Fame and Frank Lloyd Wright


Howard Martin


‘The Greatest Architect who will ever live’ [1]


Sir Donald Bradman was the most famous cricketer of the 20th century. He was also the greatest. Previously the fame had gone to Dr WG Grace but so had the infamy. Fame and infamy, like notability and notoriety, are contraries rather than contradictories and Frank Lloyd Wright spectacularly combined all four in a career that overlapped those of both cricketers. Today, despite his notoriety, few architects, critics or interested laymen would deny Wright's pre-eminence as an architect, nor the quality of his architecture. Despite his blatant self­-promotion, breathtaking arrogance, shameless mendacity, disregard or denigration of others, a personal life that defied American convention and was seen as irredeemably immoral, and an ability to alienate almost everyone he met (and many he didn’t) he still features high in the pantheon of architects.

A characteristic of Wright's domestic buildings after the mid-1890s is a somewhat hidden entrance and a complex path to the central core of the house - which for Wright was the hearth - usually where the implied axes crossed. In the Bach House in Chicago (1915) there are no less than 11 turns to be made in the journey. The concealment of the entrance and the inaccessibility of the building's metaphorical heart suggests a connection with Wright's own personality that may shed some light on his less agreeable aspects - not as a straightforward parallel (keeping his true motives and inner self hidden from others, etc) but as a less conscious and therefore more informative key to his true self.

Wright's elaborately contrived appearance, behaviour, showmanship, organisation of accoutrements and entourage - what Brendan Gill refers to as his ‘many masks' [2] - do not conceal his character. Even allowing for the levels of sophistication to which ‘spin' has risen in recent times to protect the reputation of politicians and others, Wright stands out as a master. Or does he? What exactly was Wright spinning away? What image was he trying to create? What was he concealing about himself?

I would like to suggest that the answer to the last question is, surprisingly, nothing. He didn't refute any of his misdeeds though he didn't always interpret them in the same way as others did. He didn't honour his financial debts but he didn't deny them either. He didn't deny his height although he made himself taller in the eyes of the world and made a virtue of it when challenged, talking about human scale and the fact that a little height could go a long way in the prairie. [3] He didn't claim to be a great thinker, even confessing in his autobiography that he had a laziness in that area and thought only when it was forced on him. He didn’t claim modesty or humility: he revelled in his arrogance.

This arrogance goes far beyond what even he knew to be acceptable to most people. Yet he made no effort to disguise it. As he says in The Future of Architecture, 'early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no reason to change it even now.’ [4] The subtle trick here was to insert the word honest as an emotive adjective of universal approbation. He was less subtle when, arraigned for contravention of the Mann Act [5] in the 1920s, he was asked to state his occupation by the judge. His reply, ‘I am the world's greatest architect', prompted his future wife Olgivanna to suggest to him later that evening that he had, perhaps, been rather immodest - to which he replied, ‘But, my dear, I was under oath to tell the truth.’ [6]

He can hardly have charmed one particular critic when he wrote in 1930: ‘I warn Henry-Russell Hitchcock here and now that, having a good start, I intend to be not only the greatest architect of all time but the greatest who will ever live. And I do hereby affix the "red square" and sign my name to this warning.' [7] The red square in question was subsequently applied retrospectively to earlier ones suggesting that Wright came to consider that his phrase 'intend to be' was too modest.

Since there could only be a single Number One architect, Wright no doubt felt he had to denigrate his rivals. They became 'Old Mies’ (he was 20 years younger than Wright), 'Little Philip' (from the 5 foot 8 inch Frank Lloyd Wright), 'Three blind Mies’ (SOM), Skiddings, Owe-more and Sterile (SOM again) [8] and so on. When he met Saarinen on Chicago Station in the 1920s and Saarinen asked him what he thought of his (Saarinen's) new building in Colombus, Wright replied: 'Well, Eliel, when I saw it I thought what a great architect - I am.' Wright relates this in his autobiography and goes on to say of the incident, 'that, I'm afraid is me. Saarinen was born and will die - a Finn ... I still refuse to die'. [9] Architects from the past were usually no less open to derision and those that escaped his acerbic tongue were treated as heralds of Wright himself. Even Jesus was dragged into the act, the tenuous connection being that he was a carpenter ('perhaps the architects of the day' [10]). Wright calls him the first organic architect. [11] Christ suffered on the cross for his crown and it would have been unlike Wright not to have felt that he had similarly suffered for his art.

