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Frank Lloyd Wright
by Peter Cresswell

A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Presented at the 1998 Auckland and Wellington Film Festivals.



A remarkable film on this architectural genius ably demonstrates both his genius and his struggle - the reasons for his struggle can be deduced from the commentary, while the visual presentation of the products of his genius is worth the price of admission ten times over!

Wright described his architecture as 'organic': "Architecture that makes human life more natural, and nature more humane." The great achievement of this film, by the makers of the celebrated PBS documentary The Civil War, is the effective presentation of this thesis by a stunningly imaginative juxtaposition of Wright’s architecture with historical film and photographs. These dramatically place Wright in his historical context, illustrating the background from which his ideas and designs emerged.

We are treated to outstanding footage: We see Wright at work in his drawing office; Wright working and walking his fields; Wright denouncing the ‘glass box boys’ with a wave of his cane; Wright being interviewed for early television broadcasts (when television interviewers still smoked on air). We hear anecdotes and insights from former colleagues and apprentices, from two of Wright’s grandchildren and – movingly - from Wright’s now 100-year-old son David.

Many of his major buildings are brilliantly displayed, and their conception and execution is explained in some detail. These include Unity Temple – in which Wright first discovered that Space is the key - the Johnson Wax Building, Fallingwater, and his own houses: Taliesin East and West. We hear insightful comments from Wright biographer Brendan Gill and architectural critic Vincent Scully, and a delightful story - told first-hand by then apprentice Edgar Tafel - of how Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, was drawn up in the three hours it took the client to drive from Milwaukee to Wright’s studio in Wisconsin, and in such detail that no tree, rock or beam needed to be altered later! It is fair to say that the film’s makers expertly presented evidence enough to clearly establish Wright as the architectural genius that he was, and for that, I applaud them.

That said, the film isn’t perfect; neither of course was Frank: his explicit philosophy was a nightmare of Kantian proportions (and of Kantian origin.) But architecturally he was a genius - no-one else has ever come close to expressing architecturally the two essentials of a rational life: Motion and Purpose - and with such a sense of sparkling joy and effervescent wit. His truly was ‘an architecture of principle’, one of such life-affirming power that one hard-bitten critic confessed in the film to being speechless when first encountering Fallingwater: "I just felt this irresistible urge to sing!"

Their are significant omissions: Wright’s crucially important apprenticeship under Louis Sullivan is barely touched on; Wright’s widely influential, affordable Usonian houses are dismissed as "failures", with the erroneous comment that Wright could never make these houses affordable, and therefore "only sixty of these were built". (Most architects would give their left ball to have designed sixty such ‘failures’! Indeed, this architect would give both balls for half that number.) There were errors of fact: Wright was accused of lying, of misrepresenting himself as having designed some of Louis Sullivan’s buildings in order to get a client - the truth is that he was at least co-designer on some of Sullivan’s middle-period buildings. Wright was also accused of being more showman than workman because of his undoubted ability to charm a client, yet his credentials as workman are evidenced by the 395 buildings he produced over his career.

More significant, and more concerning, is the constant undercutting of Wright’s personality, and of his genius - presented with Wright’s immodest assertions of his own greatness, the film-makers invite us to smirk at his arrogance: "I am the greatest architect that ever lived," he often said. Yet Wright’s ‘honest arrogance’ was hard-won and richly deserved - no architect ever had more to be immodest about. We hear -at length - from one Wright ‘biographer’ who (more suited to a small-town gossip sheet than such a film) breathlessly reveals "Wright was an awful human being," "Wright was trying to replace his mother with his second wife," etc. etc.

The film had all the petty grievances, real and imagined, that one always hears. Wright was accused of being too ‘controlling’ because, as one client put it, "he thought of everything in a house we might ever need"; he was derided as being too ‘overbearing’, because he provided such a glorious interior to a building (Johnson Wax) that windows looking out to the squalid surroundings were unnecessary; he was criticised for his 'poor construction techniques', because some of his more experimental buildings leaked, for being ‘careless’ and ‘wasteful’ with clients’ money – clients’ who went back to him time after time for more of the same ‘wastefulness’. We were invited to view Wright's feet of clay, yet all the time the evidence on screen kept screaming: "so what?" and "pipe down!"

