was left wondering, “So how does the personality explain the work? And how did this iconoclastic, stubborn Canadian-Californian become the world’s most famous architect? This, the first full-length biography of Gehry, implies some answers but never really delivers them.”
What is it about architects—or architecture—that resists the biographer’s pen? What would a seasoned biographer like Isaacson or Caro do with an architect’s life? Perhaps people are just not that interested in what architects do. It takes years to write a good biography, and if the readership is not there, publishers and writers will pick other subjects. Or is it the nature of the profession? Like many artists, architects work for others, but unlike novelists and painters, they are not entirely free to follow their muse. Their creative imaginations are constrained by mundane practicalities—program, site, budget, construction techniques, building regulations. Perhaps that’s why the film version of Irving Stone’s bestselling biographical novel about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy (Doubleday, 1961), focused on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel rather than on building the Campidoglio, the Laurentian Library, or St. Peter’s.
Despite the occasional dramatic setback—the lost competition, a building failure, the lawyered-up client—an architect leads the life of a settled professional. Commissions follow one another: architect meets client, architect develops a design, design is built—or not. It’s difficult to tease drama out of such established routine. The modern architectural biographer faces several additional obstacles. The lives of architects were more interesting to write about—and to read about—when architecture was an avocation rather than a profession. In the past, before the education of architects was formalized, becoming an architect might include accomplishments in other fields, or apprenticeship with a master—both grist to the biographer’s mill, and more compelling than simply “going to college.” An architect might start out as a painter (Raphael), a sculptor (Bernini), or even a dramatist (Vanbrugh). The story of how a goldsmith invented the solutions to unprecedented building problems is one of the things that makes Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome (Bloomsbury, 2013) so fascinating. The subject of Lisa Jardine’s biography of Christopher Wren, On a Grander Scale (HarperCollins, 2003), is a polymath, equally capable of writing a mathematical treatise and building a telescope, as of laying out the plan of a cathedral. Hamlin’s biography gains richness from Latrobe’s achievements in painting, waterworks engineering, and canal-building.
Another obstacle is the nature of contemporary architectural practice. At his busiest, Latrobe employed a handful of assistants. Today’s architect is part of a large team that includes not only partners and assistants, but dozens of specialist consultants. In addition, contractors and fabricators play an important role in what is now a highly industrialized process. Was the architect responsible for that striking exterior detail or was it an assistant? Or does credit belong to the so-called executive architect, the façade consultant, or the curtainwall fabricator? For the biographer, unravelling “who did what” is a challenging task.
There are books that have attempted to disentangle such questions by focusing on individual projects, interviewing the principals (especially the client), examining correspondence, analyzing sketches and drawings. Patricia C. Loud’s excellent The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn (Duke University Press, 1989) demonstrates how the design for the Yale Center for British Art changed dramatically when Kahn’s first version went wildly over budget. “What does a building want to be?” the architect famously asked. Apparently, sometimes it just wanted to be less expensive. In Fallingwater Rising (Knopf, 2003), Franklin Toker documents the tug of war that took place over the building’s unusual structure between Frank Lloyd Wright, his client Edgar Kaufmann, and their respective engineers. But a biography doesn’t have space for such lengthy digressions. The temptation is to either simplify or omit. Too often, the architect is presented as the sole creative force—a heroic Howard Roark–like figure. Colorful but inaccurate.
Diaries, private journals, intimate letters, and memoirs are the foundation of any good biography. Here, the architectural biographer encounters yet another obstacle. A leading architect once said to me of a prominent project, “It just got away from us”—something he would never have admitted in public. Kiss-and-tell is (understandably) rare in a service profession; ever since Palladio, practitioners have praised good clients, and maintained a discreet silence about bad ones. And, like doctors, architects are loathe to criticize their professional colleagues in public.
One of the things that attracted me to write about Frederick Law Olmsted, the biographical subject of my book A Clearing in the Distance (Scribner, 1999), was that he was a journalist, editor, and author, before he became a landscape architect. Thus, his beautifully written park and planning reports provide a window into his design thinking. Most architects’ explanations of their own work are notoriously unreliable. Le Corbusier treated the written word as a propaganda tool; except in rare interviews, Mies was close-mouthed about his work. Although Louis Kahn strove for an honest expression of materials and construction in his buildings, his spoken and written expressions were often obfuscatory and self-indulgent—Carter Wiseman, who wrote a biography of the architect, called them “word clouds.”
Even architects who steer clear of poetry can’t seem to help being upbeat. The French have a term for it: déformation professionnelle, that is, the way that one’s occupation conditions one’s behavior. The architectural profession involves not only design but also persuasion—persuading clients, builders, review boards, community groups. A successful architect must be a good salesman, as a result architects generally put on a good face and are hesitant to reveal their inner doubts. Projects are inevitably cast in a positive light.
We read the lives of famous artists to discover the secret of their creativity: What made them tick? What was the source of their talent? What did they know that others didn’t? Whence came the magic? It’s difficult for a modern architectural biography to provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Even if there were not so many people involved in the building process, and even if architects were more forthcoming, the connection between personality and professional accomplishment is tenuous. It may be titillating—in a People magazine sort of way—to read about a famous practitioner’s foibles, but an architect’s private travails have little to do with his work. Wright’s life was a veritable soap opera, but eloping with a client’s wife, or experiencing personal tragedy, don’t explain his organic designs. Kahn’s polygamy is no more evident in his chaste architecture than Johnson’s flirtation with Nazism was in his. Gehry may have a fragile ego—what architect doesn’t?—but that hardly explains his flamboyant buildings.
Architecture is a public art. It exists in the public realm, and it expresses public virtues such as order, probity, and stability, which makes it a poor medium for personal expression. Perhaps the reason that it’s so hard to write compelling architectural biography is because unlike the lives of politicians—or corporate tycoons—the lives of architects are both more private and less revealing. The architectural historians may have it right. Perhaps it’s better to just examine the sketchbooks and focus on the buildings.