Thursday, September 22, 2016

Many Masks: A Biography of Frank Lloyd Wright by Brendan Gill

In a previous post I reviewed a book that focused on a particular time and circumstance in Frank Lloyd Wright's life.  Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan gave the reader a fairly thorough account of the events in Wright's life leading up to the grisly murder of Wright's mistress and others in his original Taliesin home.  

Brendan Gill's biography fills in the facts before, during and beyond this event, allowing us to get a fuller portrait of the man considered the greatest American Architect of the twentieth century.  Gill knew Wright personally and conducted a number of personal interviews with him as well as with his wife and children.  He also had access to many of Wright's letters, which he quotes at length.

Wright's relationship with his domineering mother, narcisstic personality and philosophy of elephants and ants (the elephants may do as they like, including stomping on the ants; guess which animal Wright considered himself) have largely been explored in Death in a Prairie House and is not glossed over in Gill's book, but Gill wisely understands that these topics are charted territory so he comes from a different angle.

Many Masks takes the reader through the main building projects of Lloyd, his relationship with his clients and the final result of his schemes.

I call them schemes because Wright projects seemed to follow a  pattern, whether he was building a hotel in Tokyo, a Prairie House for a wealthy family, a church, or a business building.

Initially, the client would have a vision for his business building (or house, or church or synagogue) and decide who they would like to design and build it.  Sometimes someone would recommend Wright, sometimes the client would ask him and more than a few times, Wright suggested himself.

The client's reaction would tend towards awe and disbelief.  The great Frank Lloyd Wright would deign to  undertake his (sometimes her) project?  Why yes.  I, the great Frank Lloyd Wright, would be inclined to acquiesce to your request.  

The reality was Wright needed the money because he could never hold on to it.  He fully believed in his right to an outrageously extravagant lifestyle, regardless of his financial situation.  He was forever in debt, huge debt, and so yes, he most certainly was inclined to acquiesce to any wealthy person's request.

But acquiesce is a really a farcical word to use here, because apart from taking the contract, Wright acquiesced to nothing else.  Every project Wright took he viewed possessively and proceeded to incorporate his own vision at the client's expense.

One such project was Unity Temple in Chicago.  The Congregation wanted a religious ediface focused on the worship of God.  Wright made a temple to Man worshipping Nature.  To the dismay of  the members of Unity Temple, his intention was unmistakable.

The most famous example of this would Fallingwater, a residence built by Wright for the Kaufmann family.  The family owned property in western Pennsylvania in a mountainous area near a waterfall.  The family envisioned a home where they could enjoy the rural environment, including a spectacular view of the waterfall.

What they got was a house right on top of the waterfall.  Wright, in his ingenuity, put the house in the one place where no one could see the falling water.

But they could hear it.  I have not visited the place, but I've read that it is rather loud inside of the residence due to the roaring waters rushing underneath.

This, however, was not Wright's concern.  His intention was to create something so stupendous that people would remark of it for years.  He succeeded.  All of Wright's creations were about announcing his genius to the world.  Gill called this one of Wright's many masks.

Con man was another mask.  Wright could reel them in and then hook them, leaving the poor battered client practically bankrupt.  This is how he did it:

 Invariably Wright would estimate a modest figure for the building and equally invariably the project would cost much more. It's would be hard to exaggerate how much Wright underestimated the cost.  An original cost projection that would be, say ten thousand dollars, would end up running into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

You'd think his reputation would precede him, but Wright had a wonderful mask to wear, that of snake charmer.  His clients were so over awed by his genius and then charmed by his affability and eloquence, especially in his letters, that he got away with it every time.

The tug of rope contests between Wright and his clients, while of the same cloth, each have their own individual color and are fun to read about.  

A good example of this is the history behind the Guggenheim Museum.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, who commissioned the project wanted a place to house his collection of modern art.

The museum is cylindrical in shape and is wider at the top than the bottom.  There are no stairs inside.  Visitors walk up a slow spiral while observing the art.

On a side note, I attended the Guggenheim with my mother and it was more fun to watch my mother's reactions to all this modern "art" than to look at the art itself. Probably because in order to appreciate it, one had to use a good dose of personal imagination. At least I did.  

My mother was a little more concrete and deemed the whole lot of it a "bunch of pretentious tripe!"  I only wish she hadn't spoken her mind in the museum.  Or so loudly.

But back to Wright.  As per usual, the museum cost far more than the architect's beginning price and was completed some years after Solomon Guggenheim's death.

A final sad fact on his buildings:  the roofs had a propensity to leak.

Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are often easy to identify.  They are blocky, as though modeled after a child's wooden building blocks, but with poured concreted and lots of overhanging structures jagging out.

This sounds unflattering, but I like his houses. No one has made concrete an aesthetic art form like Wright. They are unique for his concern for the interior was as thorough, and as domineering, as the exterior.

