NEW YORK — Just as the Guggenheim Museum, a work of Wright's old age, remains his best-known building, the popular image of the architect himself is a product of those years. Having observed, astutely, that "the universal modern art is really salesmanship," Wright in his last decades encouraged a rather cultish devotion, a view of himself as an architectural titan among design-professional pygmies. In photos we see him dramatically backlit, a handsome elderly gentleman in tweed cape and riding boots, splendidly alo ne; or else he is surrounded by attentive admirers, young architects who came to him as apprentices and stayed, in many cases, as acolytes. And so in public perception he endures as our official Great American Architect, his name recognized even by those who know little of his work.
But more interesting than the arrogant elder statesman of architecture is the young Wright, the country boy from Wisconsin who, after studying engineering for two semesters at the state university in Madison, traveled to Chicago in 1887, while still in his teens, passionately eager to begin his career as an architect. He found work with Louis Sullivan, spending several seminal years in the office of this best and most radical architect of the day, and the only one whose influence Wright ever acknowledged . But soon he was on his own, embarked on a career whose surpassing courage and achievement justified the homage he so often demanded. From the start, Wright set himself the hardest of all artistic challenges. He dug deep into the essence of things, into the soul of his art and the spirit of his time, and from what he found he synthesized something new. He saw architecture not as a collection of buildings but as a "great living creative spirit," and he had by the end of his life brought us all closer to tha t spirit.