Frank Lloyd Wright Goes to the Dogs – and Kids

Even if you do not study architecture, gentle reader, you have probably heard the name of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), or recognize some of his most famous buildings.  From the Guggenheim Museum in New York, to the Fallingwater house outside of Pittsburgh,  he left his mark across the United States with his innovative designs.  Yet he also left a very personal mark with a young boy who asked for his assistance, and the example he set by it is something we, too, ought to consider emulating.

In his ever-evolving building style, we might observe that Wright began as a Midwesterner, but ended up an Internationalist.  His career really took off when he worked with the great Louis Sullivan in Chicago, but eventually he set out on his own, incorporating influences from both ancient and modern sources.  Thus, a heavily horizontal house indebted to traditional Japanese ideas about how one ought to live, might feature decorated concrete wall panels in a neo-Mayan style, mixed with the minimalist steel posts and plate-glass windows used in skyscraper construction.

Apart from a few exceptions, such as the interior of the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, truth be told I am not a huge fan of Wright’s work.  I recognize his importance, but I do not care for most of his completed structures, which often make me think of an abandoned mortuary temple from a long-vanished, alien civilization.  It is probably no accident that many of the matte paintings in science fiction television shows, such as the Klingon home world on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, bear more than a passing resemblance to some of Wright’s design concepts.

That being said, I recently read the charming story of a 12-year-old boy, whose parents had commissioned and built a home designed by Wright, who wrote to the great architect and asked whether he could also design a dog house for his black lab Eddie, to match the family’s new house.  The boy asked that the dog house be relatively easy to build, and promised to pay for the plans  out of his paper route.  As you can read in the complete story, Wright eventually complied with the plans, free of charge, and the result is probably one of the only doghouses in the world designed by a  major architect.

Putting aside the question of whether the design was a good one or not – it weighed a ton, the dog didn’t like it much, and it (predictably) leaked – it was a lovely thing for Wright to do.  His action challenges us to think about what talents we have that might make a real difference in someone else’s life.  We may not be an important architect or someone famous of course, but all of us possess some talent or talents which we are good at, and that can be used for the benefit of others.

However I think that the example Wright gives in this story is one that goes beyond just kindness to others, in that it acknowledges the importance of both animals and children.  Perhaps in Wright’s mind, crotchety egoist that he was, most of the time he viewed these two as really being one in the same thing.  Yet he still took the time to do something that he thought a dog and his young master might love.  It is easier to understand why Wright might go to the dogs over such a project, since his parenting skills were described by one relative as “Soviet”, though his doing something for a child perhaps carries a greater significance.

Those of us who are adults may think that a concern for children is something limited to those who have their own.  Or on a professional level, we may ascribe such a concern to those who are paid to care for someone else’s children, whether as a pediatrician, babysitter, and so on.  We may find the groups of schoolchildren who make seemingly endless amounts of noise on the commuter train or in church, or who crowd like packs of wild dogs in public places like our streets and movie theatres, to be extremely irritating. Yet ensuring that the next generation not only physically survives into adulthood, but does so with an understanding of the values of charity, compassion, and respect for others is something of interest to all.

Shirking the responsibility of setting a good example for young people is not only selfish, it is ultimately self-defeating.  For one day, those annoying children will be adults, and we shall be aged and infirm.  If we do not care for them, and gently show them how they ought to behave as well-formed adults, then we can hardly expect them to act toward us in a way in which we ourselves failed to act toward them.

Frank Lloyd Wright may not have been the most pleasant man in the world, according to many of his contemporaries and biographers. Yet even he managed to produce something out of sheer kindness toward a boy and his dog, as famous and as busy a figure as he was.  Are we really so very important, in our own lives, that we cannot possibly do something similar, for the generations that come after ours?

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