The Frank Lloyd Wright secret to creative problem solving

FLWHints to the solutions for problems that vex are all around us. We either don’t know where to look or the negotiation’s been so painful that the loss of hope blinds us.

I tell my conflict resolution grad students that mediators and negotation coaches aren’t smarter or better than our clients, though we may look damn brilliant on occasion. It’s an illusion, I tell them, so don’t let your ego run away with you. We only look smart because we’ve trained our eyes and ears to notice the hints whispering to us.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew how to notice those whispers, too.

Years ago I facilitated a meeting of architecture school deans from throughout the U.S.. They’d come together because they cared about sustainability and green design and wanted to see if they could reach agreement on how to green the traditional architecture school curriculum.

Inside the Johnson Wax BuildingWe were very fortunate to have the gathering at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread, the 14,000 square foot home Wright designed for Herbert Fisk Johnson, and to tour, on a morning’s break, the spectacular Johnson Wax Building, also designed by Wright. We were also fortunate that one of the architects at the gathering was a relative, by marriage, of Wright’s.

He told us that Wright had no formal schooling after 8th grade. Wright learned through apprenticeships and often turned to nature for help in resolving complex architectural, design, and physics challenges. Wright had used the idea of a forest’s canopy, for instance, in the Johnson Wax Building’s famous ceiling. The saguaro cactus’ structure led him to develop a new type of column that could hold an enormous amount of weight on a narrow base.

He said that when Wright was nagged by a tough design problem, he’d go for long walks in nature because he knew nature had already solved some of the same problems and he could learn from that.

Maybe the story stuck with me because my husband and I are Wright architecture fans who’ve visited his designs all over the country. Maybe the story stuck with me because I, too, go for long walks or runs in nature when I’m working my way through a nagging problem.

But I think the real reason the story stuck with me is that I realized Wright was a kindred whisper listener. He knew how to tune his ears and eyes to possibility. He knew that when a problem seemed insurmountable or stuck or crazy-making, the best thing to do is lean into it gently, opening our hearts and minds and ears to the quiet whispers we’ve been too busy or angry to notice.

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  1. says

    Love your latest, Tammy. Have you visited the FLW home(s) in Oak Park, IL. My grandparents used to live not far from one of them. It’s been too long now for me to remember the street name.

    • Tammy Lenski says

      We have visited his home and studio in Oak Park and done the walking tour of all the Wright homes in that area…How fortunate for your grandparents to have lived in such a beautiful and gracious area.

  2. says

    When Frank Lloyd Wright had to testify in court, he was asked his occupation. He answered that he was the greatest architect in America. When asked to explain his answer later, he said, “well I was under oath.”

    True story, which I learned from The Women, the novel by T.C. Boyle about the unbelievable story of Wright and his various wives. Brilliant architect. Not a nice man. He was good at coming up with creative ideas, but probably would have been about the worst type you would want in a mediation.

    • Tammy Lenski says

      Joe – Wright’s arrogance and personality flaws are well known. Yet…I can’t agree that he was “not a nice man.” That feels too easy, too one-dimensional, too easily dismissive. I think he was probably: A nice man sometimes, not a nice man others, a complex man, a smart man, a flawed man…in other words, he had shades to him that we all do. He had people who couldn’t stand him — a lot, apparently — and he had people who loved him.

      • says

        I agree that it’s too simplistic to sum anybody up with one word, particularly a word as vague as “nice.” But I’ll bet even the people who loved him would agree that Frank Lloyd Wright was not a particularly “nice” man. After all, they were the ones who experienced his cruelty first hand.

  3. Nan Starr says

    To take the architectural reference out a little further, Tammy, I often refocus myself with a little Mies van de Rohe “less is more” adjustment – reminding myself to step back and give room to those “quiet whispers.”

  4. David Balmer-Cribb says

    Nature is very formative. For me those difficult or life important discussions that you need to have with someone (usually your partner) are best had during a walk in the countryside.

    • Tammy Lenski says

      I find that too, David. I’ve actually done a fair number of “walking mediations” and coaching sessions with clients so inclined to join me for a stroll. I have the impression it helps the thinking (the ultimate high ceiling?) and processing. Maybe it’s because we’re walking forward into the future, both physically and metaphorically at the same time!

  5. says

    I almost deleted this post as I started to rush through my email sorting. I’m so glad I paused and read it. Nature whispers so many answers for us if we’ll listen. I often think that I’m missing so much of what is right in front of me when I’m in the woods as it seems impossible to take it all in. And while that’s true, this post reminds me to stop and listen more and with a keener eye and ear. Thank you, Tammy!

    • Tammy Lenski says

      You’re welcome, Robin. I, too, need these kinds of reminders to pause, get out of my own head, and be open to the wonders in the wild. Missy and Smudge need no such reminders and I bet Grace doesn’t either!