Martin Filler

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Martin Filler


Few things are more sat­is­fy­ing in the arts than un­justly for­got­ten fig­ures at last ac­corded a right­ful place in the canon, as has hap­pened in re­cent decades with such ne­glected but wor­thy twentieth-cen­tury ar­chi­tects as the Slove­nian Jože Plečnik, the Aus­trian Mar­garete Schütte-Li­hotzky, the Aus­trian-Swedish Josef Frank, and the Ital­ian-Brazil­ian Lina Bo Bardi, among oth­ers. Then there are the peren­ni­ally cel­e­brated artists who are so im­por­tant that they must be pre­sented anew to each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion, a daunt­ing task for mu­se­ums, es­pe­cially en­cy­clo­pe­dic ones that are ex­pected to re­visit the ma­jor masters over and over again while find­ing fresh rea­sons for their rel­e­vance.

Barry Bergdoll, the Columbia pro­fes­sor who served as the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art’s chief cu­ra­tor of ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign from 2007 to 2013, con­tin­ues to do ex­hi­bi­tions for the mu­seum, and his lat­est, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” (which he or­ga­nized with Jen­nifer Gray, a project re­search as­sis­tant at MOMA), was a more haz­ardous propo­si­tion than its uni­ver­sally beloved sub­ject might in­di­cate. De­spite the seem­ing ef­fort­less­ness with which the Mod­ern has spun out pop­u­lar Picasso and Matisse shows decade af­ter decade, Bergdoll wanted to avoid re­hash­ing its 1994 Wright ret­ro­spec­tive or re­peat­ing ma­te­rial cov­ered in more spe­cial­ized ex­hi­bi­tions on the ar­chi­tect held in New York at the Whit­ney in 1997 and the Guggen­heim in 2009.

He de­cided in­stead to or­ga­nize this sesqui­cen­ten­nial trib­ute around a mere twelve projects, in­clud­ing rarely dis­cussed un­ex­e­cuted de­signs such as Wright’s De­pres­sion-era plans for a self-suf­fi­cient agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity and his post­war scheme for the world’s tallest sky­scraper. Th­ese and oth­ers are il­lu­mi­nated by some 450 draw­ings, doc­u­ments, pho­to­graphs, mod­els, and ar­chi­tec­tural frag­ments se­lected from the moun­tain of ob­jects ob­tained by MOMA and Columbia’s Avery Ar­chi­tec­tural and Fine Arts Li­brary when they took pos­ses­sion of the ar­chi­tect’s archives from the eco­nom­i­cally trou­bled Frank Lloyd Wright Foun­da­tion in 2012. Fi­nan­cial de­tails of the ar­range­ment have not been re­vealed, but it has been ru­mored that a trans­fer of money was in­volved, on terms said to be very fa­vor­able for the ac­quir­ing in­sti­tu­tions. The sheer num­bers in­volved in this transcon­ti­nen­tal move are stag­ger­ing: 55,000 draw­ings, 300,000 sheets of cor­re­spon­dence, 125,000 pho­to­graphs, 2,700 manuscripts, and a panoply of mis­cel­lanea in­clud­ing ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails, work­ing and presentation mod­els, doc­u­men­tary films, and home movies, all of which had been molder­ing away un­der less-than-ideal con­di­tions at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis­con­sin, and Taliesin West, the foun­da­tion’s head­quar­ters in Scotts­dale, Ari­zona. (The archive will now be stored on the Columbia cam­pus, with con­ser­va­tion done at the mu­seum.)

There is a pi­quant irony to the fi­nal dis­po­si­tion of Wright’s ar­chi­tec­tural es­tate, for this supreme ego­tist never for­gave MOMA for what he deemed the slight­ing treat­ment he re­ceived from Philip John­son and Henry-Rus­sell Hitch­cock in their epochal “Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture: In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion” of 1932, which he felt should have re­volved around him, his char­ac­ter­is­tic world­view. Tellingly enough, the cur­rent show turns out to be the eleventh MOMA ex­hi­bi­tion in which Wright has been in­cluded, and al­though some of those were rel­a­tively mi­nor mount­ings de­voted to sin­gle projects, he has tal­lied more cu­mu­la­tive gallery time there than any other ar­chi­tect (even though Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe has been given three solo ret­ro­spec­tives, another MOMA ar­chi­tec­tural record).

