#112 Frank Lloyd Wright

Summary Notes


In "Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright," Paul Hendrickson delves into the tumultuous life of America's architectural titan, Frank Lloyd Wright. Born just after the Civil War and passing away in the Space Age, Wright's 91-year journey was marked by both monumental success and profound tragedy. Despite revolutionizing American architecture, Wright faced personal catastrophe when a servant murdered seven people at his home, including his beloved partner, Mamah Borthwick. Wright's own scandalous affair with Borthwick had already made headlines, as both had abandoned their spouses and children, causing national uproar. Yet, it was Wright's unyielding will, his spiritual connection to his work, and his relentless self-belief that propelled him through hardships and allowed him to rise from the ashes of his own life's ruins. Wright's late-career resurgence, producing a third of his life's work in his final decade, exemplifies his unquenchable drive and the indomitable spirit that shaped his legacy.

Summary Notes

Early Life and Personal Catastrophe

  • Frank Lloyd Wright was born shortly after the Civil War and died after the launch of Sputnik.
  • At age 47, he faced a personal disaster when a servant murdered seven people, including his lover, Maima Borthwick.
  • Wright's wife hoped he would return to his family, even as he lived with Maima.
  • In 1909, Wright left his practice and family to go to Europe with Maima, causing a scandal.

"You. Frank Lloyd Wright was born two years after the end of the civil war and died two years after the launch of Sputnik. 91 years and ten months on this earth. In the approximate middle of that near century span, when he was 47, the greatest architect America had yet produced suffered a personal catastrophe that would have destroyed a man of lesser will and lesser ego."

This quote introduces Wright's lifespan, highlighting a significant personal tragedy that occurred during his life, which reflects his resilience and strong ego.

Wright's Scandalous Affair and Its Impact

  • Wright revolutionized American architecture before leaving his family and practice for Maima Borthwick.
  • The affair with Maima, who left her own family, caused local, regional, and national outrage.
  • Maima's gruesome murder was a significant event in Wright's life and is heavily examined by biographers and historians.

"Five years before, in the fall of 1909, having already revolutionized american architecture and produced what other artists might have considered a lifetime's worth of work, Wright had abandoned his practice and gone off to Europe with Maima Borthwick."

This quote provides context to Wright's decision to abandon his successful career and family for Maima, which led to a scandal that affected his personal and professional life.

Wright's Philosophy and Architectural Career

  • Wright believed his buildings grew from the inside out, craving light.
  • He produced over 1100 designs, including various types of buildings, predominantly houses.
  • Approximately half of his designs were realized, with about 400 still existing.

"One of Wright's lifelong dictums was that his buildings were like plants and trees that grow from inside out and come up from the earth, craving the light."

This quote encapsulates Wright's architectural philosophy, showing his organic approach to design, which is central to understanding his work and its relationship with the environment.

The Purpose of the Book "Plagued by Fire"

  • The book is not a conventional biography but a collection of selected moments from Wright's life.
  • It aims to provide a non-linear narrative moving backward and forward in time, from Wright's birth to his death.

"This book isn't intended as a Frank Lloyd Wright biography, not in any conventional sense. Rather, this book is meant to be a kind of schenectady with selected pockets in a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life."

The quote explains the book's unconventional approach to Wright's biography, focusing on specific moments to represent his entire life, rather than a traditional, chronological account.

Wright's Personality and Ego

  • Wright was known for his showmanship, obsessiveness, and self-belief, often compared to figures like PT Barnum, Enzo Ferrari, and Kanye West.
  • His ego is acknowledged as both a hindrance and a driver of his success.
  • Wright's confidence in his abilities was a key aspect of his character, influencing his work and public image.

"The way I would describe him is like a cross between a PT Barnum level of showmanship with the obsessiveness of his craft, like an Enzo Ferrari, and the arrogance, vanity, self belief of like a Kanye west."

This quote describes Wright's complex personality, drawing parallels with other famous figures known for their strong egos and significant contributions to their fields.

Wright's Legacy and Influence

  • Wright's designs were groundbreaking and continue to influence American architecture.
  • Despite a period of poverty and ridicule, his self-belief never wavered.
  • His most productive years were from age 77 to 92, demonstrating his lifelong dedication to architecture.

"His last 15 years of life, from the time he turns, let's say, 77 to 92, let's say the time he was 80 years old, from 80 to 89, was the most productive decade of his life."

This quote highlights the extraordinary productivity of Wright's later years, emphasizing his enduring passion for architecture and his ability to produce significant work well into old age.

Wright's Approach to Architecture and Life

  • Wright had a single-minded pursuit of his potential and was nonconformist in both his personal and professional life.
  • He believed in the importance of focus and isolation, often separating himself from the outside world to cultivate his ideas.
  • Wright's work and life were deeply intertwined, and he encouraged critical appraisal of both.

