Only lately has the narrative of Frank Lloyd Wright as a fully formed, naturally inspired, singular genius been dislodged, slightly, from its pedestal in the history of American architecture. That such a heroic view of the man has persisted is due in part to Wright’s effectiveness at creating his own narrative so definitively that it has become difficult to imagine alternatives. Two new books, Frank L. Wright and the Architects of Steinway Hall, by Stuart Cohen, and The Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Lisa D. Schrenk, challenge the outsize myths surrounding Wright by situating the architect within the specificity of his environment, demonstrating that he was, not surprisingly, a product of his interactions with people, space, and procedures.

Cohen’s history begins and ends first, chronologically: a study of Wright’s brief and sporadic time in the loft of Steinway Hall in the decade between 1897 and 1907. The top floor of the building, one of Dwight Perkins’s first projects after he left Daniel Burnham’s office, was occupied by young architects, many of whom were part of the group later remembered as “the Eighteen.” Cohen, a practicing architect, recognizes the opportunities that a loft filled with young architects attempting to establish their own practices might have presented; his study, which is loosely informed by sociologist Michael P. Farrell’s work on collaborative groups, focuses on “the theft, collaboration, or intellectual cross-fertilization” (10) that happened on that upper floor of Steinway Hall. With an architect’s eye for formal analysis, Cohen traces the shared architectural ideas that appeared in the work of Perkins, Wright, Myron H. Hunt, and Robert C. Spencer.

The book is divided into nine chapters of varying lengths, and it begins with an exploration of the disciplinary milieu in Chicago at the turn of the century, particularly as it might have been experienced by the generation of proud western architects inheriting Louis Sullivan’s architectural, rhetorical, and philosophical contributions to the city. Cohen pays close attention to how the theory of Pure Design might have traveled through the meetings of the Chicago Architectural Club or the Arts and Crafts Society, or passed between the Eighteen as they lunched about town. His observations are historically relevant but also functional, because Cohen, like many scholars, relies on formal aesthetics and compositional analysis to trace the exchange of architectural ideas.

In addition to sharing the “big attic,” as Wright later described it, Perkins, Wright, Spencer, and Hunt—Cohen is interested in the first three more than any others on Steinway’s rotating roster—shared a receptionist, stenographer, telephone, and other “impersonal expenses,” including, sometimes, employees. It was an experimental, economical, and, as Cohen demonstrates, productive arrangement, resulting in projects with similar design features that elucidate how the young designers resolved certain formal questions. Cohen points to the layout of Spencer’s farmhouse plans published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, which resembled the Ella Gould cottage that Perkins (or Walter Burley Griffin, more likely) had designed a year earlier and also preceded Wright’s Robert Lamp House of 1903; the great room that was emphasized in both Wright’s and Spencer’s cruciform plans; the half-timbering in Spencer’s Stanley Grepe House and Wright’s Nathan Moore House; and even how the University Congregational Church by Pond & Pond (brothers Irving K. Pond and Allen B. Pond were just down the hall in Room 1102) was potentially redeveloped by Wright at Unity Temple. Although the details of how the office functioned are lost—none of the architects kept contemporaneous written records—Cohen offers an explanation to fill the gap: that the visual and intellectual proximity in the loft could not but have resulted in the same, architecturally.

There are three exceptionally welcome studies in Cohen’s text, each the subject of a chapter. One on the Luxfer Prism Company—the company that inspired Wright’s first high-rise designs as well as competition entries from Spencer and Adamo Boari—demonstrates how the young architects were thinking about windows. The Abraham Lincoln Center, the product of an uneven collaboration between Wright and Perkins, is a visible vestige in the later work of both architects. And a chapter on Robert Classon Spencer incidentally reveals how he was responsible (in the byline, at least) for establishing the framework used to interpret the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although Cohen places Wright within a community of like-minded thinkers, he is at his best when writing about Wright alone (some patience is required with the ORO Editions publication, however; Cohen’s text deserved a more thorough line edit).

