Ken Burns has built a reputation as the best documentary filmmaker in the U.S. today, and this 2005 PBS movie about famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright does not disappoint. FLW was a complex character to say the least - a self-promoter who exaggerated his life story and was unable to live within his means, a genius who abandoned his wife, someone who faced incredible heartbreak when his great love was murdered, an architect whose star dimmed until it rose again so high he became "the greatest architect in the world".
FLW's mother was convinced he was going to be a great man, and after he settled with his first wife in the fashionable neighborhood of Oak Park, he seems to have decided that looking successful would only make success come faster (maybe some twenty-somethings in Dallas have found themselves inspired by his philosophy...), and he acquired a pretty house he could not afford and where his first wife Kitty raised their six children. He collected old books and Japanese prints. Because he lived beyond his means from the start, he began secretly designing houses for wealthy clients to make more money, breaking the trust of his mentor Louis Sullivan, who fired him when he found out. FLW then launched his own practice, where he explored a unique American style. He designed his famous "prairie houses", horizontal to fit in the Midwestern landscape, everything open and flowing, low ceilings, using colors of the harvest and exuding a serenity and sense of belonging.
But public buildings, not houses, are the buildings that make an architect's career, and FLW longed for large-scale commissions. He had a building commission in Buffalo, NY for a mail-order company, the Larkin Company. Of course he went way over budget (as usual with him) but the executives loved their building. Critics, yet, were not impressed, dubbing it a "monster of awkwardness". In 1905 he got a contract to rebuild the Unitarian Church of Oak Park after it burnt to the ground.
At that point his practice was flourishing but he still had no large-scale commission prospects and he felt he had done everything he could with the prairie style. There was trouble at home, because he resented the devotion of his wife Kitty to the children rather than to him. Edwin Cheney and Mamah Cheney lived nearby, in a house Wright had designed for them. Mamah was artistic, vivacious, dissatisfied with a traditional wife role, and all for FLW. Kitty refused to divorce. In October 1909, at age 42, FLW closed his studio, abandoned Kitty and the children (leaving Kitty stuck with a $900 grocery bill), and ran off to Europe with Mamah. He did exactly the same as his father, who had walked on his mother and him when he was a child.
Needless to say, the scandal was enormous. FLW and Mamah stayed abroad for about a year. When they returned to the US, FLW began building a house in Spring Green, WI, named Taliesin. They lived there for 3 years in spite of gossip. In August 1914, Mamah was murdered, alongside with just about everyone in her lunch party, by the butler who was supposed to be dismissed. He locked all the exits but one, set fire to the house and then hacked to death the people who tried to escape.
FLW buried himself in work in Japan for a monumental hotel in Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel, which luckily withstood the 1923 earthquake. He spent 8 contentious years with Miriam Noel, who appeared cultivated, intelligent and infatuated with Wright, but was really violent, unstable and addicted to morphine. He married her after Kitty granted him a divorce. This was a mistake: Miriam made FLW absolutely miserable.
In 1924, Miriam finally stormed out of the house. FLW had found another woman: Olgivanna Ivanova Milanov Hinzenburg, age 2, a disciple of G.I. Gurdjieff and a devote to mystic philosophy. Olgivanna moved into the rebuilt Taliesin, which enraged Miriam, who is said to have stalked FLW and Olgivanna for 3 or 4 years. In 1925, a fire destroyed the second Taliesin and the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. FLW received commissions in the Sierra Madre Mountains, a summer colony at Lake Tahoe, a steel cathedral in NYC, but none of them was ever built. In 1927 Miriam granted him a divorce but since FLW was penniless, friends had to pay his alimony for him. He married Olgivanna in 1928. The crash of 1929 destroyed his own hope that his one remaining commission in the Arizona desert would ever be built. By then FLW was 62 and his career had hit rock bottom. This concludes Part 1 of the documentary.
Part 2 starts where we left off at the end of Part 1, with FLW "washed out" but refusing to admit defeat. Olgivanna was a driven, disciplined woman. She calmed FLW down and urged him to lecture and to write his autobiography. In 1932, she suggested they start an apprenticeship program, modeled on Gurdjieff's teachings. Apprentices paid $650/year for the privilege and had to spend 4 hours a day in manual labor. (Digression: I first learned about FLW when I read the book The Fellowship, which describes the events of Part 2 in the DVD so well. I remember buying it in hardcover in New York City in the fall of 2006... I had just become a NYC regular back then. He seems to have severely exploited young people who had come to him eager to learn, and I remember being distinctly unimpressed by him, all genius that he was, after I finished reading the book.) The apprentices, though, seem to have at first found the atmosphere of intellectual fellowship thrilling. Later, perhaps less so. FLW and Olgivanna ate on a dais a little above everybody else. Olgivanna controlled everything, including the apprentices' personal lives, going as far as arranging marriages and negotiating divorces.
FLW resented his own eclipse and the rise of the modernist Europeans, and then he remade himself. In 1934, the father of a former apprentice asked him to build a house near Bear Run in Fallingwater, PA. (There is a funny anecdote in the movie where the man calls from 140 miles away, saying he's on his way to see the plans for the house. FLW had done nothing. He sat down and drew everything on the spot, finishing just as the man was walking through the door.) Fallingwater, drawn in less than 3 hours, became the most famous modern house in the world. I visited it in August 2013, and it is as beautiful as people say.
Then FLW built the so-called Usonian houses, which were supposed to be mass-marketed at a cost of $5,000 but failed to arise the enthusiasm of the public because they ended up being more expensive than planned - as usual with FLW - and because they required few possessions, since FLW controlled all the details. That made his vision quite impractical.
The Johnson Wax Building in Racine, WI proved to be for FLW the equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Innovations included special Pyrex glass tubings for skylights and hollow reinforced columns of stunning slenderness to bear the weight of the great ceilings. Although glass tubings on the roof could not be sealed properly, meaning that there were leaks whenever it rained, FLW's career was finally reborn. He was 70.
In December 1937, FLW and Olgivanna led their first (of many) pilgrimage to the Arizona desert because of FLW's health. This is where FLW built Taliesin West. FLW entered the most productive phase of his life after the war, drawing plans for over 350 buildings: twin suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, a synagogue in Philly, a skyscraper in Chicago, the Civic Center for Marin County, CA. Then he was asked to design a building for the art collection of Solomon Guggenheim in NYC, which would prove the most commission of his life, launching a 13-year battle with Guggenheim and his heirs. After the zoning board rejected his plan, FLW had to turn to Robert Moses to make the board members change their mind. In April 1959, the building of the Guggenheim was almost complete when FLW, supervising construction from Taliesin West, complained of stomach pains and underwent surgery. He died April 9, 1959. His disciples drove his body back to Wisconsin.
On October 21, 1959, the Guggenheim museum opened to the public on Manhattan's Upper East Side, ensuring FLW's legacy.