The religious nexus is perhaps to be expected from someone with Wright's background. His ancestors were, by all accounts, garrulous Welsh windbags, some of them Unitarian preachers, and his father was a preacher for a period. When Frank's son John came to write about his father it is significant that he entitled his book My Father Who Is on Earth. [12] The Taliesin Fellowship [13] was run in a way very reminiscent of a religious order with Wright's widow Olgivanna carrying on Wright's role after his death, as high priest[essl. Wright said he was influenced by Pythagoras, and the foundation seems more akin to a Pythagorean semireligious secret society [or, rather, society with secrets] than a Christian order. Wright, however, was not a prophet of God (nor, as many people might have thought, of himself) but rather a prophet of Architecture (his, of course, but only because his was the best) in the way that Pythagoras was a prophet of mathematics, a word he invented. Wright, for his part, could only add ‘organic' to the existing word architecture.

Wright had said that architecture was nothing but the transformation of ideas into built form, and that no building had a right to be erected unless it was the working out of some idea, [14] so it is not surprising that he admitted Plato as one of his influences. In Plato's utopian Republic the ultimate aim of education was to produce the philosopher-king who would rule the state. In Wright's utopia, Broadacre City, [15] it is the architect­statesman who will organise society by designing its form and fabric. [16] Wright always saw himself as the heroic artist-architect and in this context he writes approvingly of Shelley and his views on the poet as the 'legislator of the world' - indeed, he uses the phrase as the title of a section of one of his books. [17] Carlyle's heroes Beethoven, Napoleon - Wright was particularly struck by the latter's comment, ‘Do you know what amazes me more than anything else? The impotence of force to organise anything’ [18] - and Nietzsche's superman are amongst the predictable creators from the past who found approval from Wright and whom he saw as his progenitors. [19]

The 'ordinary’ people were unlikely to appreciate Wright referring to them as 'the herd' - a term he had taken from Carlyle - and he also coined the phrase ‘them asses’ as an improvement on 'the masses’. The title he gave to his book on lieber meister Louis Sullivan [dead, so no longer a potential rival] was Genius and the Mobocracy, [20] a phrase which he might surely have thought applied to himself even more than to his former employer.

His methods with clients were less direct since he was immediately dependent on them to realise his designs, and they seemed to have their own ideas, a reluctance to part with their money and appalling furniture (in his eyes). The great individualist-artist's houses, despite his claim that they were portraits of his clients, were in fact based on a logic that, as Sir Herbert Read pointed out, 'implies that every house that Mr Wright built is his own house and the people who live in them are not his clients but his guests'. [21]

The masks Wright adopted were so many and so various that there hardly seems to have been anything else to him. Yet they were all, finally, in the service of his architecture. Wright was honest, if in nothing else, in his belief in the value of architecture and, of course, in the value of his own architecture. In a sense, his vision was him. It started before he was born when his mother gazed at engravings of French cathedrals. She later put them round his cot and in his nursery to stage-manage a genius for architecture.

Wright defended himself only on the comparatively few occasions when he felt this had become absolutely necessary, and at these times he gave away something of his inner self or, as I have come to feel, his lack of an inner self. He fell back on such phrases as, ‘Well, that's how I am’, ‘I had to make a noise in the world in order to get as much of the world's attention as I could'. [22] 'Be yourself', he would say followed by, 'I guess that's how I am.’ His use of the third person 'he' when talking about himself in his autobiography can be seen as an attempt to pre-empt such situations - a kind of getting his retaliation in first. More illuminating are remarks he made at times when he was in extreme difficulty, when he seems to come near to baring his soul even to himself. He came up with: ‘I guess my talent has severed me from myself all along’, 'Character is fate and mine got me into heavy going’ and ‘I think I am too many people ever to put into one presentment'. [23]

Too many people or not a real person at all? Wright certainly believed in destiny and fate, which seems strangely at odds with his ideas on freedom and choice. His many masks can be peeled away but, like Peer Gynt's onion, what is left?

Wright was fearless and an indefatigable fighter. Despite all his many setbacks, illnesses and tribulations he never wavered in his determination to see his architecture built. His whole life was based on a strategy (philosophy is not a suitable word here, still less morality) grounded in means and ends. This legitimised, in his own eyes, virtually any words or actions that would further the creation of his vision for architecture (and therefore his vision for the life of people in society). Of course, this is open to the objections that other approaches to life that have a similar methodology attract. One thinks of utilitarianism and its justification for the punishment of innocent people, or of religious persecution or political spin and vote rigging. Apart from anything else, the arguments put forward for such approaches are simplistic, logically unsound and ethically naive. Nevertheless, they are at the core of many beliefs and attract much support, so here Wright - no doubt much to his chagrin if he had realised this - is nearer to the collectivism he despised than to the free spirit he espoused.

Most of Wright's accoutrements were adopted deliberately, others perhaps came from a more subconscious spring. In the first category one might place his dwellings, his motor cars, his clothes, his care with photographic images (of himself, of course, but even more so of his buildings). the Taliesin Fellowship, his employment of skilled renders (from Marion Mahoney at the Oak Park studio in Chicago before the First World War right up to Ling Po after the Second World War), the low chairs his visitors and clients were obliged to sit on when they were in his company, and the fact that he never visited clients in their own homes but insisted that they came to his (or to the Plaza suite in New York which he had remodelled for himself). In the second, perhaps, was his habit of seeking out horizontal surfaces and swinging his legs up and down while talking (he seemed larger) or his predilection for cantilever hats (acquired from Olgivanna).

