I’ve been spending my summer with the classics: wonderful books on the history of Chicago, bios of FLO – Frederick Law Olmstead and FLW – Frank Lloyd Wright, visits to sites, random intersections, etc.
Summer is winding down. I can tell, not only because it’s cool today, but because I’m back from my summer vacation when many are just starting theirs. The Starbucks next door to the office was crowded on Friday with tourists poring over maps and guidebooks, a certain desperation in the air as though they are wondering how they’ll possibly cram it all in.
Yesterday I joined with the tourists at the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park. Yes, one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for-ever, and finally did. The FLW Trust volunteers do a good job. Tours start every 20 minutes. 16 people each, and you rarely bump in to one another, nor mostly are even aware there are others in the house with you.
Renewed respect for the Master.
There’s an impetus to talk about his messy personal life – but the guide steers away from that, aided perhaps by the fact that the messes came after this home and studio were built. Here you can focus on the early years, where the trajectory was just that, a brilliant and rapid start, coalescing, and then springing off from this place to others.
I have a personal affinity for FLW. Our family roots are planted in the same valleys in Iowa County Wisconsin. My aunts and uncles are among those creditors he famously stiffed. Studying art and architecture at the UW, I was schooled on his greatness; the myth of the boundless and impermeable (male) genius, punctured, yet resilient.
Why is that? The resilience? Is FLW really that great, meriting the efforts made by those in my tour group who’d come – literally – from far and wide? Europe, Japan, Pennsylvania.
There’s a certain acceptance, when you’ve heard since forever that this person “changed the way we build buildings”, “altered the field of architecture forever”, etc. It’s easy to lose sight of why.
After the tour, I turned to Ada Louise Huxtable’s brief, 2004 Wright bio. It’s a breezy, brilliant little book, and she acknowledges that her audience is “meant to include those who are neither professionals nor specialists”. This is her audience, and her insights are solid.
In her intro, Huxtable says she was drawn to Wright while researching “a new and radical kind of architecture based on the use of the computer as a design and production tool”. She was drawn backward in time by her intrigue with the future.
I became aware of amazing parallels between Wright’s work and the most advanced computer-generated design of today’s tech-savvy young architects. Both invented new solutions based on a radical vision and a fascination bordering on obsession with the generating capabilities of geometry. Both pushed inventive fantasy to its limits within the possibilities open to them … the same adventurous mind-set, intent on redefining what architecture can do and how it should look … Wright’s most important tools were the power of his imagination and his aesthetic sensibilities. Seen in the context of what is happening in architecture in the twenty-first century, his work takes on new significance and meaning.
Huxtable draws parallels between these contexts. She brings us to the social milieu in which Wright’s innovations were made. She places his personal foibles, the messiness, even the myth of solitary genius, devised, burnished, and promoted by Wright. Puncturing the myth, she says, allows a better understanding of the brilliance in Wright’s perfectly planned, and life-changing buildings.
And so, with Ada Louise providing the context, I can say that yes, on yesterday’s precious and beautiful summer day, not quite yet overshadowed by the looming sense of school and other responsibilities, all those tourists, myself among them, were spending our time wisely.
Follow along with me! Sign up below to get an email when a new post is live. Type your email address in the box and click the “Subscribe” button. Spam free. Opt out any time.