Having described himself during a courtroom appearance as ”the world’s greatest architect,” Frank Lloyd Wright was asked whether this wasn’t a bit immodest. He replied, ”Well, I was under oath, wasn’t I?” In dealing with the world, from tycoons to shop clerks, Wright drew upon an inexhaustible fund of slightly mischievous arrogance, but his self-assessment, as Meryle Secrest’s rich and judicious biography, Frank Lloyd Wright, suggests, was probably accurate enough. During the monotonous, boxy ascendency of modernist architecture, he was regarded as a transitional figure whose best work was done before World War I. Now that the utopian vision of modernism has been shelved alongside other failed utopias of the century, Wright has finally been vindicated. Idiosyncratic as it is, his ”organic architecture,” which accommodates nature instead of arresting and deporting it, turns out to be more forward-looking than modernism’s frigid, lunar severity. Wright’s Prairie Houses or later houses such as Fallingwater (Connellsville, Pa.), with their natural textures, contours, and reticence, have become even more seductive now that the Machine Age proclaimed by the modernists has given way to the Environmental Age.
Wright may have been, for much of his life, the world’s greatest architect, but in financial and personal matters he was the world’s greatest connoisseur of chaos. He hardly touched alcohol, rose every morning at four or five, and worked tirelessly, but he still had no trouble getting in trouble. He was extravagant, with an aesthete’s uncompromising taste in accommodations, furniture, cars, and clothes. Pursue the luxuries, he said, and let the necessities take care of themselves. They never did. He was constantly in debt and on the brink of losing Taliesin, the beautiful house and workplace he built in the southwestern Wisconsin hills where he had grown up. Because of the turmoil, he never received, until the end of his life, as many commissions as he deserved, and a large portion of commissioned projects weren’t built. Some of those that were have been torn down, and except for the cluster of early buildings around Chicago, his work is scattered—from the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis., to the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.
He seems to have walked out on his first wife and their six children when she developed too many interests outside the home. ”In emotional terms he was still a child among children competing for love,” writes Secrest. She gives a full, gruesome account of the murder of Mrs. Cheney, the married woman he ran off with, by a demented ax-wielding servant who also burned down Taliesin. His addled second wife, addicted to morphine and romantic fantasy, pursued him and his prospective third wife with mad and farcical vindictiveness. Even after he settled into his last and most productive decade (he died at 91 in 1959), he managed to get himself in trouble with the FBI and the McCarthyites with his outspoken pacifism. The crises reinforced his view of himself as a ”misunderstood genius, lonely and embattled,” but he usually charmed his way out of them. He once surprised a burglar and talked him out of the act. ”He’d either shock you or amuse you. He was 200 percent alive,” said a friend, and Secrest does a good job of conveying all 200 percent of him.
She’s especially good at sorting out influences: his sturdy, radical Welsh ancestors and his fierce, overbearing mother; the brilliant Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who invented the skyscraper while Wright was working for him; and most significantly, John Ruskin and the British Arts and Crafts movement. Wright never really deviated from the Arts and Crafts idealization of hearth and home or Ruskin’s insistence that a moral fiber must run through beauty. Wright was fortunate in being championed by the critic Lewis Mumford, whose shrewd assessment of his achievement is quoted, but the best quotations come from Wright himself: ”Doctors bury their mistakes; architects have to cover them up with vines.” Wright’s roofs tended to leak, but most of his mistakes were not architectural. By now his reputation should be fully resistant to the cultural weather.