My Book World
I missed out on all the instruction I needed to write my high school research paper because I was in the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. When I finally did make up the paper, I wrote it on Frank Lloyd Wright. I did not keep the graded copy, and I can only guess that I perhaps did not narrow down my topic enough, but I do recall being very enthusiastic about my research. The great architect had only been gone about six years, and my childhood fascination with him fired up my ambition. I was happy finally to read his autobiography divided into five books, each one perhaps written at the end of a particular era.
Some people talented in one area seem to be good at virtually everything they attempt, and some talented people seem to be natural writers. Frank Lloyd Wright appears to be both. He is not only architect but artist, chef, sommelier, pianist, and humanitarian. Book One is titled “Family,” written in the third person, about his childhood and the family members who made it a magical one growing up in Wisconsin. One even gets a good feel for his Welsh ancestry. He begins a book-long examination of “sentiment” vs. “sentimentality.” In this passage he speaks of a summer night just after his father has read to him from Poe’s The Raven: “Sometimes, after all had gone to bed he would hear that nocturnal rehearsal and the walking—was it evermore?—would fill a tender boyish heart with sadness until a head would bury itself in the pillow to shut it out” (50). The passage is moving but contains no “sentimentality” (for Wright that may mean the vestiges of
In Book Two, “Fellowship,” Wright begins to write in first person, a young adult looking for and finding work with one of the best architectural firms in Chicago. Either a latent or inherent anti-Semitism seems to influence his thinking at this time as he works alongside others in a crowded drafting room: “Next table to mine Jean Agnas, a clean-faced Norseman. To the right Eisendrath—apparently stupid. Jewish. Behind me to the left Ottenheimer—alert, apparently bright. Jew too. Turned around to survey the group. Isbell, Jew? Gaylord, no—not. Weydert, Jew undoubtedly. Directly behind, Weatherwax. Couldn’t make him out. In the corner Andresen—Swedish. Several more Jewish faces. Of course—I thought, because Mr. Adler [his boss] himself must be a Jew” (96). Why the preoccupation with this issue? It may be part of his upbringing, the fact that he was born in 1867. At any rate, he does begin to build a fellowship of young architects to whom he serves as mentor.
A long section, Book Three, covers his life with at least one spouse and a second one in the wings, the building (and burning) of Taliesin I and II in Wisconsin. Wright moves fairly smoothly back and forth through time, including stints in Tokyo, where he builds the Imperial Hotel, innovating construction that will withstand the many earthquakes the region is prone to having. Once again, even though Wright is fond of Asian art and culture, a certain racist language mars the portrayal of his otherwise humanitarian point of view, using terms like “slant and sloe eyes,” (197) even when he may believe he’s being complimentary: “Decorous black eyes slyly slant upon you from every direction as the little artful beings move noiselessly about, grace and refinement in every movement” (209).
By Book Four, FLW is building Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, once again working hard to fit his work into the landscape instead of forcing a structure upon it, always preferring “horizontal” to “vertical” buildings of his Usonian vision. One wonders if even the US wouldn’t run out of land if we built everything horizonal.
Book Five seems to be a potpourri of ideas from slamming youth who do not want to work as hard as he did in his youth, Beethoven as a metaphor, a recapitulation of his family ancestry, the introduction of his idea of “gravity heat,” in which, instead of steam registers, heated liquid is piped through concrete floors, and because heat rises, rooms are heated more efficiently. Finally, though, in spite of passages of pomposity and dense abstractions, FLW still remains an interesting figure. I’ve never had a bucket list, per se, but if I were to put one item on it, it would be to visit as many as Wright’s remaining structures as possible. They are that good, that interesting.
One sad note: this Barnes and Noble edition has (by my count) at least twenty typographical errors of varying kinds from misspelled words to words omitted, to subject-verb agreement, to using commas when periods were needed. Not cool, B&N.
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