To ar­rive at the dozen projects fea­tured in the ex­hi­bi­tion, Bergdoll asked each mem­ber of a team of schol­ars to se­lect a sin­gle work from the archive— the less fa­mil­iar the better—and dis­cuss it in depth. Al­though MOMA of­fi­cials have proudly stressed that they en­gaged a younger gen­er­a­tion of un­tapped tal­ent in­stead of what Bergdoll has called “the usual sus­pects,” only two of the cat­a­log’s six­teen authors are in their thir­ties, with more than half older than fifty, and five in their six­ties and sev­en­ties.

Th­ese de­mo­graph­ics seem to con­firm what aca­demi­cians warned of decades ago: that the re­stric­tive con­trol of the master’s archives for a quar­ter­century af­ter his death in 1959 by his widow, Ol­gi­vanna (who died in 1985), would set back Wright stud­ies for a full gen­er­a­tion, if not longer. Dis­ser­ta­tion ad­vis­ers pru­dently steered doc­toral can­di­dates away from Wright top­ics be­cause of the ex­tor­tion­ate re­search and re­pro­duc­tion fees de­manded by his foun­da­tion, as well as the editorial ap­proval it de­manded for pub­li­ca­tions that used ma­te­rial from the Taliesin archive. The rise of post­struc­tural­ist crit­i­cism fur­ther eroded younger schol­ars’ in­ter­est in an ar­chi­tect whose uniquely per­sonal ap­proach to ar­chi­tec­ture had lit­tle to do with the pe­riod’s fas­ci­na­tion with lit­er­ary the­ory.


The de­tailed at­ten­tion given in the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion to dis­crete as­pects of Wright’s out­put rather than its broad out­lines risked a cer­tain un­even­ness, and lesser-known work by great artists is of­ten ob­scure for good rea­son. Hap­pily, de­spite its many par­tic­i­pants, “Wright at 150” co­heres better than one had ex­pected. Help­ful in that re­spect is its lay­out around a spa­cious cen­tral gallery de­voted to high­lights from the ar­chi­tect’s ca­reer not cov­ered else­where in the show, while the more spe­cial­ized themes are ar­ranged in sep­a­rate rooms around it.

This in­tro­duc­tory “spine” is hung with ren­der­ings of many projects well known to the pub­lic, in­clud­ing Unity Tem­ple of 1905–1908 in Oak Park, Illi­nois, an in­ward-turn­ing con­crete mono­lith that re­opened in June af­ter a two-year, $25 mil­lion restora­tion; Falling­wa­ter of 1934–1938 in Bear Run, Penn­syl­va­nia, with its breath­tak­ingly can­tilevered bal­conies perched above a wood­land cas­cade; the John­son Wax Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing of 1936–1939 in Racine, Wis­con­sin, a stream­lined recon­cep­tion of the cor­po­rate work­place as a light-filled for­est grove; and Taliesin West of 1936–1959, the ar­chi­tect’s mi­rage-like desert home and stu­dio.

Re­gret­tably, the cat­a­log ac­com­pa­ny­ing the show is so spot­tily edited and an­noy­ingly de­signed that one yearns for the firm hand of MOMA’s long­time editorial di­rec­tor, Har­riet Bee, now re­tired. There are many mis­spellings and mis­usages in ad­di­tion to con­fus­ing des­ig­na­tions of il­lus­tra­tions, page num­bers

po­si­tioned in gut­ters, and no in­dex. The pub­li­ca­tion for the mu­seum’s 1994 Wright show re­mains al­to­gether a far su­pe­rior ref­er­ence. How­ever, three of the new es­says are of ex­cep­tional qual­ity.

