Believing that “the space within that building is the reality of that building”, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (1867-1959) was one of the most prolific and influential architects of the 20th century. From his early Prairie Style homes, to the sculptural curves of the Guggenheim Museum in New York he defined a North American style of architecture which was rich in emotion and sensitive to its surroundings.
One of the founders of modern architecture in North America, Frank Lloyd Wright embraced the use of new technology, materials and engineering to create some of the 20th century’s most influential and iconic buildings. During a long and productive career spanning 70 years he designed over 1,000 buildings of which over 400 were built.
Wright developed a language of architecture that did not look to Europe but was unique to the United States. As well as creating buildings which were radical in appearance, Wright had a rare ability to integrate them with the landscape – stemming from his deep love and knowledge of nature. It was this gift that marked him out from contemporary pioneers of modern architecture, such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, and make his buildings seem in tune with our environmentally conscious era.
Born in 1867, Wright was the eldest child of William Russell Cary Wright, a Unitarian minister and music teacher, and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. His father gave him a love of music, but it was his mother who encouraged him to become an architect. As well as hanging prints of cathedrals on his bedroom wall, she bought him a Frederick Froebel Kindergarten system on a visit to the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. This system consisted of a set of coloured strips of paper, two dimensional geometric grids and a set of wooden bricks comprising cubes, spheres and pyramids. Later Wright wrote “the maple wood blocks…. all are in my fingers to this day”. An infinite and playful combination of these geometric shapes gave Wright the core forms of his architecture.
At 18, Wright enrolled to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison but, desperate to pursue a career in architecture, he dropped out and moved to Chicago where he quickly found work with the architectural firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee. Wright’s ambition, however, soon took him to Adler and Sullivan, Chicago’s most progressive architects. Louis Sullivan was an important influence on Wright and put him in charge of the firm’s residential building work. He also gave him a loan in 1889 to purchase land to build a home for himself and his new wife, Catherine Lee Tobin, in the Oak Park district of Chicago. In 1893 Wright was asked to leave the firm for pursuing too much private work and at the age of 26 he started his own practice.
During the next 16 years Wright developed the Prairie Style of architecture in a large number of commissions for private homes in Chicago, in particular, in Oak Park. It is to his credit that most of his clients were extremely pleased with the homes Wright built. One of his less published achievements was his mastery of the internal environment, with great attention paid to lighting, heating and climate control. The Prairie Style aimed to create a truly North American architecture, but Wright also drew inspiration from Europe: from the French rationalist writings of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and the British Arts and Crafts movement. He also had great knowledge of the art and architecture of Japan and the culture of pre-Columbian America. Although radical, Wright can be viewed within the context of a group of US architects and designers, who included Gustav Stickley and the brothers Charles and Henry Greene. They had similar external influences, yet also looked to their native US culture and climate to create confident work with a sense of national identity.
The 1906 Robie House in Chicago was Wright’s most mature expression of the Prairie Style of architecture. Frederick Robie, an engineer and industrialist, wanted a house full of light with views of the street, but without his neighbours looking in. Using brick, concrete, steel and glass, Wright constructed a massive cantilever on the west side of the house that gave the living room privacy and shelter from the sun. It also opened out the house by moving away from the tight box shape of traditional homes. The low, horizontal form is exaggerated with the use of ribbons of cream stone for the base plinth and copingstones and red brick for the walls. A central fireplace open above the mantel gave greater unity of space to the large living and dining rooms, which Wright saw as the centre of family life. Although there was no external garden, the use of massive planters and urns softened the hard edges of the building and at each level Wright designed a terrace, balcony or porch to break the division between inside and outside. All internal details – including the furnishings, light fittings, rugs and the essential art glass – were also designed by Wright.
Wright was also asked to build the 1905 Unity Temple, a place of worship for the Universalist Church in Oak Park. Coming from a long tradition of Universalists, he accepted the commission on a very slim budget of $45,000. Due to these financial constraints Wright built for the first time with poured concrete. A square two-storey space housed the temple of worship and behind it was a rectangular parish meeting house for socialising. The temple of worship had to seat 400 people yet Wright still managed to create an intimate space. To enhance the visual drama, these two structures were connected by a modest entrance with low ceiling. The roof of the building was supported by the four square masses in the room, the poured concrete walls therefore became as screens with glass windows above.