Early in the film came a scene of true revelation. We learn the answer to an important question, a question that has hung over any study of Wright: why was Wright, with all his obvious genius, so openly shunned by his profession, by architectural critics and by academics? To this day a particular sneering dismissal of Wright is fostered in architectural circles - fragrant, intellectual poseurs snub him as ‘intellectually shallow’ in comparison with other more ‘enlightened’ architects, such as Le Corbusier (the man more responsible for the barren disasters of much modern architecture than any other). Wright was too ‘showy’ say the poseurs, too ‘old-fashioned’ say the academics, too ‘American’ say the Europeans; he designed for too many rich clients and not for the ‘working man’ say the socialists. Indeed, it is only recently that it has begun to be intellectually ‘respectable’ to like Wright.

But in one scene, truly breathtaking in its evil, we get the answer to this question, and we see revealed the naked face of Ellsworth Toohey! The revelation comes through the mouth of influential architectural mediocrity Philip Johnson. This pile of loose fitting flesh - an architect of no talent, but a world figure nonetheless through his relentless self-promotion financed by Daddy’s cash - sneers at Wright in a manner precisely paralleling Salieri in the film Amadeus: "He was a genius," says Johnson. "I hated him of course - it was a mixture of envy and hatred. I hated him for his magnificent ability[!]" (Exclamation mine.) Get that! This appalling creature, an entity who studiously refused to have Wright represented at exhibitions he curated, who laughingly asked ‘Isn’t he dead?’ when called on to include Wright in the books Johnson paid someone to write for him, openly admits: ‘I hated him for his ability’!

Ayn Rand has characterised the twentieth century as the age of envy, specifically of hatred of the good for being the good; envy of Wright’s genius – and hatred of him for that genius - is precisely what Johnson so casually and so smugly expresses! Johnson’s hatred of Wright spanned the century, beginning with Johnson curating a seminal exhibition of so-called International Style architects in 1932 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This influential exhibition - bought for Johnson by his wealthy father - began the panning of Wright as a ‘shallow has-been’, and instead brought European modernist mediocrity’s of the likes of Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe to the attention of the American ‘intellectual elite’, copyists who created poor cardboard interpretations of Wrightian forms stripped of their individuality, and who preached the stylistic purism of ‘four-walls-and-a-roof’. In The Fountainhead Ayn Rand describes the career of innovator Henry Cameron: "The tree broke clear of the forest", she says, "and the fungus crept out to reclaim it." The resulting ‘International Style’ was that fungus, a style claiming to represent the Machine Age by making houses look like machines; appropriate, said Wright, "but only if the heart is a suction pump."

Fungus is a parasite; it needs something to feed on. Something alive. This film arrives at a time when the International Stylists’ cardboard cut-out architecture is seen for the soulless dead end that it is, at the fag end of the bloated pastiche of post-modernism’s stylistic clichés. We now witness the ‘deconstructivists’ picking over whatever lifeless stylistic carcasses can be found. Like hyenas in an architectural wilderness they desperately search for architectural inspiration and direction, for some example of life-giving originality to feed off. As a consequence we now see Wright’s work finally becoming legitimised, becoming ‘safe’; now that he is long dead and his ‘style’ is safely in the past, and when the gibberish of architectural critics is matched only by the incoherence of the work they criticise (I submit Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum as an example, and anything by Peter Eisenman, or Bernard Tschumi, or Rem Koolhaas, or Zaha Hadid, or…). Buoyed up by the philosophical emptiness of Post-Modernism, and by their own learned inabilities, current practitioners are so bereft of ideas that they look to quarry from the ‘great’ ideas of the past. And no one had more architectural ideas than Frank Lloyd Wright did - they poured out of him in a stream of inexhaustible ingenuity. In his later years he would say that he would "quite simply, shake new designs out of [his] sleeve."

This vampiric interest in Wright is certainly not for the right reasons, not at least in academia or in much of the profession. However, the rekindled public enthusiasm for Wright and his work is now undeniable. The unquenchable thirst for genius is hard to kill, despite the best efforts of the Johnsons and Tooheys of this world. Witness the huge demand for Wright diaries, Wright calendars and Wright picture books - and note also the huge turnout to this film. The Sunday performance here at the Auckland Film Festival was sold out, the foyer clogged with enthusiasts keen to snap up tickets and begging for the chance; inside the theatre a roll call of the Auckland architectural profession. Pressure at the box office for a later re-screening of the film – hastily organised to meet the demand before the film left the country – saw two late performances on Sunday night added, but still saw many disappointed fans turned away after midnight despite lengthy queuing.

If you get the chance, if this film is issued on general release, then do go and see it. It is by turns delightful, revealing, revolting and – often - uplifting. It is not quite a work of genius, but it is an illuminating work about one.

Information on the film can be seen on the film’s website: www.pbs.org/flw/

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