His is the one name recognized even by people who know nothing about architecture. They know about Frank Lloyd Wright because of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, or they have heard about his revolutionary Prairie School houses or his ahead-of-their-time Usonian designs. They have seen pictures of Fallingwater or have glimpsed the Hollyhock House in some of their favorite movies. Baby boomers may have soft-focus memories of an aging dandy appearing on television and holding forth on the subject of design with the assurance of the inventor of architecture itself.
Though he died in 1959, Wright is still the architect who is referenced more than any other, living or dead. But as soon as his name comes up, someone jostles to the front of the conversation to put him down. His roofs were improperly supported, they say. His buildings leak. They waste energy, are maintenance nightmares, have no garages, inadequate closets and as for the kitchens….Critics roll their eyes, telling of Wright’s many faults.
In fact, knocking Frank Lloyd Wright is a well-loved pastime. But among those who have experienced his buildings, there is admiration and high regard. So what accounts for the negative associations with Wright’s name?
John H. Waters, Preservation Programs Manager at Chicago’s Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, says that it is always fun for an underdog to stick pins into a more elevated reputation.
“The fact that he is our most well-known architect makes him a target,” Waters says. “And, he certainly created his own persona. But,” he adds, “Many modern 20th century architects struggled with the same issues as Wright. Their designs were audacious and, often, technology had to catch up.”
The point is echoed and expanded upon by Jeff Goodman, Vice President of Communication & Partnerships for The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was always a bold experimentalist, pushing the limits of what was possible at the time. Even today, our technology is just beginning to catch up with some of his forward-looking ideas,” he says.
“The true historic innovators throughout history will attest that the only way to break through to the next big idea is to take big risks, and to be willing to build on failure to find success. Wright himself said, ‘One should never dwell on one’s failures. You should think about them only enough to gain the wisdom from them that they will afford.’”
In the end, Wright’s stature only grows, Goodman says, and naysayers’ voices are hardly the dominant ones.
“Today, Wright is remembered for being an innovator who changed the way we build and live, a quality reinforced this past summer by the designation of 8 Wright sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, affirming his place in the development and evolution of modern architecture during the first half of the 20th century, and continue to inspire architecture today.”