Wright was now a popular and established architect, but he entered a phase of emotional turmoil in 1909 after falling in love with the wife of a client and neighbour, Mamah Borthwich Cheney. Leaving Wright’s wife and six children and closing his studio, the couple fled to Berlin. During this time Wright worked on a book of his work for the Germany publisher Ernst Wasmuth as well as travelling to Austria, Italy and France. He returned to the US in 1911 and managed to secure enough money to build a home for himself, Manah Cheney and her two children on land given to him by his mother at Spring Green in Wisconsin. He called the house Taliesin, a Welsh word meaning “shining brow” and the name of a Welsh bard. However, tragedy struck at Taliesin when in 1914 a chef, Julian Carleton, murdered Mamah Borthwick Cheney, her two children and four others and then set fire to the house.
This period of turbulence in Wright’s private life overlapped with the commission for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which consumed him from 1916 to 1922 when he spent a great deal of time in Japan overseeing the work. The hotel’s owner had chosen a western architect to bridge the cultural divide for the western visitors to Tokyo and Wright rose to this challenge. The main feature of the 100-roomed hotel was the grand three-storey lobby and two-storey dining room, ballroom and auditorium. The use of soft lava block or Oya stone enabled Wright to use extensive carving and decoration. When the Great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923, the floating foundations and reinforced steel construction ensured that the Imperial was one of the few buildings to survive, although most of it was demolished in 1968.
While in Japan, Wright received a commission from the oil heiress and theatrical producer, Aline Barnsdall to build a house, shops and theatre complex for her in Los Angeles. Only the main house, the 1917 Hollyhock House, and residences A and B were constructed. Inspired by his experiences in Japan, Wright had a new sense of freedom with decoration and applied the abstracted motif of a hollyhock, a favourite flower of the client, in cast concrete to parapets, pinnacles and planters. In form the Hollyhock House is the link between Wright’s early Prairie Style and his later textile block concrete houses. It also reflected his newfound interest in Mayan temple design.
Returning to the US in 1922, Wright took up residence in Los Angeles and established a practice there. The following year he married Miriam Noel, with whom he had lived since Mamah Cheney’s murder. While working on the Hollyhock House, he began to build four other houses in the Los Angeles area. In these projects he refined the new architectural language he had experimented with on the Hollyhock and which he believed to be more appropriate to southern California than the neo-Spanish or colonial style houses being built around him. Wright was inspired by the concrete block and the creative possibilities of this cheap and, generally, neglected, material. He designed a block that could be moulded on site, with its size and weight determined by what could easily handled by a single person. Very little skilled labour was needed and the blocks could be laid with a mason’s mortar course with steel rods inserted for structural stability. After completing his block houses in LA, Wright believed there was no future for himself in the West and returned to Taliesin.
Another fire, this time accidental, destroyed much of Taliesin in 1925 and threw Wright into debt. His unhappy marriage to Miriam Noel ended in 1927 and he married the dancer Olgivanna Hinzenburg. Their first years together were dogged by Wright’s financial difficulties. The combination of his prolonged absence from the country, infamous reputation and the economic depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 ensured that commissions were scarce until the mid-1930s. During this period he worked on a range of experimental and speculative designs few of which were executed, which led to a shift away from the domestic to larger projects.
Wright also used his fallow period to open an architectural school, the Taliesin Fellowship, which taught its students through doing by balancing academic achievement with working the land and sustaining the community.
With the help of his students, Wright was able to work on larger experimental projects such as 1934’s Broadacre City, his blueprint for an ideal way of living composed of a continuous grid of low-rise regional settlements with an acre for each living plot. A model was made by the students which toured throughout the US.
Closely related to the principles behind the Broadacre City was the Usonian House project developed from the early 1930s as a series of small suburban homes designed to be affordable to middle-income families with no servants’ quarters and a single living room. The word Usonian came from United States. Wright reworded his mentor Louis Sullivan’s famous phrase “form follows function” as “form and functions are one” to describe the reduced nature of these homes. Of the dozens of residential commissions received by Wright in the late 1930s and 1940s the majority were for Usonian homes.
