Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 8, 2014


Host: Ted Simons

Frank Lloyd Wright Book


  • Local architect Vern Swaback, who served as an apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright, has written a new book about his mentor. Swaback will discuss his book, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unfinished Work.”
Guests:
  • Vern Swaback - Architect and Author, "Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unfinished Work"
Category: Education   |   Keywords: education, book, mentor, apprentice, author,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Frank Lloyd Wright liked to talk about the relatedness in in all things. Local architect Vern Swaback touches on that idea and much more in his new book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Unfinished Work." It's a subject Swaback knows well, having once served as an apprentice under the famed architect. Joining us now is Vern Swaback. It's good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

Vern Swaback: It's good to be here.

Ted Simons: Before we get to the book, talk about briefly your history with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Vern Swaback: Can I do one thing before that?

Ted Simons: You sure can.

Vern Swaback: If Wright were here right now, he would start with where professor left off. The problem with the head site is that we're so good at anything we can manipulate in a technological way, that we become our worst enemy. I'll just give you one cartoon. An amoeba is clinging to one of the last little branches on earth, talking to one on the other branch and everything is scalded. It can only come from a hydrogen bomb. One amoeba says to the other, next time we leave out the brain.

Ted Simons: And that is what I'd asked him if we're so ingenious, sometimes we're a little too smart for our own good and we don’t realize what’s happening underneath. Frank Lloyd Wright, back to my first question, your experience with him.

I met him in 1956 . I was interviewed in Wisconsin, the summer headquarters, and in January of 57' I became an apprentice. And I came from a very crowded neighborhood in Chicago, I don't remember seeing the sun, out to this middle of could have been moonscape with at night all the roofs were illuminated with white canvas, and the next morning I was given a bucket of mortar, walked out in the desert and said if you can fix up this tent this will be your home. So that was the beginning.

Ted Simons: That was the beginning. And obviously you helped him work on a number of things here. Your book is "Frank Lloyd Wright's Unfinished Work." What is his unfinished work?

Vern Swaback: The title comes from the fall of 1958, we were at Taliesin in Wisconsin, and Wright said, well, boys, we're all boys to him, we're going to be leaving Wisconsin with our work half done here. And then he said, I'll probably die with my work half done. Another informal occasions he said things like, if I had another 15 years I could invent a whole new architecture and so forth. So my reasoning is that he had accomplished everything that any architect could ever hope to accomplish. He turned the whole boat in the direction of organic thinking away from historic imitation and so forth, and at this point rather than competing with the architects of the 21st century and outdoing them as the 19th and 20th centuries, he might even have a bit of respect for the characteristics of the people who came after him. And that he would turn his notion now to making things happen that he really wasn't as successful with during his lifetime. He had -- He wanted a new form of city. And that really never happened. And so my notion is that he would now turn his attention to making the world work. We're the first global civilization; almost everything is new, changing at light speed. We have aging population; we have a declining middle class. We have fewer people supporting the retired people in Spain and Italy it's like one-to-one. We have an incredible increase of the shared economy, which was like what we lived at Taliesin doing more with less by way of sharing instead of resources. I had no car, I had no key chain, I had no bank account, I never bought anything. And Friday and Saturday -- Saturday and Sunday nights were black tie dinners with first-run movies and concerts. It was a very elegant way of life. I had -- We had no phone. The Guggenheim museum was supervised out of a phone booth, two gravel roads of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road. And yet breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 25 nations, so it was truly a green society. It was a celebration of doing more with less. And doing it by way of community.

Ted Simons: And yet I can hear people now saying, this is -- We're supposed to be talking about architecture here. Where's the four square, where's the beams? Your book especially, you talk more about this kind of holistic living, the interconnectedness of things, which is again, something he emphasized.

Vern Swaback: Right, totally. He defined architecture and an architect as master of the know-how. Archbishop, archhigh, tech, meaning technology and so forth. And what he would be doing now is the reason that the whole world knows and celebrates him. People all over the world are somehow in love with his name. They've never seen a building, or a drawing he made. But he became almost like a folk hero because he was representing the human spirit and doing it in a very forceful way. He admired this country because for the first time ever, somebody wrote into the founding documents the sovereignty of the individuals. Not the sovereignty of the plan, like PLATO's republic, or whatever, but the notion of the individual. And the individual -- I can tell you without any fear of being wrong that he would be very unimpressed with today's computer technology. The reason being, it's a tool. And his notion was that you should use the great tools, but never in such a way that they take over and master the creation -- Creator of those tools. And so we have now people who are talking about are we really going to be -- Live forever, because we go into our computer model, I was talking to this woman at the MiT and she said her students want to upload themselves into their computers. Well, we can do that, but that would be a choice. I think it's the time we should hold on to our humanity. There are many things we'll never know, but I don't think we want to get too impressed with doubling of the competition of capacity, we should be very distressed about how little we have done with the seven deadly sins.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, could a young Frank Lloyd Wright, if he were alive and young today, make the same kind of impact that he did in the previous century?

Vern Swaback: I think so. But he would do it with entirely different tools. He would do it with -- I don't think he would be -- Wright lived most of his life in hard-to-find places. We had a party phone in Wisconsin. We had no phone in other places. He made himself, he was thought of as being arrogant but he made himself that symbol because it all had to be directed at him. He didn't have a lot of help, he didn’t have a cheering crowd. He would have to counter the kind of -- Our fascination with titillation and short-term success.

Ted Simons: What do you think he would have wanted to live in this world of instant gratification, uploading this, would he have wanted that or did he have the freedom and opportunity in the prior years to do what he really wanted to do?

Vern Swaback: Understand how much this guy suffered. He was jailed for the Mann Act, he had six years with no work. Architects hated the guy. So it's not exactly if we look at how he is thought of now, it's not exactly how he lived. His home was burned to the ground twice. He persisted through things that very few people could do. So if you had a young person like him today, he'd have to be that strong.

Ted Simons: And would he have made that much of a difference?

Vern Swaback: Somebody has to make that much of a difference.

Ted Simons: Can -- Good point. Can someone make that kind of a difference now? With the instant gratification --

I don't think that's going to happen that way, but I think a whole youth movement has to make it happen. I think a whole feminine energy has to take over from the masculine energy. I don't mean just male and female, but war is obsolete. And peace is not the opposite of war. Community is opposite of war. It is as hard to achieve and maybe as costly to achieve as the waging war. It just has a different outcome. And to not set your sights on that, not to worry about whether global warming is true or false is just beside the point. What's happening is happening. But we can do something about it now, and the last thing we want to do is threatening each other with bombs and explosives and poisoning of the atmosphere and so forth. We've got to wake up. And we can't rely on government. Government can't do it anymore. Governments are becoming obsolete.

Ted Simons: Who does it?

Vern Swaback: It has to be the individual. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright epitomized the notion of the individual making that happen.

Ted Simons: Well, Vern, we could go on forever on this. And the book does go on quite a bit. If you're looking for blueprints and right angles and stuff, you might want to look somewhere else. This is a book of ideas. It's a fascinating read. It’s good to have you on the program. Congratulations on your success.

Vern Swaback: Thank you very much.

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