Building the Perfect Beast

Frank Lloyd Wright living room in Wayzata, Minn.

While the "genius" label does occasionally attach itself to the ignored, neglected, or forgotten, it sticks far more easily to the squeaky-wheel type. As we close out the 20th century, a revisionist view has been developing of the genius as not just an immensely talented person--almost always a male--but one with the foresight, energy, and self-confidence to help create his own legend. In other words, the genius as great self-promoter.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is a textbook example of this figure. In this spirit, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's epic documentary on the architect doesn't take away from his revolutionary ideas and accomplishments, but it removes them from their art-historical vacuum--off the pedestals, out of the vitrines and history books--and attaches them to the grandiose, messy, and scandal-wracked life that spawned them. You get Wright the genius and Wright the jerk, and it's made plenty clear how one couldn't exist without the other.

Wright, it seems, was destined to be a great architect from the time he was in his mother's womb, perhaps encouraging the amazing haughtiness he carried with him throughout his life. So the man who built his reputation on radical yet luxurious Prairie Houses--morally uplifting vessels that espoused the virtues of home, hearth, and family--saw fit to abandon his own wife and six children, leaving them with nothing but debts (including, as his 100-year-old son vividly remembers, a $900 grocery bill). He got his first commission for an office building by claiming he'd designed some of the most famous works of his former boss, Louis Sullivan, who had fired him for moonlighting.

Burns and Lyon's warts-and-all approach skillfully interweaves Wright's personal and professional lives throughout his 92 years, which were so full of tragedy and triumph you wonder why there wasn't a bio-pic ages ago. (Wright was, however, the inspiration for the radically individualistic architect in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead). Insights both positive and negative come from critics, historians, and colleagues (including the eminent Philip Johnson, once Wright's bitter enemy). We also hear from some of the disciples who flocked to Wright's estate, providing extra income in his lean years (a scheme of Wright's third wife). Along with ample, reverent documentation of Wright's extant buildings, there's never-before-seen footage, including a wonderful sequence during Wright's late-and-great period, with the old man--still his own best PR agent--insistently interrupting a pompous reporter who's prattling on about the "good, true, real, and honest."

By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour production, my admiration for Wright was supplemented by a great awe at how much of an asshole he was. His genius had been revitalized and also, if not desecrated, then unsparingly illuminated--raising that old question, more relevant than ever in the instant-info age, of how much an artist can (and should) be separated from his work. Vietnam memorial designer Maya Lin observes that Wright has an overbearing presence in his houses unlike any other architect, while the New Yorker's Brendan Gill says that what the man designed out of arrogance was ultimately selfless. Both, of course, are Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright airs in two parts on KTCA (Channel 2) Tuesday and Wednesday, November 10 and 11, from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. each evening, and in its entirety on Sunday, November 15 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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