Frank Wouldn’t be Happy

May 19, 1997

We went to Scottsdale, Arizona, on a family vacation last week. Of course, we did the usual tourist stuff. We visited Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona and rode the stagecoach at Rawhide, the quintessential tacky tourist trap. We also paid a visit to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school. Of course, everyone knows who Frank Lloyd Wright was. You don’t even have to work in the A/E business to recognize him as a world famous architect. We had already visited Oak Park, a Chicago-area neighborhood that has many of Wright’s early works, back in 1984. Frankly, from an architectural point of view, I was more impressed with his early work than I was Taliesin West. He was much more practical earlier in his career. Later on, it seems that he was more interested in form than function. Philip Johnson called him “the greatest architect of the century—- the 19th century.” Wright considered that an insult, as a staggering percentage of his life’s work was completed after he turned 70! He always had problems with his roofs. Even the roof in his own personal office leaked so badly that he had to install internal gutters to handle the incoming water! I heard another story that right after a house he had designed for the CEO of Johnson Wax was built, the owner held a dinner party and water was dripping down on him as he sat in the dining room. When the CEO called Wright at home, furious, Wright suggested that he “move his chair.” Our tour guide, a fiftyish student at Taliesin who was paying $8,500 a year for the privilege of attending school there to embark on his second career, did an excellent job telling us all about the kind of character Wright was. Clearly, Wright was an absolute control freak. He’d probably be a Scientologist if he were alive today. He was displeased with the vein of quartz visible in the small mountain behind Taliesin West, so he sent his apprentices up there with 30 gallons of brown paint to blot it out! It upset him when the productivity of his slave laborers waned after they sneaked out to spend a night drinking beer in the local tavern, so he bought it. Then, the following Sunday, Wright had a picnic with his students, and burned the place down for entertainment. Distraught over the pending construction of high tension wires and towers that would mar his view of the desert, Wright called Harry Truman to request that the lines be buried. Truman told him that he couldn’t do that, that he would be “setting a precedent.” Wright’s response was, “Isn’t that what Presidents are supposed to do?” Wright was also an egomaniac. When asked by someone if he planned the view from one particular breezeway at Taliesin, Wright said “no, it was just a lucky break.” Then he added, “But when you’re a genius, you get more than your share of lucky breaks!” No question about it, Wright probably was a genius. The fact that he became a world-renowned architect wasn’t entirely an accident. His own mother set out to make him an architect by buying him all kinds of building blocks when he was very young. Wright did the same with his kids. One of Wright’s sons went on to invent Lincoln Logs— a toy most of us had as children. But like many successful people, Wright occasionally went a little bit overboard in his attention to detail. In addition to painting the mountain behind Taliesin West, at the original Taliesin in Wisconsin, Wright was perturbed about a neighboring farm’s black and white cows ruining the appearance of the landscape. So he bought the farm and replaced the black and white cows with brown ones! As interesting as our visit to Taliesin West was, I don’t think an anal guy like Frank Lloyd Wright would be very happy about the condition of the place today. Building materials were stacked outside where anyone who came from the parking lot would see them. One of the original main entrances to the guest quarters—a glassed in area— was now being used for storage, and the junk was visible from the main plaza. The pictures they showed us of Wright’s work were glued onto some pretty tired foamcore board. And the whole place looked as if it needed a good scrubbing with a stiff brush. If you ever get to the Phoenix area, check out Taliesin West. No matter what you think of him, it would be hard to disagree that Wright was a powerful personality. After Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s fictional architect character in The Fountainhead, Wright was (and still is) the archetypal role model for many aspiring architects. But like many of the best known names in design, I wouldn’t say he was a great manager, and he was never terribly successful in building a real firm. Originally published 5/19/1997

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