The Architecture of FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
What is architecture anyway? Is it the vast collection of the various buildings which have been built to please the varying tastes of the various lords of mankind? I think not. No, I know that architecture is life; or at least it is life itself taking form and therefore it is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today or ever will be lived…So, architecture I know to be a Great Spirit.
— Frank Lloyd Wright
Born just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was witness to the extraordinary changes that swept the world from the leisurely pace of the nineteenth-century horse and carriage to the remarkable speed of the twentieth-century rocket ship. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who accepted such changes with reluctance, Wright welcomed and embraced the social and technological changes made possible by the Industrial Revolution and enthusiastically initiated his own architectural revolution. Inspired by the democratic spirit of America and the opportunities it afforded, he set out to design buildings worthy of such a democracy. Dismissing the masquerade of imported, historic European styles most Americans favored, his goal was to create an architecture that addressed the individual physical, social, and spiritual needs of the modern American citizen.
To Wright, architecture was not just about buildings, it was about nourishing the lives of those sheltered within them. What were needed were environments to inspire and offer repose to the inhabitants. He called his architecture “organic” and described it as that “great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man and his circumstances as they both change.”
During a lifetime that covered nearly a century, Wright took full advantage of the material opportunities presented by the unprecedented scientific and technological advances of the twentieth century without losing the nineteenth-century spiritual and romantic values with which he had grown up. In the process, he transformed the way we live.
Wright’s anchor and muse was Nature, which he spelled with a capital “N.” This was not the outward aspect of nature, but the omnipresent spiritual dimension. He wrote:
Using this word Nature…I do not of course mean that outward aspect which strikes the eye as a visual image of a scene strikes the ground glass of a camera, but that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form…and is its determining character; that quality in the thing that is its significance and it’s Life for us,–what Plato called (with reason, we see, psychological if not metaphysical) the “eternal idea of the thing.”
Wright himself grew up close to the land and in touch with its creative processes and it gave him constant inspiration for his architecture. He believed architecture must stand as a unified whole, grow from and be a blessing to the landscape, all parts relating and contributing to the final unity, whether furnishings, plantings, or works of art. To materially realize such a result, he created environments of carefully composed plans and elevations based on a consistent geometric grammar, while skillfully implementing the integration of the building with the site through the compatibility of materials, form, and method of construction. Through simplification of form, line, and color, and through the “rhythmic play of parts, the poise and balance, the respect the forms pay to the materials, and the repose these qualities attain to,” Wright created plastic, fluent, and coherent spaces that complement the changing physical and spiritual lives of the people who live in them.
In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Frank Lloyd Wright the greatest American architect of all time and Architectural Record published a list of the one hundred most important buildings of the previous century that included twelve Wright structures. Twenty-five Wright projects (including the recently named Florida Southern College campus) have been designated National Historic Landmarks, and ten have been named to the tentative World Heritage Site list. Such recognition—in addition to the international honors he received during his lifetime, the dozens of major exhibitions that have been mounted, and the multitude of books and articles that have been written about his life and work—confirms Wright’s critical contribution to architectural history and the architectural profession at the same time that we draw upon the same legacy to find direction for the future.
The Early Years
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1867, the son of William Carey Wright, a preacher and a musician, and Anna Lloyd Jones, a teacher whose large Welsh family had settled the valley area near Spring Green, Wisconsin. His early childhood was nomadic as his father traveled from one ministry position to another in Rhode Island, Iowa, and Massachusetts, before settling in Madison, Wisconsin in 1878.
Wright’s parents divorced in 1885, making already difficult financial circumstances even more challenging. To help support the family, eighteen-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright worked for the dean of the University of Wisconsin’s department of engineering while also studying at the university. But he wanted to be an architect and in 1887 he left Madison for Chicago, where he found work with two different firms before being hired by the prestigious partnership of Adler and Sullivan, working directly under Louis Sullivan for six years.
