The Wright Stuff
If renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright were alive today, he’d be posting selfies 24/7 standing in front of his buildings. Yet at the age of 88, in a 1957 television interview with Mike Wallace, the master of self-promotion declared “I have never sought publicity of any kind. I have yielded to it.” Whatever you say, Frank.
If you have a chance to visit New York City between now and October 1, treat yourself to an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art called, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. It includes some 450 of his works made from the 1890s through the 1950s and it’s just amazing how current, even futuristic, his designs look in the present day.
Probably one of Wright’s best known designs is New York’s sparkling white Guggenheim Museum (which I didn’t know was originally painted beige after Wright considered, but ultimately rejected, hues of orange, pink, and his favorite color, Cherokee red). Equally as famous is Fallingwater, a vacation home built from 1936 -1939 over a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania for the family of Pittsburgh department store owner, Edgar J. Kaufmann.
But there is so much more: synagogues, churches, schools, country clubs, personal residences, (mile-high) skyscrapers, and planned communities – 767 buildings in all – as well as Wright furniture, tableware, and textile designs.
“The World’s Greatest Architect” was no slouch when it came to marketing, either, and there is a media section in the exhibition that features what looks like ancient archival TV footage.
But in the 1950s, television was the virtual reality of its day. Wright mastered the new medium and, much to the chagrin of his horrified professional peers, famously appeared as a Mystery Guest on the B-list celebrity gameshow, What’s My Line? (panelists wore masks and asked leading questions trying to identify the guest).
When the show aired, Wright looked every bit of his 89 years and the moderator had to repeat questions as he was having a hard time hearing. But it wasn’t long before the panel figured out that the guest was self-employed, worked with his hands, had some experience with the law (more like run-ins), provided a service for both men who women, and might be a designer or architect “like Frank Lloyd Wright...” (As the words World Famous Architect flashed on the screen).
A year earlier, Wright appeared on the TV show The Mike Wallace Interview, coughing and clearing his throat while the future 60 Minutes commentator puffed away on his cigarettes.
The host’s intro line was: “I’m Mike Wallace; the cigarette is Philip Morris” (the show sponsor).
Wright obviously hadn’t hired a media coach to help him appear more likeable to the unwashed masses.
WALLACE: What do you think of the average man in the United States, who has little use for your ideas in architecture, in politics, in religion?
WRIGHT: Are you speaking of the common man?
WALLACE: The average man, the common man. I think you have sometimes called him part of the mobocracy – part of the mob.
WRIGHT: And I believe what you call the common man is what I call the common man, a man who believes in nothing he can’t see, and he can’t see anything he can’t put his hand on...He’s a block to progress.
Well, 62 years later, the mobocracy was out in force to admire the vision and accomplishments of one of the greatest architects – and showmen -- of the 20th Century.
Wright may not have thought much of us, but somehow we had the common sense to recognize a genius when we saw one.