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Many consider Frank Lloyd Wright to be the greatest architect of the 20th century. Sigrid Faltin’s documentary “The Phoenix from the Ashes” examines his visionary architecture as much as it does his chequered Hollywood-like life, making it well worth watching.

By Thomas Wagner.

The documentary begins by introducing the architect with an excerpt from a 1957 film: “Tonight we go after the story of an extraordinary man of our time […] he is 88-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the greatest architect of the 20th century. And in the opinion of many, America’s foremost social rebel.” The short, slender man seen with a pork-pie hat and cape over his shoulders portrays himself as modest in the interview; he does not want to call himself the greatest architect of his time. Claiming to have never said that, he does admit to having felt it. It quickly becomes clear that modesty does not count among his virtues. His opinion of himself is famous: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”

Straight-line architecture, meandering life

While his architecture was lauded for its clarity and straight lines, his life was more meandering, often even taking an extremely volatile course. Sigrid Faltin’s documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright (born 1867, died 1959) takes a look at both: life and architecture, muddled and rigorous, doubt and triumph. With the truly fitting title “The Phoenix from the Ashes”, she succeeds in narrating the dramatic, scandalous and often also tragic life of a sensitive egomaniac and his wives. Simultaneously, she presents his most significant buildings and educates the viewer about the central tenets of his architecture. As a result, the narcissistic genius continually gives way to reveal a person who made a stand against society’s prevailing morals – in keeping with the “social rebel” epithet.

Chicagoan beginnings

Wright was raised in provincial Wisconsin, where his mother had a significant influence on him. Even in kindergarten he played with Froebel building blocks, a reason why he was fond of the idea of him being a child prodigy becoming an architect. His career began in Chicago, “the place to be if you wanted to become an architect”, as David Bagnall, curator of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, puts it. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had largely destroyed the city, and its reconstruction attracted the most progressive architects of the time. Fire was thus a driving force for his work even in those early days. Wright married and built a house and studio for himself and his young family in Oak Park. He was hired by neighbours who were enamoured of his open understanding of space and wanted a house just like his. What came to be described as Prairie Houses were different: they were modern and yet respectful of tradition, open and close to nature, novel and all-American.

Frank Lloyd Wright auf der Baustelle des Guggenheim-Museums 1959
Frank Lloyd Wright on the construction-site of the Guggenheim Museum, 1959. Photo: © SWR/William Short/Frank Lloyd Foundation/Avery Archives/Museum of Modern Art New York

From an open style of living to eco-architecture

This architecture (the film picks up on it though does not follow it further) revolutionised the general idea of living with its long bands of windows, through which nature just about seemed to stream into rooms lavishly decorated with timber, and with its open style of living and ingenious room layouts; it continues to shape conceptions of living today. And even more so, today’s understanding of eco-architecture, which is planned to guide construction into the future, has its roots in this concept. It can all be learned from Frank Lloyd Wright: building in and with nature instead of against it; organically integrating construction into its environment; using local materials and employing tradespeople from the region. With Fallingwater, one of his most famous works, Wright would later position a house to rest directly atop a waterfall – not next to it, not opposite it, but right in the middle of it. The concept called for the house to appear as if it had grown out of its surroundings.

A life full of murder, fire, divorce and scandal

The film also makes it very plain that Wright was more than just an architectural genius. It retraces his restless, chock-a-block and fit-for-Hollywood life – a life full of murder, fire, divorce, financial difficulty and bankruptcy, a roller coaster between escapes and social ostracism. It is a turbulent affair, and at the eye of the storm stands a man who does not break down despite all the scandal and catastrophe; instead, he emerges from the wreckage over and over again like a phoenix from the ashes. All of this is communicated using previously unpublished film recordings and photography. Wright himself gets a word in through interviews and quotes from his autobiography. What is gradually created in a puzzle-like manner is a multifarious image, involving conversations with his grandson, his students, art historians, biographers and author T. C. Boyle. Boyle, who since the 1990s has lived in Santa Barbara, California, in Wright’s 1909-designed George C. Stewart House, wrote about “The Women” of the master architect and in doing so produced a bestseller. The magic of Wright’s Prairie Houses and their occasionally fateful effect are brought home when Boyle admits that buying the house saved “his marriage to Mrs Boyle”. The latter had discovered the house with her sister and thought that he might not immediately buy it. According to T. C., he “had not even seen it yet. As soon as I walked in though, wow! We bought it that day.”

