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Copernicus and Ptolemy: a miscellaneous thought on Wright


Two thousand and nine passed with only a marginal note about its connection with Frank Lloyd Wright: it was the fiftieth anniversary of Wright’s death. I had hoped to do a seminar focussed on his long, productive and controversial career, but it didn’t happen.

I was fourteen when Wright died. I saw him interviewed on Public Television (or what passed for it in those days) and still recognize his voice as an old man. Fifty-one years in the grave, he is still alive in my mind, a statement fewer and fewer of us can make. soon he will be just another dead White guy, like Brunelleschi and Mnesikles.

These 51 years of aliveness have permitted me to witness the wondrously shifting patterns of both Wrightian journalism and scholarship, much of it hagiagraphic, which is a shame because he’s more interesting than Wright himself would have led us to believe. Fundamentally, it boils down to a choice between two cosmological systems: those of Ptolemy (Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος) and of Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik, in his native Polish).

The Ptolemaic universe is Earth centered. Around the Earth revolve the moon and the planets in tidy concentric circles, all within the enclosing sphere of the Firmament. Ptolemy conceived us as a large cosmic onion.

Fifteen hundred years later, science rattled Rome’s theological cage and proposed an alternate view based upon rational observation and mathematical computation. That revolution courtesy of Galileo and Copernicus gave us the foundation of a modern universal perspective, with the Sun at the center of our system, the planets revolving about it (eventually in eliptical orbits, thank you Tycho Brahe) in an open-ended Universe with no known boundaries. Wright scholarship has been fundamentally Ptolemaic, rather than Copernican, and ought perhaps to be reconsidered.

The problem with Wright is that he is always seen as the center of his own cosmology. Others in that universe are uniformly treated as satellites revolving about him concentrically and dependent upon him for their illumination; they reflect Wright as the primary source of light. Figures like his mistress/consort Mamah Borthwick Cheney (until some recent letters turned up in the Swedish Royal Archive) was a virtual cardboard cutout propped beside Wright among the supporting cast of characters in his personal drama. We have been preoccupied with what Wright said about and claimed for himself and allowed other perspectives fall by the wayside.

In a Copernican universe Wright could be considered as one of many objects in orbit around central ideas, abstractions, points of view. They would illuminate him and those around and about him.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Staying close to home, I have wanted to design something in Agincourt in the Wrightian mode. The “Oak Park” period would be a fine opportunity to try my hand at the Prairie Style. I’ve been thinking golf/country club….

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