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I think the thing to remember about this documentary is that it's
called "Frank Lloyd Wright," not "The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright."
There are many other resources for those wishing to learn about his
designs and the structures he built. (A personal recommendation is the
2002 documentary, "Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Heurtley
The format that Ken Burns's films use is well known by now: pans of many still photographs, informative narration -- often jam-packed with facts but clearly presented and in a generally objective tone. Shifts in time and place are smoothly integrated such that it's unlikely that an attentive viewer will get lost.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at age 91, and there were very few years in his long life that were not without controversy. He broke all kinds of rules with his architectural designs to create some truly remarkable structures -- "Fallingwater," the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and most especially the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They are all examples of his iconoclasm. They and other structures sealed his reputation as the most famous American architect of his or any other generation. But it was the personal scandals, generally involving other men's wives, that forced him to flee the country on a number of occasions, and put his career in a deep freeze for long spells.
By his own admission Wright was an absent and negligent father to his many children; he seems to have been serially unfaithful until late middle age, and he was wild and extravagant with money -- particularly other people's. Clips from a 1958 TV interview with a chain-smoking Mike Wallace are interspersed throughout, and a snippet of it concludes the documentary with Wright proclaiming his immortality. Wright the man seems to have been insufferable, and he seems to have gotten little joy out of life.
Yet his doesn't appear to have been a tortured soul; his personal life may have been absent any harmony, and yet that quality repeatedly found its way into his work. Many of Wright's buildings are in breathtaking concert with nature. His interior designs, including that of the Unity Temple and almost all of his stained glass, suggest they are the creation of an unfettered and free spirit. Wright may have been such a man, but if so he directed those energies in many of the wrong places. His self-centeredness, arrogance and certainty of his genius hurt a lot of people around him.
It's well to ask why anyone wanted to work under him, and yet the waiting list for the scholarship program he operated at his Taliesin West studios in Arizona in the 1930s, 40s and 50s was a mile long. Students of Wright's were bent to his will; they had to do four hours' manual labor a day, grow their own food, submit to having their love relationships and even some marriages orchestrated by his wife, Olgivanna. The place was run like a boot camp, but the opportunity to work side by side with Wright was enough to keep the applications flowing in. Several graduates of the school are interviewed in the documentary, and for all of them working with Wright seems to have been the seminal experience of their lives -- they don't recall the hoops they had to jump through and the indignities they signed on for in order to have that privilege.
To truly love and appreciate the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, it's almost better if you don't know too much about their designer. Still, the dichotomy between the man and his sublime creations makes a great story, and this documentary is a largely successful attempt to bridge that gap.
This is an absorbing and informative documentary on an architect who in most
expert opinion - and certainly in his own! - was one of the greatest
architects ever. His buildings are of particular interest to film buffs,
because they have been used as the locations in many movies. For example,
the Ennis-Brown House in LA was the House on Haunted Hill and was also in
Blade Runner. But, in fact, where this documentary scores is in focusing on
Wright's amazing life, as much as on his architecture. Born in 1867, Wright
had early success in building houses around Chicago, but after a scandalous
and tragic personal life he was more or less finished professionally by the
But then, with the encouragement of his wife Olga Lazowich, his career revived and took off when he was over 60. In the 30 years before his death in 1959 he and his associates designed hundreds of buildings, the best known being the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Guggenheim is probably his most striking external design, and resembles an abstract sculpture, though ironically Wright had a poor opinion of the 20th century non-objective paintings it houses. The film is admirably linear, with none of the gimmicks found in many modern TV documentaries; it has beautifully angled shots of Wright's best structures; and is enhanced by Beethoven music, since Wright thought musical composition had affinities with architecture.
I don't think I like Ken Burns very much. We are at cross purposes. He
comes to give me a good story, tight with no lapses, that moves
smoothly without holes. What I come for is insight, the holes, the
spaces, the sight you get from emptiness. I cannot imagine a less
suitable topic for the Burns approach than this particular mind.
He wants to tell the story of a genius, and like so many storytellers he constructs the man and assumes that as we know him, we will know his works, which are assumed to flow from his makeup. So we get a linear history: birth, life (a long one), death. Events happen and along the way out pops a building which we take the time to briefly visit. The passion of the man and indeed the transcendence of some of the spaces are conveyed not through firsthand cinematic experience, but through the passionate reporting of experts. I must admit their passion is contagious and they held my interest.
