Most educated Americans can recite the names of at least a few of the principal figures of twentieth-century art—Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock, maybe Jasper Johns—but ask about the architects of the same era and the only name you are almost guaranteed to hear is Frank Lloyd Wright. He may be the only architect (besides Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for different reasons) whose visage and buildings the U. S. Postal Service repeatedly commemorates. It is as if Wright were the architect who best represents the United States in the eyes of itself.
A survey of all the thought-provoking, eye-grabbing architecture of the last one hundred years would suggest that Wright’s persistent celebrity is a bit mystifying. True, he was what pundits today call an innovator. True, he built more than five hundred buildings, which is, for a firm with only one principal, a lot. But mostly what Wright built in his seventy-year-long practice were single-family dwellings, many of them small. Most of his larger projects are not exactly accessible: his consummate masterpiece, the Imperial Hotel in Japan, was demolished in 1967; another, the Larkin Building in Buffalo, fell to make way for a parking lot; the Marin County Courthouse is off the beaten track (though it does appear as a set in the futuristic dystopian film Gattaca). To get to Wright’s sublime Johnson Wax Building, you need to drive for one and a half hours north from Chicago to Racine, Wisconsin; to Fallingwater, more than an hour southeast from Pittsburgh. Only the Guggenheim Museum in New York is easily accessible and widely visited. Most of Wright’s hundreds of houses that survive remain in private hands.