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Book review: “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Ada Louise Huxtable

Sometime, apparently in the mid-1890s, Daniel Burnham set up a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright to present him with an extraordinary offer.

At the time, Burnham was basking in acclaim as the manager of Chicago’s wildly successful 1893 World’s Fair. He was the head of one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms, and at the center of social and economic might.

Indeed, in 1909, he would be the central figure in a group of power brokers drafting the Plan of Chicago, a pioneering breakthrough in urban design and vision.

Wright was not yet 30, growing in fame as the designer of homes in what became known as the Prairie style.

“Burnham offered to send Wright to Paris for the three-year course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, since Wright had no formal architecture education, and then to the American Academy in Rome for another two years,” writes Ada Louise Huxtable.

“He would pay all expenses, and take care of Wright’s wife and children during that time. On Wright’s return, Burnham promised him a partnership in his firm. it was an amazing offer, carrying a guarantee of a prestigious career.

“Wright refused.”

It is easy, from reading Huxtable’s short but meaty 2004 biography “Frank Lloyd Wright,” to understand why.

Wright wanted and expected honor — even adoration — from the mainstream establishment, but he didn’t want to dance to the mainstream’s tune. He couldn’t.

He didn’t play well with others.

Many artists create a persona, as Wright did, of the loner against the rest of the world. Wright, like very few others, had the genius for individual creativity and vision to live up to that image.

“There was always,” writes Huxtable, “a sense of amused self-knowledge behind the belligerent stance. One famous story tells of Wright being called to testify in a court case. Asked to identify himself, he announced that he was the world’s greatest architect.

“When asked how he could make such a statement, he replied, with visible enjoyment and a gleam in his eye, that he had no choice, he was under oath.”

In opposing the forces of conservatism, which is to say, the powers that be, Wright was quick to trumpet democracy.

Yet, Huxtable writes, “Democracy…was a relative thing. At the same time that he celebrated the worth of the individual, he invented the term ‘mobocracy’ for the anonymous, unenlightened masses unaware of his views. As he once explained wickedly to a Taliesin visitor, ‘We’re very democratic here — when I’m hungry, everybody eats.’ ”

And, although Wright acted as if ideas sprang fully formed from his forehead, he did not live in a bubble.

Huxtable — who based her 251-page book on the voluminous scholarly works on Wright and his buildings — makes it clear at several points how her subject soaked up all of the new trends and insights in the international architecture world, synthesized them in his mind and them came up with designs that were wholly his own.

This happened, she shows, throughout his very long career, one that concluded with his death at the age of 92 as one of his masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum, was nearing completion.

So, to think, as Burnham did, that Wright could set aside his monumental ego in order to win entry into the inner sanctum of the rich and powerful — well, it was unthinkable.

But it does lead one to wonder how the history of architecture might have been different if such a protean mind as Wright’s had been at the center of things, influencing in a direct way the designs of many, many buildings.

Much, of course, would have been lost if Wright had been building for a community of rich people instead of for individual enlightened clients. But how much might have been gained?

And can you imagine what the visionary Plan of Chicago would have looked like if Wright had joined Burnham in shaping it?

And how Chicago would look today?

Patrick T. Reardon

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