The immortal designs of Frank Lloyd Wright

Stuart Grant

Have you considered your legacy?

Will you accomplish something of lasting significance in your lifetime?

Or do you simply revel in being, seeking to live out your existence in joyful humility?

Whatever your aspirations, the issue of legacy is one that has vexed the greatest philosophers.

How do we make our short life meaningful? How do we avoid being a mere grease stain on the asphalt of life?

You may aspire to great wealth through business or investment. History shows that wealth rarely survives three generations. That hard earned fortune is often squandered by heirs who did not earn it and had no appreciation for the work that went into it. If you follow the financial press, you would know that the Bronfman family heirs have diminished the family fortune by eight billion dollars through poor investments. [1]

Perhaps you want to make a difference through philanthropy and charitable works. At a community center where I used to work, we had a kitchen volunteer who retired on a civil service pension in middle class comfort. Instead of travelling, she would get up at 5:30 every weekday morning and cook at a school aged breakfast program for underprivileged kids. She’s in diminishing health but she still shows up every day.

In the summer of 2010, I came across a man with a secure legacy when I visited a house he’d designed outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.. The house is called Fallingwater and was so named because it was built around a waterfall. The architect was Frank Lloyd Wright.

As a child, Wright had been given a gift of building blocks, a toy he later attributed to his early interest in buildings. His parents divorced when he was fourteen and he assumed financial responsibility for the family. After attending University of Wisconsin at Madison, he left without a degree and was hired as a draftsman at a Chicago firm.

He accepted a five year contract, got married and started a family. From the beginning, Frank had extravagant tastes and was soon in financial difficulty. To alleviate this, he took work on the side in contravention of his employment contract and was summarily fired.

As an independent contractor, he soon had fifty projects under his belt and established what became known as the Prairie style. The Prairie style emphasized horizontal structures, overhanging roofs, cruciform plans and interior rooms that gave occupants a feeling of limitless space. It would become the cornerstone of modernism. Architectural critics were not kind to Wright and his departure from classical Greek and Gothic architecture calling him, among other things, Frank Lloyd Wrong.

As is often the case with the supremely gifted, Wright thought that the rules of domestic behavior did not apply to him. He was wildly extravagant in his tastes and lived on the edge, financially. One day, he went out and purchased three grand pianos for his home. On another, the sheriff of Oak Park, Illinois, slept overnight in his kitchen to ensure that Frank wouldn’t skip town after writing the largest cheque ever drawn on an Illinois bank.

About his tastes, Frank was a great quote:
“As long as we have the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves.”
“I’ve had the great misfortune of being trusted by every banker I’ve ever met.”

Despite having a family of six children, he began an affair with a married woman named Mamah Cheney. The resulting scandal made the pursuit of a career in Chicago impossible and the two eloped to Europe. Mamah would later be murdered by a domestic servant who burned down their Wisconsin dream home, Taliesin.

With his career damaged by scandal and the onset of the Great Depression, commissions grew rare and Frank’s second wife, Olga, began an architect’s school at their home in Arizona known as Taliesin West. To make ends meet, they sold Japanese art. It would be seven years before his next project.

Stop and reflect on that for a moment. Here’s a man in his late sixties who had no paid work in his field for seven years. How many of us would have the confidence to carry on?

That project was Fallingwater — a vacation property commissioned by the Kaufman family of the eponymous department store. It caused a sensation, made the cover of Time magazine and relaunched his career.

With every successive project, Frank would go over budget in characteristic extravagance.

As one client put it, “When I hired Frank, I was content with the idea that he was working for me. As the project grew and increased in cost, I soon realized I was working for him.”

He insisted that every part of the building be subject to his styling and even designed furniture for each project which, of course, he charged handsomely for. His buildings were designed to blend in with their natural surroundings. His Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was the only building to survive the great earthquake of 1923 — a testament to his superior understanding of geography.

His impact went far beyond architecture. Novelist, Ayn Rand, would base her magnum opus, The Fountainhead, on Wright and his career. The novel would go on to sell 6.5 million copies. It was made into a major motion picture and launched an intellectual movement known as Objectivism.

In all, he designed over 400 buildings of which 200 were built. He was in demand right up to the end of his life. In his last interview at age 88, he was asked if he believed in immortality.

He looked over at the interviewer with a majestic, imperial sense of confidence and answered “I am immortal. I have youth. If you have that, you never lose it. Not even when they put you in a box.”

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