Frank Lloyd Wright

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed dramatically innovative buildings during a career of almost 70 years. His work established the imagery for much of the contemporary architectural environment.

The most famous, although never the most popular or successful, among American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright set himself the task, as no previous architect had, of designing distinctive and varied architecture for the diverse terrains of a nation that stretched over the valleys, deserts, woods, and mountains, spanning an entire continent. Herald of thesis that architecture should express its time, its site, its builders, and its materials, Wright argued from that romantic, specifically Hegelian thesis that the United States, as a new nation with a new society on a new frontier with a new technology, should express those unique conditions and should build its special aspirations into buildings that would be distinctively and wholly its own—a new style that would speak of the American environment, "Usonian," he once called it, an architecture of democracy.

Wright's art was so original, his imagination was so endlessly fertile, and his sense of form was so appropriate to the site and so bold and uninhibited that even the most recent students, although they are more than a generation removed from Wright and nurtured in urban premises and technical resources alien to his, still see in his drawings and his buildings that virtuosity in planning, that command over form, that grace in shaping space which have been the talent of only a few, the greatest masters of architecture.

Wright was born on June 8, 1867, in Richland Center, Wis. When he was 12 years old his family settled in Madison, and Wright worked on his uncle's farm at Spring Green during the summers. He developed a passion for the land that never left him. He attended Madison High School and left in 1885, apparently without graduating. He went to work as a draftsman and the following year, while still working, took a few courses in civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1887 Wright went to Chicago, worked briefly for an architect, and then joined the firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Wright was very much influenced by Sullivan, and, although their relationship ended in a rupture when Sullivan found out that Wright was designing houses on his own, he always acknowledged his indebtedness to Sullivan and referred to him as "lieber Meister." In 1893 Wright opened his own office.


Master of Domestic Architecture

The houses Wright built in Buffalo and in Chicago and its suburbs before World War I gained international fame wherever there were avant-garde movements in the arts, especially in those countries where industrialization had brought new institutional and urban problems and had developed clients or patrons with the courage to eschew traditional design and the means to essay modernism, as in Germany (the Wasmuth publications of Wright's work in 1910 and 1911), the Netherlands (H. T. Wijdeveld, ed., The Life Work of the American Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925), and, later, Japan, where Wright designed the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1916-1922). Similarly, in the United States, Wright's clients were exceptional individuals and small, adventurous institutions, not governments or national corporations. A small progressive private school (Hillside Home School, Spring Green, 1902) and an occasional private, commercial firm (Larkin Company in Buffalo) came to him, but, chiefly, his clients were midwestern businessmen, practical, unscholarly, independent, and moderately successful, such as the Chicago building contractor Frederick C. Robie, for whom Wright designed houses.

Commissions to design a bank, an office building, or a factory were rare; Wright never received any large corporate or governmental commission. These were awarded to the classicists and the Gothicists of the early 20th century; at midcentury, after the case for modernism was won, the corporate commissions continued to go to large, dependable firms who worked in a rectilinear, contemporary idiom. Wright was left for nearly 70 years to exercise his art, always brilliantly and often resentfully, chiefly in domestic architecture, where, indeed, Americans, unlike many other peoples, have long lavished enormous, probably inordinate attention, assigning to their spacious, freestanding, single-family dwellings the inventiveness that some other nations have reserved for public architecture.

Early, Wright insisted upon declaring the presence of pure cubic mass, the color and texture of raw stone and brick and copper, and the sharp-etched punctures made by unornamented windows and doors in sheer walls (Charnley House, Chicago, 1891). He made of the house a compact block, which might be enclosed handsomely by a hipped roof (Winslow House, River Forest, Ill., 1893). Soon, the restrained delight in the simplicity of a single mass gave way to his passion for passages of continuous, flowing spaces; he burst the enclosed, separated spaces of classical architecture, removed the containment, the sense of walls and ceilings, and created single, continuously modified spaces, which he shaped by screens, piers, and intermittent planes and masses that were disposed in asymmetric compositions. By suggesting spaces, but not enclosing them, then by connecting them, Wright achieved extended, interweaving, horizontal compositions of space, and his roofs, windows, walls, and chimneys struck dynamic balances and rhythms. Vertical elements rise through horizontal planes (Husser House, Chicago, 1899); interior spaces flare from a central chimney mass (Willitts House, Highland Park, Ill., 1900-1902); low spaces rise into a high space that is carved into a second story (Roberts House, River Forest, 1908). Unexpectedly, light is captured from a clerestory or a room beyond, and a space flows in vistas seen beyond a structural pier, beneath low roofs and cantilevered eaves, over terraces and courts, and through trellises and foliage into gardens and landscape (Martin House, Buffalo, 1904). All his genius with weaving space, with creating a tension between compact alcove and generous vista, with variegated light, with occult balances of intermittent masses, with cantilevers that soared while piers and chimneys anchored, came to unrivaled harmony in the Robie House, Chicago (1909; now the Adlai Stevenson Institute, University of Chicago).

