In 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was supervising two of his most original projects, New York's Guggenheim Museum and Beth Sholom Synagogue in suburban Philadelphia. Two different geometries were used by the then 92-year-old architect to radical effect. To the end, Wright was uncompromising, idiosyncratic and inventive. He was unusual among American artists for having survived his early celebrity and continued his creative work for nearly a century.
Brendan Gill's "Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright" is an admiring but not uncritical appraisal of the architect's long career. Gill, 50 years a staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker, has had a continuing interest in American architecture. As part of this commitment, he recently revived Lewis Mumford's "The Sky Line" column for the magazine. As a former theater critic, he is sensitive to Wright's capricious use of persona to dramatize himself and encourage a project forward to completion. His book is a useful addition to Henry-Russell Hitchcock's "In the Nature of Materials," Norris Kelly Smith's incisive "Frank Lloyd Wright" and Robert Twombly's interpretive biography, "Frank Lloyd Wright." Gill is less scholarly than his predecessors, but he is more sensitive than they to the fustian rhetoric of his subject, whom he quotes at length, to offer a glimpse of a man impossible to know fully.
Setting words against deeds, we get a strong sense of how difficult it is in America to practice the art of architecture. No matter how sympathetic the client, Wright always struggled to gain more from the commission than money or time would allow. Wright dramatized himself to insulate the work from architecture's more practical role. So completely are myths entwined here with fact that any biographer is too often at the mercy of his subject or those in charge of keeping the legend. The architect frustrates attempts to place him within a tradition. All his life, he disclaimed influence, even his obvious debts to Austria and Japan at the turn of the century, and argued that he was his own school.
Wright raised to principle the particulars of his own experience. Having dropped out of the University of Wisconsin as a freshman, he distrusted formal education all his life and preferred an apprentice system where he had complete control. After his initial career of 20 years in Chicago, most notably in the office of Louis Sullivan and later on his own in nearby Oak Park, he installed himself as chief designer and guru of his own school, the Taliesin Fellowship. First in Wisconsin near where he was born and later in Arizona, Wright attracted young men and women willing to study with the master at a fee. Many stayed on forever lending their own ambition to his. Always in debt and ever able to charm, he was able to get his work built. Late in life, Wright explained to Gill, "I had to make a noise in the world, in order to gain as much of the world's attention as I could. Otherwise, I would have had a lot of work on paper and only a little of it coming out of the ground in bricks and mortar."
Making a noise came easily to him. He wore his hair long, fancied theatrical capes and drove fast cars. A champion of hearth and home, he left his young family and thriving career in 1909 to run off with a client's wife. Gill lets us see how the exuberance of the life transformed the work. Wright was never content to replicate or to institutionalize what he had invented. Like Jefferson's Monticello, the architect's homes, first at Oak Park and then at Taliesin North and West, were sites of constant experimentation. Monuments of his early career, such as the Larkin Building (Buffalo, 1904), Unity Temple (Oak Park, 1906), Robie House (Chicago, 1909) and the Imperial Hotel (Tokyo, 1916-'22), reveal his uncanny ability to conceptualize a project three-dimensionally and then build it in the most challenging form available. The predominant horizontality of the early work created an uncommon freedom of interior space. His reputation as one of our greatest architects would have been sustained had he never built anything after 40. But he continued to experiment.