This is probably the best Frank Lloyd Wright story I’ve ever heard. A 12-year-old boy Jim Berger from San Anselmo, CA asked FLW if he would design a home for his black Labrador, Eddie. “I would appreciate it if you would design me a doghouse, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house...,” read the letter dated June 19, 1956. “[My dog] is two and a half feet high and three feet long. The reasons [sic] I would like this doghouse is for the winters mainly.” And he mentioned to pay with the money he made from his paper route. FLW was quite busy with the Guggenheim at that time, but he did eventually send drawings to the boy 5 months later, free of charge.
|Jim Berger’s letter asking FLW to design a doghouse|
The fact that somebody like FLW would agree and actually designed a doghouse for some 12-year-old kid is amazing. By “someone like FLW,” I don’t mean “the greatest architect of all time” as some others think. I’m talking about a famous but self-centered, arrogant, cunning, and ingratiating old man. Ken Burns, who made a documentary on Wright for PBS, called him a schmuck. Lewis Mumford described that “he lived from first to last like a God, one who acts but is not acted upon.” When questioned about his vanity, FLW justified himself by saying: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance.” Once while testifying in court, FLW referred to himself as the world’s greatest architect. Asked later how he could make such an excessive claim, he replied, “Well, I was under oath, wasn’t I?”
FLW saw Le Corbusier as a rival. He called the Villa Savoye “a box on stilts.” When Corb was in Chicago, FLW declined to meet the visitor from Paris. On the other hand, Corb himself also had a rather difficult and controversial personality. Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Le Corbusier: A Life, used contradictory words to describe him: compassionate, arrogant, generous, selfish, Calvinist, hedonistic, proud, enraged, ecstatic, sad, provocative, unique. When Corb went to America, he wanted to dominate the design board for the new UN headquarters, and eventually got into a power fight with Wally Harrison. Corb’s relationships with clients often ended badly. He was not very kind to his own employees either, even people like Iannis Xenakis, who contributed greatly on fantastic design of the Philips Pavilion and La Tourette. Corb started to dislike Xenakis after he found out that Xenakis had kept direct contact with a client without his permission. One summer when Xenakis went back to the office after vacation, he found the lock had changed. Shortly after, he received a letter from Corb which begins, “Modern architecture triumphs in France; it has been adapted. Today you may find a field of application for everything which you have acquired by yourself as well as through your work with me.”
This reminds me of how Steve Jobs treated Wozniak. After leaving Apple, Woz decided to start a company to make a universal remote control that he had invented. He approached frogdesign, a California-based company who also did design work for Apple, to design his device. But Jobs stretched all his power to make sure it didn’t happen. He told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t want to see our design language used on other products. Woz has to find his own resources. He can’t leverage off Apple’s resources; we can’t treat him specially.” Woz was not the only victim. Walter Isaacson wrote that Jobs was “frequently obnoxious, rude, selfish, and nasty to other people.” Even his old lover Tina Redse complained that it was incredibly painful to “be in love with someone so self-centered.” She read a psychiatric manual about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and decided that Jobs met perfectly all the criteria. In the office, he was mean and abusive, super hard to work with. He would “introduce tension, politics, and hassles,” with a mood swing that “resembles a high-voltage alternating current.” He was prone to tell people they were “dumb shit” and what they had done looked like shit. At the same time he was also a master of manipulation. Once you fall into his “reality distortion field,” you would be easily encouraged to work your ass off for him. Most of the Mac team, for example, got extremely burnt out at the end, and some even went schizo.
Many architectural offices also have the reputation of over-working people, and OMA is probably the most notorious. Rem would call up his staff in the middle of the night asking for design updates, just because he was bored in the hotel room in a different time zone. It’s so hard to get him for meetings that the teams had to rent a conference room at the airport and meet him there. But there was no guarantee that he would show up. For the times he did come, he might cut you off in the middle of the sentence and said, “How can you be so fucking stupid? I have a plane to catch.” I remember when I visited the OMA Rotterdam office, people got so nervous when someone said “Jesus is coming!” It reminded me of the scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep walks in the office. Well, Rem wears Prada as well.
I keep asking myself: does one really need to be either a psycho or an asshole to excel in creativity? Are those callous behaviors natural companions to fame and success? A friend said he did not mind arrogance as long as the person had real talent. Another friend said it was just a way for them to get things done. I guess if you look at it positively, you will find words like confident, passionate, decisive, persuasive, and efficient. Just that they have pushed it too hard that it appears as cocky, stubborn, controlling, manipulative, and cold-blooded.
I live in a modernist apartment building, reading the biographies on my iPad, and posting this text with a Mac. At the end, the asshole personalities of these stars are transcended by the brilliance they’ve left us. As said in the “Think Different” ad, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”