"He believed his clients were privileged to be able to work with him. That reminds me, the reason I brought up the Pt Barnum Enzo Ferrari Kanye combination, because Kanye famously said that his greatest regret in life was never being able to see himself perform live. That's something I could see Frank Lloyd Wright saying."

This quote illustrates Wright's self-perception and the high regard he had for his own work, which was integral to his approach to architecture and his interactions with clients and the public.

Johnson Wax Building Design

  • Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Johnson Wax Building in the 1930s.
  • The building's interior is considered unique and revolutionary for its time.
  • Built between 1936 and 1939, the design remains impressive even by modern standards.

"One of his most famous designs is the Johnson wax building." "That was built in the 1930s."

The quote highlights the Johnson Wax Building as one of Frank Lloyd Wright's notable works and emphasizes its construction era, which is significant due to the design's modernity for that period.

Client-Architect Relationship

  • Wright's relationship with his clients was dynamic and could shift from him working for them to them feeling like they were working for him.
  • The cost of Wright's projects often escalated beyond initial estimates, reflecting his non-frugal lifestyle.

"At the beginning, frank was working for me. Then his costs kept rising. We were working together, and then finally his costs kept going. I eventually was working for him."

This quote illustrates the evolving relationship between Wright and his clients as project costs increased, highlighting Wright's disregard for budget constraints.

Wright's Personality and Morality

  • Wright was known for his showmanship and malleable approach to the truth, which included pathological lying.
  • His autobiography is considered unreliable due to numerous factual discrepancies.
  • Wright's personality was complex, embodying contradictory traits like bravado and pain, joy and sadness.

"Everything in life is malleable, including the truth." "He possessed a lot of what we would consider opposite traits simultaneously."

These quotes describe Wright's philosophy on truth and his multifaceted personality, which combined traits that are often seen as mutually exclusive.

Early Life and Ambition

  • Wright had immense self-confidence and ambition from a young age.
  • Stories suggest his mother intended him to be an architect, placing images of great buildings in his nursery.
  • Despite a lack of detailed information about his early life, his self-belief and ambition were evident.

"All he really had when he started off, he leaves Wisconsin to go to Chicago to build his architectural career, was a complete faith in himself."

The quote emphasizes Wright's self-confidence as a driving force behind his pursuit of an architectural career in Chicago, a hub for building and design at the time.

Family and Selfishness

  • Wright prioritized his work over his family, resulting in estrangement from his children.
  • Despite the harm caused by his abandonment, Wright was solely focused on fulfilling his potential.
  • He justified his actions by claiming to live his truth, a mindset that the speaker finds unethical and selfish.

"Fatherhood, question mark. If so, I seemed born without it, and yet a building was a child."

This quote from Wright himself reveals his detachment from his biological children and his deeper connection to his architectural creations, which he considered his true offspring.

Education and Autodidactism

  • Wright had minimal formal education, attending college only briefly and not graduating high school.
  • Despite this, he became one of the most successful architects, demonstrating the value of self-education.

"Frank Lloyd Wright barely attended college at all."

The quote underscores Wright's limited formal education, highlighting his success as a largely self-taught individual.

Obsession with Control

  • Wright exhibited obsessive control over his work, even to the extent of rearranging furniture in homes he designed after they were inhabited.
  • His control extended to the aesthetics of the living spaces he created.

"He liked letting himself into his houses to begin rearranging the furniture while the owners were out."

This quote illustrates Wright's extreme level of control and his inability to relinquish ownership of his designs, even after they were sold.

Architectural Philosophy

  • Wright's designs emphasized openness and flow, challenging the closed-off Victorian style of his time.
  • He connected his architectural philosophy to broader concepts of freedom and democracy, relating the design of homes to the American spirit.

"The interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright houses are about many things, but at the center of each one is the intertwined idea of openness and flow."

The quote captures Wright's core architectural principle of creating open, flowing spaces, which he believed were essential for a free and democratic lifestyle.

Financial Mismanagement

  • Wright consistently lived beyond his means, resulting in financial instability.
  • His lavish spending on luxury items often led to debt and conflict with creditors.

"So long as we had the luxuries, the necessities could pretty well take care of themselves."

This quote reflects Wright's dismissive attitude toward financial responsibility, prioritizing luxury over practicality.

Mentorship and Career Advancement

  • Louis Sullivan, one of the greatest architects and the father of the American skyscraper, was Wright's mentor and recognized his talent.
  • Wright's rapid career advancement was notable, but his disregard for contractual agreements led to ethical concerns.

"Wright had gone to work for his beloved master, the great, gifted, prideful Riddlefield, and ultimately tragic Louis Sullivan."

The quote indicates the significant influence of Louis Sullivan on Wright's career and the respect Wright had for his mentor.