But there was no experience with the space. Apart from grand notions of unitarian communion with nature, no spatial ideas. We have a truly unfortunate decision, that architecture in the first moments is made analogous to music, the constructions being the same. Then when a spatial experience is expected, we get swelling of this and that classical piece; Beethovan caps it as we tour the Guggenheim.
The documentary moves at the now standard TeeVee pace with no long form building because of those commercials (yes, in public broadcasting). While it flows, the whole world of Wright is about stillness, holding, breath not yet breathed. His spaces do not flow, like say his contemporaries Horta or the best of Gaudi. They are of the landscape, inspired by Japanese Buddhist ideas of still containment. The form of the film fights the architecture and the ideas behind it.
I advise you not to see this because it will mess you up.
Until he was 63, Wright was an essayist, not a novelist. He made buildings as statements, not as working whole environments. They were not designed to work, but rather to give the impression that they could. This makes them important of course, but you need to appreciate that the best architecture is not the one with signs, and probably not the one that seems easy to read. It surely is not the one that bends people to the space rather than the other way around.
It is good to know about his history, the family, the Ouspensky-inspired apprentice program and the obsession with Japan. It is good to know that he was a passionate man, sexually attuned and spiritually bound to his women. But the impression we get is that he was a ball of creative fire, throwing grand designs off casually. That was the myth he invented. In fact he was an ordinary architect and a second-rate celebrity until 63 and he knew it. He was promoting a talent larger than what he had or could be. At 63 exactly like Kurosawa his inner demons drove him nearly to suicide. Kurosawa tried.
At that point, considered obsolete he reinvented himself into a man of true vision. It would have been good to have been told that this came from constant fawning attention from the curated apprentices his wife surrounded him with. And that he had a sensual-spiritual- sexual awakening at that age. Everything after that was about the form. He would lack subtlety until he died, but he could conceive the form whole first and then explain it to the paper, carrying the scrolls like scripture.
That crisis that changed him among the many crises he had. That dry period where he knew he would die having never mattered no matter how much bluster was expended. That's what we needed to know.
And doggone, Burns needs to allow that great architecture is a matter of having the great ideas first. We invent a history afterward to explain why we like what we have been convinced to like. There is an intrinsic beauty to great architecture, but it is because the talent of the artist is in how he sells it to our souls, and not what he sells so much. Burns has let us down.
But I am glad he did not kill himself, and Kurosawa as well. Because after 63, they helped invent me.
Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
And, when speaking about America's most-beloved/most-hated architects
of them all - Does one properly refer to this man as being Mr. Frank
Lloyd Wright, or should he really be called Mr. Frank Lloyd Wrong?
Needless to say - There can be no doubt that Frank Lloyd Wright (who was/is probably the most celebrated and misjudged architects ever) was destined to redesign the entire world, but, for some unforeseen reasons, this towering vision of his was simply never realized.
Born in Wisconsin in 1867 - I think it's really very surprising to note that Wright's most productive years in his field of work didn't come around until he had reached the age of 80 (!!).
Throughout his 70-year career as one very ambitious, strong-willed and arrogant architect, Wright not only designed private homes and office towers, but he's also credited with the design of churches, schools, hotels and, yes, even gas stations and furniture, as well.
Even though this 2.5-hour documentary (directed by Ken Burns) had its fair share of notable merits and strengths to its advantage, it also racked up a few demerit points for itself by (for one thing) placing way too much emphasis on Wright's very turbulent personal life.
In 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright died at the age of 91.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a lengthy biography of Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns--after
Burns had become a very celebrated documentarian. "The Civil War" had
created a HUGE sensation when it aired on PBS and his polish and skills
as an artist made this an ideal project for Burns. Here, Burns makes
among his best films--and manages to impress the viewer with a very
complex man--a man you can love AND hate at the same time!
I chose to watch this film for two reasons. First, I think Burns could do a documentary about lint and I'd watch it--his work is THAT good. Second, I just saw a film about Ayn Rand and Frank Lloyd Wright was her ideal hero that she imitated in "The Fountainhead". And, as I watched "Frank Lloyd Wright", I noticed that in many ways he was just like a male version of Rand! Both eschewed conventional morality and thought selfishness was, in fact, a virtue.
