Frank Lloyd Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867April 9, 1959) was one of the most prominent architects of the first half of the 20th century. To this day he is easily America's most famous architect (topping Philip Johnson, Paul Laszlo, Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn, and Frank Gehry) and still extremely well-known in the common public's eye.


Early Years

He was born in the agricultural town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, USA, and brought up with strong Unitarian and transcendental principles (eventually he would design the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois). As a child he spent a great deal of time playing with the kindergarten educational blocks by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel (popularly known as Froebel's blocks) given by his mother. These consisted of various geometrically shaped blocks that could be assembled in various combinations to form three-dimensional compositions. Wright in his autobiography talks about the influence of these exercises on his approach to design. Many of his buildings are notable for the geometrical clarity they exhibit.

Wright commenced his formal education in 1885 at the University of Wisconsin School for Engineering, where he was a member of a fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. He took classes part time for two years while apprenticing under Allen Conover, a local builder and professor of civil engineering. In 1887, Wright left the university without taking a degree (although he was granted an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the university in 1955) and moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he joined the architectural firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee. Within the year, he had left Silsbee to work for the firm of Adler and Sullivan. Beginning in 1890, he was assigned all residential design work for the firm. In 1893, after a falling-out that probably concerned the work he had taken on outside the office, Wright left Adler and Sullivan to establish his own practice and home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, IL. He had completed around fifty projects by 1901, including many houses in his hometown.[1]

Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, New York
Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, New York

Between 1900 and 1910, his residential designs were "Prairie Houses" (extended low buildings with shallow, sloping roofs, clean sky lines, suppressed chimneys, overhangs and terraces, using unfinished materials), so-called because the design is considered to complement the land around Chicago. These houses are credited with being the first examples of the "open plan."

In fact, the manipulation of interior space in residential and public buildings, such as the Unitarian Unity Temple, in Oak Park, are hallmarks of his style.

He believed that humanity should be central to all design. Many examples of this work can be found in Buffalo, New York, resulting from a friendship between Wright and an executive from the Larkin Soap Company, Darwin D. Martin. In 1902 the Larkin Company decided to build a new administration building.

Wright came to Buffalo and designed not only the first sketches for the Larkin Administration Building (demolished), but also three homes for the company's executives:

The houses considered the masterpieces of the late Prairie period (1907–9) are the Frederick Robie House and the Avery and Queene Coonley House, both in Chicago. The Robie House with its soaring, cantilevered roof lines, supported by a 110-foot-long channel of steel, is the most dramatic. Its living and dining areas form virtually one uninterrupted space. This building had the most influence on young European architects after World War I and is called the "cornerstone of modernism." In 1910, the Wasmuth Portfolio was published, and created the first major exposure of Wright's work in Europe.

Taliesin and Beyond

He designed his own home-studio complex, called Taliesin (after the 6th-century Welsh poet, whose name means literally "shining brow"), which was begun near Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1911 and modified and expanded many times over. The complex was a distinctive, low one-story, U-shaped structure with views over a pond on one side and Wright's studio on the opposite side. Taliesin was twice destroyed by fire (one of which was part of an arson and intentional multiple homicide); the current building there is called Taliesin III. The first time it burned, an apparently disgruntled domestic worker set fire to the building while various people were inside, including Wright's mistress, Mamah Borthwick, and her two young children (by her husband Edwin Cheney). As the occupants of the burning building attempted to flee, the arsonist stood by the single unblocked doorway and murdered a total of seven people with a hatchet.

He visited Japan, first in 1905, and Europe (190910), opening a Tokyo office in 1916.

Imperial Hotel of Japan
Imperial Hotel of Japan

In 1938 Wright designed his winter retreat in Arizona, called Taliesin West; the retreat, like much of Wright's architecture, blends organically with the surrounding landscape. In Tokyo, Wright designed his famous Imperial Hotel, completed in 1922 after beginning construction in 1916. On September 1, 1923, one of the worst earthquakes in modern times hit Tokyo and its surrounding area. The Great Kantō earthquake completely leveled Tokyo, and effects from the earthquake caused a large tsunami, destructive tornados, and fires in the city. A legend grew out of this disaster that Wright's Imperial Hotel was the only large structure to survive the destruction, but in fact this was far from true.

More personal turmoil

In 1923, Wright's mother, Anna, died. Wright wed Miriam Noel in November 1923, but her addiction to morphine led to the failure of the marriage in less than one year. In 1924, after the separation, Wright met Olga (Olgivanna) Lazovich Hinzenburg, at the Petrograd Ballet. They moved in together at Taliesin in 1925, but in 1926, Olga's ex-husband sought custody of his daughter. In Minnetonka, Minnesota, Wright and Olgivanna were accused of violating the Mann Act and arrested in October 1925. The charges were dropped in 1926. The couple married in 1928.

Enduring Legacy

Wright is responsible for a concept or a series of extremely original concepts of suburban development united under the term Broadacre City. He proposed the idea in his book The Disappearing City in 1932, and unveiled a very large (12 by 12 feet) model of this community of the future, showing it in several venues in the following years. He went on developing the idea until his death.

It was also in the 1930s that Wright designed many of his "Usonian" houses—essentially designs for middle-class people that were based on a simple geometry yet elegantly done and practical. He would later use such designs in his First Unitarian Meeting House built in Madison, Wisconsin, between 1947 and 1950.

