The Genius of Being Right

Frank Lloyd Wright was (circle one or more):

A. The greatest architect of the 19th century

B. The greatest architect of the 20th century

C. The greatest architect of all time

D. Not the greatest architect of any time

happen to believe that Wright was C, the greatest architect of all time. Suffice it to say that this opinion has always been controversial, among professionals and laypeople alike. Yet there is virtually no one in the United States who has not benefited in some way from Wright’s genius, his ingenuity, his inventiveness, his integrity, and his ideas about beauty and the fundamental importance of living in harmony with nature.

Born in 1867, FLLW (which is how he occasionally signed his works) liked to say—especially in the last year of his productive and still accelerating career (1959, the year he would have reached 92)—that if he had enough time, he could rebuild the entire country. In many ways, he did.

It was not just FLLW’s most innovative structures, such as the spectacular house over the Pennsylvania waterfall (“FaLLingWater,” arguably the most famous private residence in the world, but now available for the public to experience), that revived his career at the age of 69 and put him on the cover of Time and that made him an early TV celebrity, putting his ideas into the homes of millions (literally and figuratively).

It was much more than that. It was the radical concept of Wright’s “Usonian” homes, which embodied ideas that altered the course of residential architecture, making true beauty and utility affordable for people of modest means (his first Usonian cost a mere $5000 to build). Many of the Usonian ideas following World War II ultimately became available to homeowners coast-to-coast in the form of the derivative ranch house. In California, a special version known as Eichler homes (built by an admirer) was more closely aligned with those of Wright than most (Eichler had lived briefly in Wright’s Bazett Usonian in Hillsborough).

So because of his genius, and especially because of his willingness to put his ideas on the line and not compromise his principles, Wright was a truly great man (read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, about a fictional architect who shared Wright’s passion and integrity).

Ironically, Wright’s greatest detractors came from within The Taliesin Fellowship* of apprentices who surrounded him. These were not critics in the usual sense, for they all loved Wright and sought, for various periods of their lives, to do his absolute bidding (well, almost, and there’s the rub). Influenced by the arguments of other architects (and especially of “social engineering” types), and not being philosophically well-armed, many of the apprentices ultimately conspired to improve upon Wright’s work without his knowledge.

*Taliesin is the name that Wright chose for his first great personal home, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which he continuously built and rebuilt (1911–1959) not on top of the hill, but on its “brow” so as to preserve it and not destroy its beauty (in Welsh, Taliesin means “shining brow”). Taliesin, a bard on whom the legendary Merlin is said to have been modeled, lived in 6th-century Wales. The myths surrounding him are akin to those of Athena of ancient Greece, from whose forehead knowledge sprang forth fully formed. With Taliesin, however, it is the brow over the shining eye from which art in all its purity, with the ability to change or shift shapes, springs. Thus, the story of Taliesin is perhaps the origin of the idea of a shape shifter, a laurel that Wright thereafter proudly wore!

Some believe that when they added steel or more concrete to his structures (the Master’s roofs tend to leak and sag, for example), they detracted from the buildings’ benefits as well as from his experiments, the purpose of which was always to advance the goals of architecture. For Wright, every building was an experiment (not in the sense that it put anyone’s life in danger—not one of his buildings has ever fallen down), because that was how his genius grew and flourished to benefit the world, particularly those in it who admire greatness and appreciate the importance of what is good and right.

Live long and prosper,

Will Block
(who lives in a Usonian designed by Wright)

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