Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
5.0 out of 5 stars 6 Star — Utterly Brilliant Man, Mind, and Treatment, October 24, 2013
WARNING: This DVD has two parts, and if you are inattentive, you can get to the end of Part I (the 1920’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s low point) and forget that there is a Part II (the rest of his life, with his greatest accomplishments during his 70’s).
PBS has really out-done itself with this production. The detail, the mosaic of interviews and the integration of glorious music and spectacular photography make this one of the best DVDs I have ever enjoyed.
This is not just a DVD about a man; it is a DVD about a philosophy of life, about the integration of humanity, nature, work, and artifact – from a single house that is a spiritual temple to heaven on earth, and across the board re-invention of how man relates to everything.
This is also a DVD about the tough road that any genius walks amidst a society – including so-called leaders of society – that is often nothing more than a mob of divergent selfish interests. Frank Lloyd Wright was celebrated, ridiculed, forgotten, and then hugely celebrated. I have often contemplated the lines between lunacy and genius, and between genius in the abstract and sustainable accomplishment depending on others accepting the genius. Wright was not a lunatic, he was an independent thinker, and sadly societies that are morally and intellectually constipated are too quick to characterize that which they do not understand as lunacy. Wright was 200% alive, and totally unaccepting of rules made by the less gifted for the totally clueless. I personally feel the best leaders are both unconventional and appreciative of diversity, and just a tad “lunatic” in the eyes of the ever-stale and oppressive society too willing to fester in the status quo, see for instance this book I have reviewed, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illnessyou can also see the other 79 books on leadership I have reviewed or recommended at Phi Beta Iota / Books / Leadership.
His original family motto (his parents from a Unitarian community) was “Truth Against the World.” Later he adopted his own motto, as pater familas, of “Truth is Life.” These resonate with me, since the CIA’s often dishonored motto is from John “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” and my own motto these many years has been “The truth at any cost lowers all others costs.” At root, this DVD and the life of Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) are about being true to yourself and to your natural habitat, treating construction as something that is spiritually uplifting and improving upon the landscape, not as something destructive and disrespectful of the land, the community, and the purpose.
Early on the point is made that FLW strove to create an architecture that was unique American and uniquely suited to and representative of the ground and the culture of America. He thought in terms of horizontal spaces rather than vertical, treating the outsides of his constructs with simplicity, while the interiors, including sequestered gardens, became a spiritual temple with twists and turns and lines of sight that engaged, inspired, calmed, and embraced the souls of the occupants. He said “each house is a missionary” and sought to create environments that transformed the individuals entering them.
Among the comments that I remember are his being described as “dangerously sane” (I cannot help by think of Lee Camp and his most recent collection, Moment Of Clarity subtitled “The rantings of a stark raving sane man,” his saying “nature is my church,” and his representing a “staggering dignity” of man.
As with many great men obsessed with their work, he went through wives the way some go through pastries, leaving children and grandchildren still troubled today, but in the end finally finding a soul mate that could handle the human dramas on his behalf.
As Part I draws to a close, generally in tragedy, I am struck by the FLW philosophy that architecture is not just drawing or design, but the full integration of orientation to one’s environment and the purpose of the structure, the engineering of implementation, the construction of artifact, the spiritual aspect of placing every block, every line, “just so.” I think of a Japanese tea ceremony.
Part II – I had to reinsert the DVD to a fresh start to see Part II as an option, picks up with FLW at 62 in 1929, his career seemingly at an end. However, as with a particular kind of self-made great men, he refused to give up (Jerry Boykin and Peter Schoomaker of Special Forces come to mind, as well as Winston Churchill), and he grew more passionate with age.
His third wife was his rock, with absolute faith in his greatness and a gift for both guiding him to write and lecture, and for managing human relationships he was ill-equipped to develop. In a stroke of her own genius, she conceptualizes a fellowship program in which disciples pay to be his apprentice and also work four hours a day on his estate, a program that not only paid the bills during his darkest hours, but ultimately spawned an entire generation of architects sharing his vision. I have a note, “apprentices carried Wright’s work to the next level,” and am reminded of my view developed over time that real leadership consists of inspiring in others habits of mind and faith that will outlast the leader.
Part II features Falling Water, the home integrated into the land that catapulted FLW back into public consciousness. Next the story is told of his work on the new Administration building for the Johnson Wax empire, a building that was “a temple of work, a place you will love to [work] in.”
Among his innovation were textured cement blocks (including intricate embedded designs), hollow reinforced columns that outperformed every zoning board standard of the time (I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller), and new plastics for skylights.
80 years old at the end of WWII (he was a pacifist, several of his apprentices did jail time for refusing to serve), he entered the most productive period of his life, designing 350 buildings. He could not have done this without his apprentices.
He was quick to jump on new technologies and evaluate how they might impact on his calling. I am reminded of Peter Drucker, who has famously said that work is not labor, work is a calling (when managed and engaged in properly).
As Part II comes to a conclusion the following jumps out at me “Nothing must be more sacred than the integrity of your own mind.”
The DVD concludes that FLW changes how we see the land, how we work, and how we relate. His genius, the DVD concludes, was to BOTH serve everyday needs with his designs, AND to grab his clients and those who entered his constructs in the gut, confronting them with transcendental, transformative experiences at every turn, every day.
His final interview suggests to me that immortality is a state of mind.
Afterthought: I was so taken with this DVD and this mind and man that I spent some time looking over everything else Amazon has to offer on FLW. Below are eight items that caught my attention, among many, many others, with the observation that one could usefully spend a lifetime studying this man and all that he touched. The only book not yet written, as best I can tell, is “Wives of Frank Lloyd Wright — His Crutch, His Play, His Savior.”
Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography
Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography
Frank Lloyd Wright The Houses
Frank Lloyd Wright–the Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence
Frank Lloyd Wright: Force of Nature (Todtri art series)
Frank Lloyd Wright & Lewis Mumford: Thirty Years of Correspondence
The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Creative Process
Phenomenal DVD. Beyond five stars, in my top ten percent (6 stars), and filed under Design and Leadership among other categories. [Note: Sadly Amazon has declined my suggestion repeated each year to enable readers to see all other books by any given reviewer in any given category, so I created a web site to curate my Amazon reviews across 98 distinct categories of reading, all but one non-fiction, all reviews at Phi Beta Iota — now home to over 25 free spirit contributing editors — lead back to their respective Amazon pages.
Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth, & Trust