October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated The king of overrated American architects remains Frank Lloyd Wright, whose genius for architecture was matched only by his genius for self-promotion. Because he stubbornly refused to admit that he was ever influenced by any other architect, except for Louis Sullivan, it is impossible to hold him in such high esteem as he held himself. (A perhaps apocryphal but certainly telling story holds that once when asked on the witness stand to state his name and occupation, he replied, “Frank Lloyd Wright, world’s greatest architect.” When asked why he said such a thing, he responded that he was under oath.)
Wright claimed the “open plan” (one room of a house flowing into the next without formal boundaries) as his own invention. But it was prominent in the projects of the English architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, whose work was widely published in professional journals before Wright’s use of it. Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, was a reinterpretation, albeit a brilliant one, of the International Style and of the work of Rudolf Schindler (Wright’s former associate) and Richard Neutra. (Not to mention that the house was so structurally flawed that it required a nearly $12 million renovation so it wouldn’t become “Fallingdown.”) Wright lived and worked in his self-aggrandizing architectural Neverlands—in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona—where unpaid apprentices kept his insatiable ego fed. Le Corbusier explained that “creation is a patient search,” but Wright never had the patience to develop his talents. He wallowed in legend building, which substituted for the greater legacy that should have resulted had he taken his craft, rather than his reputation, more seriously.
Underrated Born in the Midwest in 1867, the same year as Wright, Willis Polk found his architectural foothold in San Francisco, where the intellectual environment supported his inventive and idiosyncratic designs. Polk was well known and admired, but after his death at the age of 57 in 1924, his reputation faded. He remains one of the most underrated of American architects, an original talent who was willing to set aside selfish considerations to promote good design.
Several of the homes he designed for California clients reflected his eclectic style and original vision. He was equally at ease creating a formal townhouse (Bourn House, 1896), a mission-style mansion with a soaring interior and magnificent skylight (Rey House, 1893), or “The Bend” (Wheeler House, 1899), a dramatic country lodge with stone walls and a slate roof, laid out with an impressive forecourt and spectacular views of the McCloud River. Following the 1906 earthquake, Polk was named supervising architect of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, a spectacle that revived San Francisco’s reputation with the nearly 20 million visitors it attracted. Polk naturally reserved the exhibition’s crown jewel, the Palace of Fine Arts, for himself. But after seeing preliminary sketches by one of his employees, Bernard Maybeck, Polk gave him both the commission and sole credit for the design. The reconstructed building still stands, a monument to Folk’s generosity and vision.
After World War I, when the International Style took hold, Polk created at least one symbol of his adaptive brilliance with the Hallidie Building in downtown San Francisco—a loft building with an all-glass curtain facade. But the architect gave this modernist manifesto an ironic touch by festooning its lower and top floors with a continuous fringe of cast-iron gingerbread. It was typical of Polk that he was willing to shed a purist perspective and smudge his design with originality. Willis Folk’s design was for the city street, for the situation, for the eye of the beholder, rather than for the blind scales of historical reputation.