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Musings with Anthony Puttnam

September 2004

What was it like working for the master of modern?
I was a student and hardly a co-worker. I always found him, despite the legends, to be remarkably patient and good humored. I think that the other Mr. Wright one hears about existed, but he wasn't the person I knew.

How did you handle his frustration when details were not just so?
He took himself, as they say, with a grain of salt. If he was frustrated, it was with his own work. As to details he was not a perfectionist in small things. He worked with what to him were the important issues: space, light, beautiful materials and the relationship to nature. He clearly designed in a way that details were not made intrusive and demand your attention.

Did he have a favorite material to work with?
In addition to his pallet of natural materials, he was always intrigued by new materials and his dream was to find an ideal material of complete plasticity.

Some of Wright's biographers are critical of projects being done without his supervision. They are calling these projects ersatz Wright. What do you say to the skeptics?
Mr. Wright left his designs to his Foundation with the intent that they would be built someday. He had faith in these designs, that all were good ideas and worthy of serious consideration.

When he was working on the Monona Terrace for the City of Madison he came back from a meeting and said a little downcast, "Well, they're not going to build it now." But ever buoyant, he turned and swung his cane and said, "But someday they will!"

He was 85 and it was clear that he accepted the fact that he might not be around to see it happen. However, the skeptic will always be the skeptic and there's little we can do about it. The buildings are being built at the wish of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Should his designs be built now?
To say "No, they shouldn't" is like maintaining that because Bach and Mozart are no longer with us to direct the orchestra, their music shouldn't be performed. We also seem to accept the fact that when this music is played it is almost never performed on the instruments of the time and so on. Beautiful things are their own reason to exist.

Mr. Wright's intention always was to create. As in The Winters Tale, "...the art (that) itself is nature." Speaking of which, I think he would be pleased to find each of the Buffalo projects (a boathouse on the Niagara River, a mausoleum and a "modern" service station) on more generous sites with room to breathe.

What compromises have you had to make from Wright's original intentions?
He did not have to consider modern building codes, which obviously we do. We're not pumping gas at the Gas Station but we can light his fireplaces -- which I doubt anyone would have had the nerve to do in the original. The boathouse, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, is higher above the water line than would have been the case in the 1900s. The structures of all the projects are of greater permanence but I don't believe this characteristic compromises the originals.

Upon completion of the Buffalo, N.Y. projects, how will you celebrate?
I'll get on with my own work.

What do you think your old boss would say to you when you're done?
I don't know, but I do know it would be witty, insightful and that he would instantly, as he always did, start talking about the next project.

When asked what was the best design he had ever done his answer was ever "The next one."

What words of Wright's stay with you?
Among many perhaps..."The periphery of architecture is expanding with amazing rapidity but its center remains the same. The human heart."


Anthony Puttnam

Taliesin Architects
Madison, WI

For half a century, Tony Puttnam has reveled in working in the shadow of his former boss, the inimitable master of modern, Frank Lloyd Wright.

As partner in the firm that serves as legacy and lab to Wright and his works, Puttnam is dedicated to seeing his former mentor’s sketches through to completion. He is currently overseeing three such transformations in Western New York alone. As is to be expected, there is fervor and fury at the thought of building Wright posthumously. Puttnam dismisses the controversy.

DWR 150 x 40 b

The Guild, Inc.

Selected Works

One of Puttnam's most satisfying projects, the Monona Terrace Community and Conference Center was finally completed in 1997 amid all the contraversy that the design first inspired when it was proposed by Wright in 1938.

Working from Wright's preliminary sketches, Puttnam creates what his teacher only had time to imagine.

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