“The Big Year” should have been a bigger movie. Not only was the cast (Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson) stellar but a $41 million budget is nothing to sneeze at.
Still it went bust. That’s because the subject is no laughing matter — not among bird watchers who compete to identify the most bird species during a calendar year.
Would you be surprised to learn that there’s a similar competition among fans of Frank Lloyd Wright? According to the FLW Field Guide, buildings designed by the charismatic architect still survive in 35 states and number over 300.
We set out on a pilgrimage to Oak Park, Ill., (and surrounding environs) with son Brendan, who counts himself a committed FLW aficionado. He’s added more than 84 FLW structures to his life list — 54 during this week alone.
So why Wright?
1. Wright always described himself as a genius. His genius, however, was in making folks believe in him.
Nobody was ever better at self-promotion. Even as early at 1901, when Edward Bok (Ladies’ Home Journal) invited architects to suggest modern house design improvements, Wright alone responded, submitting two articles that paid off handsomely in future commissions.
Wright insisted that rules never applied to him — not only with respect to architecture but morality as well. He abandoned his wife and six children for the spouse of a client.
When jobs dried up as a result of the subsequent scandal, Wright and his mistress just headed for Europe to publish his portfolio. His designs won him international acclaim, and, once again, a queue of paying customers.
When the Depression found him back in America and again facing bankruptcy, he responded by publishing an autobiography that clearly belonged in the fiction section. The book, however, convinced well-heeled Americans that they couldn’t pay enough to own a FLW home.
To boost his bottom line, Wright also included, whether ordered or not, FLW-designed furniture, geometrically-patterned leaded glass, minimalist landscaping and, even in one case, the ideal hostess ensemble — in his final bill.
2. When your own mother gives you the ultimate gift — a boundless faith that you will succeed — it can’t hurt. When Anna Wright was expecting, she was convinced her baby would grow up “to build beautiful buildings.”
Not only did she decorate his nursery with engravings of English cathedrals clipped from magazines, but she also purchased a set of educational blocks called Froebel Gifts as his elementary curriculum. Wright credited the smooth maple cubes, spheres and cylinders for teaching him the geometry of architecture.
3. Timing is everything, and with the devastating Great Fire in 1871, Chicago was virtually a tabula rasa that could provide full employment for ambitious architects.
After interviews with prominent firms, Wright was hired as a draftsman for Joseph Lyman Silsbee but it was the progressive vision of Louis Sullivan that riveted Wright. Furthermore, Wright and Sullivan were united in their disgust with Chicago’s neoclassic White City built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Wright worked for Sullivan until 1893, when he betrayed his mentor’s trust. Not only did he accept independent commissions for nine houses in Oak Park, but he won them by taking credit for Sullivan’s work.
After Sullivan gave him the boot, Wright shared a Steinway Hall loft space — and here’s the Ventura County connection — with several like-minded architects. Along with Wright, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and Dwight H. Perkins was Myron Hunt, the architect for Sen. Thomas Bard’s Berylwood Mansion. They would later be recognized for founding the famous Prairie School.
4. Everybody can recognize Wright’s unique architectural signature. The entrances to his houses are usually concealed for privacy, cantilevered rooflines may soar above, and the structures are laid out horizontally since lots in the Midwest allowed for plenty of elbowroom.
Inside, his houses subject folks to low ceilings (FLW only stood 5 feet, 7 inches — coincidence?), are painted the muted colors of the harvest, and instead of boxy rooms, Wright’s open plan focuses on a fireplace as it invites guests to converse with the hostess/cook once households operated without servants.
5. Finally, Wright, like so many artists of his day (Norman Rockwell, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland) yearned to celebrate American.
With the Prairie School, Wright would realize Sullivan’s dream of defining a uniquely American style of architecture.
Additionally, in answer to his less affluent fans, Wright, who revered democracy, was persuaded to think small. The Usonian home — a name Wright borrowed from satirist Samuel Butler — refers to the United States of North America. The price tag for a Usonian? Supposedly $5,000 but, as usual, Wright never even came close.
During the introduction to “The Big Year,” the following words appear on the screen: “This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed.”
Funny, the same could be said about Wright.