The Robie House has few antecedents. Perhaps its composition recalls the 19th-century rambling, picturesque houses of Bruce Price and Stanford White; its spaces owe something to Japanese architecture, and something is owed, too, to the master of dramatic balance of bold masses, Henry Hobson Richardson; but the Robie House is Wright's own, a uniquely personal organization of space. While wholly original, the Robie House stands within the principles of Chicago's special theory of architecture, as developed by Sullivan. That the Robie House also reflects an international movement, cubism, which had begun to fascinate pioneering artists in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, shows that Wright, while sensitive to his contemporaries' innovation, subsumed many traditions without any subservience.


Philosophy of Architecture

Wright's philosophy of architecture was compounded of several radical and traditional ideas. There was, first, the romantic idea of honest expression: that a building should be faithful in revealing its materials and structure, as Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc had argued, without any classical ornament or counterfeit surface or structure, which John Ruskin abhorred. There was, second, the idea that a building's form should reflect its plan, its functional arrangement of interior spaces, as Henry Latrobe and Horatio Greenough had proposed. There was, third, the conviction that each building should express something new and distinctive in the times (G. W. F. Hegel, Gottfried Semper) and specifically the new technical resources, such as steel skeletons and electric light and elevators, which suggested skyscrapers and new forms of building (John Wellborn Root). There was, fourth, the ambition, even pride, to achieve an art appropriate to a new nation, an American art (Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman), without Continental or English or colonial dependencies. Finally, there was the theory derived by Sullivan from Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer that a building should be analogous to a biological organism, a unified work of art, rooted to its soil, organized to serve specified functions, and, as a form, evolved as an organism evolves, fitted to its landscape, adapted to its environment, expressive of its purpose.

Those diverse currents of thought were not readily united. The Unitarianism of Wright's family prepared him to design the humanist Unity Church in Oak Park, Ill. (1906), a cubistic, light-filled meetinghouse, constructed, quite extraordinarily, in concrete. His introduction in kindergarten to F. W. A. Froebel's system of education through construction with blocks prepared Wright to design the playhouse and school of the beautiful Avery Coonley House, Riverside, Ill. (1908); there, significantly, in the progressive architecture of a house and school, John Dewey and his students were educational advisers. Form breaking and function making, the ferment of ideas in late-19th-century Chicago encouraged new thinking about institutions for religion, education, and urban settlement; Wright led a revolt from precedent in form and a celebration of necessity in new functions. His essay "The Art and Craft of the Machine" announced his leadership at Hull House in 1901; and he continued to state his dissatisfaction with America's failure to build institutions and environment adequate to the social problems and opportunities. His theory of an "organic architecture: the architecture of democracy" was broadcast in his Princeton lectures of 1930 and London lectures of 1939, as well as in his Autobiography (1932), which also offers some insight into his life and his family, including the apprentices who lived with him and for whom he established the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932 at Taliesin East, the house Wright built over many years (beginning in 1938) at Spring Green.


His Idea and Imagery for Modern Design

If the handsome Taliesin East, whose roofs are rhythmical accents on the brow of a bluff overlooking the confluence of two valleys, were all that Wright left, he would be remembered as the finest architect who worked in the 19th-century tradition of romantic domestic design. But, early, he prepared an idea and an imagery for modern design. He achieved in the Larkin Building, Buffalo (1904; destroyed) an unprecedented integration of circulation, structure, ventilation, plumbing, furniture, office equipment, and lighting; that building, an early example of modern commercial architecture, was emulated by Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius in Germany and Hendrik Petrus Berlage in Holland. Wright's plans for Midway Gardens, Chicago (1914; demolished) and the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1916-1922), organized complex modern institutions into new architectural compositions, and they showed inventiveness in structural technique, such as the structure of the Imperial Hotel, which was intended to resist earthquakes, which it did, even though it could not resist the wrecker in 1967. Wright tended to enjoy and to glorify nature and the rural condition, but he attacked various urban problems. Beginning with inexpensive row apartments in 1895, he designed buildings for cities, culminating in his drawing for a high-rise tower whose floors were to be cantilevered from a central shaft, the St. Mark's Tower project for New York City (1929); that project is reflected in the Price Tower at Bartlesville, Okla. (1953). Like many of his projects, the tower was a fundamental element in the Broadacre City project, the coherent, self-sufficient agricultural and industrial community Wright designed in 1931-1935.


