Frank Lloyd Wright: When the Personal Inspires the Professional

Frank Lloyd Wright Studio Library

Frank Lloyd Wright Studio Library

On a trip to Chicago last year I visited the home and studio of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hard to believe that this visionary modern building was designed in the late nineteenth century. It’s a commonplace criticism of modern architects that they wouldn’t live in the houses they design. But Wright was the exception to this rule. His home and studio were a living laboratory for his hypotheses and new approaches to living space. In his home he introduced fluid connecting rooms, built-in benches, windows located high on the wall so as to avoid prying eyes. In his studio he specified magnesite floors for comfort and sound absorption; he conducted stand-up meetings with Clients who were kept away from the working architects. Wright valued privacy, natural light, simple, organic structures. He enclosed a tree in a passageway and a baby grand piano in a wall. He believed that buildings should be designed in harmony with people and the environment. And he lived his work.

In the marketing and communications industry, what would be our equivalent of this committed approach to life and work? What would happen if we let the personal inspire the professional? How can we truly live our work?

Of course, we could begin by consuming more of the work we produce: watching, not skipping, the ads on commercial TV and YouTube; doing the weekly shop; examining the packaging; walking the High Street; listening to conversations on the bus. If brands are shared behaviours and beliefs, it’s critical that marketing and communication experts participate in shared popular culture.

I would suggest that the best and most successful creative professionals experience life in its infinite variety and infuse their work with their acquired knowledge and insight. A film or football match, a good read or bad play, a walk in the park, a dance in the dark, a word in the ear, a feast for the eyes. A life fully lived provides the material for creative thought. Random, extraneous, unrelated experiences inspire lateral leaps and imaginative connections. The personal stimulates the professional.

I once hired a young Planner whom I’d interviewed in the pub. But the new joiner wasn’t a great success. In the pub he had been a charming raconteur, a thoughtful observer. But in the office he became a conventional thinker, a Steady Eddie. I tried to persuade this Planner to bring something of the bloke I’d met down the pub into the office, but it wasn’t a transition he seemed capable of. For him the worlds of work and leisure were fundamentally separate and distinct.

Of course, for the most part the modern work-life relationship is out of balance in work’s favour. It’s normal nowadays to answer office emails at home, to catch up after the kids have gone to bed, to work at the weekend, to conference-call on Californian time.

Over-work poses problems on two fronts. On a basic level it drains the employee of energy and initiative. But it also starves colleagues of the experiences and insights that enable them to perform at their best. If you cancel that trip to the cinema, club, theatre or gallery, you deny yourself the opportunity to think, feel and see. And you deny your business your ability to imagine, leap and dream.

In my industrious youth I was often tempted to cancel social engagements because I had too much to do at the office. But I must have been rather stubborn back then and I refused to let this happen. I cut down on my sleep instead. In time fatigue forced me to be more efficient at work. It’s not an approach I’d necessarily recommend…

I believe the over-worked under-perform because they are under-stimulated. Blurring the lines between the personal and professional should not mean letting the professional dominate everything. It should mean letting one’s rich home, family, cultural and social life inform and inspire one’s work. And this should enhance both sides of the work-life equation.

 

‘Oh, I’m out here trying to make it,
Baby, can’t you see?
It takes a lot of money to make it,
Let’s talk truthfully.
So keep your love light burnin,’
Oh, you gotta have a little faith.
You might as well get used to me
Coming home a little late.
Oh, I can’t wait to get home to you,
I got so much work to do.’

The Isley Brothers, Work To Do

No. 80

Let's Turn That River Round: A Lesson in Creative Thinking from the City of Chicago

 

Sometimes the conventional tourist trail can be rewarding. In Chicago last October I joined the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s River Cruise. A charming guide (an unpaid volunteer docent) gave us a potted history of the Windy City’s magnificent skyscrapers.

We glided past the Tribune Tower of 1925, a neo gothic triumph of flying buttresses and spires. We marvelled at 1929’s Carbide and Carbon Building, all art deco elegance in black granite, green terra cotta and gold leaf. Its design was reputedly inspired by a champagne bottle. We paused to admire Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building of 1973, a single-minded symphony in black anodized aluminium and grey tinted glass. We swooned at the rippling façade of Jeanne Gang’s eighty four-story Aqua Tower, completed in 2009.

 Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by  Bertrand Goldberg

 Mies van der Rohe - IBM Building next to the circular Marina Towers by Bertrand Goldberg

Chicago’s architecture is not just impressive, beautiful and richly diverse in style and tone. It also tells a story of bold entrepreneurism and creative problem solving.

The forty-story Jewelers’ Building of 1927 was once the highest building in the world outside New York. In a crime-challenged city the Jewelers’ Building boasted a car lift to ensure the safe transfer of diamond merchants direct to their offices.

Montgomery Ward is the oldest mail order firm in America. The beautiful Catalog House of 1908 provided two million square feet of storage and office space over its eight stories. ‘Pickers’ were issued with roller skates to traverse the vast concrete floors.

Wherever you look around Chicago you see ingenuity at work. There are skyscrapers built over railway lines and on eccentric shaped plots that posed huge engineering challenges. And urban invention continues to this day. Since 2001 the city transport authorities have been constructing a pedestrian Riverwalk along the south bank of the Chicago River. It aims to open up the riverside to the public, with floating gardens, lawns, cafes, boating lakes and fishing piers.

                                       Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

                                       Section of the Chicago Riverwalk

Inevitably, not all of Chicago’s architectural innovations were successful. For instance, the onion-domed Medinah Athletic Club Building of 1929 (now the InterContinental Hotel) has a blimp mooring station on its roof.

Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Jeanne Gang - Aqua Tower

Nonetheless, ingenuity, creativity and bold ambition seem to have driven Chicago forward from one decade to another. I was particularly impressed by the city’s endeavours to deal with its poor drainage.

Since its early years Chicago had suffered sewage and sanitation problems. In the 1850s and 1860s whole buildings and streets were raised on hydraulic jacks to accommodate new drains. And yet the still rapidly growing Chicago continued to suffer deaths from typhoid and other waterborne diseases. The city responded by building the 28 mile Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal connected the Chicago River to the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. And it thereby reversed the flow of the Chicago River! Whereas previously it had discharged into Lake Michigan; now it flowed away from it.

I couldn’t help thinking that these tall tales, impressive statistics and leaps of lateral thought put modern London to shame. We don’t seem able to build an airport, a runway, a concert hall, a bridge with herbaceous borders. Our roads are congested, our streets polluted, our cyclists are always at risk. And our Government wants to sell our social housing rather than create it. All we seem capable of is stacking empty glass boxes one on top of the other, as far as the eye can see.

We often characterise such urban challenges as failings of the planning process or the political system. But, at a more fundamental level, they betray a lack of confidence and imagination. The transformational impact of creativity should not be limited to the interiors of our homes, shops and galleries. It should extend right the way across our cities: to our public buildings, our recreational space, our offices, our domestic architecture, our transport infrastructure.

Just think what we could achieve if we had the determination to turn our river round.

No. 62