By Catherine Breese
“Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.” –Frank Lloyd Wright
The importance of living a balanced life is a common notion across cultures. It is so pervasive that no one really questions it. Through religion, philosophy, and literature we learn that excessiveness leads to negative consequences, moderation in all things is best, and yin assumes yang. The theory goes that when we don’t have balance we will be unhappy and unhealthy. Recently I read David Sedaris’s story “Laugh, Kookaburra,” in which his friend Pat explains the four burner theory of life. This analogy says that each of us is like a four burner stove: one burner is work, one is family, one is friends, and one is health. When we have higher aims in one area, we must turn down the heat going to one or more of the other burners. For example, a person who wants to move up in the company must spend extra time and energy pursuing career aims and this requires him/her to subtract that same energy from another burner. If the person wants to be really successful, then two burners must be turned down or shut off. It’s a nice little analogy because it is simple, and most of us can find a way to apply it to our own particular lives.
I think the analogy falters, however, because it assumes each individual is the master of his own universe and he/she is making decisions as the captain of the ship. Its underlying assumptions are that the career is one the individual loves or the family is not dysfunctional or that good health is something we can simply choose to have by focusing on it. Of course we can each choose to eat healthfully, live actively, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep. We can each choose to love and to seek purpose and meaning in life. That is no guarantee that cancer won’t strike or you won’t be hit by a driver who is texting. The burners are sometimes adjusted for us.
Then, there are those people who believe that it is prideful or arrogant to unilaterally captain one’s own ship. These people see suffering unhappiness as an elemental part of life and think we show a lack of character when we quit a crappy job or leave a crappy marriage. These are the folks that say that when life gives you lemons, you eat lemons. (I personally prefer the version my sister postulates: when life gives you lemons, get some tequila and ice and give me a call.)
Where the four burner theory appears to be accurate is the idea that expending energy on one part of life takes away from the others. And to achieve real greatness requires sacrificing that balanced life that is the cornerstone of the ideal. So, in the case of highly successful people, those individuals who really chart their own course, some burners must be turned off.
Let’s take a look at American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to see if the theory holds.
If you are unfamiliar with the personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright, you are probably in the majority. On recent tours of his studio at Taliesin and the Robie House in Chicago, we were told much about historic preservation, architecture, and design, but very little about the personal life of the man. Certainly, he is known worldwide for his architectural genius and is often thought of as the father of American modernist design. His influence can be seen in buildings great and small and especially in the midcentury modernist movement that is enjoying an impressive revival these days. His Prairie style, Usonian homes, and love of clean geometric line and shape underlay a wide scope of American architecture. Organic style and open concept floor plans are Wright’s ideas. The Robie house and Falling Water, not to mention the Guggenheim, are beloved architectural masterpieces. However, his personal life is only for the curious. It’s pretty juicy.
He was born in Wisconsin in 1867 as the son of a minister who was somewhat distant (as were most fathers; the idea of an involved, nurturing father is purely a contemporary concoction) and a mother who encouraged his interests and invited him to play with geometric wooden blocks. His parents divorced when he was 14. He went to college but did not earn a degree. He became a draftsman for several firms and finally apprenticed for renowned architect Louis Sullivan who was important in Wright’s professional development. He married a woman named Catherine (“Kitty”) and began a family in a house he designed himself. He was also a philanderer. At the age of 42 he and the wife of a client, Mamah, ran off to Europe for a year, leaving behind Kitty and his six children. Mamah’s husband granted her a divorce but Wright’s wife Kitty would not. When they returned to America he gave his mistress and her children a temporary home in Taliesin, a home built on property in Wisconsin purchased by his mother’s family. A horrifying tragedy struck when a disgruntled servant killed the mistress Mamah, her children, and a total of seven people with an axe after setting the house afire. Wright was not there at the time. The murderer swallowed muriatic acid in a botched suicide attempt and starved in jail. Wright went to work reconstructing Taliesin and got busy in his love life by finding Miriam. Kitty finally granted Wright the divorce and he married Miriam in 1923, and she turned out to be quite a handful. Their relationship was reportedly violent and Miriam was a morphine addict. The marriage ended in a year and Wright took up with Olgivanna. Frank Lloyd Wright and she lived together and had a child together in 1925. Wright was finally divorced from Miriam in 1927 and he married Olgivanna in 1928. He died in 1959. It was Olgivanna’s dying wish to have her ashes interred with Wright’s at Taliesin West in Arizona. Despite protest from family members, his body was exhumed and cremated, a full twenty-five years after it had been buried in Wisconsin. Even in death, a family life full of turmoil.
He was a busy fellow. Let’s not forget that while all this was going on in the middle of his life, he was simultaneously designing the most important architectural spaces in America. Yes, his behavior was seen as scandalous at the time and it is pretty easy, even by today’s social standards, to adjudicate him as an egotistical womanizing bastard. But of those charges, probably only egotistical ought to stick. Women may have had fewer choices in the past, but they have always had free will.
Frank Lloyd Wright was by all evidence a genuine egoist (perhaps rightly so.) When you visit the Robie House or Taliesin, they do freely admit this about his personality. Wright himself acknowledged his egotism saying “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” He aspired to be the single greatest architect ever, and perhaps it is because he believed this about himself that he was. His ego is as much responsible for his success as it is evident in his wild personal life. Undoubtedly, these women in his life nourished his ego. And perhaps Wright even gained creative energy out of the conflict. Clearly he had no interest in a quiet, normal existence involving neighborhood barbeques and school plays.
So, let’s look at the four burners. Friends: well, an architect makes a living though contacts and relationships with clients. He worked daily with draftsmen and other designers and students. His egotism aside, he must surely have cultivated many, many personal relationships. Maybe it’s a stretch to call these friendships, but maybe not. Health: Wright lived to be 91. I do not know anything about his spiritual or emotional health, but anyone who makes it to 91 must do at least some things which are healthful. Work: I think we have covered that above; he was a juggernaut of the Modern aesthetic. Family: Here’s where it gets interesting. If we use a more contemporary definition of family it seems as though his burner was pretty darn hot. He reinvented his family more than once during his lifetime. Yes, he was unfaithful. He left a wife and children for a lover. But he also designed and built several houses for members of his family and his mother. He fathered seven children and adopted one. He struggled financially at several periods during his life, but he never made the practical choice to take a regular job to pay the bills. He pursued his artistic and professional goals first and foremost, but he appeared to be almost as passionate about love and family.
It seems to me that Wright was flaming very brightly on all burners, almost inventing his own energy. He didn’t have the same stove that the rest of us do. A man of singular vision who adopted “The Truth Against the World” as a family motto, Wright was such an exceptional person that to expect him to live a conventional life just seems plain silly. His life was balanced, in a way, but also so much brighter a burn.
David Sedaris’s story “Laugh, Kookaburra”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin
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