My thoughts on Ken Burns' Frank Lloyd Wright Documentary

I think most people with a serious interest in Wright’s architecture and life are very critical of the movie that Ken Burns did about Frank Lloyd Wright.  They feel that the tone of the documentary is too negative about not only the Wright’s personality and life, but also the shortcomings of his buildings (leaking roofs, sagging cantilevers, etc.).   

Many critics of the documentary point out (quite rightly) that it was in poor taste to have so many of the "experts" commenting on his life taken from those who disagreed with Wright and despised him as a person and an architect.  Having some commentary of that nature is important...  Having Wright's critics praise his genius, while getting their digs in, should have been an important part of the documentary.  Having that be the primary element of commentary on Wright's life and work was less than responsible.

On the topic that the documentary was overwhelmingly negative,  I couldn’t disagree more.  I think that those things are put forth in a balanced way and are an important part of who Wright was and why his work was so important.  It in no way detracts from his genius that he had some serious character flaws.  If anything, it emphasizes and in some ways explains his genius.  

 Some of the historians and critics quoted in the Ken Burns documentary bring up that the fact that his clients are willing to deal with the problems with working with Wright (always running behind schedule and way over budget) as well as the problems with the buildings (leaking roofs, etc.).  Many of his clients come back and have him design a second home, or building for them… even knowing that problems are going to come up.  Why would they do this unless the spaces he designed and the emotions they evoke are so profound that it is worth all the hassle?

 I think it goes further than that.  So many of the hardships that Wright endured, or in some cases brought upon himself, were important in shaping the buildings that he designed.  When he was growing up, his family life was very difficult and dysfunctional.  When he was married, his life with Kitty and the kids was also quite dysfunctional.  Yet one of the strongest characteristics of his early work is the design of the hearths, inglenooks and living rooms.  They were all designed with the idea of bringing families together to promote the kind of home life that he never had as a child or as a father.  Had he grown up with more of a “Leave it to Beaver” sort of home life, his designs might not have pushed the envelope quite so much.  They wouldn’t have had the heart and soul that so many of his homes are famous for. 

 I liken Wright’s life to an herb garden.  Herbs such as basil and oregano get their flavor from the oils that are produced by their plants.  These oils are most concentrated when the plants are forced to suffer.  If you plant a basil plant in fertile soil and water it regularly, the flavor that you get will be very different than if you plant it in sandy soil and make it struggle for water.  It is the struggle for life that makes a good pesto.   It’s the same with Wright. 

 

 This leads me back to the idea of balance.  There are many wonderful visual scenes in Ken Burns’ documentary about Wright…  scenes that so their best to bring out the emotional reaction that people have when walking into a Frank Lloyd Wright building.  The panning shots taken in the Johnson Wax Building, the nighttime shots of Fallingwater and the compression and release shot taken while walking into the Guggenheim are three such examples.  It takes an amazing amount of sensitivity to bring these emotions to the small screen.  He does so with a skill that so few seem to share.  To me this picture would be totally incomplete if the viewer didn’t have an idea of the turmoil that Wright’s life was going through when he designed those buildings. 

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