Q&A | Wright: a legend

“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change,” the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said.

Deemed by scholars — and by himself — as the greatest American architect of the 20th century, Wright was a “titanic icon” in American culture, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Wright’s death on April 9, 2009, Stern talked to the News about Wright’s life, work and legacy.

Q: What is Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy in American architecture?

A: His architecture transformed the notion of American architecture. He designed some of the most iconic houses of the 20th century, such as the Robie House. Wright was an unique and idiosyncratic person. His architecture was also unique and idiosyncratic. People who tend to copy him literally today are not interesting. What’s interesting is the fusing of his architectural style into contemporary American architecture. He is the only American architect known and recognized by the public. Everyone knows that picture of him in a top hat.

Q: Is it possible to see the influence of Wright in the fabric of the buildings at Yale and in New Haven?

A: Wright had a tremendous influence on many architects including Paul Rudolph, the architect of Yale’s Art & Architecture building. Rudolph saw Wright’s Rosenbaum House and decided to become an architect. He was influenced by Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo while he was working on the Art & Architecture building, although there aren’t any other buildings in New Haven directly influenced by Wright’s architecture.

Q: What ideas and what kind of a mind frame inspired Wright’s unusual architectural style?

A: Wright lived for quite a long time. He was born in 1867 and died in 1959, and he brought 19th century ideas into the 20th century. He bridged the gap between the two periods. He was influenced by transcendentalism and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also believed in the Nietzschean ideal of the great genius. Wright was the ultimate romantic hero and he believed he was the greatest architect of all time. He once went to court to prove he was a greater architect than Michelangelo because Michelangelo had used iron chains in the dome of St. Peter’s. But Wright himself used steel beams in the bold wooden cantilevering of his houses, which is, shall we say, enlightened cheating.

Q: Wright is also known for his tempestuous relationships. Can you tell us about his personal life?

A: Wright had a very interesting life. There are two great books about it: One is Wright’s own book about his romantic affairs. The other is “Loving Frank,” by Nancy Horan. Wright left his first wife to elope with a woman who was part of the women’s liberation movement in 1909. His third wife was a difficult woman. I think he might have had another wife in between. His life was the stuff of movies. “The Fountainhead,” by Ayn Rand, with the artist blowing up his own work, was modeled after Wright. If things were not going to be his way, it wasn’t worth doing them.

Q: Robert A.M. Stern Architects recently completed buildings for Florida Southern University in Lakeland, which houses the largest grouping of Wright’s designs. How do your buildings engage with those of Wright?

A: We recently finished two dormitories and a small academic building on the same campus where Wright did a grouping of buildings in the depth of the Great Depression. We used Wright’s asymmetrically pitched roofs and used similar colored materials to those in his buildings. We also reinforced the lines of physical organization on campus — the reflex diagonals — that Wright had emphasized. Our designs are sympathetic to Wright’s without imitating them in any way.

Q: Wright was clearly a person with strong opinions. Do you think he would have approved of today’s architecture?

A: Whoever knows what a dead person would approve of? His design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York inspired the museum to go forward with Frank Gehry’s designs for the Bilbao and Abu Dhabi buildings. Both are under the heavy hand of Wright’s design, which some argue [is] overshadowing the art in the museum. But he would have been pleased with that.