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The Ken Burns stamp of documentary-making is all over a project worthy of its subject.

November 10, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

From the gleaming new Getty Center in Los Angeles to housing tracts all across the land, the question of whether art and functional design harmonize is in the eye of the beholder.

They merge fluidly in the subject of "Frank Lloyd Wright," a uniformly swell new PBS film by Ken Burns--who has redrawn the architecture of historical documentaries on TV--and his collaborator in the '90s, Lynn Novick.

Having a three-part moniker added yards to Frank Lloyd Wright's stature, as many of us on the pavement viewed it from below. So naturally we grew up assuming he was every bit the towering genius he was said to be, though never knowing quite why or what it was that made him such a luminous icon.

This two-part biography fills that knowledge gap, and then some.

Others will have to tell you how close it comes, if at all, to capturing the true personal essence and professional influence of Wright, who by reputation continues to stand tallest in the pantheon of American architects nearly four decades after his death.

Whatever that verdict, "Frank Lloyd Wright" plays beautifully as a film, one that celebrates architecture and weaves through its subject's mystique the way he wove his famed Taliesin estates and Fallingwater house into their landscapes.

It's a remarkable story: First comes the young man who preps with admired Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, then goes on to achieve his own success (and to claim credit for some of Sullivan's). Then in middle age he appears washed up and out of date, only to somehow redefine himself and save the best for the finale--the last two decades of his life, in fact, becoming his most productive as an architect.

There are documentaries, and there are documentaries. At a time when cable's A&E network rolls out its bolted-together biographies on a conveyor belt, one mark of a handcrafted Burns documentary is its capacity to give vibrant, burnished life to static objects. He did so in earlier films on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. And this one is no exception: It spans not only Wright's deep valleys--including his various scandals and the bizarre murder of the love of his life, Mamah Cheney--but also profiles the buildings that lifted him so far above the crowd and onto his present rung of history.

Thus, Wright's Prairie style is here. The "Usonian" houses, which he designed for the masses he later dismissed snobbishly as a "mobocracy," are here. The Johnson Wax Administration Building, with its elevated lily pads in a cavernous space bathed in diffused light, is here. New York's Guggenheim Museum, standing like a spaceship about to zoom off between two lookalike urban buildings, is here.

As are Wright's other renowned creations--and the colorful stories behind them, such as the great master drawing up Pennsylvania's fabulous Fallingwater--which extends over the top of a waterfall almost like a balcony--in only a few hours, just ahead of the arrival of the mogul who commissioned it.

Don't expect Architectural Digest, though.

Central casting couldn't have improved on Wright, an autocrat whose doughy jowls and waves of creamy hair complemented the cape, floppy ties and porkpie hat he wore like a flamboyant Barrymore.

He was arrogant, we hear, his ego rising every bit as high as the "glassified" Manhattan skyscrapers he denounced. But that arrogance was a cornucopia from which flowed the revolutionary ideas that made him the "greatest of all American architects," says narrator Edward Herrmann.

Not that being great as an architect made him a great man, the late writer Brendan Gill notes. "I hated him, of course," recalls another great architect, Philip Johnson. "But that's only normal when a man is so great. It's a combination of hatred, envy, contempt and misunderstanding. All of which gets mixed up with his genius."

A genius that was messy, by all accounts, as we witness Wright surrounding himself with his own tempestuous clutter. His own life story was one of his best creations, says architecture critic Paul Goldenberger.

Married three times, he abandoned his first wife, Kitty, when he was 42, leaving her and their six children with a mound of bills, just as his own father had deserted his family. And by his own reckoning, Wright himself had no paternal instincts, admitting once to having deeper feelings for his buildings than for his children.

He also lived beyond his means and wrapped himself in luxuries he couldn't afford; the addiction to deep debt that's described here motivated some of his greatest creativity.

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