Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) is a legendary American architect whose life not only was full of accomplishments in itself but also remains inspirational for generations of architects, artists, and writers. Working until his death at almost 92 years old, Wright had an astonishing 70-year career in architecture.
Wright’s architecture is categorized as part of modernism yet it also has a hint of organicism. This productive combination is what gives the geometric volumes that make up Wright’s architecture a stylish human focus. The interior program and design of his buildings are widely recognized for their astute configurations (such as Johnson Wax Headquarters in Wisconsin).
Not only the success of Wright’s work but also his personal life, the different stages of his career, and his character make him the perfect subject for a book.
I find Wright’s life absolutely inspirational because of how intense and full he had lived. It is astonishing how someone can fit in multiple love affairs, parenthood, a busy yet unpredictable career, the establishment of a school, and unprecedented success in a single lifetime. Critical Lives Frank Lloyd Wright by Robert McCarter is a very fluent and impressively thorough book that tells the interwoven story of Wright’s personal and professional life. McCarter has somehow managed to fit a life story so abundant in significant experiences into 200 pages, resulting in a noteworthy biography that feels like a page-turner novel.
Robert McCarter is a practising architect and a Professor of architecture at the University of Florida. Although there are numerous other books on FLW, his life and architecture, the reason why McCarter’s version stands out is that he presents Wright’s life as it was, in a single directional chronology with all aspects interconnected. Hence, the book is ‘an architectural biography’(7) as McCarter puts it.
The organization of the book is in chapters denoting timeframes of different ideologies and styles of Wright’s work. This systematic division allows the reader to read the book in sections, as individual essays, while also contributing to the fluency of the narrative. The clarity of each chapter title sets a strong base to build upon.
Moving on to the content of the book, McCarter does an impressive job of portraying Wright with all his might and fault. As underscored in the book, FLW was an architect with a huge ego (just like many others). Therefore, alongside being a charismatic genius, he was a stubborn man who occasionally had disputes with his clients, the most infamous one being with the commissioners of Fallingwater, the Kaufmanns.
Another noteworthy aspect of the book is that it presents Wright’s ideas under the light of their influencers. Japanese architecture and aesthetic, one of Wright’s main inspirations, is elaborately associated with Wright’s work and given the credit it deserves through thorough explanations.
Where appropriate, the author summarizes Wright’s key ideas and principles on his approach to architecture. These sentences help the reader comprehend Wright’s philosophy, resulting in the satisfactory feeling of being able to read into the Wright’s built work.
The philosophy/concept of Prairie Houses:
“Rather than making free-standing objects in the landscape, as is so distressingly typical today, Wright constructed remarkable interdependence between house and landscape, such that neither appears complete without the other” (65)
His general principles:
” … (his) vision of nature emphasizes its abstract and even mathematical qualities, while his vision of the machine is highly organic.” (71)
“… render the more practical intention (shading of glass) unremarkable, while rendering the more poetic aspect (plastic expression of cantilever in space) remarkable.” (80)
“… when man is ‘true to earth his architecture is creative'” (134)
Learning about the exhaustive thinking process behind architectural masterpieces surely equips the reader with an increased appreciation for architects and the built environment.
I reckon it is quite clear at this point that I enjoyed reading Critical Lives FLW a lot, but there is always room for improvement. My only criticism of the book is that the illustrations do not complement the content very well. All illustrations are in black and white, and at certain points of the book, I felt the need to search for images myself. Therefore, I would argue that all Wright buildings mentioned should be illustrated (in colour where appropriate). With the addition of a few more images here and there, the narrative could become even more powerful.
Ultimately, FLW is no adrenaline junkie but it seems to me that he certainly has lived his life to the fullest so, beyond his architectural success, his achievement in living is something everyone can learn from.
I suggest reading Critical Lives FLW to everyone who’s curious about living a wholesome life!
If you would like to buy the book: