One of the greatest buildings in New York City was created by a very old man. You won't find it on the skyline--it's far too small for that. You have to get up close, at street level. It's on Fifth Avenue, which for block after block obeys the old New York building rule of big and tall and flat--until all at once, at 88th Street, it doesn't. There stands the stout, round drinking cup that is the Guggenheim Museum, with its natural light and spiraling floor and snow white exterior, parting the neat scrim of the streetscape and filling it with a bit of stylish defiance. The human genius behind that structural genius was Frank Lloyd Wright, who started designing the building in 1943, when he was 76, kept at it until ground was broken in 1956 and lived until 1959--just shy of both his 92nd birthday and the museum's official opening.
"If you walk into any of Wright's buildings, you see he didn't think like us," says neuropsychologist Donald Davidoff of Harvard Medical School. "His rooms can have seven different heights to them depending on where you're standing. He thought in three dimensions, which is something we can appreciate when we see it but can't do ourselves."
Wright may have been unique in the style and quality and iconoclasm of his work, but he was not unique in how old he was when he did it--and that's true in a lot of fields. You can keep your boy geniuses in Silicon Valley, your young guns tearing up the fashion world, your celebrated wunderkinder in music and art and finance and government. Spare a moment--spare more than a moment--for the superannuated creators: Goya, who produced some of his most haunting paintings when he was in his late 70s; Goethe, who finished writing his masterpiece, Faust, when he was 81; Galileo, who published his last paper when he was 74, just a few years before his death--at a time when average human life expectancy was 35.
And it's not just the long-ago names: props to Maggie Smith, still starring in movies and TV series at age 78; to Warren Buffett, the 83-year-old financial genius who's not called the Oracle of Omaha because he loses money; to Picasso, who died at 91 and had paint under his nails till the very end; to Herman Wouk, 98, who published his 18th and most recent novel just last year; to comedian George Burns, who died in 1996 at age 100 and celebrated his 95th birthday by signing a two-year contract to perform in Las Vegas. After he inked the deal he told the hotel manager who'd negotiated it, "If you're still around at the end of the two years, we'll talk again."
It's in our nature to love stories like this--and there can be a soft condescension to them. Aged celebrities get trundled out at award shows and public ceremonies and are described as "sharp as a tack" or "spunky as ever" when too often they're not sharp and they're terribly frail and what we're really applauding is that they're alive at all.