Bergdoll’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Wright’s hy­po­thet­i­cal Mile-High Illi­nois sky­scraper of 1956—a 528-story tower in­tended for an un­spec­i­fied site in Chicago and nearly twice as high as the tallest build­ing ex­e­cuted since then—makes one won­der why, given the post­mil­len­nial ma­nia for su­per-tall, su­per-thin engi­neer­ing, it has taken un­til now for this stu­pen­dous odd­ity, more pub­lic­ity stunt than se­ri­ous pro­posal, to be re­ex­am­ined so thought­fully. Bergdoll in­ter­prets the ar­chi­tect’s eight-foot-tall, foot-and-ahalf-wide presentation draw­ing, which re­sem­bles some an­cient scroll opened to its full height, as a re­veal­ing artis­tic last will and tes­ta­ment pre­pared for pos­ter­ity three years be­fore his death at ninety-one. On it the nee­dle-like vi­sion­ary struc­ture ex­tends from the bot­tom—where its “tap-root” foun­da­tion bur­rows into the earth as deep as the Em­pire State Build­ing is tall—to lit­tle over the half­way mark, with lengthy au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­scrip­tions oc­cu­py­ing the up­per­most por­tions. (Another of Wright’s draw­ings of the sky­scraper ap­pears on this page.)

The two other most en­gross­ing schemes se­lected for the show em­pha­size Wright’s long en­gage­ment with sev­eral of the most pro­gres­sive cur­rents in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. This be­gan in in­fancy when his mother, Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, ex­posed him to the in­no­va­tive ped­a­gog­i­cal prac­tices of the Ger­man ed­u­ca­tion re­former Friedrich Frö­bel; con­tin­ued through­out his youth with ex­po­sure to the preach­ing of his renowned so­cial ac­tivist and paci­fist un­cle, the Uni­tar­ian min­is­ter Jenkin Lloyd Jones; in­cluded im­mer­sion in the early twentieth cen­tury’s most ad­vanced fem­i­nist ideas, which were shared by his free­think­ing com­pan­ion Mamah Borth­wick; and ex­tended to eco­log­i­cal preser­va­tion, as sig­ni­fied by his be­ing made an hon­orary mem­ber of the Friends of Our Na­tive Land­scape, an early en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group founded in 1913. (Wright’s sub­se­quent sup­port for the iso­la­tion­ist Amer­ica First Com­mit­tee be­tween the out­break of World War II in Europe and Pearl Har­bor is of­ten seen as a con­ser­va­tive re­treat from those for­ma­tive prin­ci­ples, but he al­ways in­sisted that his op­po­si­tion to US in­volve­ment in for­eign con­flicts was solely paci­fist, not po­lit­i­cal.)

Al­though Wright’s prin­ci­pal re­sponse to the Great De­pres­sion is com­monly seen as his found­ing in 1932 of the Taliesin Fel­low­ship—the ide­al­is­tic work-study com­mune that served both as an ar­chi­tec­ture school and his ar­chi­tec­tural of­fice—be­tween the world wars he ac­cepted two com­mis­sions that dis­played his abil­ity to imag­i­na­tively re­think so­cial is­sues. The Lit­tle Farms Unit project of 1932–1933 was in­tended for a back-to-the-land ini­tia­tive on Long Is­land that would have fos­tered small re­gional agri­cul­ture as a means of mak­ing peo­ple self-suf­fi­cient at a time of wide­spread eco­nomic col­lapse and cat­a­strophic un­em­ploy­ment. The low-rise, stream­lined, mul­ti­pur­pose food-pro­cess­ing and mar­ket­ing fa­cil­ity that Wright de­vised as a repli­ca­ble pro­to­type for this ex­per­i­ment in mod­ern sub­sis­tence farm­ing was un­der­writ­ten by the busi­ness­man Wal­ter V. David­son.

A for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive for the Larkin Soap Com­pany, whose mon­u­men­tal Buf­falo head­quar­ters of 1903–1906 Wright de­signed, David­son com­mis­sioned a Prairie House from the ar­chi­tect in 1908. Decades later he re­turned to Wright to help re­al­ize this utopian ru­ral res­cue mis­sion, which never moved be­yond the plan­ning stage de­spite David­son’s ob­ses­sive pro­jec­tions. Wright’s sleekly Mod­ernist con­cept looks more like the con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous work of the Dutch De Stijl ar­chi­tect J. J. P. Oud, and both the jaunty model un­earthed for the show and the in­spir­ing story be­hind it—re­counted in a cat­a­log es­say by the MOMA cu­ra­tor Juliet Kinchin—make this a ma­jor re­dis­cov­ery.

