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How many architects do you know the name of?
We imagine you know one: Frank Lloyd Wright
Who was this man?
He wasn’t a rock star, at least in the conventional sense. But, in a way he was: a star of his chosen profession, with his life work visible everywhere.
Of such high quality and stunning originality that you couldn’t help but hear of him.
Also, a character of notable idiosyncrasies.
If he had lived most of his life in our time of constant news, rather than almost a century ago, he would never have been off the front page.
The origin of greatness
How many children have a parent who predicted their greatness and what would be their chosen profession?
Well truth be known, many parents predict (hope, really) that their offspring will become famous and/or important in life. But few pick out exactly how they will do that.
He was born on a farm in the countryside of Wisconsin in 1867. His mother was extremely influential in his life. She envisioned him becoming an architect before he was born! She attempted to enrich his early life with images of famous buildings and introduced him to Froebel Gifts blocks.
A childhood spent with Froebel blocks
Fredrick Froebel basically invented kindergarten in Germany in the early 1840s.
He created what must be among the earliest organized educational toy sets, Froebel Gifts building blocks, which you can still purchase today!
Wright gives major credit to this simple block set in its effect on his entire later career.
For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top … and played … with the cube, the sphere and the triangle… These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects … which were ever got into the architecture of the world … these smooth wooden maple blocks… All are in my fingers to this day.Frank Lloyd Wright
Introduction to Louis Sullivan
In college, he began a curriculum in civil engineering but left to seek employment in Chicago.
He got on as a draftsman, and then a designer, and apprenticed with the well-known architects, Adler and Sullivan (of the Chicago School and skyscraper fame).
Form follows functionLouis Sullivan
In the early 1890s, he was starting to design houses on his own, too. While he was emulating the popular styles of the day, such as Queen Anne and Tudor Revival, he was developing his own permutations.
His new variations included emphasizing uncomplicated parallel lines, rows of low windows and an interior plan that was open.
Much, of course, was in reaction to the earlier many-years predominance of the highly decorative Victorian period.
You can see the transition from the Victorian heritage to his own advances in allowing the light in with rows of prominent windows, in the Walter Gale House of 1893 in Oak Park, Illinois.
He continued to upgrade his innovations over the years. The precast reinforced concrete block system he devised he said could be modified as though it was a textile. He called it like a rug, further designed for each space.
The start of the Prairie School
By the later 1890s, he was working on his own. He shared office space in Steinway Hall with several other young architects who were all motivated by the Arts and Crafts movement and their history with Louis Sullivan. Together they started the Prairie School of Architecture.
For a young man with little formal education in his chosen field, he was amazingly creative and innovative from the start.
During those formative early adult years, he took further inspiration from his own explorations in home design while renovating and altering his own abode!
What he is most known for?
Well, quite a lot. But if you could recount only one, what you would come up with is organic architecture.
Buildings, yes. But he also wrote about it extensively.
Organic building are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.Frank Lloyd Wright
It must be that his early upbringing in a rural midwestern setting influenced his mind, as he coned in during his late adolescence and throughout his adulthood working life on devising man’s building to be in harmony with a natural environment.
And not just in general: he was specific. If you study a house of his in California (such as the Hollyhock House), it is not like one in Arizona (witness Taliesin West), nor in Pennsylvania (for example, Fallingwater), etc.
He read Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson. You can see the effect of transcendentalism in all his art.
The Prairie-Style house
Over the next 10 years or so, he and his team perfected the ever-advancing ideas of the Prairie School into a string of eye-catching residential structures that caught the attention of national and international experts.
Remember he was in the midwest. His intention was to build structures that were in tune with nature and the environment. Therefore, the low, spreading, horizontal lines. And the open, many-windowed interior spaces. A notable feature became the new largely overhanging eaves.
- Roofs that are low in pitch
- Eaves that are broad and hang over expansively
- Windows that form expressive long rows
- Predominance of horizontal lines in the building
- Total floor plan that is open
- Chimney and fireplace centrally located
- Cabinets and furniture that are primarily built-in
- Wood, stone, and other natural materials
- “Textile” concrete block system
Space and light were very important to Wright’s ideas. The prominence of windows let light in so the difference between inside and outside was minimized.
Open interiors allowed for innovation in inner elements and for the flow between areas to emulate natural undulation and connection to the surroundings. As did the emphasis on the horizontal and natural media.
His forte was residential homes
As mentioned earlier, residences were Wright’s most common form of architecture from early on.
I’m not sure there were any that were not beautifully engineered and notable. Here is a reference in which you can view quite a few.
Many have been entered into the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and some are National Historic Landmarks. Often you will find them in local historic districts, academic associations, or dedicated parks.
A number continues to be in private hands and you can visit only some of these, depending on the wishes of the occupants. Others have been donated to public areas or foundations that celebrate his catalog.
We discuss a couple of them now.
He constructed the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago in 1910. So it is a fairly early example of what he could do in the Prairie style. It is accepted as one of the best versions. It’s been called the “cornerstone of modernism”.
You can see the typical long planes of the windows, roof, and structure of the building. Review here original drawings and a number of photographic views of the inside and outside.
Fallingwater – Masterpiece of organic home design
This is probably the epitome of Wright’s residential designs and organic architecture. It has been called the most beautiful house in the world.
He built it in 1937 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania for a private couple’s rural getaway.
What is especially notable is his carrying out his intent to be close to nature.
It features striking asymmetrically stacked concrete cantilevered terrace-like structures that overhang a waterfall and stream.
Note also that the author was peaking 70 years of age.
As the Great Depression was waning, he was strengthening his abounding abilities to devise major works.
I want you to live with the waterfall, not just look at it.Frank Lloyd Wright
His own houses are masterpieces
He built his own properties or renovated them as templates of his evolving style. FLW worked on his own residences over the years and they are all among the finest representations of his artistry.
We brought up his first one earlier in our section on the Start of the Prairie School.
Taliesin – East and West
Taliesin is a name he used for more than one of his own homes. Its origin is in Welsh mythology, Wales being his maternal heritage.
The first one he raised in about 1911 on an acreage in Spring Green, Wisconsin. While a number of personal tragedies occurred there over the years (see later) he rebuilt and continued to use it. It served as the site of his initial teaching studio and grew to a Fellowship later, in the ‘30s and thus into his eventual eponymous School of Architecture.
I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and home should live together each the happier for the other.Frank Lloyd Wright
He created Taliesin West in 1937 in Scottsdale, Arizona. And it remained his principal home and school from then on.
Suburban communities of Usonia
By the 1930s, his endeavors had moved on to include very future-oriented ideas. Now, instead of emphasizing luxurious upper-level homes (although he was not done with these actually), he was on to devising living places that could be afforded by those of lesser pocketbooks and applied (eventually) to mass-produced dwelling spaces.
He called these Usonian houses. And the planned community concept was Usonia (also known as Broadacre City). (In his 1932 book, Disappearing City, 1932 The concept included each family having one acre of land and the areas being connected by cars!)
Although the plans did not lead to actual extensive built city areas, the ideas were quite influential for community architecture over the ensuing years.
Exhibiting carports, too, these may have been the precursors of what were later to be developments of ranch houses. See his Cedar Rock House, now Cedar Rock State Park, as an example of this trend.
The first modern building
Although his early work emphasized individual homes, he did some commercial buildings even from early on.
He reconstructed the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, his own place of worship after an original had been burned down by a fire.
He made it with reinforced concrete in 1908.
This is a strikingly beautiful building, that has been considered to be the first modern building ever built.
The furniture and stained glass in it are also his own.
Fitting, for the design of a place of spiritual worship, it was while he did this work that he had an epiphany: It was the space that was important, not the walls.
The iconic Guggenheim Museum
If there is one of the master’s constructions that you recognize, and may well have visited yourself, it is the Guggenheim Museum.
He started during WW2 and worked on it for years before it finally opened in 1959. Remember, he was by now no longer a young man. In fact, he was entering his 80s.
Although he had devised over a thousand building designs in his lifetime, this was one that he did not outlive. He died at age 91 the same year it debuted, but just a few months before.
People looked askance at the rare circular building with its spiral upward going ramp. It was something to get used to! But New York grew to accept it, and today it is called one of the city’s finest. And the country’s.
Furniture as forward-looking as the buildings
Interestingly, in those days the architectural firm engaged in the primary design of not only the fixed exterior and interiors of residences, but drew up new plans for furniture, lighting, and so on. It looks like almost everything was custom-made in the style.
We don’t know how many architects have also gotten involved with the design of the interior furnishings and embellishments of their buildings. However, FLW was amazingly astute at originating these too.
Of course, it goes along with his vision that there should be harmony between elements: the exterior and inside elements should correlate and support each other.
