Arthur Lubow writes about art and culture for Smithsonian, Inc. and the New York Times Magazine, where he is a contributing writer.
What drew you to this story?
The funny thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is, after Lincoln he’s probably the American who has been written about the most. But this was a big anniversary, both the 50th anniversary of his death and the 50th anniversary of what I guess is his last major building, the Guggenheim Museum. It seemed to me that a magazine like Smithsonian, that’s a quintessential American magazine, should mark this.
So what surprised you the most about his professional life?
Obviously I knew that his career was very long. He started when he was quite young and was successful when he was quite young. Then, he worked right up until his death. What I hadn’t focused on was there were long periods when he was less productive. There was that one period when people basically thought that he was already a kind of elder statesman who would be better known as a writer and lecturer at this point in his life than as an architect. But that turned out to be very much not the case. Some of his greatest buildings were done in the latter part of his life. I guess what is maybe surprising is that you expect this enormous outburst of creativity in youth, which was true, but then there was also an enormous outburst of creativity when he was older.
I thought it was interesting that he said his priority was his client’s wishes but then he determined what those wishes were himself.
Yeah, he thought he knew better than the client what would make the client happy. He really believed that architecture could make people’s lives better, and he was determined to do it. There was something authoritarian about him in a sense because he was determined to elevate people’s lives whether they wanted it or not. He thought he knew better than the client what would make the client happy. Obviously, that could be maddening, and in many ways, he was a maddening person.
One of the things his houses are famous for is you would go into a vestibule. The entryway would be very low, and then you’d enter in the living room and the ceiling height would be enormous. You do feel elevated. You do feel this kind of spiritual rush that great architecture can give you. In this case, you’re getting it not in a cathedral, but in a home. That feeling, which Wright could give you, is amazing.
Did you have a favorite moment during your research?
Architects are always designing things that never get built, and Wright was quite good about reusing things if they had not been realized in the first go round. So the Guggenheim Museum is essentially an adaptive reuse of an early concept, which was this crazy thing called the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. It was created in what was really the beginning of automobile touring. In this case it was to be this thing on a top of a mountain. People would drive up to the top of the ramp, a valet would take their car down and they would walk down the ramp and admire the views. At the bottom, there was a planetarium, so they would look up at the top and they would see stars. I find it very amusing that that idea for a Maryland automobile destination wound up on Fifth Avenue in New York as one of the most famous museums in the world.