Wright regularly moved his office between downtown Chicago buildings: into Steinway Hall from the Schiller Building, then to the Rookery, and back to Steinway. And though he reserved specific hours to meet with clients downtown and had, as Cohen convincingly argues, productive relationships in his offices there, Wright later claimed to have preferred the environment of his suburban studio in Oak Park. This is the subject of Lisa Schrenk’s The Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Much as Cohen does, Schrenk looks at Wright’s immediate environment during the early part of his career, here defined as the span from 1898 through 1908. A professor of architectural history at the University of Arizona (and formerly the education director for the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation), Schrenk seems to be motivated by a desire to dispel the myths and inaccuracies around Wright’s early career. Her book, however, does much more than that: it presents a systematic analysis of Wright’s architectural development alongside discussion of his office procedures, his relationships with associates, and, most interesting, his use of the studio as an experimental laboratory of spatial organization, material installation, and geometric exercises.

The three middle chapters of the book command the narrative, describing the “early,” “middle,” and “last” eras of the studio. Following two introductory chapters that recount Wright’s personal and professional contexts, the third chapter, on the early years of the Oak Park studio, is vibrant in both content and form and reveals Schrenk’s institutional knowledge of the Home and Studio complex. Like Cohen, she is attentive to the collegiality of the studio, where the atmosphere resembled that at Steinway Hall, with its free exchange of experimental ideas among a group of young designers—not an unexpected coincidence, as Wright presided over both “offices” simultaneously. In the stead of Spencer, Hunt, and Perkins were Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony, Charles White, Barry Byrne, Isabel Roberts, William Drummond, and George Willis, plus a constant stream of visiting artists, guests, sisters, and children. From this setting, new ideas and practices emerged. Schrenk’s analysis of the scant primary sources shows that many of these ideas and practices that have often been attributed to Wright’s genius alone—like the unit system of design, attention to the way a building sits within the landscape, and the use of half levels to imply interacting volumes of space—were the results of collaborations among many architects, Griffin and Mahony in particular.

Such camaraderie was lacking in the middle and last years of the studio, when Wright’s career was on the rise. More projects in the office required greater division of labor, and tense relations developed between Wright and his employees. As the studio’s esprit de corps faltered, Wright sought fulfillment elsewhere, traveling to Japan, engaging in love affairs, and, most important for his career, securing commissions from Darwin Martin, who became his long-standing client and patient patron. The decline in Wright’s engagement with his immediate Oak Park environment corresponded to lean years in the studio, and Schrenk, in her comprehensive approach to the period, makes his 1909 departure from the suburb appear almost inevitable.

It is, however, at the point when Wright leaves Oak Park that the studio becomes the true subject of Schrenk’s study, and the book reveals itself as an homage to a building rather than to its architect. Although Wright took an experimental approach to his own workspace, testing ideas and materials before installing them for clients, he drastically reconfigured the Oak Park building after he returned from his “spiritual hegira” and moved to the Helena Valley in Wisconsin. The 1911 renovation relocated his family into the studio space and provided an income-generating rental property in the old house. It became home to visiting artisans, including Rudolph Schindler, as well as the Art League, was eventually sold to Darwin Martin, inherited by his son, and sold again, until, in 1947, the Nooker family began uncovering it from a state of disrepair. It has been painstakingly restored to its condition in 1909, the last year it served Wright in his long, tumultuous career.

Despite both Cohen’s and Schrenk’s intention to show that the mythic figure of Wright emerged from a specific context of people, ideas, and environments, neither book convincingly demythologizes him. Part of this is due to the fact that in attempting to navigate the dearth of primary sources and verifiable details about Wright’s early career, the authors have relied on Wright’s own retrospective memory for assistance, as documented in his writings An Autobiography (1932) and A Testament (1957), as well as on the reverberations of these texts as they appear in countless secondary sources, without the suspicion that might attend these self-preserving projects. Relying on Wright for facts, evidence, or insight requires a comprehensive, anachronistic approach to the episodes of his career. What might have been a defined study becomes rationalized by Wright’s retroactive narrative; that recursion reaffirms the overall narrative of his eventual, and therefore inevitable, success. This is mirrored in the structure of both Cohen’s and Schrenk’s books, which are well researched but conclude with extensive appendixes, suggesting that the central figure of Wright is not nearly as plastic as the spaces he designed. This lingering ghost can deter the interest of a new audience as much as it continues to attract Wright’s reliable readers; both of these books will certainly appeal to the latter. The Oak Park Studio will also be particularly interesting to the historic preservation industry for its detailed descriptions of the transformations of the Home and Studio as well as Schrenk’s thoughtful and transparent portrayal of the decision-making process behind the complex’s preservation.