Impact and Legacy

  • Wright's work and personality left a lasting impact on architecture and those around him.
  • His friend's admiration highlights Wright's exceptional talent and the expectation of his future success.

"You are the thing you do."

This succinct quote from Wright's friend encapsulates Wright's identity being inseparable from his work and contributions to architecture.

Dedication and Sacrifice in Pursuit of Craft

  • Frank Lloyd Wright and Enzo Ferrari shared an intense dedication to their respective crafts, architecture and race car building.
  • Enzo Ferrari's life was consumed by his love for race cars, and he experienced personal loss with the death of his son, Dino, at the age of 24.
  • Wright's friend recognized his potential for success due to his natural talent and willingness to engage in hard, concentrated work.
  • Wright's dedication led to a lack of prioritization in building relationships with anyone but his craft, leading to a burnout and a long disappearance.

"Not everybody would pay the price. And concentrated hard work and human sacrifice that you'll make."

The quote emphasizes the unique commitment Wright had to his work, which involved personal sacrifices that many others may not be willing to make.

Ed Thorpe's Balanced Life as a Contrasting Example

  • Ed Thorpe, author of "A Man for All Markets," is admired for mastering life by maintaining a balance between his professional success and personal life.
  • Thorpe was successful and innovative but also valued time with his family and personal interests, turning down opportunities that would compromise this balance.
  • The speaker aspires to emulate Thorpe's balanced approach to life, valuing work, family, fitness, and learning.

"I feel like Ed Thorpe. In his book, man for all markets, I think Ed Thorpe mastered life because he had the balance."

This quote highlights the speaker's admiration for Ed Thorpe's ability to achieve a harmonious balance in life, which is seen as a model to strive for.

The Impact of Frank Lloyd Wright's Choices on His Family

  • Frank Lloyd Wright's youngest son, Robert, wrote essays reflecting on his distant relationship with his father.
  • Robert's writings reveal his deliberate rejection of his father's narcissism, arrogance, and reckless ways.
  • The relationship between Frank and Robert was characterized by a lack of real connection, with Frank being affectionate but ultimately a stranger to his son.

"The sad truth is that we were friendly strangers, and almost any of his favorite clients could tell you more about him than I can."

Robert's reflection demonstrates the emotional distance between him and his father, highlighting the personal sacrifices Frank made for his career.

The Concept of Intellectual Inheritance and Shared Ideas

  • Frank Lloyd Wright learned from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, the idea of creating American architecture for Americans.
  • Wright is credited for ideas that did not originate with him, which is a common theme in the study of innovators and founders.
  • The speaker believes that no one truly owns ideas, and it is normal to be influenced by others and build upon their concepts.
  • This concept of shared intellectual inheritance is seen in the influence of figures like Edwin Land and Sol Price on later entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Jim Senegal.

"No one owns ideas. So Frank is learning an idea from Sullivan that he takes and runs with."

The quote underlines the speaker's perspective that ideas are not owned by individuals but are shared and developed across generations, as exemplified by Wright's relationship with Sullivan.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Self-Bet and Personal Evolution

  • Wright turned down a significant opportunity from another famous architect, Daniel Burnham, to pursue his own vision.
  • His life was marked by a series of dramatic events, including a midlife crisis that led to a complete reset of his life and values.
  • Wright's later life was characterized by overcoming personal tragedy and surpassing his previous accomplishments.

"Wright turned him down. He would stake his chances on his own visions."

This quote captures Wright's decision to reject a secure path in favor of pursuing his own unique architectural vision, reflecting his commitment to his craft and individuality.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Midlife Crisis and Transformation

  • At nearly 50 years old, Wright felt dissatisfied with his life's trajectory and decided to make a radical change.
  • His actions during this period caused significant pain to his family, but he pursued what he believed was his true desire.
  • The speaker reflects on the importance of asking oneself, "What do I desire?" and aligning one's life with the answer to that question.

"I wanted to go away. Everything, personal or otherwise, bore heavily on me. What I wanted, I did not know."

This quote from Wright himself expresses his profound discontent and the existential questioning that led to his decision to change his life, despite the consequences.

The Integrity of One's Own Mind

  • Wright's decision to leave his conventional life was driven by his need to stay true to himself, even at the cost of hurting others.
  • The speaker contemplates the importance of living authentically and making choices that align with one's true desires.
  • Alan Watts' quote about pursuing what one loves is used to underscore the importance of authenticity and the folly of living a life that is not aligned with one's passions.

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

This quote, which Wright wanted read at his funeral, encapsulates his philosophy of valuing personal integrity and authenticity above all else.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Legacy and Influence

  • Wright is recognized as a radical, original thinker whose work challenged traditional notions of beauty and architecture.
  • The speaker expresses a personal fascination with architecture and acknowledges the influence of Wright's work.
  • Wright's story is seen as a testament to the idea that one's influence and ideas are part of a larger continuum of shared human knowledge and creativity.