This is an amazing biography, as unlike most subjects of such films, apart from his brilliance in his field, Frank Lloyd Wright was, for want of a better term, a narcissist. Throughout this Ken Burns film, you learn how he lied, used people, ran up debts, was AMAZINGLY arrogant and just felt that conventional morality just didn't apply to anyone as wonderful as him. He was insufferable...but for him it worked. Why? Because his skills as an architect and designer were so original and so great. Plus, he was the master at charming people and putting on an image people just adored. In other words, his arrogance and odd ways impressed people because they expected such actions from a genius! My feeling is that I would have loved him to design something for me, but I would have hated to have him as a member of my family or count on him as a friend.
What are some of the delightful things this guy did over his life? When I had an affair at age 42, he abandoned his family and ran off to Europe--leaving his family with all his debts! The great architect, Louis Sullivan, hired a young Wright before he gained renown. Despite violating his contract with Sullivan, he did assignments on the side AND went so far as to claim he, and not his boss, had designed some great structures (which was an outright lie he made in order to get one of these jobs). As one person so aptly put it, "...he was a nasty man". Yet, despite all this, his work was, at times, pretty amazing and created a huge impact on other architects.
By the way, although I disliked Wright as a human being, the incident with Julian Carleton was very, very sad and you had to feel for Mr. Wright. See the film and you'll know what I mean.
Like many great men, Frank Lloyd Wright was complex and controversial.
You either love his architecture, or you hate it. Few people are
lukewarm about Wright's work. After seeing this documentary, few will
be lukewarm about the man.
Raised on the idea that he was destined for greatness, Wright behaved throughout his life as if he were above the constraints of ordinary people. This documentary takes an unflinching look at the turmoil this caused in Wright's life.
The vignettes of family members are moving, particularly a scene near the end when his grandson recalls Wright's death. By simple chronological narrative, Burns takes us from dazzling heights when Wright's fellowship was thriving artistically and financially, to dismal lows when his wife had to wear hand-me-down coats in the cold Wisconsin winter.
The commentaries by architecture illuminati are illuminating, if perhaps a bit insular. Vincent Scully gained fame at the distinguished Yale School of Architeture. Phillip Johnson, a graduate of Harvard, once referred to Scully as the most influential teacher of architecture in history, and used his position as founder of MoMA Department of Architecture and Design as a bully pulpit to vilify Wright's work during Johnson's association with Bauhuas buddies Meis and Gropius. Robert A. M. Stern is currently Dean of Yale's School of Architecture, and with Scully, was responsible for popularizing the work of great architects like Robert Venturi. Still, this cabal of academic elitists sing a harmonious chorus of praise to Wright that demonstrates the rising and falling tides of Wright's popularity.
The documentary will not satisfy those who merely wish to see a catalog of Wright works, and after all, is there anyone alive who hasn't explored that body of work? It focuses instead on Wright the man, something much less understood. Wright is described as everything from a genius, a charlatan, and a con artist, to the greatest American Architect, and probably all are true. But if Wright and his early mentor Louis Sullivan were correct that form follows function, then perhaps genius is best understood by examining the life that developed it.
The makers of this film "get" Wright, and the consistency of Wright's vision, from his earliest work, to mid-career masterpieces like Fallingwater, to his final triumph with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City is presented with insight and perspective. A great documentary about a great man.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wright complained to a friend about about how many thousands of dollars
he owed. His friend lent him money to pay off his debts. Later that
day, Wright went out and purchased three grand pianos! And went back to
complaining about his debts. He felt a compulsion to live at 'the
edge.' "Take care of the luxuries of life, and the essentials will take
care of themselves," Wright philosophized.
Ken Burns examines the character of Frank Lloyd Wright. What made him 'tick'? How does one go about becoming the greatest American architect of the 20th Century? (or as Wright would say: the greatest architect of all time)? A few of Wright's grandchildren are interviewed to help solve this puzzle. A 100-year-old son of the famed architect wheezes his views, in a raspy voice. Those views aren't very flattering: Wright abandoned his first wife, and his children, for various women over the years. In fact, he was jailed in Minnesota for crossing the state border in the company of a woman for 'immoral purposes.' He proved an embarrassment to his family. "I have felt fatherly feelings towards my buildings, but never towards my children," FLW muttered.
Burns interviews the long-lived architect, Philip Johnson: "I hated Wright. Hated him." Embittered with feelings of jealousy, and contempt, Johnson (serving in the 1930's as a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art) had the unenviable task of wrestling a small home design from FLW - to be displayed with other modern architects at a museum exhibition. Wright, who was penniless at the time, refused to cooperate, insulted that he wasn't offered a solo show.