Chicago and the Prairie Style
In 1889, at age twenty-two, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin. Anxious to build his own home, he negotiated a five-year contract with Sullivan in exchange for the loan of the necessary money. He purchased a wooded corner lot in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and built his first house, a modest residence reminiscent of the East Coast shingle style with its prominent roof gable, but reflecting Wright’s ingenuity as he experimented with geometric shapes and volumes in the studio and playroom he later added for his ever-growing family of six children. Remembered by the children as a lively household, filled with beautiful things Wright found it hard to go without, it was not long before escalating expenses tempted him into accepting independent residential commissions. Although he did these on his own time, when Sullivan became aware of them in 1893, he charged Wright with breach of contract. It is not clear whether Wright quit or was fired, but his departure was definitely acrimonious, creating a rift between the two men that was not repaired for nearly two decades. The split, however, presented the opportunity Wright needed to go out on his own. He opened an office and began his quest to design homes that he believed would truly belong on the American prairie.
The William H. Winslow House was Wright’s first independent commission. While conservative in comparison to work of a few years later, with its broad sheltering roof and simple elegance, it nonetheless attracted local attention. Determined to create an indigenous American architecture, over the next sixteen years he set the standards for what became known as the Prairie Style. These houses reflected the long, low horizontal prairie on which they sat with low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, no attics or basements, and generally long rows of casement windows that further emphasized the horizontal theme. Some of Wright’s most important residential works of the time are the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1903); the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois (1907); and the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago (1908). Important public commissions included the Larkin Company Administration Building in Buffalo (1903, demolished 1950) and Unity Temple in Oak Park (1905).
Europe and Japan
Creatively exhausted and emotionally restless, late in 1909 Wright left his family for an extended stay in Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a client with whom he had been in love for several years. Wright hoped he could escape the weariness and discontent that now governed both his professional and domestic life. During this European hiatus Wright worked on two publications of his work, published by Ernst Wasmuth, one of drawings known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of photographs, Ausgeführte Bauten, both released in 1911. These publications brought international recognition to his work and greatly influenced other architects. The same year, Wright and Mamah returned to the States and, unwelcome in Chicago social circles, began construction of Taliesin near Spring Green as their home and refuge. There he also resumed his architectural practice and over the next several years received two important public commissions: the first in 1913 for an entertainment center called Midway Gardens in Chicago; the second, in 1916, for the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.
In August 1914, Wright’s life with Mamah was tragically closed: while Wright was in Chicago working on Midway Gardens, an insane servant set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin, and murdered Mamah Cheney, her two children, and four others. Emotionally and spiritually devastated by the tragedy, Wright was able to find solace only in work and he began to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah’s memory. Once completed, he then effectively abandoned it for nearly a decade as he pursued major work in Tokyo with the Imperial Hotel (demolished 1968), and in Los Angeles, California, for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall (Hollyhock House and Olive Hill).
The Lean Years
The years between 1922 and 1934 were both architecturally creative and fiscally catastrophic. Wright had established an office in Los Angeles, but following his return from Japan in 1922 commissions were scarce, with the exception of the four textile block houses of 1923–1924 (Millard, Storer, Freeman and Ennis). He soon abandoned the West Coast and returned to Taliesin. While only a few projects went into construction, this decade was one of great design innovation for Wright. Among the unbuilt commissions were the National Life Insurance Building (Chicago, 1924), the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective (Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland, 1925), San Marcos-in-the-Desert resort (Chandler, Arizona, 1928), and St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowerie apartment towers (New York City, 1928).
In 1928, Wright married Olga Lazovich (known as Olgivanna), daughter of a Chief Justice of Montenegro, whom he had met a few years earlier in Chicago. She proved to be the partner and stabilizing influence he needed in order to refocus on “the cause of architecture” he had begun decades earlier.
With few architectural commissions coming his way, Wright turned to writing and lecturing which introduced him to a larger national audience. Two important publications came out in 1932: An Autobiography and The Disappearing City. The first received widespread critical acclaim and would continue to inspire generations of young architects; the second introduced Wright’s scheme for Broadacre City, a utopian vision for decentralization that moved the city into the country. Although it received little serious consideration at the time, it would influence community development in unforeseen ways in the decades to come. At about this same time, Wright and Olgivanna founded an architectural school at Taliesin, the “Taliesin Fellowship,” an apprenticeship program to provide a total learning environment, integrating not only architecture and construction, but also farming, gardening, and cooking, and the study of nature, music, art, and dance.