Constant Search for Form

Significantly, Wright's concern for 20th-century problems, including urban form, did not lead him to the mechanistic rectilinear forms and finishes admired by Gropius or the sculptural purism of Le Corbusier. Always distinctive and independent, Wright's style changed often. For about 10 years after 1915 he drew upon Mayan massing and ornament (Barndall House, Hollywood, 1920). He cast ornament in concrete blocks (Millard House, Pasadena, 1923), and he did not achieve his several versions of a decisively modern style until various European architects, including Le Corbusier and others, notably Richard Neutra (who came to the United States in the late 1920s), had dramatized a sheer, stripped geometry. Even then Wright avoided the barrenness and abstraction of the isolated, single parallelepiped; he insisted upon having the multiple form of buildings reflect the movement of unique sites: the Kaufmann House, "Falling Water," at Bear Run, Pa. (1936-1937), where cantilevered, interlocked, reinforced-concrete terraces are poised over the waterfall; the low-cost houses (Herbert Jacobs House, Madison, Wis., 1937); and the "prairie houses" (Lloyd Lewis House, Libertyville, Ill., 1940). No architect was more skillful in fitting form to its terrain: the Pauson House in Phoenix, Ariz. (1940; destroyed) rose from the desert, like a Mayan pyramid, its battered ashlar and shiplapped, wooden walls reflecting the mountains and desert. There is a compatibility, an organic adaptation in stone walls, wooden frames, and canvas that marries Wright's western home, Taliesin West (1938-1959), to Maricopa Mesa, near Phoenix.

Those brilliant rural houses did not reveal how Wright would respond to an urban setting or to the program of a corporate client. But in the Administration Building for the Johnson Wax Company, Racine, Wis. (1936-1939, with a research tower added in 1950), he astonished architects with his second great commercial building (after the Larkin Building). A continuous, windowless red-brick wall encloses a high, clerestory-lighted interior space; that space, which contains tall dendriform columns, is one of the most serene and graceful interior spaces in the world. Thereafter, a college, Florida Southern at Lakeland, Fla., was encouraged to retain Wright to design its campus (1938-1959); unfortunately, it suffers from an obsession with multifaceted form and oblique and acute angles (as does the Unitarian Church in Madison, Wis., 1947). But after those probings toward a new geometry Wright succeeded with complex pyramids (as suggested earlier by his Lake Tahoe project of the 1920s) when he built the Beth Sholom Synagogue at Elkins Park, Pa. (1959), a Mycenaean sacred mountain. Such a temple, a sanctuary of light approached by a continuous spiral, fascinated the elderly Wright. At Florida Southern College he juxtaposed circle and fragmented rhombus, recalling Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, Italy; he set a helix inside the Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco (1948-1949). Ultimately, he conceived of having the helix surround a tall central space: the six-story Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1946-1959), which paid in significant functional defects to gain a memorable experience in viewing art, especially where the helix affords views into a side gallery below.

Of Wright's colossal helix that he proposed for the Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh (1947), nothing was built. He envisioned ramps for automobiles that would lead to stores and galleries and auditoriums. His drawings, which are in ink and crayon on huge sheets of rice paper, stand among the greatest and most inspiring displays of architectural imagination; what was built in Pittsburgh by other hands is expedient and vulgar. His drawings are magical and lyrical. No one might ever build accordingly, but Wright was never content with the commonplace or servile to the conventional or the practical. He imagined the wonderful where others were content with the probable. Avoidance of the vulgar or probable excited him to ecstatic design: the hyper-bole of the Grand Opera and Civic Auditorium for Baghdad, Iraq (1957). The drawings of helix, domes, and finals suggest how far Wright's talent transcended any client's capacity fully to realize his dream: a world of sanctuaries and gardens, of earth and machines, of rivers, seas, mountains, and prairies, where grand architecture enables men to dwell nobly.

Wright died at Taliesin West on April 9, 1959. His widow, Olgivanna, directs the Taliesin Fellowship.


Further Reading on Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright's An Autobiography (1932; enlarged 1943) remains the best statement of his architectural theory. Other books by Wright to consult are An Organic Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy (1939), essays based on his London lectures of 1939; and When Democracy Builds (1945). An American Architecture, edited by Edgar Kaufmann (1955), is an anthology of Wright's writings and includes photographs of his work. Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings, selected by Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn (1960), is a well-edited compendium. A complication of Wright's work is Buildings, Plans and Designs, with a foreword by William Wesley Peters and an introduction by Wright (1963). Arthur Drexler, The Drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright (1962), contains some of the finest examples of Wright's art.

The standard monograph on Wright is Henry-Russell Hitchcock, In the Nature of Materials (1942; 2d ed. 1969). Grant C. Manson, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910 (1958), is a detailed study of his early work. Vincent Scully, Frank Lloyd Wright (1960), a sensitive and informative essay about Wright's imagery, covers his entire career. John E. Burchard and Albert Bush-Brown, The Architecture of America (1961), interprets Wright in terms of American architectural experience. Wright figures prominently in John Jacobus, Twentieth-century Architecture: The Middle Years, 1940-65 (1966). □