Of equal sig­nif­i­cance as so­cially mo­ti­vated de­sign is Wright’s un­re­al­ized Rosen­wald School of 1928 for the Hamp­ton Nor­mal and Agri­cul­tural In­sti­tute in Vir­ginia. Spon­sored by the Chicago phi­lan­thropist Julius Rosen­wald—pres­i­dent and later chair­man of Sears, Roe­buck & Com­pany, then the world’s largest cat­a­log re­tailer—the project was meant to give ar­chi­tec­tural dis­tinc­tion to a char­i­ta­ble vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram ded­i­cated to free­ing poor ru­ral blacks from an in­tractable cy­cle of poverty. Wright’s scheme de­parted from the neo-Colo­nial dain­ti­ness of pre­vi­ous de­signs that had been pur­sued un­der the widely ad­mired “Hamp­ton Ideal,” and pro­posed a clois­ter-like unit dom­i­nated by a dra­matic cen­tral struc­ture, with twin-peaked roofs as if two A-frame houses had been lat­er­ally con­joined, quite un­like the earth-hug­ging struc­tures gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with him. In her prob­ing anal­y­sis of this lon­glost scheme, Ma­bel O. Wilson, who teaches at the Columbia ar­chi­tec­ture school, does not ra­tio­nal­ize the pa­ter­nal­is­tic un­der­tone of racial con­de­scen­sion in­escapable in Wright’s hope that through his de­sign “the Darkies would have some­thing that be­longed to them. Some­thing ex­te­rior of their own lively in­te­rior color and charm.”

In­deed, to say that Wright—born just two years af­ter the death of Abra­ham Lin­coln (and orig­i­nally named Frank Lin­coln Wright in his mem­ory)—was sim­ply echo­ing the preva­lent racial at­ti­tudes of his time might seem like spe­cial plead­ing. But oth­ers who knew him well, in­clud­ing his long­time of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can Pe­dro E. Guer­rero, him­self sub­jected to big­otry in the pre-war South­west, have averred that amid the racism of mid-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury Amer­ica, Wright was at heart among the least prej­u­diced men they had ever known.


Al­though Wright was a born drafts­man—as proven by his in­tri­cate yet ethe­real 1892 draw­ing of a bronze gate for the Wain­wright Tomb in St. Louis, de­signed by his boss Louis Sul­li­van and now on view in the MOMA show— from the very start of his in­de­pen­dent prac­tice the fol­low­ing year he hired talented ren­der­ers to cre­ate presentation draw­ings of his projects. The cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion goes to great lengths to stress this fact by iden­ti­fy­ing spe­cific hands at var­i­ous points in his ca­reer, es­pe­cially one of Wright’s ear­li­est col­lab­o­ra­tors, Mar­ion Ma­hony. Like Wright, Ma­hony was en­tranced by the wood­block prints of Ja­panese masters that had be­come all the rage among Western artists dur­ing the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tury.

Her del­i­cately toned ren­der­ing of a lesser-known Prairie House—his DeRhodes res­i­dence of 1906 in South Bend, In­di­ana—mim­ics the flat­tened planes, strong out­lines, and sug­ges­tive voids typ­i­cal of the Ukiyo-e style. Lest this point be lost on us, be­neath her sig­na­ture she added, “Af­ter FLLW and Hiroshige.” Wright, who had a deeply ac­quis­i­tive streak that im­pelled him to buy beau­ti­ful things even when he could not pay his gro­cer’s bills, amassed such a large hoard of Ja­panese graph­ics that like many other com­pul­sive but im­pe­cu­nious col­lec­tors he per­force be­came a dealer both to bal­ance his books and to fur­ther feed his habit.