By the time the 1936 Herbert Jacobs House was built in Madison, Wisconsin the Usonian template had been fully developed. Forming an L-shape the floorplan consisted of the living room on one side and the bedrooms in the other with a workspace and dining area in the centre. To save on plumbing costs the workspace and bathroom were located close together, and a small basement was excavated below the kitchen for a furnace. The L-shape form also allowed the house to be placed at the corner of the lot thereby creating more garden space accessed by French doors. Structurally the supporting elements of the house were brick with the non-supporting walls made of a plywood core, covered with building paper for insulation and waterproofing. Bookshelves and cabinets were built-in to add stability. The rest of the furniture was usually made of plywood by the client or a local contractor. The budget for the Jacobs house was $5000 for construction and $500 for the architect’s fee.
Most of Wright’s residential commissions in this period were for middle-income professionals such as teachers and journalists, with a few from self-made businessmen like Frederick Robie. The 1935 commission for Fallingwater at Mill Run, Pennsylvania from Edgar J. Kaufmann was an exception and resulted in Wright’s most imaginative solution for a residential commission which is among his most famous buildings.
The son of a successful Pittsburgh department store owner Kaufmann was one of the Fellowship apprentices who participated in the Broadacre City project. He even persuaded his father to fund the construction of the model for a nationwide exhibition tour. The Kaufmanns became close friends with the Wrights and, by the end of the year, were discussing a project to design a country house to replace a basic cottage. Wright wrote to Kaufmann: “The visit to the waterfall in the woods stays with me, and a domicile has taken vague shape in my mind to the music of the stream.”
The design consisted of reinforced concrete cantilevered slabs, anchored to the cliff that formed terraces hanging over the waterfall. Between the horizontal slabs were stone walls that echoed the cliff side below the waterfall. Each of the three levels had its own terrace and an outside stairway leading to other terraces and balconies. The lines of the building were rounded and gentle in contrast to the angular finish of Wright’s earlier structures. The stone work was built up in layers with some stones raised proud to create a rough surface as if just hewn from the quarry.
As ever Wright was concerned with creating an interior living space that was practical and comfortable. Gravity heat was installed by placing coils of pipes under the concrete slab floor. “When organic architecture is properly carried out no landscape is ever outraged by it but is always developed by it,” said Wright. “The good building makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built.” This was Wright’s achievement at Fallingwater.
From the early 1940s to his death in 1959, Wright was extraordinarily prolific and designed almost 500 projects, almost half of his total output. By far the most famous is the 1956 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York commissioned by the eponymous art collector and his curator Hilla Rebay. As the narrow Manhattan plot required the design to be vertical and not horizontal, from the beginning Wright envisaged a continuous ramp circling around the centre of the interior. Yet it took an immense struggle to see the building he wanted accepted and constructed. Guggenheim accepted the design but after his death in 1949 Wright had to persuade a dubious board of trustees that the building was viable. Several changes were made as more land was acquired and seven complete sets of drawings were made before construction began in August 1956. The building was completed in 1959, six months after Wright’s own death.
Moulded concrete reinforced by steel created the plastic curvilinear forms. What Wright described as “the box” with its use of post and beam construction was completely overturned at the Guggenheim where one floor flows gently into another. The walls of the building were slightly sloped back to give the effect of a painting on an easel. Like some small object from nature, a leaf or egg, the Guggenheim design is complex yet simple as if Wright had bought a little slice of nature to a corner of New York City.
One of Wright’s last projects was his first government building, the 1957 Marin County Civic Centre at San Rafael, California. He was asked to build a centralised home for 13 thirteen county departments with an administration building, a hall of justice and preliminary plans for a theatre, auditorium, fairground pavilion and lagoon on a hilltop and valley site spread over three hills. Contrasting forms distinguished the various functions of the buildings. The central features were a huge flattened dome and adjacent high tower, a long thin administration building and hall of justice. Constructed in pre-cast pre-stressed concrete and steel this group of buildings revealed Wright’s mastery of a complex set of buildings with a heavy list of requirements. The County Board had expected Wright to flatten the hill tops to create an easier plot for building but he was inspired by the awkward site and produced a set of buildings that are bold and almost futuristic in their design and setting.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at the age of 92. Despite the lulls and even great dips in his career he had continued designing and building for 70 years and at his death he left a thriving practice. Unlike many architects who perhaps are remembered for a distinct decade of work Wright was able to adapt as his architecture moved with the changing requirements of a fast- moving century. He used the newest materials and technologies from poured concrete to under floor heating and was happy to design for all incomes. Yet Wright was not a mainstream modernist – his deep love of nature and sense of place were stronger than his desire for the new. He was also a romantic who wanted to charge his work with emotional qualities. A house as a home for a family was an almost sacred place with the heat of a fire at its heart. Indeed it is his romantic and emotional response to architecture and its environment that makes Wright’s work seem particularly relevant today.
