One of my favorite bloggers is thepracticalhistorian. Google that (no spaces) and you’ll find Sarah Angleton’s lighthearted take on some aspect of history. Her latest posting discusses the awarding of the architectural commission for The Gateway Arch, in St. Louis. Humor is hard to do well but she makes history funny.
I used to be an architect but then I retired. Now I am a writer who enjoys trying to be funny. I’ve had some bizarre experiences and met some rather interesting people during my career; however, you might not appreciate the humor of an incident unless you’d likewise worked in the profession. To give you accountants, beekeepers, belly-dancers, and tattoo artists a notion of the distinctiveness of architects, let me ask you a question:
Do your zumba instructor friends, your pediatrician acquaintances, your pet-sitter cousin, or even that pot-smoking truck driver uncle engage in competitions with other zumba instructors, pediatricians, pet-sitters, or truck drivers?
What about your attorney, that lady who flosses your teeth every six months, the cop who ticketed you for going 27 ½ mph in a 25 mph school zone? Do they compete with other attorneys, tooth-flossers, and policemen to prove their worthiness to increase your insurance rates?
Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, architects compete with their peers for work by demonstrating what they can do. Usually only the designs of significant buildings are chosen by a formal competition but most architects have an idea where they stand in the local design pecking order. It’s said that doctors bury their mistakes and lawyers send their blunders to jail but when an architect messes up, it stands in the city square for all to see.
The eagerness to polish one’s architectural reputation reminds me of a story about Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-famous architect. He died in 1959 at the age of 91, when I was still green as a gourd, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of everything. Based on what I’ve read about Mr. Wright (everybody called him “Mister”), this has the ring of truth. It seems that he had been invited to speak to the gathered architects of Oklahoma on this particular occasion.
As a native of that fair state, I can imagine the unease, the anticipation, those assembled architects felt as the Great Man entered the auditorium. Mr. Wright was clearly aware of his genius, his reputation, and exploited it when he could. He typically wore a cape; his flowing mane was often crowned with a grand hat with a wide brim. I can see him now, taking off that hat with a sweeping gesture as he sits and looks out at the hushed group with an imperious gaze.
Let me say that our state was peopled by hundreds of accomplished individuals. However, everyone in that room was extra sensitive about some things. First, they’d just come out of the Great Depression, and Oklahoma had been right about the center of the Dust Bowl. To make matters worse, the poverty-stricken migrants from the Southwest (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas) who migrated mostly to California had been branded as Okies. Okies.
Not only that, but everyone in that room had probably been subjected to snickers and barbed comments about “Okies.” Never mind that the taunts had come from the lips of ignorant barbarians of New York, Ohio, California, or some other high-falutin’ locale.
Somebody who’d attended Yale or Stanford got up and introduced the Great Man. On and on he droned about the thousand designs, the 534 completed works—the Guggenheim, the Johnson Wax tower in Racine, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that survived a tremendous earthquake. The 19-story Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, wasn’t on the list because it hadn’t been built at that time.
Finally the introduction was done and the crowd rose as one to pay homage to Frank Lloyd Wright as he approached the lectern. The crowd quieted and took their seats. This was what they came to hear.
Wright was not a tall man. But his manner could be imposing. He had a strong voice and he used it to full effect. The story goes that as he launched into his speech, he talked about flying over their great state and seeing a structure—repeated several times—of exquisite elegance. He talked about the pure design and clean lines. He probably said many other things about those buildings that he’d observed as his plane took him to that moment, to that place.
The architects leaned forward. Is he talking about my building? Dazzled by the possibilities of recognition by the world’s greatest architect, they could hardly bear the suspense.
“Yes,” he intoned. “I was struck by the nobility of these structures of pure simplicity, their honest expression of …” On and on he continued. Then a pause. “Those magnificent buildings were your grain elevators.”
Now, I don’t know if that part of the story is true. I’m told that it was. If it was, and you were one of those architects who’d been swept along by what could have been your building …
You simply gather your marbles and you tell your friends that you got to hear Frank Lloyd Wright. Yeah, he was okay; told some interesting stories. Maybe you’ll enter a design competition someday. You need to make a name for yourself, on your own, by your own effort.