In middle school and high school I spent a lot of my free time on computers. I played a lot of video games, but I also put in a lot of time on architecture and computer aided design software (yes, I’ve always been this nerdy). I’m a proponent of art in all its forms, but I’ve always had a soft spot for architecture. I love how tangible, interactive, and practical the end product is.
This weekend was Chicago Open House – an event put on by the Chicago Architecture Center where architecturally significant buildings are open to the public. In the spirit of the event, and in line with my love of the craft, I went to tour the former home of one of the American greats – Frank Lloyd Wright. I love his work (pictured above), but I also love what a weird dude he was – an artist in every way.
He was raised in a broken household like any good artist, and mom had him play with geometric blocks, and put up pictures of cathedrals in his room as inspiration (or strong-arming depending on your vantage point). He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, and by 19, he dropped out, moved to Chicago, and began work as a draftsman at an architecture firm. By 22, he had begged $5,000 away from his boss to purchase his first plot of land to build his first house – the one I visited today.
He raised his family there while his designs leaked into the surrounding town of Oak Park via his neighbors/clients. He took full responsibility for the aesthetic in his homes, even after the design phase was over. He designed dresses for the women to wear around the house. He would buy a vase for a client to put on a mantle, then send a bill, then drop by occasionally to make sure they hadn’t moved it. If they told him the roof was leaking onto their desk in the office, he told them to move the desk.
In his early 40’s, he wooed the wife of one of his clients, and they whisked away to Europe, leaving their families and his business behind. He also left behind all of his debts, as he usually didn’t pay his bills. When payday rolled around, he bought a new piano instead of paying his employees. But he was in love, and I totally get how going Europe with a new love interest sounds better than dealing with any of that.
Eventually, he married Mamah (pronunced May-muh), and they moved to Wisconsin. One day while Frank was away on business, one of the servants of the house murdered seven people – including Mamah and her two children – and burnt the house to the ground. His family would later say that a piece of Frank – the warm, loving one – died with her that day, and the egocentric side of the artist took the reigns from then on.
Together with his third and final wife, Olgivanna, he started an architecture commune complete with drama circles, dance groups, and Sunday morning gospels. He died of a tummy ache (abdominal pains and attempted surgery) in April of 1959.
The man was a genius, and like all geniuses, he was weird as could be. Standing in the home that he designed and built at the age of 22 was awe-inspiring, and I won’t waste my time trying to describe it to you – the flow was perfect, the mix of detail and simplicity was elegant, and the materials were all locally sourced. All I can really say is that I certainly wouldn’t mind living there, even if it meant wearing a dress of his making, or keeping that ugly vase on the mantle. The guy knew what he was doing.
“Every great artist who ever lived is a philosopher. My work is great insofar as its philosophy is sound,” he once said. Well, it seemed pretty sound to me (design-wise, at least – many of his structures were plagued by his overconfidence and attempts at coming in under budget, but whatever – art, right?).