Frank Lloyd was always Wright - even from beyond the grave
Once upon a time - 17 October 1956 in Chicago City Hall to be exact - mayor Richard Daley presided over an unusual ceremony. He declared that from that day forth, 17 October should be known as Frank Lloyd Wright Day. The eponymous Wright, not to be outdone by the mayor, used the occasion to explode a bombshell in the world of architecture by unveiling a huge model of his now famous Mile High Illinois skyscraper - a project for a giant 500-storey, 1.2 million m 2tower complete with helicopter pads, five-storey atomic lifts and parking for 15,000 cars. It was a monster project that would stand, in its creator's own words, 'like a rapier planted hilt first in the ground'.
No one ever built the Mile High and I doubt if many people even remember that 17 October is Frank Lloyd Wright Day.
But there remains something remarkable about that event, even at the distance of nearly 50 years. Not only was Wright's project a tour de force of leading edge technologies (and in many ways remains so to this day), but the man himself was a legend.
Frank Lloyd Wright did not shield himself behind batteries of personal assistants and public relations specialists, instead he took care of all that stuff himself.
A few years earlier, when critics had attacked his earlier ruralist Broadacre City project, he had come right out and done battle with them on television, at the age of 88.
Indeed so unassailable was the architect's reputation that even after his death, when his last completed building, the Marin County Civic Centre, had become enmeshed in controversy and threatened with closure for its alleged non-compliance with earthquake codes, the governor of the state of California had intervened to prevent any alterations being made unless they were approved by the architect's stronghold of former pupils at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Clearly Wright could look after himself - even posthumously - but lesser and later architects have a poor record of attaining the heights that he bestrode for much of his lifetime. There are, of course, many reasons for this, ranging from differences in the character, personality and status of the recruits to the profession, to the effect of parallel changes in management structure and technology that swept through the construction industry itself, but at least part of the blame must be laid at the door of the expanding number of full- time 'architectural administrators' committed to an institutional defence of the whole profession, already in place and firing on all cylinders.
As events have shown, there are great disadvantages to being a member of a profession the policy of which is to encourage individual architects to maintain solidarity by keeping their heads down while controversy rages, and counting on a generalised defence of all architects and all architecture mounted by an institute of amateurs when it is not. When individual artists are lost in a collective identity that makes the best share responsibility for the failures of the worst and vice versa, the net result can only be a steady erosion of individual responsibility and a rise of middlemen and arbiters at all levels.
Nowadays, unlike in much of Frank Lloyd Wright's lifetime, it is perfectly possible to be a self-taught swashbuckling critic of architecture, outspoken as well as eccentric, but no architect will ever sit comfortably in this role. Whenever you hear someone fearlessly sounding off on TV about what is good or bad in architecture, the odds are 10 to one that it is someone with no practical involvement in the construction process whatever. We ought to remember that on 17 October.