Johnson: "I felt he was the greatest American architect of the NINETEENTH century. When someone at MoMA said they wanted Wright to be part of a modern architect showcase, I said sarcastically, 'Isn't he dead?'" Wright may have been 'dead' in 1930, but FLW's creative output after his 1935 comeback (Fallingwater) remains unequaled.
Many of the interviews (including some of Johnson's answers) are very positive regarding FLW's work. Sometimes overly reverent. FLW is compared to Beethoven. And the Johnson Wax Building is called his 'Ninth Symphony.' FLW, the man, on the other hand, is branded a con-man, a charlatan, a child who liked to play with other people's money.
Titles, such as "Can you just build me an office building?" or "I am immortal," divide the documentary into focused segments. Much like chapters of a biography. Each 'chapter' includes a question and answer with FLW himself - taken from an early television interview - with young Mike Wallace as reporter.
In response to another reviewer on this site who claimed that the Tokyo Imperial Hotel is not covered...perhaps that was true for the PBS broadcast...but that is NOT true for the extended home video version of this film. The earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel (for which FLW designed every aspect - down to the Hotel stationery) is briefly covered, but for no more than five minutes.
Many building projects are shone, but few are examined in any real detail. Perhaps one or two pervading traits of a particular structure will be mentioned and shown. Burns gives you enough information to get a taste of FLW's genius, but not enough for you to learn the nuts and bolts of architecture. Aspiring students will need to consult a book for that. But, for the rest of us, who are merely curious, the footage of the buildings are long enough to grant us a sense of place, a sense of serenity, and a glimpse of that organic truth for which Wright devoted his life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is one of my favorite shows, movie or documentary; I've watched it
many times. It's very well done, always interesting, well edited, well
written. I've suggested it to many people to watch. The opening
sequence with the survey of some of Wright's most famous buildings
along with dramatic Beethoven music (5th Piano Concerto "Emperor") is
spectacular. The photography of his buildings is often beautifully and
Some commentators were disappointed that there were not more buildings shown or that there was not more technical architectural discussion. I agree, but that wouldn't have been practical, and probably not so interesting to the general public. For instance, there really wasn't much discussion of "cantilever", which is what is holding up his most famous building, Falling Water. It would have been impossible to show all of the 700+ buildings he designed. Survey and technical information about Wright are much more available on the Internet now than in 1998 when the show came out. There are free online courses that cover these topics in detail.
This show is about Wright the man. His history, the people and events that shaped his life and work, his ideas, along with his greatest works. His life was dramatic enough to provide an interesting story.
One thing that stood out for me: when the stock market crashed in 1929, Wright was 62 years old. People didn't live so long in those days and his career seemed over. He was out of money and couldn't get a commission to build, and the economy had tanked anyway. This comes at the end of the first half of the show, and the commentator says somewhat profoundly: his greatest achievements were yet to come.
Also fascinating was how his 3rd wife influenced him at this stage of his life, and how she moved his career along.
Edward Herrmann does a very good job as narrator. (He died last year in 2014.) More than just reading a script, his voice is thoughtful and responsive to the words, as he's digested them and is reacting personally.
Philip Johnson, eminent architect, is the main person interviewed. Interestingly, Johnson talks about his love-hate relationship with Wright, who he knew personally and by whom he was influenced greatly.
Overall, the show is beautiful, breathtaking, dramatic, informative and at times shocking. Well worth watching by anyone.
This was a great documentary! Very well done! This man's life was amazing. He was an absolute architectural and engineering genius! This documentary well showed his life and his work and although the total time was a little over 2 1/2 hours, it didn't seem that long! The film was engrossing! I Have seen two other projects of Ken Burns', 1)his amazingly detailed "Civil War", and 2), His equally dazzling look into the "History of Major League Baseball". Guys, don't be mislead by the subject matter of Architecture. You will not be bored. This man was (WRIGHT) to say the least,'Quite the personality'. (Likewise for you ladies with 'baseball', or even the 'Civil War'), Mr. Burns looks at EVERY ANGLE of his subjects with accuracy and all the humor, detail, tragedy and truth that only hours and hours of research could bring. His 'Labors of Love' on his subjects ALWAYS shines through! Never more than here, with Frank Lloyd Wright.!
Frank Lloyd Wright is the most innovative and influential architect in the 20th century. He shaped the way we think about buildings today, and put architecture at a different level of thinking. Buildings look simple in design but modern in method of the art of architecture. Even if you are an architect or not, you will enjoy this documentary.
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