Friday, November 6, 2009

Genius and the Mere Mortal

It is hard for ordinary mortals to put up with geniuses. In the field of architecture,
it is hard for geniuses to put up with us ordinary mortals.

This observation was made by famed New Yorker critic and man of letters Brendan Gill, at the 1986 dedication of the Darwin D. Martin House as a National Historic Landmark. Gill was speaking of Frank Lloyd Wright's erudition and charisma as "bewitching" to the practical-minded Darwin Martin, but the statement inspires a much wider discussion of the visionary, superhuman artist (and architect in particular) fettered only by the conventional values and expectations of his client.

Extremes of this characterization can be found in both ancient tradition and contemporary culture. Consider the Old Testament description of God the Father as the "architect of the universe," or the mystification of gothic builders through the traditions of the Freemasons (inspiration for Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol). In recent years, the architect as superhuman puppet-master was portrayed in the figure of "The Architect" in the Matrix movies: a technocratic, grandfatherly figure who appears in the narrative as an abrupt deus ex machina and bears a striking resemblance to Freud (or many a nineteenth century architect, for that matter).

Above: William Blake's illustration of God as an "architect,"
with calipers.

Left: The "Architect" from The Matrix Reloaded.

Outside the realm of pure faith or pure fantasy, none of these figures ever gets to build a world on the scale or level of control that their implied omnipotence would suggest. Architects from Michelangelo to Louis Kahn have been thwarted in their attempts to re-make entire cities, their designs relegated to the utopia of the drafting board. But, should we blame the field of architecture for delusions of grandeur which clash with the realities of the checkbook and the construction site, or should we cite the tenacious cultural traditions that encourage us mere mortals to deify architects and their power to shape space?

Gill made a good point: Wright didn't shy away from assuming the guise of the god-like artist, and Martin may have been spellbound by this shamanistic role. One can even find a parallel between Wright's personal escapades and those of the philandering Olympian gods. But to keep Wright on Olympus obscures a full understanding of his work. He may have been a genius architect, but his visions were only accomplished through dialogue and partnership with "ordinary mortals" like Darwin Martin. And, at the end of the day, Wright was one as well.

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