Architectural heroes are risky companions. For some years, I have questioned the relationship between being an outstanding architect and an outstanding human being. A recent article in the New York Review of Books revived my doubts.
When I think of my heroes, I connect them to their great architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, as the creator of the Robie house or the Johnson Wax building in Wisconsin; Mies van der Rohe and 860 North Lake Shore Drive or the Farnsworth house; Walter Gropius and the Fagus factory or the Bauhaus building in Germany; Le Corbusier brings to mind the Villa Savoy or the church in Ronchamp; and Louis Kahn the Salk Institute in LaJolla and the Kimball Art Museum in Texas. I respect them for what they designed and for their architectural work only.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a true architectural giant and a well-known womanizer who had an affair with the wife of at least one client. He misled his clients about construction costs. He spent his money irresponsibly without the slightest idea how he could repay the debts (Brendan Gill: “Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Da Capo Press, 1998).
Mies van der Rohe, who “escaped” the Nazis in 1938 to teach at IIT, would have remained comfortable in Germany had he been offered the commission to design the new national bank in Berlin in 1933.
Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus, and was later head of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (and was married for a few years to Alma Schindler, better known as Alma Mahler), was an officer of the German army in World War I. When the front collapsed in 1918, Gropius in a letter to Alma placed the blame securely on – no surprise – the Jews.
In his recent article, Martin Filler writes about my fourth architectural hero, Le Corbusier, who moved to Vichy (the French government territory that cooperated with the Nazis in World War II) in the hope of getting some commissions. He assiduously lobbied for work – unsuccessfully. (Martin Filler: “Maman’s Boy,” New York Review of Books, April 30, 2009).
Lou Kahn, it turned out after his lonely death, was a polygamist. His life is recreated in the 2003 film, “My Architect,” by his son Nathaniel Kahn.
Some excellent architects are difficult human beings; also there are mediocre or very poor architects who are kind, fair human beings, caring, warm and giving. Does this make their buildings better? Does it make them better designers? By no means.
This is equally true of politicians, public figures and aldermen as well. Aldermen may be nice people, good parents, husbands or wives, but they are judged on the basis of what they support, what they oppose and how they lead.
Perhaps one must finally conclude that talent, or even genius, in one field does not translate to any other aspect of life. Talent and humanity clearly are linked on occasions, but one aspect of character cannot be a predictor of another.
What is fascinating is how great architects, like Mies, for example, were able to justify their immorality: “Michelangelo was not a religious man, yet he worked for the Pope.” (Quoted by Elaine S. Hockman, in her “Architects of Fortune: Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich,” Grove Press, 1989.)