Wright in Love

The most remarkable thing about the extensive literature on Frank Lloyd Wright—new additions to which flow forth season after season, even as the stream of other architecture books dwindles—is not its magnitude (871 titles, according to the Library of Congress catalog, twice the number of the building designs in his catalogue raisonné). More striking is the extreme disproportion in the coverage of different aspects of Wright’s seven-decade career.

In addition to many lavish Wright picture albums, there is no end of publications on individual houses by America’s greatest architect. The finest of those studies are by the architectural historian and critic Donald Hoffmann, whose magisterial Wright series has been issued by Dover since 1978. In particular, Hoffmann’s penetrating analyses of the Robie house of 1906–1910 in Chicago and Fallingwater of 1934–1937 in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, are unrivaled and likely to remain so. Such classic monographs have been vastly outnumbered by the self-aggrandizing and similar memoirs written by many patrons who commissioned late-career Wright houses, whether or not the buildings they paid for were of any special quality.

Then there are the Wrightian subthemes discussed in books such as Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954–1959, by the architectural journalists Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel. When the critic Herbert Muschamp’s brief but nonetheless disorganized treatment of the same subject, Man About Town: Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City, appeared in 1983, its subtitle reminded me of the ethnic-stereotype jokes about books with only one page: Italian War Heroes or Irish Teetotalers. Although one of Manhattan’s glories is Wright’s last masterpiece, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of 1943–1959 (which recently emerged from a meticulous restoration, mainly by Wank Adams Slavin Associates, in time for the building’s fiftieth anniversary next fall), he built little else in the city and its environs, and never lost his country-boy misgivings about the corrupting metropolis.

Nonetheless, as an architect who had few peers as a self-promoter, Wright was inexorably drawn to New York and its influential opinionmakers in publishing, broadcasting, and the arts. With each well-publicized visit, the architect burnished his carefully crafted image of a curmudgeonly embattled genius, as he dependably supplied reporters and cameramen with pithy quotes, clever photo-ops, and droll newsreel turns, like another incorrigible press hound of the period, George Bernard Shaw.

Hession and Pickrel are especially good at demonstrating how quickly and adeptly Wright adapted to new forms of mass communication as they emerged. The authors have rediscovered kinescopes and tapes of his frequent appearances on such early TV programs as Conversations with Elder Wise Men (in dialogue with the young Hugh Downs), The Today Show (with its first anchorman, Dave Garroway), and What’s My Line? (where a blindfolded Dorothy Kilgallen correctly guessed the mystery guest’s identity). After deftly fielding several aggressive questions from the host of The Mike Wallace Interview in 1957, Wright twitted his chain-smoking interlocutor about “that thing …

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Letters

Wright in Love’ February 12, 2009