Is there anything left to say about Frank Lloyd Wright that hasn’t already been said? How about this: He makes a curious role model.
No one doubts his significance: Wright was born on June 8, 1867, and 150 years later the commemoration of his life and his architecture amounts to an industry in itself, serving up coffee table books, documentaries, exhibits, wall calendars, and Prairie Style keepsakes beyond count. At ARCHITECT, we joke that the best remedy for a lull in website traffic is to post something, anything, with his name in the headline. Wright’s still got it: He’s the Kim Kardashian of digital design journalism.
The comparison has its limits, of course. Wright is famous for a much better reason than for just being famous. He’s one of those towering figures, like Shakespeare and Rembrandt, whose genius really does transcend time and place. Each successive generation can find relevance in a Unity Temple (newly restored by Harboe Architects) or a Taliesin West.
It’s the cult of personality that rankles, not the work. Numerous accounts give the impression that the man could be … shall we say … difficult. (Every architect knows some version of the tale in which Wright glibly tells the client with a leaky roof, “Move your chair.”) Whether factual or mythic or something in-between, Wright’s attitude wouldn’t be an issue today were it an isolated matter of historical gossip. Unfortunately, it’s not just the work that endured. Ayn Rand’s blockbuster 1943 novel The Fountainhead and the 1949 movie of the same name heroized Wright’s contra mundum personality, ad absurdum, in the character of architect Howard Roark.
Can any real-life architect possibly think it’s OK to blow up a building, the way Roark did, because it wasn’t built precisely according to his specifications?
Rand talked down Wright’s influence on the book, but she didn’t dissemble when asking him for a meeting: “It is not anything definite or tangible that I want from an interview with you. It is only the inspiration of seeing before me a living miracle—because the man I am writing about is a miracle whom I want to make alive.”
Wright presumably lapped up the praise—an ego does need feeding. But he declined to see Rand and, according to biographer Ada Louise Huxtable, he said of Roark and The Fountainhead, “I deny the paternity and refuse to marry the mother.” Nonetheless, the association stuck, and it contributed to a lasting and harmful stereotype—the architectural equivalent of the dictatorial surgeon with the awful bedside manner.
Do you remember that Kohler TV spot from the early 2000s, in which a young couple turns the tables on an arrogant architect by demanding that he design a house based on a faucet? The marketers bet that the egotistic designer type would ring as true, and as off-putting, to a mass consumer audience. They were right.
The persistent mythos of Wright, Roark, and Rand gives a flawed impression of the profession and its values. Expertise and arrogance don’t necessarily go together. Certainly, architects today are fighters and visionaries, no less than Wright was. But they are also open to criticism, eager to collaborate, and willing to compromise when prudent. Good will leads to great architecture.