Drawing on his early recognition of the Arts and Crafts movement that preceded his era, his built-ins were beautifully made and looked like they belonged, which they did.
They went along with his belief that natural findings, wood, and stone, should be emphasized, and with fairly simple lines and relationships.
Especially in his stand-alone elements and later-built features you can also see the modernity that was to come.
“Light screens” of stained glass
He embellished the Prairie-style houses with horizontal sheets of windows that “let the light in”.
His work in stained glass started early on, along with his other architectural explorations. Like them, he started at first with Victorian inspirations. But soon he was moving on to incorporate his own decorative instincts with the harmonious lines that bestowed the Prairie aesthetic, too.
They drew on his interest in the Japanese heritage, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Art Deco.
While FLW’s style and Art Deco are rarely mentioned together, they grew up at the same time. You can see the influence especially, in his renderings in stained glass (also called art glass or leaded glass).
Although some have achieved fame as stand-alone images, (such as the “Tree of Life”), his intent was for the panels of glass to be integrated into the particular house and situation, not have separate lives.
Authoring through the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, with less money available in the economy for construction, he spent more time writing. The word “prolific” may be an understatement to describe his authorship.
Among these are ones that influenced the international community in his specialty and continue to be noted in the present time.
His autobiography (1932) has been the most popular.
Organic architecture and Usonian concepts featured in his tomes, including such as The Disappearing City (1932), An Organic Architecture (1939), and the career survey The Living City (1958).
Honors and formal recognitions
The greatest American architect of all time
American Institute of Architects (AIA), 1991
Best all-time work of American architecture
AIA, 1991, for Fallingwater (1935)
World Heritage Site
The eight sites include:
- Guggenheim Museum
- Hollyhock House
- Jacobs House
- Robie House
- Taliesin West
- Unity Temple
The Hollyhock House is mouthwatering. He built it beginning in 1919 in Los Angeles, California for Alice Barnsdall at what is now Barnsdall Art Park. On some days you can take a tour.
By the way, you may not realize what an immense honor it is to have one’s work named a World Heritage site. To put this in perspective: In California, the only two other places so named are Redwoods and Yosemite National Parks!
After death, his ideas carried on
Wright had been so active in continuing to make up projects right up through his last years and was so long-lived, that active work carried on for years after his 1959 death.
Private homes and public works continued to be approved and his proteges and apprentices built.
Although the majority of total packages have never come to fruition, designs that were complete (over 500), and what actually were completed – in the several hundred – represents a very large body of work.
Any number of modern architects and builders consciously or unconsciously draw on his ideas and actual productions. In addition, interior and furniture designers continue to bring up innovations that rest on knowing his work.
The controversial life of an immense personality
His long and varied personal life was marred over many years by a variety of marital issues, life dramas, and scandals for the times. We haven’t included these in our post, but you can read further about them. Here is a reference that, we think, gives a pretty balanced view.
He was an immense personality. Flamboyant. He was a lover of expensive cars and a designer of his own unique clothes. Definitely what one would call “larger than life”.
You may enjoy this television interview that FLW had with Mike Wallace in 1957, at 88 years old.
(As a period aside, regardless of the interview with the character of our current article, it is interesting to watch the 1950s TV personality, Mike Wallace smoking and advertising Phillip Morris cigarettes!)
Q & A
Which of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses is so futuristic that it was used in a major cult Hollywood movie?
(Hint: you will recognize the movie; you’ve seen it!)
The Ennis House in Los Angeles appeared in the Blade Runner, as well as some other movies.
(Note: While designed by FLW, it was actually built by his son, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., who was usually called Lloyd.)
One of FLW’s other sons, who also became an architect, is known for inventing his own well known building product. What was that?
John Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs in 1916! We know you (or your parent) played with these as a child. They are still being made and used.
Wright was not only a premier performer at his chosen architectural career, but dabbled in several other areas, such as car collecting and fashion design. But what hobby sometimes earned him more than his buildings?
He was a dealer for the Japanese art of woodblock printing. However, this wasn’t just a side hobby. Realizing it, you can see the influence in his architecture, too.
Before you go
We hope you liked our post. Maybe, like us, you wondered why you always knew that name: Frank Lloyd Wright but did not know why he had become such a part of American culture. Now you know!
He lived so long, he was present in our public life through much of the first half of the twentieth century, from the earlier turn of the century through the 1950s. Be sure to read on about those eras in the several posts we’ve written.
Also relevant, we think, is the article on Art Deco, since there were common influences to both.