The Architect’s Most Effective Tools Are the Eraser in the Drafting Room and the Wrecking Bar on the Job

Frank Lloyd Wright? Edgar Tafel? Apocryphal?

wreck08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I was reading a book about software design, and the author emphasized the importance of detecting and fixing errors quickly. The following quotation was presented:

You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site.

The statement was attributed to the innovative major architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but I have been unable to locate a proper citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the expression above was probably not spoken or written by Frank Lloyd Wright. But he did make a remark that displayed several points of similarity; hence, the statement above probably evolved from an accurate quotation.

The earliest pertinent instance located by QI was published in the 1965 biographical work “Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect” by Herbert Jacobs. The author was in frequent contact with Wright for twenty-five years as client, friend, and reporter. Indeed, Wright designed and built two houses for the author. Part of the book described the relationship between Wright and his apprentices. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

If Wright was passing by a drafting board, he might stop to note progress. The apprentice would leap to his feet and stand respectfully at the side while Wright eased himself onto the bench and took up pencil-and eraser.

“The architect’s two most important tools are: the eraser in the drafting room and the wrecking bar on the site,” he would say with a smile.

Wright died in 1959; thus, the text above was published posthumously. Nevertheless, QI believes the ascription was highly credible because of the author’s long relationship with Wright. The tool specified was a wrecking bar instead of a sledgehammer. Also, there was no implicit conditional ordering between the eraser and wrecking bar; both were deemed important.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 the memoir “Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright” by Edgar Tafel was published. The author spent nine years as an apprentice from 1932 to 1941. In later years, he also worked as a photographer capturing images of Wright’s buildings during their construction. Tafel presented a slightly different phrasing for the quotation. He also described the dangers encountered by the uncompromising maverick architect: 2

He never tired of repeating, “The architect’s most effective tools are the eraser in the drafting room and the wrecking bar on the job.” When Mr. Wright visited one of his construction sites and saw a wall that was the least bit crooked, he’d grab a wrecking bar and knock the wall down. He abhorred shoddy workmanship.

Today architects are not accustomed to dealing directly with workmen. If there’s any problem on a job, we notify the superintendent. This is simply one of the basic rules of the trade. The architect does not walk onto the site and pull down a wall. Mr. Wright had his share of troubles with workmen. Once, when he was on a job, a couple of bricks came flying by, barely missing him.

In August 1979 Tafel’s book was reviewed in ‘The Washington Post”, and the saying was reprinted, but only part of the expression was enclosed in quotation marks. The part outside of the delimiters was slightly altered: 3

Wright was never afraid to change his mind. He always told his apprentices that an architect’s best tools are “the eraser in the drafting room and the wrecking bar on the job.” When he didn’t like a wall, he’d grab a bar and smash it. Tafel says once a workman aimed a couple of bricks at Wright.

In 1982 a journalist writing in the trade publication “InfoWorld” used an instance as an epigraph to an article. The “wrecking bar” tool was changed to a “sledge hammer”: 4

The two most important tools an architect has are the eraser in the drawing room and the sledge hammer on the construction site. — Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1986 “The Rockford Register Star” newspaper of Rockford, Illinois printed an article about Wright that included an instance. The setting of the flying brick incident was said to be Japan: 5

Wright sometimes made changes after construction was under way, regardless of the builder’s profit or the client’s pocket-book. His motto: “The architect’s two most important tools are the eraser in the drafting room and the wrecking bar on the job.”

He said he would tear down a brick wall on a site if he had to — he started to do just that on a site in Japan because a wall was badly laid. A mason on the job threw a brick at him and narrowly missed.

In 1997 “The Elements of User Interface Design” by Theo Mandel used an instance as a chapter epigraph. Interestingly, the grammatical connective between the two tools was switched from “and” to “or”: 6

You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site. Frank Lloyd Wright

In 2003 the book “The Design of Sites: Patterns, Principles, and Processes for Crafting a Customer-Centered Web Experience” included a version of the saying: 7

Why is it important to fix errors as early as possible? It has been well documented in many disciplines that fixing errors in later phases of design can be expensive. The famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it best: “You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site.” In the realm of software development, a general rule of thumb is that errors cost about ten times more effort and money to fix late in the process. . .

In conclusion, QI believes that architect Frank Lloyd Wright did employ an adage on multiple occasions about the utility of the eraser and the wrecking bar. The version given by Jacobs in 1965 and the version given by Tafel in 1979 are both acceptable in QI’s opinion. An instance using “sledgehammer” is not well supported. Also, an instance using the “or” connective is probably inaccurate.

Image Notes: Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright circa 1954 from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of a crowbar / wrecking bar from the archives of Pearson Scott Foresman; donated to the Wikimedia Foundation and released into the public domain by its author, Foresman.

(Great thanks to James Callan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1965, Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Greatest Architect by Herbert Jacobs, Chapter 12: Taliesin Accents Youth, Quote Page 139, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979, Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright by Edgar Tafel, Chapter 4, Quote Page 64, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1979 August 19, The Washington Post, The Apprentice’s Sketch of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Grit and Glory Of Serving as ‘a Pencil In the Master’s Hand’ by Sarah Booth Conroy, Start Page B1, Quote Page B2, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  4. 1982 October 4, InfoWorld, Volume 4, Number 39, Software for People: Prototype, rewrite and revise by Paul Heckel, (Epigraph to article), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Published by InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1986 November 2, The Rockford Register Star, Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses still admired (Register Star news services), Quote Page 1G, Column 2, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1997, The Elements of User Interface Design by Theo Mandel, Chapter 12: An Iterative User Interface Design Process (Chapter epigraph), Quote Page 247, John Wiley & Sons. (Amazon Look Inside)
  7. 2003, The Design of Sites: Patterns, Principles, and Processes for Crafting a Customer-Centered Web Experience by Douglas K. Van Duyne, James A. Landay, and Jason I. Hong, Quote Page 63, Addison-Wesley, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)