In 1913, when Wright’s ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice had come to a ver­i­ta­ble halt be­cause of the pub­lic out­rage he caused by leav­ing the mother of his six chil­dren and set­ting up house­keep­ing with Mamah Borth­wick, a client’s wife, he trav­eled to Ja­pan with the ex­press pur­pose of rais­ing cash by buy­ing and sell­ing prints. Bankrolled by two rich Bos­ton aes­thetes, the Spauld­ing broth­ers, the out-of-work ar­chi­tect, as he later wrote,

es­tab­lished a con­sid­er­able buy­ing power and any­thing avail­able in the or­di­nary chan­nels came first to me... un­til I had spent about one hun­dred and twenty-five thousand Spauld­ing dol­lars for about a mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of prints.

Proof of Wright’s dis­crim­i­nat­ing eye was ev­i­dent in a small but ex­quis­ite re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion, “The For­ma­tion of the Ja­panese Print Col­lec­tion at the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School,” at the mu­seum where the ar­chi­tect ar­ranged a show with some of the same pieces in 1908, not least to cre­ate a lo­cal mar­ket for his lu­cra­tive side­line.

Be­cause of fur­ther per­sonal scan­dals (the mur­der of Borth­wick and her chil­dren at Taliesin in 1914; a sor­did di­vorce from his sec­ond wife; and the birth of a fi­nal child, out of wed­lock) as well as chang­ing ar­chi­tec­tural tastes— which en­com­passed the demise of the Arts and Crafts Move­ment, a resur­gent Clas­si­cal re­vival in the US, and the emer­gence of more rad­i­cal forms of Modernism in Europe—Wright saw his job prospects go dor­mant for a cru­cial decade in midlife when ar­chi­tects cus­tom­ar­ily re­ceive their most im­por­tant com­mis­sions. It was only the sheer force of his titanic will and ca­pac­ity to con­stantly readapt his pro­tean tal­ents to new con­di­tions—for ex­am­ple by tak­ing up the new tech­nique of con­crete-block con­struc­tion in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the 1920s and de­vis­ing af­ford­able “Uso­nian” houses for mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans in the 1930s—that gave him a sec­ond ca­reer dur­ing his fi­nal quar­ter-cen­tury, wholly dif­fer­ent from but com­pa­ra­ble in in­ven­tive­ness to his Prairie School pe­riod of 1900–1914.

Once he at long last shifted into an un­bro­ken two-decade pro­fes­sional up­swing af­ter the late 1930s, he spent even more time ex­ploit­ing his pub­lic per­sona. The de­gree to which he be­came Amer­ica’s most rec­og­niz­able ar­chi­tect be­tween Stanford White and Philip John­son through his skill­ful ma­nip­u­la­tion of mass me­dia—two film clips now on view at MOMA record his dis­arm­ingly deft star turns on 1950s TV talk and quiz shows, with dead­pan tim­ing wor­thy of Jack Benny— speaks to his acute un­der­stand­ing of celebrity cul­ture in this coun­try. Yet for all his se­rial self-rein­ven­tions, Wright never lost sight of his core mis­sion of re­shap­ing ar­chi­tec­ture into a wholly con­sis­tent re­flec­tion of demo­cratic Amer­i­can val­ues as he un­der­stood them.

The care, au­dac­ity, and orig­i­nal­ity with which Wright or­ches­trated the pub­lic presentation of his rev­o­lu­tion­ary ar­chi­tec­ture from start to fin­ish—

thereby fi­ness­ing its pos­i­tive crit­i­cal re­cep­tion—is laid out with ex­cep­tional thor­ough­ness in Kathryn Smith’s Wright on Ex­hibit: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ar­chi­tec­tural Ex­hi­bi­tions. De­spite its ap­par­ently cir­cum­scribed sub­ject mat­ter, the book widens into an in­trigu­ing trea­tise on ca­reer de­vel­op­ment, and is so il­lu­mi­nat­ingly de­tailed that it gives a richer portrait of Wright than many full-length bi­ogra­phies. It would be hard, for ex­am­ple, to find a clearer, more con­cise, and yet po­etic sum­ma­tion of Wright’s quan­tum leap at the dawn of the twentieth cen­tury than Smith’s de­scrip­tion of the typ­i­cal Prairie House and Wright’s con­comi­tant in­tro­duc­tion of the open plan, a piv­otal mo­ment in the his­tory of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture:

A ma­jor con­cep­tual break­through that he made early on was the re­al­iza­tion that me­chan­i­cal heat­ing made it no longer nec­es­sary to close rooms off from each other to con­serve heat. This dis­cov­ery led to the open plan in pub­lic spa­ces— for in­stance, where the liv­ing room opened to the din­ing room on a di­ag­o­nal—while main­tain­ing com­part­men­tal­ized rooms for ser­vices. With the hearth no longer used as the ma­jor source of heat, Wright was free to use it as a freestanding ver­ti­cal plane in space.

