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What’s in a Name? Part II

Would an architect by any other name be as great?

By Jim Atkins, FAIA

A few great architects in history chose to practice their skills under assumed names, as we observed in Part I of this series; AIA Gold Medalist Le Corbusier chose his pseudonym to be cool and trendy, and Louis Kahn, FAIA, chose his name to make his life easier. Whatever the reasons, their new names likely did not alter their ability to generate the great work for which we know them. After all, name changes are common in many cultures, with wives taking their husband’s name and men incorporating their mother’s family name. In fact, our state laws make it easy to change your name, and aliens applying for naturalization have this option upon the granting of citizenship with no additional fees.

The knowledge of these unheralded changes allows us to observe that the dynamic of these architects goes beyond their creativity and reveals more about how they approach life. With this in mind, we will now explore other great architects who chose to practice with a different name.

Ms. van der Rohe?

One of the most well-known Modernist architects of the mid-20th century was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies. No, this is not a female. Come on, Ludwig? It was the birth name of the architect we now know as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (March 27, 1886 – August 17, 1969). He is also suspected of being one of the fathers of Modern architecture, and his paternal relationship to the International Style has been confirmed because his DNA is in the details.

The son of a stone carver, he was an apprentice at Peter Behrens’ office in Berlin for four years before starting his own practice. Fellow apprentices included Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. It was in 1912 with his own firm that he changed his name to incorporate his mother’s more impressive maiden name, Rohe. Now known as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he stayed in stride with Le Corbusier by giving us wonderful furniture as well as great architecture. However, it was probably not a bad idea to lose the name Maria, since he is a guy.

His notable works include the German Pavilion at the Barcelona exposition in 1929, and the Farnsworth house in Plano, Ill. With the Barcelona Pavilion, as it is more often called, he also brought us the Barcelona chair, without question my favorite and a most artful implement of respite. Mies (an AIA Gold Medalist) also pioneered the modern skyscraper in America with the Seagram Building, and he brought Bauhaus teaching principles to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago by redesigning its architecture program.

The name Ludwig Michael Mies would likely have served him just as well, but I do like the rolling sound of “van der Rohe.” The problem in school was that I kept confusing it with the Van de Graaf generator in science class. However, I have to admit that his Barcelona chair makes my hair stand up the same way.

Rightfully keeping up with the Joneses

Is Frank Lincoln Wright anybody we know? Frank Lloyd Wright certainly is. Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) changed his name after his parents’ divorce to honor his mother’s family, the Lloyd Joneses. His life spans three prolific design periods, and he created more than 1,000 designs resulting in excess of 500 completed projects. In 1991 the AIA honored Wright as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

After studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (without graduating) he went to work for architects in Chicago, ultimately spending five years with Adler and Sullivan. He and Louis Sullivan (another AIA Gold Medalist) split up after Sullivan found out that Wright was designing houses on the side, in conflict with his work contract. Wright started his own practice, joining with other independent architects to launch the Prairie School.

Wright moved his practice to his home in Oak Park, Ill., in 1898, where his residential designs became known as Prairie Houses. Prairie style commercial projects included Unity Temple in Oak Park and the Larkin Building in Buffalo. Meanwhile, his marriage of almost 20 years now included six children. However, Wright left his wife Catherine in 1903 for a client’s wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.

Wright built Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., in 1911 where he lived with Mamah until she was murdered by a servant in 1914. Wright was finally granted a divorce by his wife Catherine in 1922, and he married Maude Noel, but the marriage lasted only one year. Wright began a relationship with Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenburg in 1925, and they were married in 1928 after his divorce from Maude was granted a year earlier. The three greatest challenges that many architects encounter seem to be budgets, schedules and spouses, not necessarily in that order.

Wright began a new era professionally in the 1930s with Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wis. During this time he launched the Taliesin Fellowship, receiving fees for apprentice architects to study and work in his design studio. In his later years he produced the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Price Tower (his only skyscraper) in Bartlesville, Okla., and the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, Calif. His last project was the Kalita Humphreys Theatre in Dallas. He remained with Olga until his death.

Wright’s name change was not done to advance his career, although he was notorious for self promotion. It was done simply to honor his mother, and it obviously had no material effect on his illustrious and prolific life as an architect. Interestingly, the Lincoln name surfaced once again in Wright’s family with the creation of the toy, Lincoln Logs, which were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son.

“You’re only as good as your current project”

The reality is that names do not create architecture. People create architecture. The name that is chosen may be easier to remember, or it may be more in vogue, as was the trend during the time of Le Corbusier. A name could cause confusion, as it reportedly did with Sir Christopher Wren. Born in 1632, his parents previously had a son they also named Christopher who died on the same day he was born in 1631, and confusion between the two Christophers reportedly continued into the late 20th century. In this case, a name change may have made life easier for him and his legacy. However, it did not shroud the fact that the latter Christopher designed 54 churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and many other buildings in London after the Great Fire of 1666.

So take a step back and observe the well-known architects of today who have not changed their names. Some have names that appear to be tailored for stardom, and some appear to be the same as the person down the street. In any case, it must be observed that names will not cause any design to be great. As an old contractor once told me, “You’re only as good as your current project, and that’s what will get you your next job.”

The decisions that we make will determine the life that we live and the successes that we realize, and the perception by others of our worth and accomplishments will be determined by the values that we choose to guide our lives—not the names we use. Homer summed it up best when he said: “How vain, without the merit, is the name.”

Meanwhile, [your name here], good luck out there.


AIA Gold Medalist Mies van der Rohe. Image courtesy of the AIA Archives.


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James B. Atkins, FAIA, is an independent project management and litigation support consultant who occasionally writes about architecture. He was a senior principal with HKS Architects for more than thirty years, and he has served on numerous AIA committees. He was recently appointed a Trustee of the AIA Trust. For more information, go to

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