1867 Frank Lloyd Wright is born in Richland Center, Wisconsin as the first child of William Russell Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright.
1886 Enters the School of Civil Engineering at University of Wisconsin at Madison.
1887 Abandons his studies in Madison for Chicago and finds employment at the architectural office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee.
1888 Wright finds works with the progressive architects’ Adler and Sullivan.
1889 After marrying Catherine Lee Tobin and Wright starts building work on their home at Oak Park, Illinois.
1891 The first of Wright’s seven children, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr is born.
1893 Opens his own architectural practice.
1897 Moves his office to Steinway Hall, Chicago and builds drafting studio connected to his Oak Park home.
1900 Designs the Hillside Home School, Spring Green, Wisconsin for his two aunts.
1902 Completes the design of the Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield, Illinois and Larking Company headquarters in Buffalo, New York.
1905 Travels to Japan with his wife, Catherine and clients Mr and Mrs Ward W. Willits. Designs the Unity Temple in Oak Park.
1908 Construction begins on Frederick C. Robie house, Chicago Illinois
1909 After falling in love with Mamah Borthwich Cheney, Wright travels to Europe with her after signed architectural practice over to Herman von Holst.
1911 Returns to US and draws plans for a cottage for his mother near Spring Green, Wisconsin. She transfers the property and building over to Wright and he renames it Taliesin.
1913 Sails for Japan with Mamah Cheney in pursuit of the Imperial Hotel commission in Tokyo.
1914 Mamah Cheney, her two children and four others are murdered by a servant Julian Charleton at Taliesin who then sets fire to the property.
1915 Wright rebuilds Taliesin and Miriam Noel moves in.
1916 Sails for Japan to work on the Imperial Hotel with Miriam Noel and his son John.
1917 Returns to Taliesin. Designs the Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall in Los Angeles.
1919 Construction begins on the Imperial Hotel.
1923 Death of Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. The Great Kanto Earthequake, demolishes most of Tokyo but the Imperial Hotel survives with minor damage. Wright marries Miriam Noel. Completes the design of the Charles Ennis House in Los Angeles.
1924 Miriam Noel leaves Wright and he meets Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenberg.
1925 Olgivanna Hinzenberg moves to Taliesin with her daughter Svetlana. A fire destroys the residential block of Taliesin but the adjacent studio, vault and workrooms are spared. Reconstruction begins immediately. Miriam Noel files for divorce. Birth of Iovanna Lloyd Wright.
1926 Moves to Minnesota. Wright and Oligivanna arrested under the Mann Act charges, which are dropped in 1927. Wright starts to write his autobiography.
1928 Wright marries Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenberg at Rancho Sante Fe, California
1932 Publication of Wright’s An Autobiography. He and Olgivanna found the Taliesin Fellowship architectural schools.
1935 Builds the Fallingwater Bear Run house in Pennsylvania.
1936 Commissioned to design the offices of S.C. Johnson & Son Company at Racine, Wisconsin
1938 Purchases property on Maricopa Mesa, Phoenix and with the Taliesin Fellowship begins construction of winter home, Taliesin West.
1940 Exhibition of Wright’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
1943 Commissioned to design the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and a Research Tower for the S.C. Johnson & Son Company
1950 Designs the David Wright House in Phoenix, Arizona and the Woodside, Richard Davis house in Marion, Indianna
1953 Completes the design of the Beth Sholom Synagogue at Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
1958 Builds the Pilgrim Congregational Church at Redding California
1959 Design the Norman Lykes House, Phoenix, Arizona. Frank Lloyd Wright dies in Phoenix, Arizona.
Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, William Heinemann, 1998
Meryle Secrest, Frank Llloyd Wright: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1998
Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Frank Lloyd Wright, Taschen, 2003
Thomas A. Heinz, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses, Gramercy Books, 2002
William Allin Storrer, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog, University of Chicago Press, 2001
Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Frank Lloyd Wright: Master Builder, Thames & Hudson, 1997
Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright – The Masterworks, Rizzoli International, 1993