The other ma­jor ad­vance rep­re­sented by the Prairie House was the re­jec­tion of the wall as the tra­di­tional solid bar­rier be­tween inside and out­side. . . . He broke the wall down into a series of el­e­ments such as piers, flat planes, and win­dow bands—all ge­o­met­ri­cally or­ga­nized by dark wood strips. The wall was now de­fined as an en­clo­sure of space. Win­dows were no longer holes punched through a mass, but a light screen fil­ter­ing sun­light into the in­te­rior. The move­ment out to­ward the land­scape was am­pli­fied by the ad­di­tion of porches, ter­races, flower boxes, and planter urns. . . .

The straight line of the hori­zon be­came the low shel­ter­ing roof, trees and flow­ers were ab­stracted as geo­met­ric pat­terns in the art glass win­dows, and leaves contributed their au­tum­nal pal­ette to the plas­ter sur­faces.


Con­fir­ma­tion of Wright’s in­com­pa­ra­ble pop­u­lar­ity to­day is in­escapable when one goes to any of the more than 140 build­ings by him open to vis­i­tors in the United States and Ja­pan (about one third of his total ex­e­cuted out­put). Those land­marks are the sub­ject of Wright Sites: A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright Pub­lic Places, the es­sen­tial vade­me­cum first pub­lished in 1991 and now reis­sued in a re­vised and ex­panded fourth edi­tion to ac­com­mo­date sev­eral more build­ings that have be­gun ad­mit­ting peo­ple in re­cent years. In con­trast to most mod­ern ar­chi­tec­tural venues, his build­ings at­tract a broad cross­sec­tion of non­spe­cial­ists who may not even be reg­u­lar mu­seum vis­i­tors. Clearly some­thing about Wright speaks to the gen­eral pub­lic in a way that the work of no other ar­chi­tect does. Draw­ing the high­est at­ten­dance fig­ures of any of the master’s build­ings is the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Mu­seum of 1943–1959 in New York, with 873,402 vis­i­tors in 2016 re­ported by The Art News­pa­per. You would thus sup­pose there are nu­mer­ous books on this end­lessly cel­e­brated struc­ture, but most writ­ing on it has been con­fined to es­says in more gen­eral pub­li­ca­tions on Wright’s work. That la­cuna likely prompted The Guggen­heim: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Icon­o­clas­tic Mas­ter­piece, by the ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Francesco Dal Co. But the rel­a­tively brief main text is hin­dered by an overly elab­o­rated ac­count of the Guggen­heim’s com­plex struc­tural engi­neer­ing, which all but the most tech­ni­cally at­tuned pro­fes­sion­als will likely find tax­ing. (Those seek­ing a clearer ac­count of how this ec­cen­tric mas­ter­piece came into be­ing should con­sult The Guggen­heim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Mu­seum, an ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­says pub­lished in 2009.)

The most cu­ri­ous pub­li­ca­tion to ap­pear in this sesqui­cen­ten­nial year is The Life of Ol­gi­vanna Lloyd Wright, a bi­og­ra­phy of the ar­chi­tect’s third and last wife, whom he mar­ried in 1928. It was com­piled by Bruce Brooks Pfeif­fer, a for­mer Wright ap­pren­tice who went on to be­come the long­time di­rec­tor of the ar­chi­tect’s archives, and Max­ine Fawcett-Yeske, a mu­si­col­o­gist who un­earthed a par­tial and un­pub­lished au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­oir by Mrs. Wright while at Taliesin West re­search­ing her mu­si­cal com­po­si­tions, an en­deavor she took up af­ter her hus­band’s death. To flesh out this in­com­plete story, Pfeif­fer and Fawcett-Yeske aug­mented it with large ex­cerpts from her sev­eral au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal books, and the re­sult is most tact­fully char­ac­ter­ized by the coed­i­tors’ own de­scrip­tion of it as a “la­bor of love.”

