Extraordinary documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright intertwines his life and work
``In a land where people never knew what to make of him, Frank Lloyd Wright knew what to make of them . . . and finally what to build.'' That is the theme of one of the year's most extraordinary documentaries about one of America's most extraordinary talents: Uncommon Places: The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (PBS, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 10-11 p.m.).
Producer-writer-narrator Dave Iverson obviously admires Wright and, to a great extent, the film is an uncritical paean to his work. But Iverson has intertwined the life of the man with his work so skillfully, that what emerges is a full-blown portrait of the artist as an eccentric but still a great artist.
Most important, Iverson and his superb cinematographer Marsha Kahm have managed to find many Wright houses and other buildings and bring them to life. It would have been better if we could have seen the interiors of all of these buildings, but perhaps we should be grateful that the producer managed to get inside and photograph a few with full interiors. There is a marvelous architectural flow to the footage -- the viewer can match Wright's work to the emotional stages of his life.
Most laymen know of Wright as the architect of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo which withstood an earthquake, of the Falling Water house, and of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But this documentary points out that Wright was responsible for 400 buildings in his lifetime -- and photographic crews obviously combed the country to film at least the exteriors of many as they are today. Some of these buildings have previously been seen only in architectural textbooks.
Some unique home-movie and newsreel footage, as well as a 1978 interview with his last wife, Olga, add much to an understanding of the man and his place among the people around him, as well as his place in his profession.
``Out of the earth and into the light'' was the way Wright often described his organic architecture, which started as a reaction against the Victorianism of the turn of the century. Space, Wright felt, was to be lived in. It is the reality of the building. And he designed buildings which grew from the inside out.
Two of his latter-day buildings -- the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis., and the Guggenheim -- are featured toward the end of the documentary, as they were designed toward the end of his career. It is clear that the Johnson build- ing anticipated the contemporary trend toward enclosed skyscrapers which look inward and create their own environment.
While the documentary is critical of the current attitude of the inheritors of Taliesen for not recognizing that it commemorates an imperfect man, perhaps the documentary itself can be faulted for the same reason. It would have been interesting to hear from architects who are not admirers of the man and his work. But, like Wright himself, who tried to create beauty in everyday life, the film manages to find beauty in all of his work. And in the course of doing that, it creates its own particular kind of
``Uncommon Places'' was produced by WHA/Madison and the Wisconsin TV Network. Appropriately enough, funding for the production and promotion came from Johnson Wax, whose headquarters in Racine were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.