Fallingwater, one of the most famous of Frank Lloyd Wright's work
Fallingwater, one of the most famous of Frank Lloyd Wright's work

His most famous private residence was constructed from 1935 to 1939Fallingwater—for Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Kaufmann, Sr at Mill Run, Pennsylvania. It was designed according to Wright's desire to place the occupants close to the natural surroundings, with a stream running under part of the building. The construction is a series of cantilevered balconies and terraces, using limestone for all verticals and concrete for the horizontals. The house cost $155,000, including the architect's fee of $8,000. Kaufmann's own engineers argued that the design was not sound. They were overruled by Wright, but secretly added extra steel to the horizontal concrete elements. There is a difference of opinion as to whether Wright's original design would have withstood the test of time. In 1994, Robert Silman and Associates examined the building and developed a plan to restore the structure. In the late 1990s, steel supports were added under the lowest cantilever until a detailed structural analysis could be done. In March 2002, post-tensioning of the lowest terrace was completed.

Price Tower, Bartlesville, Oklahoma
Price Tower, Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Wright practiced what is known as organic architecture, an architecture that evolves naturally out of the context, most importantly for him the relationship between the site and the building. In this, he was heavily influenced by American furniture maker and architect Gustav Stickley.

One of his projects, Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin, was completed in 1997 on the original proposed site, using Wright's original design for the exterior with an interior design by his apprentice Tony Puttnam. Monona Terrace was accompanied by controversy reminiscent of Wright's own life, partly involving the authenticity of the combined interior and exterior designs, and partly due to the covering-up of a locally venerated roadside mural.

Wright's personal life was a colorful one that frequently made news headlines. He married three times: Catherine Lee Tobin in 1889, Miriam Noel in 1922, and Olga Milanov Hinzenberg (Olgivanna) in 1928. Olgivanna had been living as a disciple of Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, and her experiences with Gurdjieff influenced the formation and structure of Wright's Taliesin Fellowship in 1932. The meeting of Gurdjieff and Wright is explored in Robert Lepage's The Geometry Of Miracles. Olgivanna continued to run the Fellowship after Wright's death, until her own death in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1985. Despite being a high-profile architect and almost always in demand, Wright would find himself constantly in debt thanks in part to his lavish lifestyle. In one instance Wright was over $1,000 in debt, and reportedly would borrow $1,500 from a friend only to spend more than half of it on clothes, gifts, and trips.

Wright died on April 9, 1959, having designed an enormous number of significant projects including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, a building which occupied him for 16 years (194359) and is probably his most recognized masterpiece. The building rises as a warm beige spiral from its site on Fifth Avenue; its interior is similar to the inside of a seashell. Its unique central geometry was meant to allow visitors to experience Guggenheim's collection of nonobjective geometric paintings with ease by taking an elevator to the top level and then viewing artworks by walking down the slowly descending, central spiral ramp. Unfortunately, when the museum was completed, a number of important details of Wright's design were ignored, including his desire for the interior to be painted off-white. Furthermore, the Museum currently designs exhibits to be viewed by walking up the curved walkway rather than walking down from the top level.

1966 U.S. postage stamp honoring Frank Lloyd Wright
1966 U.S. postage stamp honoring Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright built 362 houses. About 300 survive as of 2005. Only one was lost to forces of nature, the waterfront house for W. L. Fuller in Pass Christian, MS, which was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in August 1969; although, the Ennis House in California had been damaged by earthquake and rain-induced ground movement. While a number of the houses are preserved as museum pieces and millions of dollars are spent on their upkeep, other houses have trouble selling on the open market due to their unique designs, generally small size and outdated features. As buildings age their structural deficiencies are increasingly revealed, and Wright's designs have not been immune from the passage of time. Some of his most daring and innovative designs have required major structural repair, and the soaring cantilevered terraces of Fallingwater are but one example. (A common joke was once how "Fallingwater" is falling into the water.) Some of these deficiencies can be attributed to Wright's pushing of materials beyond the state of the art, others to sometimes less than rigorous engineering, and still others to the natural wear and tear of the elements over time.

Many speculate that the character of Howard Roark, an architect in Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead, is based, at least in part, on Frank Lloyd Wright. Rand, a Wright client herself, however, denied this.

In 2000, Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright, a play based on the relationship between the personal and working aspects of Wright's life, debuted at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

One of Wright's sons, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., known as Lloyd Wright, was also a notable architect in Los Angeles. Lloyd Wright's son, (and Wright's grandson) Eric Lloyd Wright, is currently an architect in Malibu, California.


“A doctor can bury mistakes, an architect can only advise their client to plant vines.”

“I don't need to sign in, I'm the architect.” – in response to a patron at Unity Temple asking him to add his name to the entry record.

“Continuously nature shows him the science of her remarkable economy of structure in mineral and vegetable constructions to go with the unspoiled character everywhere apparent in her forms.”

“Give me the luxuries of life and I will gladly do without the necessities.”

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

"That's how you can tell it's a roof." -- in response to complaints about roof leaks in his buildings





Unbuilt Works


Selected books and articles on Wright’s philosophy:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright, by Robert McCarter
  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes: Designs for Moderate Cost One-Family Homes, by John Sergeant
  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes (Wright at a Glance Series), by Carla Lind
  • "In the Cause of Architecture," Architectural Record, March, 1908, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Published in Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, vol. 1.
  • Natural House, The, by Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Truth Against the World: Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks for an Organic Architecture, ed. by Patrick Meehan
  • Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Architecture, by Donald Hoffman
  • Usonia : Frank Lloyd Wright's Design for America, Alvin Rosenbaum

Biographies on Wright

  • Many Masks, by Brendan Gill
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: a Biography, by Meryle Secrest
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and Architecture, by Robert Twombly

Selected Survey books on Wright’s work:

  • Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, The, by Neil Levine
  • Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog, The, by William Allin Storrer
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Master Architect, by Kathryn Smith
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, by the Museum of Modern Art
  • Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, The, by William Allin Storrer
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: Masterworks, by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer
  • Wrightscapes: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Landscape Designs, by Charles and Berdeana Aguar

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