"Frank Lloyd Wright is a strange, delightful soul, a radical, original thinker working out his ideas."

The quote describes Wright's unique character and his commitment to exploring and expressing his ideas through his work, which has left a lasting impact on the field of architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Architectural Philosophy

  • Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural style is viewed as unconventional and deviates from traditional aesthetics.
  • He holds firm to his beliefs and demonstrates a strong sense of personal integrity in his work.
  • Wright is portrayed as a complex figure, both capable of self-examination and haunted by his life experiences.

"Much of its buildings to me, is too bizarre and away from tradition to be beautiful, but he has big ideas and is gloriously ruthless in sticking to what he believes."

This quote encapsulates the speaker's perception of Wright's architectural style as being distinct and nontraditional, yet underpinned by conviction and grand ideas.

"At times, shame filled and self justifying. This letter would fly in the face of anyone who wishes to think of Frank Lloyd Wright only as an egoist, incapable of self examination or incapable of looking back or regretful reflection."

The speaker highlights Wright's ability for introspection and reflection, challenging the notion that he was solely ego-driven.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Professional Struggles and Resilience

  • Wright faced professional criticism, with some viewing him more as a theorist than a practicing architect due to a perceived lack of tangible work.
  • Despite hardships, Wright's self-belief remained unwavering, and he used criticism as motivation to produce some of his best work after the age of 60.

"As an architectural theorist, Mr. Wright has no superior, but as an architect, he has little to contribute for comparison."

This quote reflects the harsh criticism Wright received, suggesting that his practical contributions as an architect were insufficient compared to his theoretical expertise.

Personal Turmoil and Professional Triumphs

  • Wright's life included tumultuous relationships, legal issues, and financial struggles.
  • He overcame these challenges and continued to innovate in architecture, founding the Taliesin Fellowship and producing significant work in his later years.

"Frank Lloyd Wright got catastrophically involved with a bad morphine addict named Miriam Noel... Suffered Taliesin burning down again... Spent a couple nights in jail in downtown Minneapolis on charges of moral turpitude."

This quote outlines a series of personal and professional setbacks Wright faced, emphasizing the chaotic and challenging periods of his life.

The Taliesin Fellowship and Wright's Revival

  • The Taliesin Fellowship was an innovative educational model that combined learning with practical work.
  • Wright's establishment of the fellowship helped him financially and marked the beginning of a prolific period in his career.

"Why not start a work school for aspiring architects who would learn at the master's feet, all the while milking his cows and chopping his wood and painting his barns?"

This quote describes the concept behind the Taliesin Fellowship, highlighting Wright's creative solution to financial hardship through the integration of education and labor.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Architectural Legacy

  • Wright's later work, including the Johnson Wax Building and Fallingwater, solidified his reputation as a master architect.
  • His ability to blend different architectural styles and ideas demonstrated his adaptability and innovative spirit.

"Historians would one day say that if Frank Lloyd Wright had conceived nothing but these three buildings... it would have been enough to secure his lasting place."

This quote acknowledges the significance of Wright's later work and its impact on his enduring legacy in the field of architecture.

Wright's Early Life and Family Background

  • Frank Lloyd Wright's childhood was marked by his parents' tumultuous relationship and his mother's mental health struggles.
  • His mother's determination and belief in him instilled a strong will and inner strength that influenced his resilience and success.

"It must nonetheless be acknowledged that she gave her son something in terms of a will and inner strength that seems unquantifiable, and the world reaped the benefit."

This quote reflects on the complex influence of Wright's mother on his character, suggesting that her support and belief contributed to his determination and architectural achievements.

Wright's Personal Qualities and Philosophy

  • Frank Lloyd Wright possessed an unwavering will, a profound belief in his talent, and a lifelong dedication to his craft.
  • He viewed architecture as a spiritual and artistic pursuit, emphasizing the importance of a spiritual quality in great art.

"His decisive inner will, his inability to ever give up or to quit, his unbelievable faith in himself, his dedication to his craft."

This quote summarizes Wright's personal attributes that contributed to his resilience and success, highlighting his determination and self-belief.

Conclusion and Reflections on Frank Lloyd Wright

  • Frank Lloyd Wright's life and work are characterized by complexity, innovation, and a refusal to succumb to adversity.
  • The speaker expresses admiration for Wright's traits and acknowledges the enigmatic nature of his personality, even after extensive study.

"I'm at the end and I still feel... I don't really know who he was. I know traits and things that I want to copy and I want to emulate and things I don't want to copy or emulate, but he is very much a mystery even after being covered to such degree by so many different people."

This quote conveys the speaker's mixed feelings of admiration and bewilderment towards Wright, recognizing his unique and multifaceted character.

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