Monday, 18 November 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright's Best Student Ever

Holy Moses! I thought I knew everything significant about America’s most visible architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Until this morning when I made my weekly scrutiny of the newest books in the Anna Amalia Library. To my utter surprise and equivalent joy, I started riffling through Vincent L. Michael’s “Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe” (University of Illinois Press, 2013) . Barry Byrne (1883-1967)? Huh? Who he? FLW’s greatest student? 
Who, I then discover, not only didn’t go to an architecture school. Or college? Or high school? 

Migod, when a Minnesota university offered him a professorship, they had to withdraw that honor because he didn’t even have an elementary school diploma. OK, so Wright let him observe the master work (1902-1908) in his studio in Oak Park, Illinois.

And that’s just a beginning. He was, like me, a radical Roman Catholic! His closest intellectual pal was Dorothy Day! Me too. And when the Depression bankrupted his own office, he wrote art criticism for the Catholic layman’s weekly” Commonweal” and the Jesuit biweekly “America”. (They paid him $10 per essay!) A generation later, as a philosophy major at the Jesuit University of Detroit, I read every issue of both magazines. 

Most insulting to my ignorance was the fact that his most interesting new buildings were a seminary and cathedral across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario! Now my closest pal, Hank Maloney, and I were fanatical fans of two CBC radio comics we just had to visit often. Indeed while I stopped being a Catholic in the Navy, most of their work appeared throughout the American Midwest and increasingly in Europe as his idiosyncratic modernism bloomed. I’ve never seen such “sui generis” architecture anywhere in history. Most of the photos in this book are by the author and a formerly unknown to me, one Felicity Rich. I just discovered FR was BB's grandaughter! “Felix” means “happy” in Latin and her pix of BB’s buildings turn me on like I have never felt before!

He also writes clearly and passionately about his commitment to devise buildings that further the religious ideals of his coreligionists. Indeed, he is a unique human. Before reading the essays by Professor Michael, look at these photos. Carefully. Then read both writers. They’re very different, but both are great teachers. Now you know why every Monday I scan the five levels of new books. You’ll never forget the experience. It’s that powerful.

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