Fame for Wright must have seemed necessary. If you knew that you were the greatest architect in the world, how could you tolerate the fame of others whom you knew to be inferior? When he first read The Fountainhead, as four million other Americans would do, he was impressed. Its central character was an individual with his own determination. He liked the basically Nietzschean radical philosophy, but when he met the author, Ayn Rand (after she had sent him the first three chapters). he objected to the architect being red-headed and tall, and to the name Roark. He finally disapproved of the ending, saying it was absurd that the architect, Howard Roark, would destroy his own building. Wright declared that he himself would never have allowed it to be built other than in complete accordance with his own plans. [24] That is certainly true. but he had assumed that the book could only be about him. This was not entirely the case: Ayn Rand had a philosophical mission [25] and, as a novelist, produced several vehicles to broadcast her thesis. Although Wright designed a very grand house for her, which she liked but could not afford (‘Write more then’, he had said when she produced this excuse), she finally bought one designed by his erstwhile apprentice Richard Neutra. Wright disliked the film of the book partly because Gary Cooper was more famous than himself!

Wright was more worshipped than admired and more denigrated than worshipped. When Marilyn Monroe was a client her husband at the time, the playwright Arthur Miller, commented that Wright reminded him of WC Fields, [26] a harsh but plausible comparison. But his architecture was both admired and universally eulogised. This is how he would have wanted it; he only sought fame for the sake of his architecture. Like Wagner and his music before him - the composer was an equally reprehensible and ruthless reprobate, with a wife curiously akin to Olgivanna in her guardianship of the Master's reputation and role as high priestess of the cult after his death - Wright was convinced that his architecture, once produced, could stand on its own and would ensure its own eternal fame. All his behaviour outside architecture tells us nothing about his inner personality - he existed only as a manifestation of his work. It was a means to an end - as he was.



Originally published in Architectural Design, Vol 71 No 6 November 2001. Eds. Julia Chance and Torsten Schmiedeknecht, Fame and Architecture (London: Academy), pp 90-94.
With thanks to Mitzi Quirk, the estate of Howard Martin


1. F Gutheim (ed), Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Grosset & Dunlap (New York), 1941, p136.
2. Brendan Gill, Many Masks, Heinemann (London), 1988. Gill first introduces his notion of Wright’s masks on p 9.
3. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, Horizon Press (New York), third edition, 1977, p 163.
4. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, Meridian (New York), 1953, p 29 (transcript of a telecast on NBC, 17 May 1953).
5. Also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, it was passed in 1910 to create stiff penalties for the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. Aimed primarily to protect young women from prostitution, its terms also applied to cohabitation.
6. Ling Po, Taliesin Fellow, in conversation with the author, 1992.
7. F Gutheim (ed), op cit, p 136.
8. Gill, op cit, p 444.
9. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, pp 541-2.
10. ibid, p 105.
11. Patrick Meehan, The Master Architect, Wiley (New York), 1984, p 177.
12. John Lloyd Wright, My Father Who Is on Earth, Putnams (New York), 1946. 
13. Originally founded in 1929 as a way for Wright to escape his creditors by selling shares in himself. Its main enterprise was the establishment of a ‘School of Architecture’ run on an apprenticeship basis at Wright’s studio in Taliesin, Wisconsin. In practice they carried out large amounts of domestic, farm and building work as well as acting as free architectural assistants, all the time having to pay substantial fees for the privilege.

14. John Lloyd Wright, op cit, p 68.
15. Wright also used the title ‘Broadacre City: a new community plan’ for an article in Architectural Record in April 1935.
16. In the context of Wright's self-confessed Platonism (not a guarantee that he had even read Plato) it is interesting to consider Socrates’ analysis of love in the Symposium, into an ascending hierarchy, in modern terms, of sex, fame and art. As we shall see, this is very close to Wright’s own position.
17. Frank Lloyd Wright, A Testament, Bramhall House (New York), 1957, p 58. It is the name of a section in Part 1.
18. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, p 555.
19. For example, ibid, p 653.
20. Frank Lloyd Wright, Genius and the Mobocracy, Secker & Warburg (London), first English edition, 1972.
21. Meryle Secrest, Frank Lloyd Wrigh,. Chatto & Windus (London), 1992, p 553.
22. Gill, op cit, p 489.
23. Secrest, op cit, p 377.
24. Gill, op cit, pp 491-2.
25. Russian-born Ayn Rand espoused an extreme form of Nietzschean morality based on rational self-interest and unrestrained capitalism.
26. Gill, op cit, p 478.