Frank Lloyd Wright’s Feisty Critique of Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Education, and the NYC Skyline
By Maria Popova
Frank Lloyd Wright may be one of history’s greatest architects, but he was also a source of endlessly quotable wit, timeless wisdom on education, and a lesser-known but exceptionally talented graphic artist. Above all, however, he was man of invariably strong opinions, always unapologetic in his convictions and unafraid to challenge even the most sacrosanct of dogmas.
In Conversations with Artists (public library) — writer and public intellectual Selden Rodman’s fantastic 1957 anthology, which also gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality shortly before the artist’s death — Wright unleashes the full force of his opinionation on some of his architectural elite peers, the disconnect between education and culture, and the trouble with the Manhattan skyline.
When asked about his opinion of Le Corbusier’s epoch-making church on the French-Swiss border, Wright scoffs:
An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?
Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House gets the even shorter end of the stick:
Is it Philip? … And is it architecture?
He later elaborates on his contempt:
Philip Johnson is a highbrow. A highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity. His house is a box of glass — not shelter. The meaning of the word shelter includes privacy.
It looks as though we live pretty soft here, doesn’t it? We don’t. You’d be surprised at the amount of work that goes on… It’s never work though, is it, when you’re doing anything organic?
Rodman visits with Wright again some weeks later and finds him, at the time in his late eighties, “very handsome,” dressed in a “pink shirt with a white collar and a striped tie, knotted at the throat, leaving the ends folded back artist-fashion fin de siècle.” The architect is in an especially feisty mood that day. His first target is Gotham’s skyline:
The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity. … Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.
He takes the same sword to the institutions of formal education, for which he famously eviscerated throughout his life:
The universities are medieval antiquities, too. They’ll never get culture through education. … The common man will never get it. He is the enemy of culture. Culture is made for him — but in spite of him, because he believes only what he sees, and he sees only what he can put his hands on. We’ve missed culture somewhere along the way.
On a subsequent visit, Rodman finds Wright in a much more amenable mood, possibly due to the company of a lady he was having tea with — and no average lady but the revered critic and champion of art Emily Genauer. Rodman, tickled by Wright’s good humor, decides to ask him whether there was any truth to the legend that he once absentmindedly went to see a client in his pajama bottoms. The answer bespeaks both the artifice of pop culture myths and the commanding diva-disposition that only creative geniuses can afford:
Not a word of truth. In the first place, whatever I am, I am always well dressed. In the second place, I don’t go to clients. They come to me.
Wright then returns to the subject of the disconnect between culture and education:
All culture is indigenous, as distinguished from education.
When Rodman asks him how America is to get an indigenous culture if it has failed to do so in two centuries, Wright responds with a beautiful metaphor from botany:
The same way the Dutch developed the delphinium. They started with the larkspur, and kept cultivating the roots until they had something better. They didn’t start from scratch. They were smart enough to start with something humble. Until they knew its nature they weren’t in a position to improve on it. It’s the same with culture. Until this lesson is learned we’ll get nowhere.
When Rodman suggests that perhaps we’re learning it since our taste appears to be improving, Wright retorts:
Taste [isn’t] enough … taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.
The conversation concludes by circling back to New York. In 1943, Wright had been commissioned to design the new building for the city’s legendary Guggenheim Museum. He would die several weeks before the museum’s completion in 1959. Rodman asks him whether he would’ve taken a similar commission had the project been a skyscraper rather than a museum, and Wright responds in the negative with his characteristic clarity of conviction:
It would be immoral to add to the congestion of this already hopeless city. … The only way to save this city is to take buildings out of it, not to put more in, and of course the latter is what they are doing.”
He ends the conversation by citing an entertaining encounter with media mogul Henry Luce, in which he surprised Luce by referring to himself, in contrast to “the old professionals,” as “the oldest amateur.” (Coincidentally, the following year, Wright coined his famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.'”)
Conversations with Artists is priceless in its entirety, featuring revealing tête-à-têtes with such creative icons (alas, predominantly male) as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg. Complement it with Anaïs Nin’s lyrical account of meeting Wright’s son.
Published August 15, 2013