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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
Frank Lloyd Wright
WILLIAM A. FROSCH, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2403-2403. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2403
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By Ada Louise Huxtable. New York, Viking Books, 2004, 251 pp., $19.95.

There is a long and distinguished tradition of brief biography, from Plutarch’s Lives, through Aubrey’s Brief Lives and Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, to Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. To this list must be added the Penguin Lives series, which now numbers more than 30 volumes and has a famous set of authors writing about interesting people. The subjects range from St. Augustine (Gary Wills), through Mozart (Peter Gay), James Joyce (Edna O’Brien), Woodrow Wilson (Louis Auchincloss), to people as varied as Pope John XXIII (Thomas Cahill) and Elvis Presley (Bobbie Ann Mason). Ada Louise Huxtable’s volume on Frank Lloyd Wright is a worthy addition to this list.

Wright may indeed have been the genius that he presented to the world. However, he did not spring directly from Zeus’s brow as he suggested: he served an apprenticeship with distinguished predecessors, knew and understood both the classical language of architecture and new developments in the field, and learned his trade. His skills as both draftsman and architect were recognized quickly, and he rose as he moved from one firm to another before going out into independent practice. When he did so, Wright began to redefine "what architecture can do and how it should look" (p. vii). His "tools were the power of his imagination and his aesthetic sensibilities" (p. viii).

Huxtable’s lucid prose permits us to see Wright’s buildings whole and in historical context. His early work, the Prairie houses, were built with strong horizontals and open spatial planning "that broke the barrier between indoors and out" (p. 74); they merged into the surrounding Midwestern plains. Later he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which withstood the worst earthquake in Japan’s history. Wright drew the plans knowing that he was "building against doomsday" (p. 150). In the 1930s he designed and built Fallingwater—a cascade of balconies hanging over a stream in Pennsylvania—and the headquarters for the Johnson Wax Company. (Fallingwater is now being restored.) Also in the 1930s he designed a simple single-family home that he called "Usonian." Often L-shaped and with a carport (possibly a Wright invention), the Usonian house remains as a degraded derivative: the ranch house.

In the 1940s, Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum, a snail-like spiral that was built in the 1950s. The critic Neil Levine wrote,

Wright offered a highly figurative naturalism, to the Europeans’ mechanistic functionalism, he countered with a romantic expressionism, to their…standardization, he proposed instead a material- and site-specific ad hocism, and to their collective vision of a regularized urban order, he opposed a pragmatic individualism. (p. 185)

Wright was often criticized for leaking roofs and windows as well as crumbling concrete. However, he was inventing forms and using new, untested materials. His contractors were often working without standardized procedures and were unfamiliar with the materials. If he was on site, however, the defects were often corrected.

If not from Zeus’s brow, where did Wright’s genius come from? While not a psychobiography, Huxtable’s book provides us with tantalizing clues about Wright’s psychological development. As one expects, they help us to understand the person but not the genius. His parents married late. His father was a gifted musician, orator, and sometime Baptist, later Unitarian, preacher. His mother came from a large family of small farmers. She extruded his father, first from her bed and then from the household, by the time Wright was 10. Father and son had little later contact. Nonetheless, Wright probably owed much of his interest in art and music to his father.

Wright grew up adored and idolized, cared for and coddled. Used to the presence of a strong woman arranging the background of his life, Wright considered his mother an important presence until her death, maintaining a relationship of mutual dependence with her. She always "understood," accepted wives and mistresses, and cared for him when he was ill. One of his biographers, Brendan Gill (1), thought she was slightly mad.

Shortly after he was 40, Wright’s life spun out of control. He became deeply depressed and, abandoning wife and children, deserted his practice, leaving behind debts and unfinished projects. He soon reappeared, however, with another woman. He built Taliesin, a studio/home in Wisconsin. This new mistress and their children were brutally murdered, and Taliesin burned to the ground. Wright soon took up with another woman, and then another, and another. His last wife, Olgivanna, picked up the role his mother had played; she ran the day-to-day operations and dealt with the household and studio.

Wright started his autobiography in the late 1920s. It was originally published in 1932, and he later revised it twice. Huxtable notes that it "was a creative and cathartic exercise in selective memory…that reveals as it conceals…truth and lies are woven together" (p. 181). Wright lied about his age, his education, and anything else that served his purpose. The historian Hines stated that Wright "had no conception of ‘truth’ as most people define it.…His unique creative nature demanded and conceived for himself a persona, a mythic personality surrounded by a partially mythic world" (p. 35). Wright felt that "his needs were urgent, a society that condemned him held false standards, his personal values put him beyond censure in his own mind" (p. 72). He survived scandal, murder, fires, divorces, bankruptcy, social ostracism, and pursuit by the FBI for violation of the Mann Act and accusations of sedition (p. xv).

Brendan Gill (1) described him as a consummate con man. Wright appears to have believed in himself as Richard Wagner did when the latter said, "I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need" (quoted by Caroline Offit [2]). Huxtable notes, correctly, that character and creativity are not correlated, that terrible people can do wonderful things. Despite Wright’s wit and charisma, I am happy to know this first "star" architect only as filtered through the wonderful story told by Huxtable.

Gill B: Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. New York, Putnam, 1987
 
Offit C: Patriotic music. Concord Review, Spring 2005, p 95
 
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References

Gill B: Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. New York, Putnam, 1987
 
Offit C: Patriotic music. Concord Review, Spring 2005, p 95
 
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