The path not taken led to Frank Lloyd Wright | WBEZ
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Dynamic Range

The path not taken led to Frank Lloyd Wright

The late Chicago architect Y.C. Wong with Mies van der Rohe at the Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. during its construction circa 1951. (Courtesy of Ernest C. Wong)

Y.C. Wong was extremely disappointed by his son’s choice of profession – even though the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

He was hoping his son would follow in his footsteps and become an architect. Instead that son, Ernest C. Wong, grew up to be a landscape architect. He admits he didn’t tell his father what he really wanted to be: a park ranger or a social worker.

The career the younger Wong ultimately chose fulfilled what he describes as “a combo” of his interests: a love of the outdoors, a passion for social justice and a fascination with public space. 

“It’s kind of his fault,” Wong says, referring to his late father. As a child, Ernie discovered The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte in his father’s home library. He was fascinated by the scholar’s 1980 study of what made New York’s parks and public squares successful or not, right down to how people chose their favorite park benches.

“It all started to come to fruition with me when I started to take my lunch breaks at the First National Bank Plaza,” Ernie says. “I would watch people during my lunch hour – how they would interact in these almost festival-like performances.”

The younger Wong pursued his interests and took Whyte’s work to heart. The portfolio of his firm, Site Design Group Ltd., includes some of Chicago’s most interesting and recently renovated public parks, including Palmisano Park (Stearns Quarry) in Bridgeport and Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown. Wong currently has a bid in with several teams to work on the 28,000-square-foot field house scheduled to be built in the latter park by 2013.

Going back to Wong’s father, though, Y.C.’s disapproval of his son’s career choice is all the more ironic when you consider his particular pedigree.

According to his son, Y.C. Wong came to the U.S. from China in 1947, having received a scholarship to study with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin studio in Spring Green, Wis. But Y.C. never made it to Spring Green. Instead, he was waylaid in Chicago by another architect, who persuaded him to stay in town: Mies van der Rohe.

In the audio above, Ernie Wong offers up the fascinating story of how his father became a disciple of one of America’s most important architects, and how that enabled him to leave his own architectural legacy to the city of Chicago.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Ernest C. Wong spoke at an event presented by the Illinois Humanities Council in May. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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