Sunday, October 9th, 2011 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/the-mouse-and-the-cantilever
ll beautiful things belong to the same age,” writes Oscar Wilde. Writing in Wired, Dave Winer compares the visionary entrepreneur Steve Jobs with another American who set a jewel in the nation’s crown, New York’s 5th Avenue.
Form does not merely follow function, insisted the visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright; rather, form and function are one. Jobs restated the same truth: design is not how something looks and feels, but how it works. Wright wrote in The Natural House that “the single secret of simplicity” is “that we may truly regard nothing at all as simple in itself,” rather it “must achieve simplicity… as a perfectly realized part of some organic whole.” Hello, iOS devices, advanced computers operable by a 2-year-old. When unveiling the iPad, Jobs spoke of Apple being at the crossroads of Technology and the Liberal Arts; similarly, Wright said that beautiful buildings are “works of art using the best technology.” Function from form, simplicity from complexity, art from technology: these two men both articulated these new values and shipped the results.
Both preached the American way of not dwelling on the past. FLLW removed the rear window of his Lincoln Continental supposedly so as to be unable to look behind him; SJ reportedly removed the Apple II on display in the company cafeteria for the same reason. As young men they were foppish. As they aged each zeroed in on a particular look and stuck with it—Jobs the black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers; Wright the tweed suits, cane and porkpie hat. They were photographed more often as older men; the camera liked who they became.
They were renowned for their attention to the smallest detail and for relying on their own taste rather than their customers’. Jobs said that under his direction Apple does no market research as it’s not the consumer’s job to know what he wants. Wright said it thusly (perhaps not coincidentally in a lecture to Disney employees): “The public doesn’t know what it wants. If the public is paying your bills, it’s entitled to have you stand up to the thing you do because you alone know.”
In both industries—computers and buildings—it was and remains unique to control the entire product, yet both Wright and Jobs insisted on it. Wright designed everything himself, from the supporting walls to the patterns on the rugs. Apple is the only computer company that designs both the hardware and the software—and now with iOS, even the CPUs.
Guilty for the expense to their struggling parents, they both dropped out of college to enjoy huge early success in their fields, then underwent spectacular setbacks and even more spectacular comebacks—though Wright had a lifetime long enough for a number of these. Jobs we lost at the age of 56—after the Apple II, Macintosh, NeXT, Pixar, the iMac, iPhone, MacBook Air and iPad. When Wright reached that age it was still only 1923, and he too had arrived at the apex of his second comeback with the completion of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and its famous survival of a terrible earthquake. Wright’s greatest accomplishments—Fallingwater, Usonia—were a comeback or two in the future. Thinking of the Guggenheim Museum, what might have been Steve’s 17-year opus, completed 2047?
They were both adamant freethinkers. Jobs’s philosophic underpinning was the 1960s counterculture, Wright’s Unitarianism and the earlier counterculture of Emersonian transcendentalism. They took civilizational pilgrimages, Wright to Japan, Jobs to India. The anecdote Jobs related most about his pilgrimage was that a guru singled him out, then told him his path was not monkhood but business; for Wright it was underfloor heating. Jobs said at the 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, “Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Wright similarly said that the problem for young Americans is an “over-gregarious life”, insisting that the architect go to nature, that is, observe the reality of things as opposed to others’ words about them.
Nonetheless, ignoring others’ opinions is not the same as ignoring their needs. As Jobs friend Larry Brilliant writes, “The defining character of Steve Jobs isn’t his genius, it isn’t his talent, it isn’t his success. It’s his love… He communicated that love through bits of steel and plastic.” Wright was the same way through steel, brick, wood and glass—both men could ventriloquize themselves into the client or customer before returning to the conference room or drafting easel to give ’em something beyond they knew they wanted.
Perhaps it was these somehow intertwined talents—thinking for yourself and empathizing with others—that made them such master salesmen. People joked about the Jobs reality distortion field; about Wright, Herbert Johnson wrote of the beloved Johnson Administration Building: “At first Frank Lloyd Wright was working for me. Then we were working together… Finally, I was working for him.”
But the love was precisely, even ruthlessly channeled; neither spoke with their biological fathers, and both abandoned their first children as their fathers did them. There was very much Bad Steve and Bad Wright. Both it’s said could be phenomenally ruthless, rude, vindictive, even dishonest. One client warned another that Wright is a dangerous man.
Both men enjoyed well-made objects such as fine cars, which don’t come free. That Jobs became staggeringly wealthy at an age when the rest of us are still in school, whereas Wright struggled throughout his life to pay his bills (and often apparently didn’t) was at least partially due to their being in different businesses: a computer, once completed, is mass-produced on an assembly line and if successful sells by the million. But you can only shake out of your sleeve a single building at a time if it must grow from its location and the client’s particular needs. That said, it’s easy to imagine that Jobs, if he had been a turn-of-the-century architect with a vision for better houses for middle-income Americans, would have created the managerial and logistical infrastructure to actually pull it off. While Wright’s work necessitated supplementing his income by dealing in Japanese art, Jobs’ made him the business titan of his age: during a time of economic malaise, Apple’s innovation under his lead provided the entire nation with hope, serving as the closest thing to an erstwhile Apollo program.
At root, both men improved the world for everyone by humanizing—that is, aesthetizing and perfecting—objects central to modern life; images of their creations belong on any future Voyager Golden Records. For Wright it was the home, his “broad shelter in the open”; for Jobs, the computer, his “bicycle for the mind”. While the white spiral of the Guggenheim Museum has been criticized for achieving its striking effect by dint of the more stolid and conforming graceful buildings that surround it, and the same could be said for the transparency of the Apple Store’s cube, both the museum and the store would do just fine in an open field.
As the world has America, America has people such as Steve Jobs. With his recent passing, here’s to the great man finding—Wright’s words, different context—“new sense of repose in quiet streamline effects”.