The other aspect of Gill's book are Wright's personal relationships.  After the death of Mamah Cheney, the lover he left his wife for, Wright married Miriam Noel.  Noel was a domineering drug abuser that caused more grief and anxiety than any joy.  After much publicized drama, they divorced and Wright married Olga Hinzenburg.  Hinzenburg was  an equally dominating force in his life and introduced him to mysticism.  This is only hinted at in this book but I believe other books describe this eerier attribute, which also characterized his Taliesin school.

Which leads us to his final mask, that of teacher.  Many students, with plenty of disposable cash, dropped out of other colleges to become a part of Wright's Taliesin fellowship. This was a needful source of income for Wright especially during the Depression. For the right sum of cash, wealthy young people got the privilege to serve Wright as grunt workers doing menial tasks, such as copying out blueprints and buffering irate clients and other dirty work.   How much training they got is debatable.  Not many of them became notable architects.  However, the Taliesin Fellowships still continue today at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

In conclusion, Wright the person was probably not someone I'd want to know, but his architecture is groundbreaking and enduring and, to me, beautiful. I have another biography by Meryle Seacrest in the wings.  It will be interesting to see what she has to say about this brilliant, if astounding man.


Brian Joseph said...

Very insightful commentary Sharon.

I agreed, Wright seemed like an unpleasant person. His architecture is so impressive however.

Did you ever read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? The main character, Howard Roark, is partially based on Wright. There is a very similar event to the designing of the Unity Temple in Chicago contained in the books. Though he is supposed to be sympathetic, like many others I find Roark to be unpleasant. I am not a fan of Rand's philosophy.

I hope that you have a great weekend!

Carol said...

This article about Wright & his former protege, Walter Burley Griffin, and Australian architecture might be interesting to you, Sharon -
There's a bit more about how Wright treated him here:

R.T. said...

I enjoyed reading your fine critique, and I will see if I can find a copy of the book. You might also be interested in one by T. C. Boyle:
And here is the link to my review at BookLoons:
All the best from the Gulf coast . . .

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. Now that you mention it I did read that somewhere that Rand's protagonist in Fountainhead was based after Wright, something I'm sure would have immensely flattered him.

I am not a fan of Rand's philosophy either, but I do hope to read Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged some day.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Carol. I will read those two articles in a bit and get back to you.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I just read your review. Very nice. I have not heard of Boyle before. It seems like the women in Wright's life are certainly worthy of their own biographies.

Incidentally, I think there are a couple of Wright houses on the Gulf Coast, near Gulfport, maybe?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks for sharing those two articles, Carol. They were very interesting. Griffin and his wife are mentioned in Gill's book. Apparently Griffin's wife was one of the few people who stood up to Wright.

It is a shame that people's egos get in the way and cause them to discredit others. I'm glad that Griffin is now being acknowledged as the wonderful architect that he was.

The photos of Queensland was very interesting. I need to visit Australia now for the architecture.

I actually did not realize that Wright had any influence in your country but now that I look at the Sidney Opera house I can see some similarities with that and the Guggenheim museum.

Cleo said...

Wow, I didn't know any of the personal aspect of Wright's life. He was famous for what he did, but who he was certainly does not sound admirable. It's a good opportunity to think about what we value in life, and why. Thanks for the fascinating review!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Cleopatra! You know, I've been reading a lot of biographies lately and I'm beginning to ponder the wisdom of it.

Should I just enjoy the person's work without the sordid details of their personal life to color it for me or should I just accept the fact that I can still admire someone's creativity without endorsing the sort of person they were.

Cleo said...

I'm very careful with any historical book or biography that I read. I find so often with modern writers they are looking for shock value and lack the balance of reality (although I don't know if any of your reads have fallen into this category). So I try to only read books from respected historians or writers who are able to provide insight and balance and present a whole but flawed person whom we can at least appreciate. We all fall short and I think it does a person a disservice to speculate or provide a disproportionate view of their faults. However, I do think there is the odd person whose life was appalling, so I would probably choose not to read his biography.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Cleopatra: I agree. In fact, usually I will read several reviews about a book before deciding whether I should read it or not. I also google "best biographies or so and so" to see what kind of books are recommended.

I try to avoid books by "pop writers". They are not only not very accurate, but, as you say, sensationalistic.

I was reading a review of a biography of another author and the writer mentions, Brendan Gill, the author of Wright's biography. It was interesting that the reviewer was mocking the author for disliking Gill's article, calling it "unkind". The reviewer felt the author was being biased.

R.T. said...

Sharon, FYI, I've changed name and address for my blogging activities:

You might be interested in the new blog and today's posting -- a plan to read about good (God) and evil (the fiend in the human heart) in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short fiction.

Carol said...

Coffee & architecture - two very good reasons why you should visit Oz!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Those are definitely attractions, but your long drives in the countryside sound wonderful, too. I hate to use a trendy expression, but Australia is definitely on my bucket list!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Emma!