Charis Conn is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Brooklyn. During 25 years as a Harper's Magazine editor and author of the Harper's Index, she also published fiction there, among other periodicals. Since then ...
In 1957, two years before his death, Frank Lloyd Wright sat down with WNYC to discuss his design philosophy, exhibiting his trademark eloquence and blistering opinions. The year of this interview marks an explosion of commissions for Wright, who by then had been practicing architecture for 70 years.
Wright mainly designed homes until 1957-58, when he took on 90 new projects, many for public buildings. Over all, Wright’s last decade was his most prolific, accounting for nearly one-third of his oeuvre. This interview was recorded in his Plaza Hotel apartment where he’d moved two years earlier in order to oversee construction of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on which he had been working for 14 years. Here, Wright neatly dismisses the project’s many critics, promising “…a new point of view…it’s going to be so enlivening and refreshing that it will make some of these painters quite ashamed of the protest that they issued against it.”
In this interview, Wright also expresses distaste for the nascent designs of Sydney Opera House, as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy structure, whose designers he lambasts as “Poetry Crushers with a capital P.” The Academy’s use of an advisory committee of architects prompts Wright to remark that “an architect is either an inspiration or…he’s merely a committee-mind…a liability.”
Asked whether he’s acquainted with New York’s planned Lincoln Center complex, Wright remarks, “I think it wouldn’t do me any good to become acquainted with it. I suggest the other way around: they become…acquainted with the ones that I’m doing.”
Two notable influences on the young Wright were his itinerant childhood (his father was a traveling minister), and years spent on his uncle’s Wisconsin farm where he “learned…the region in every line and feature…the modeling of the hills, the weaving and fabric that clings to them, the look of it all in tender green or covered with snow or in full glow of summer." His mother, a school teacher, enhanced his understanding of structure by giving him a set of newly invented blocks developed by revolutionary German educator Friedrich Fröbel whose theories laid the foundations for modern education.
Beyond architecture, Wright is also noted as a singularly influential and innovative urban planner, interior designer, architectural writer, and educator. He is noted for his often prescient, sometimes embattled philosophical and social views, a range well displayed in this broadcast, when in the middle of describing his new designs for homes with children’s playrooms, he can’t help but point out that “the American family should be three, not four…and above that, heavily taxed, more and more as they increase in number.” (Wright fathered seven children.)
Recognized by the American Institute of Architects as "the greatest American architect of all time," Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wis., and went on to design 1,141 structures -- including houses, offices, churches, clinics, schools, libraries, bridges, and museums -- 532 of which were built. Today, 409 are still standing, nearly one-third of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wright died in 1959, six months before the Guggenheim opened.
Asked what architects could do to help build “a better society and civilization,” Wright slips into an uncharacteristically heartfelt tone, suggesting they “study nature, seriously, intelligently, and with feeling, and appreciation.” He also warns that if New York City doesn't acquire more green space immediately, it will be "uninhabitable."
At least four of Wright’s descendants became architects, one of whom, his son John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs. Other descendants include an architecture professor, two interior designers, a master woodworker, and the actress Anne Baxter, who is Wright’s granddaughter.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
(Photo of Frank Lloyd Wright © Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)