The broken genius of Frank Lloyd Wright

A stunning desert house by the late Frank Lloyd Wright has been spared from demolition - for the moment.

The house, designed in 1952 by the then-elderly architect for his son David, is a swirling concrete confection that confounds one’s expectations of what is possible with “cinder block” construction, as his earlier Hollyhock House did (and still does) in Los Angeles. It’s a pristine specimen from Wright’s circular phase, which also brought us Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium and the Marin County Civic Center, not to mention New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Also circular, in a way, was Wright’s designing in 1952 a home for a son he’d abandoned more than 40 years prior. Wright fathered six children with his first wife Catherine in their seemingly stable home in Oak Park, Ill., in the late 1800s. He left Catherine for good in 1909 when he sailed for Europe with a client’s wife, leaving her to care for their offspring and establishing Wright as a person demonstrably uninterested in conventional domesticity.

I have always been of two minds about this greatest American architect, whose relationships were damaged and damaging, but whose buildings still have the capacity to amaze. What to make of this singular talent leaving a wreckage of multiple families in his wake?

American society has become far too comfortable, in my view, with compartmentalizing famous people. About philandering leaders we say one ought not to judge his performance on the job by his personal life, a notion which makes no sense to me (and which does not, fortunately, seem to apply to pastors). Likewise, we line up for tours of Wright buildings across the nation while averting our eyes from the wreck of his serial attempts at marriage and cohabitation.

What are we to do with broken geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright? The work demands our respect, but the life lived demands our consideration as well. How can I, as an architect, follow Wright if his path leads to multiple divorces, affairs and scandals? I have concluded that I can’t follow him very far at all.

We must resist the urge to compartmentalize. We must not say of Wright, “Well, his personal life was a shambles, but just look at the buildings he designed! What an architect!” Wright’s decisions about his family are all of a piece with his decisions about architecture. Wright has been quoted as saying, “I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former, and have seen no reason to change.” We need to develop eyes that can see the arrogance in his work that is so clearly evident in his family relations.

Even so, should we allow a greedy, philistine developer to demolish the David S. Wright house in Phoenix because its architect was a scoundrel? Absolutely not. Frank Lloyd Wright’s contribution to the culture and the common good was enormous, on par with Mozart’s. Preserving it is our duty as custodians of culture. But Wright’s life provides an object lesson: that all of us, even the most gifted, are broken vessels, and that our work, no matter how perfectly realized, is always tainted by our fallen state. Maybe that is Wright’s ultimate lesson for us.

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