Dur­ing the dark years of Wright schol­ar­ship be­fore Ol­gi­vanna Wright’s death, Pfeif­fer worked valiantly be­hind the scenes to be of as much help as pos­si­ble to writ­ers—this one in­cluded—with­out in­cur­ring the wrath of the volatile woman he had come to re­gard as a sur­ro­gate mother. He ar­rived at the Taliesin Fel­low­ship as a wor­ship­ful nine­teen-year-old, and like the out­looks of most of the other young peo­ple drawn to the master’s pres­ence, Pfeif­fer’s was formed by the pow­er­ful com­mu­nal spirit of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which hov­ered some­where be­tween that of a sup­port­ive ex­tended fam­ily, an in­trigue-rid­den royal court, and a quasi-re­li­gious cult. Mrs. Wright vig­or­ously fo­mented this Byzan­tine at­mos­phere, in­ter­vened in the sex lives of the Taliesin ap­pren­tices as a mat­ter of right, and let no de­tail of the Fel­low­ship es­cape her panop­tic con­trol.

Much of Ol­gi­vanna Wright’s rem­i­nis­cences deal with how she and her hus­band coped in his very last years with the de­mands, dis­trac­tions, and de­lights of his cul­tural star­dom. Con­trary to her dour im­age as his fe­ro­cious pro­tec­tor, the chate­laine of Taliesin was not with­out hu­mor, some of it un­in­ten­tional, as is ev­i­dent in her ac­count of the ar­chi­tect’s at­tempt to per­suade Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tok­las to visit the cou­ple at Taliesin af­ter a read­ing given by Stein in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. Though his north­ern head­quar­ters was within easy driv­ing dis­tance, the Parisian ladies de­murred. Mrs. Wright re­called:

[Stein] smiled while Alice Tok­las kept re­peat­ing in Steinian style, “No, thank you. Thank you, no. We are fly­ing to Min­neapo­lis tonight. We love to fly to Min­neapo­lis.” Frank still held to his faith and pur­sued his course: “Taliesin is beau­ti­ful,” he said. “We have a group of talented young peo­ple who will be in­ter­ested to meet you. They can drive you to Min­neapo­lis.”

Miss Tok­las an­swered, “Oh, but we love to fly.”

Then Gertrude Stein spoke, “We do re­ally. Re­ally we do like to fly. We al­ways fly ev­ery­where be­cause we like to fly.”

The fear­some Ol­gi­vanna Wright could not, how­ever, re­sist one fi­nal dig at that odd cou­ple. As she and her hus­band walked away in de­feat she told him, “I knew you were go­ing to fail the minute I laid my eyes on them!”

In Lewis Mum­ford’s warmly sym­pa­thetic two-part New Yorker re­view of Wright’s 1953 Guggen­heim ret­ro­spec­tive, the critic re­ferred to him as the “Fu­jiyama of Ar­chi­tec­ture,” an apt metaphor for a master builder who seemed as ubiq­ui­tous and eter­nal as the snow­capped Ja­panese peak. Yet look­ing back once again on Wright’s achieve­ment and the con­tin­ued in­ter­est he in­spires a cen­tury and a half af­ter his birth, a more ap­pro­pri­ate anal­ogy for him in the nat­u­ral world might be the giant se­quoia, the an­cient species that grows taller than any other liv­ing thing. Wright was the hardy ev­er­green of ar­chi­tec­ture who tow­ered high above his con­tem­po­raries, and al­though no man can be­gin to ap­proach the three-and-ahalf-mil­len­nium life­span of the old­est giant se­quoia, who could doubt that this peren­ni­ally life-af­firm­ing artist is any­thing but a phe­nom­e­non for the ages?

Frank Lloyd Wright with a model of the Guggen­heim Mu­seum, 1945

Frank Lloyd Wright’s never-re­al­ized Mile-High sky­scraper, 1956

Frank Lloyd Wright’s draw­ing of the never-built Rosen­wald School in Vir­ginia, 1928

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