The intimate connection between house and wife, architecture and life, is hinted at in Boyle’s novel. “Kitty”, it reads, “was seated on the familiar hard-backed sofa before the Roman brick fireplace in the living room of the house that was so familiar it might have been her own, but of course it wasn’t.” It was the house of Edwin Cheney and his wife Martha (“Mamah”) Borthwick Cheney, Frank’s lover. “Or”, it continues, “perhaps she should call it Frank’s, since all his interiors reflected one another as if he were simultaneously living in a hundred rooms, rooms scattered across the countryside but somehow, in the architecture of his mind, continuous. It was Frank’s house, sure it was, just as the house they shared was his. Everything was his. He’d put his stamp on inanimate things and people alike – on her, his own wife, just as surely as he’d put it on Mamah and Mrs Darwin Martin and all the rest of the women who came under his purview.”

Four major love stories

There were four major love stories in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. They all, more or less, took dramatic turns or even ended in tragedy. And, as the excerpt from T. C. Boyle’s novel suggests, they were all connected to the construction (or destruction) of houses. Catherine Tobin, “Kitty”, was Frank’s first wife, to whom he was married for two decades and with whom he had six children. He left her for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, whose family he had designed a house for which was similar to his own. Mamah was murdered in tragic circumstances before he could marry her, and Taliesin, their shared residence in Wisconsin to which they retreated, burned down. What torment. “The thought of reconstructing saved him,” is the pithy remark offered in the film. There to console him was wife number 2, Maude Miriam Noel. He believed that renown and genius allowed him to ignore conventions and social mores. That is why his love for Olgivana, his youngest love interest, ignited another vivid public scandal. Despite still being married, he openly cohabited with his lover and had a child born out of wedlock with her. Another fire broke out in Taliesin and again he reconstructed it from the ashes, establishing a private architecture school there due to lack of work. The fascinated viewer is whisked from life event to life event.

The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wrights most famous architectural design. Photo: © SWR/Sigrid Faltin

Frank Lloyd Wright is described by T. C. Boyle as being “dressed like an aesthete heading to an art exhibition: beret, cape, high-collared shirt, woollen puttees and the Malacca cane he affected both for elegance and authority” and having hair, “a weave of thunderhead and cumulus”, that trailed over his collar. This Wright hated his competitors, whether they were called Gropius, Le Corbusier or Mies. The Bauhaus was his foe, and whatever the International Style meant was the opposite of Wright’s architecture. The phoenix again rose from the ashes with Taliesin 3, this time in Arizona for health reasons, which he built with stones and boulders like a Native American and made blend into the landscape. At almost 80 years of age – “in top form” – he designed the crowning achievement of his later oeuvre, the Guggenheim Museum by Central Park in New York. The earlier scandals had been forgotten, though the protests of urban planners and artists were kindled nonetheless; he was given the derogatory label of Frank Lloyd Wrong. Frank was truly world-famous by the time he died at 91. In 70 years he had designed more than 1,000 buildings, 500 of which were constructed. Eight were elevated to UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Phoenix from the Ashes is available in the “Arte Mediathek” until 21 December 2020.

Frank Lloyd Wright auf der Baustelle des Guggenheim-Museums 1959

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Phoenix from the Ashes, 2020
Arte Mediathek
Director: Sigrid Faltin
Running time: 53 Min.

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