With this larger community to take care of, and Wisconsin winters brutal, the winter of 1934 found the Wrights and the Fellowship in rented quarters in the warmer air of Arizona where they worked on the Broadacre City model, which would debut in Rockefeller Center in 1935. Wright was by this time still considered a great architect, but one whose time had come and gone. In 1936, Wright proved this sentiment wrong as he staged a remarkable comeback with several important commissions, including the S.C. Johnson and Son Company Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin; Fallingwater, the country house for Edgar Kaufmann in rural Pennsylvania; and the Herbert Jacobs House (the first executed “Usonian” house) in Madison, Wisconsin.
At this same time, Wright decided he wanted a more permanent winter residence in Arizona, and he acquired some unwanted acreage of raw, rugged desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale. Here he and the Taliesin Fellowship began the construction of Taliesin West as a winter camp, a bold new endeavor for desert living where he tested design innovations, structural ideas, and building details that responded to the dramatic desert setting. Wright and the Fellowship established migration patterns between Wisconsin and Arizona, which the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture continues to this day.
Acknowledging Wright’s stunning reentry into the architectural spotlight, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a comprehensive retrospective exhibition that opened in 1940. In June 1943, undeterred by a world at war, Wright received a letter that initiated the most important, and most challenging commission of his late career. Baroness Hilla von Rebay wrote asking him to design a building to house the Solomon R. Guggenheim collection of non-objective paintings. Wright responded enthusiastically, never anticipating the tremendous amount of time and energy this project would consume before its completion sixteen years later.
The Last Decades
With the end of the war in 1945, many apprentices returned and work again flowed into the studio. Completed public projects over the next decade included the Research Tower for the SC Johnson Company, a Unitarian meeting house in Madison, a skyscraper in Oklahoma, and several buildings for Florida Southern College. Other, ultimately unbuilt, projects included a hotel for Dallas, Texas, two large civic commissions for Pittsburgh, a sports club for Hollywood, a mile-high tower for Chicago, a department store for Ahmedabad, India, and a plan for Greater Baghdad.
Wright opened his last decade with work on a large exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright: Sixty Years of Living Architecture, which was soon on an international tour traveling to Florence, Paris, Zurich, Munich, Rotterdam, and Mexico City, before returning to the United States for additional venues. Impressively energetic for man in his eighties, he continued to travel extensively, lecture widely, and write prolifically. He was still actively involved with all aspects of work including frequent trips to New York to oversee construction of the Guggenheim Museum when, in April of 1959, he was suddenly stricken by an illness which forced his hospitalization. He died April 9, two months shy of his ninety-second birthday.
During his seventy-year career, Wright created over 1,100 designs nearly half of which were realized. These included commercial buildings, apartment towers, recreational complexes, museums, religious houses, residences for the wealthy and those of more modest income, furniture, lighting features, textiles, and art glass. In creating what he called an “architecture for democracy,” he redefined our concept of space, offering everyone the opportunity to live and grow in nourishing environments, connected physically and spiritually to the natural world.
In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Wright the greatest American architect of all time and Architectural Record published a list of the one hundred most important buildings of the previous century. Twelve Frank Lloyd Wright buildings appeared in this list, including Fallingwater, the Robie House, the Johnson Administration Building, the Guggenheim, Taliesin, and Taliesin West. In 2000, the A.I.A. selected their top ten favorite buildings of the twentieth century: Fallingwater topped this list, with the Robie House, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Johnson Administration Building also among the select few.
In a 1908 article for Architectural Record, Wright prophesied about his legacy:
As for the future—the work shall grow more truly simple; more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic. It shall grow not only to fit more perfectly the methods and processes that are called upon to produce it, but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine. As understanding and appreciation of life matures and deepens, this work shall prophesy and idealize the character of the individual it is fashioned to serve more intimately, no matter how inexpensive the result must finally be. It shall become in its atmosphere as pure and elevating in its humble way as the trees and flowers are in their perfectly appointed way, for only so can architecture be worthy its high rank as a fine art, or the architect discharge the obligation he assumes to the public—imposed upon him by the nature of his own profession.