A Man of "Honest Arrogance" — Frank Lloyd Wright
From the Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, March 1990, pp. 4-5.
He was a man of great creative energy. His architectural style was revolutionary in its design. The Journal of the American Institute of Architects at the time of his death stated that "his place in history is secure. His continuing influence is assured. This country's architectural achievements would be unthinkable without him. He has been a teacher to us all."
The man who said of himself, "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change," was born June 8, 1869 in Richland Center, Wisconsin to William Russel Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. Even before he was born his mother, who was confident her firstborn would be a son, had decided he would be an architect. While she was still carrying him she decorated the walls of the nursery with engravings of old English cathedrals cut from an illustrated English magazine.
While at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, Anna Wright bought her son a set of Froebel blocks, a new educational toy which consisted of cut maple blocks of various colors in the shape of cubes, spheres and cylinders, which were meant to be assembled into various patterns as illustrated in an accompanying booklet. The purpose of the blocks was to give a child a sense of color and form. Wright quickly duplicated the suggestive patterns and was soon inventing patterns of his own. This simple set of blocks made a lasting impression on the young boy for the forms of these blocks would influence his life's work to the day he died. In an interview at Taliesin West in Arizona, just days before he died, he told Louise Rago, an art teacher from Long Island, that a child should begin to learn art at the earliest possible age. "Put blocks into a child's hands," he told her. "Let the child hold a sphere, a ball and get a sense of the universe, a sense of God." Again he was remembering those Froebel blocks which his mother had put in his hands so many years before.
Another strong influence from his early years was the times he had spend on his Uncle James' farm near Spring Green, Wisconsin. His mother's brothers had an enclave of flourishing farms in the area. Those periods spent on the farm instilled in Wright a lasting appreciation for the land with its woods, green valleys, furrowed soil and seasonal rhythms. Wrights designs would come to reflect a natural harmony between structure and the environment in which they were placed, an outgrowth of those wonderful childhood memories spent in the rural Wisconsin countryside on his uncle's farm. In 1911 he returned to Spring Green after many years absence and built his home, Taliesin, on two hundred acres of land given him by his mother, her inheritance from the family farms. The house was built off the crest of a hill and was constructed with local quarried stone. The effect was to create a structure which when viewed from a distance resembled a natural outcropping of native sandstone; the structure blended harmoniously into the hillside, a characteristic which Wright called organic architecture.
Another major aspect of Wright's designs also stems from still another incident which took place early in his life. As a youth, Wright read widely. While reading Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," in a chapter on the architecture of that great cathedral, he read the statement that the Renaissance was only a sunset that man had mistaken for the dawn. This statement so thrilled the young boy that it planted in him the seed which would grow into the conviction that architecture based on historic styles must be by their very nature esthetically false and should instead be an expression of the time and places for which they are designed. Although Wright was not the first to execute a contemporary design, he would become its major spokesman and give it its distinguishable form.
This executor of contemporary design was a practitioner by instinct. He had little formal training in his chosen field. He was unable to afford the cost of attending an architectural school and the University of Wisconsin in which he entered didn't offer courses in the field of architecture. So he took courses in engineering science. While attending the University he witnessed the collapse of the Wisconsin State Capitol building which was under construction. This graphic lesson in building failure became burned in his mind. He resolved subsequent to this incident that his designs would combine good engineering techniques as well as fresh architectural designs. Wright's engineering studies served him well for he received basic grounding in the science of calculating stresses and in the use of various building materials. When he designed the Johnson Wax building and was confronted by state inspectors who claimed that his slender lily pad columns would not support the weight of the building, he proved them wrong by constructing a test column and placing ten times the weight on it that it would normally have to support.
Designs flowed from the creative mind of Wright faster than he could get them transferred to the drawing board. He could look at a site and envision the design even before he left the site. When asked how he produced such a flow of creative ideas he merely said with a twinkle in his eye that they simply rolled out of his sleeve. Many of his designs were never executed and many were embroiled in controversy—too expansive, too costly, etc. Controversy not only surrounded his work but also his personal and financial affairs. Despite many setbacks, Wright weathered the storm of personal and professional criticism which would have broken many a weaker man.
In 1932 with few commissions now coming his way, and having already made his mark in his chosen field, with his work given the recognition it deserved, he decided to establish the Taliesin Fellowship and teach the essentials of architecture to aspiring young students, providing them with a well-grounded curriculum of philosophy, sculpture, painting, music, and industrial science. He set up the Fellowship in the old Hillside Academy which he had built many years before for his two aunts, who had operated a private school there. In the mid-thirties he also built a fall and winter retreat for the Fellowship near Scottsdale, Arizona, to be known as Taliesin West.
Wright was never totally comfortable in the role of instructor, for he believed that esthetics could not be taught, but only exemplified. He felt you could help create an atmosphere in which the components of design could be realized. but the key to creativity lay within each student. Long an enemy of sterile uniformity, he recognized the fertile imaginative resources within each student which is the true product of the divine spark in each person. Once a student understands his capacity for differentiation his work can become prolific and his capacity to turn out a different design from the one before would become inevitable.
One successful student, reflecting back on his Taliesin experience, stated that he received a better education there than he had gotten at Princeton and Beaux Arts in Paris.
It would be a mistake to give the impression that Frank Lloyd Wright's career as an architect ended with the establishment of the Taliesin Fellowship, for after a short hiatus he began to execute some of his greatest works, beginning with the Edgar Kaufman retreat at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, more commonly known as "Falling Waters." This was followed by the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin. He designed and executed the campus of Florida Southern College, the Madison, Wisconsin Unitarian Church, the H. C. Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, among many others.
Just short of his ninetieth birthday, the man of "honest arrogance," who once told the people of Los Angeles, with a twinkle in his eye, that their town was much worse than the average American city, because it was larger, and that the best way to improve Pittsburgh was to destroy it and start over, passed away at his Taliesin retreat in Arizona on April 9, 1959. He had just completed the design work on the Marin County Civic Center project. This grand design would be successfully carried out in all its major components by his associates. Frank Lloyd Wright was buried in the Lloyd Jones family churchyard at Spring Green, Wisconsin, in the rural setting of his cherished childhood memories and among the low-lying hills and valleys which had first inspired in him his unique sense of architectural design and which is today still a major influence in the field of architecture through the efficacy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright. America's Greatest Architect, by Herbert Jacoby, 1965.
2. Frank Lloyd Wright, A Biography, by Finer Farr, 1961.