Being a genius isn’t everything

I recently finished reading the book, The Fellowship, about Frank Lloyd Wright and school and offices at Taliesin and Taliesin West.  In one early draft of my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I referred to Wright as the United States’ greatest architects.  A reviewer made me take that line out, but it’s hard to think of another architect with as much broad and lasting influence.  The period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlights his amazing ability to design and occupy space, his prairie and usonian houses helped inspire American suburban architecture.   One can debate Wright’s place in American architecture, but one cannot deny the man’s genius. His ideas of a hundred years ago help shape our lives today.

But in other ways, Wright was a lunatic, elitist, and a racist.  He (or at least his last wife) flirted with the occult and strange paternalistic mysticism.  Wright was a notorious anti-Semite, selfish and beyond redemption when it came to personal relationships. The way he treated his acolytes who worked for him borders on the criminal. Even when he merely strayed from architecture to urban planning, Wright was off base. Wright’s ideas on urban and suburban design, as set forth in Broadacre City, were just plain wrong.  The idea of people living in scattered site developments, dependent on cars, growing their own food, divorced from each other is environmentally unsustainable, socially depleting and bad for health.

Nor was Wright all that great as a theoretician.  His attempts to articulate his ideas on design, often referred in the shorthand as organic architecture, boarder on the incoherent.  The man who was arguably the greatest genius of American architecture was amazingly stunted when it came to almost everything else.  He knew one thing, architecture; he knew it in a way that led everyone else to look at the world in a new way.  But he couldn’t see past his own prejudices in judging his surroundings or the world.  The lesson here?  We can admire genius (tempered, of course, by their moral and other shortcomings), but this admiration must always be bounded by sharp acknowledgement of the limits to genius.

A corollary cautionary tale is found when considering the geniuses of other fields.  Consider Steve Jobs.  He certainly made my life better with his visionary technologies.  But has he solved the problems of infant mortality, income inequality, global warming?  No.  He is a genius at melding design with technological innovation to develop new products that capture the imagination of many.  But he did not change the world.  Similarly, will we remember Bill Gates more for coming up a way of integrating the computer into everyday life?  Or will we remember him as the man who helped end the suffering and misery of billions.  Which should we remember him as?  Finally, there is Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal.  A great idea that is used by millions.  But his politics, as profiled in the New Yorker magazine, are a childish brand of libertarianism.  How can a man who is part of an industry that seems incapable of figuring out how to hire women and people of color in any appreciable numbers think he has the clues to solving the social ills of the 21st century.  There is a limit to genius.

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