Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) has been called “simply the greatest artist [America] has ever produced in any field of the visual or musical arts.” Born just two years after the end of the American Civil War, he was witness to the extraordinary changes that swept the world from the 19th century horse and carriage to the 20th century rocket ship. During a career that spanned seven decades, he took full advantage of the opportunities presented by the unprecedented scientific and technological advances of his time without losing the 19th century spiritual and romantic values with which he had grown up.
Wright was born in rural Wisconsin in 1867, the son of William Carey Wright, a well-educated musician and composer from a family of New England intellectuals and Anna Lloyd-Jones, the daughter of a fiery Unitarian preacher who had emigrated from Wales to a freer America when his ideas became too radical for his Welsh brethren. Wright always claimed the career choice of architecture was preordained by his mother, a formidable presence. Anna wanted her son to grow up to build beautiful buildings and to this end she hung engravings of old English cathedrals in his nursery. She also introduced him to the Kindergarten Gifts and Occupations of Friedrich Froebel, the German educator and inventor of the “Kindergarten,” which awakened him to the “rhythmic structure in Nature.”
Whether or not this was indeed the incentive, at the age of 19 Wright left the University of Wisconsin after only two terms and headed for Chicago in search of work in architecture. Within a few months, after brief employment in other offices, he was hired by the prestigious firm of Adler and Sullivan with whom he remained for six years, serving as Louis Sullivan’s chief of design. In 1893, after a falling out with Sullivan over outside design work he had taken on, Wright opened his own office.
Within a decade he had transformed American residential design creating what became known as the Prairie Style. In an effort to redefine American architecture, he resolutely moved away from European models that had set the standard up until that time. He lowered overall heights, eliminated basements (where possible) and attics, and broke up the common boxlike Victorian rooms by removing unnecessary interior partitions, introducing free-flowing interior spaces and walls of art glass he called “light screens.” In the 1910s, he attempted to move both his life and his art in a new direction. He abandoned not only the simplicity of his earlier work for greater ornamentation as seen in Chicago’s Midway Gardens and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel—both now demolished--but the comfort of conventional family life as well. Late in 1909 he left his wife and six children, traveling to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a former client, as his companion. Ostracized upon their return to the States in 1911, Wright began building Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wisconsin as a home for the two of them. What domestic bliss they may have found here was short-lived, however. In August of 1914, while Wright himself was at work in Chicago, an angry and presumably insane servant set fire to Taliesin and systematically murdered Mamah, her two children and four others. A devastated Wright rebuilt Taliesin in her memory and then effectively abandoned it for the next decade, called to Japan and California for major architectural commissions.
Between 1922 and 1934, Wright had very little work with the exception of four textile block houses he built in Los Angeles in 1923-and 1924, giving new life to the despised concrete block. A luxurious resort hotel commission in the Phoenix area in the late 1920s went enthusiastically into working drawings before being brought down by the stock market crash and depression. During the early 1930s Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, founded his school of architecture, the Taliesin Fellowship, and began his campaign for decentralization with his scheme for Broadacre City, a utopian city of the future that moved the city into the country, giving every family a minimum of one acre to build upon and cultivate. Believed by many to be in retirement if not dead by the late 1930s, he took the world by surprise with Fallingwater, the country house for Edgar Kaufmann Sr. dramatically cantilevered over a favorite waterfall in bucolic Pennsylvania and the streamlined and light-flooded Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. In the 1940s and 50s Wright focused largely on the middle class residence he called Usonian, dozens of them being constructed around the country. In 1943, in his late 70s, he took on his most demanding and difficult commission, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The project went through two directors and six full sets of working drawings before ground was broken thirteen years later in 1956. The museum was dedicated in October of 1959, six months after Wright’s death at the age of 91.
Frank Lloyd Wright was the greatest of the architectural pioneers of the twentieth century, blazing trails and challenging men and technology to ever higher achievement. During the seventy years he devoted his life to architecture, he created over 1,100 designs nearly half of which were realized. These included government and commercial buildings, hotels, apartment towers, recreational complexes, museums, religious houses, residences for the wealthy and those of more modest income, decorative pieces, furniture and lighting features, textiles, and art glass.
His mission was to create a truly American architecture, one appropriate for free citizens that would reflect the democratic values of this great country in which he so firmly believed. In creating what he called an “architecture for democracy,” he redefined our concept of space as he sought to make the common man uncommon by offering everyone the opportunity to live and grow in nourishing environments, connected physically and spiritually to the natural world.
But his genius was not confined to America. The “cause of architecture” he espoused had international appeal and both he and his work have been widely celebrated. During his lifetime, Frank Lloyd Wright was honored by Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Switzerland, Uruguay, and Wales and in his own country by honorary degrees from numerous universities including Princeton and Yale and his own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.
Posthumously, the honors continue. Hundreds of books and articles have been written from dozens of different perspectives about the architect and his work over the last fifty years. Major exhibitions have been mounted not only here in the United States, but also in Europe and Japan. And perhaps most importantly, significant progress has been made by both the public and private sectors in saving Wright buildings from destruction whether from scheduled demolition or creeping deterioration.
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, including Fallingwater, the Robie house, the Johnson Administration Building, the Guggenheim, Taliesin and Taliesin West, the Jacobs House and the demolished Larkin Building and Imperial Hotel. In 2000, the A. I. A. selected their top ten favorite buildings of the twentieth century: Fallingwater again headed this list, with the Robie house, the Guggenheim Museum and the Johnson and Son Administration Building also among the select few. These honors bear witness to Wright’s own appraisal of his work written in 1953: “I know well that my buildings see clearly not only the color, drift and inclination of my own day but feed its spirit. All of them seek to provide forms adequate to integrate and harmonize our new materials, tools and shapes with the democratic life-ideal of my own day and time. Thus do I know work that is for all time.”
© 2007 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation