Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Genius by Any Other Name

genius \ˈjēn-yəs \ noun.  the term that is perhaps most over-used in describing Frank Lloyd Wright.

Etymology geek that I am, I was intrigued to encounter this Wright-worn word anew when reading Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome.  King's vivid history of the design and construction of the famous Duomo of Florence is at least as interesting for its footnotes as for its main text.  One note (p. 156) delves into the origins of the term genius.  As it turns out, the English word genius originates with the Latin ingenium, meaning a machine (or more literally "engine").  The related term ingeniator is one who designs or builds machines.  In war-torn Renaissance Europe, such engineering (another word in the ingenium family) expertise was highly prized by feuding Principalities.  Thus, to be a genius (or to be ingenious) was to be a clever cog in the military-industrial machine of the day.

It is with the Renaissance that this Latin word family becomes associated with architect-artist-inventors such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci, who designed flying machines, tanks and trebuchets, as well as timeless works of architecture, painting and sculpture.  Somewhat in contrast to the placid portrait of Renaissance humanism that often comes to mind, genius came to mean an inspired creator of many things, both sublime and infernal. 

So, with this etymology in mind, how apt a term is genius to describe Frank Lloyd Wright?  Wright's record as an engineer is checkered;  he is often maligned for his leaky roofs and sagging cantilevers.  But he did execute some amazing feats of architectural engineering in concert with skilled builders (e.g. Mueller and Unity Temple) and structural engineers (e.g. Polivka and the Guggenheim Museum).  In his late career, Wright envisioned mega-skyscrapers (the Illinois, or "Mile High"), futuristic cars and pod-like helicopters (in drawings published in The Living City), though these utopian fancies never got past the conceptual stage.  Neither Wright nor da Vinci provide much detail as to how these inventions might be constructed and operated (though da Vinci detailed his enough that working models have been constructed).  Both men were pacifists, but Wright differs from da Vinci in terms of integrity:  he never applied his design prowess to a military purpose.  

Above:  Da Vinci's drawing for a scythed chariot and an turtle-like tank.
Below:  Wright's drawing for utopian modes of transportation from The Living City. 

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