Frank Lloyd Wright is considered one of the most influential architects of American architecture. His innovative style, unique aesthetic, and early foray into sustainability have shaped the landscape of the United States.
Often hailed as the grandfather of sustainability, many modern architects are looking at his work in a new light, as the landscape of architecture is rapidly incorporating green living into their buildings. Although he is best known for unusual commercial structures, his primary work was creating homes.
Many of his dynamic residential projects are historical landmarks. Frank Lloyd Wright had a vibrant career spanning 70 years. He was strongly influenced by nature, and his work emphasized unique craftsmanship and technology.
Additionally, he created furnishings and stained glass windows that enhanced his designs. He was known for designing rugs, fabric, art glass, dinnerware, graphic arts, passive lighting, and unique lighting within each building to enhance the structure.
During a career that spanned unusual time periods and ideals, he designed over 1,000 buildings and taught many apprentices in his style and design in his later years.
On June 8, 1867, Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richmond Center, Wisconsin. It was a period in the U.S. just after the Civil War, and the economy boomed. However, not for his family. His father, William Carey Wright, was a preacher and a musician. His mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, had been born into a Welsh family that settled in the valley area of Wisconsin.
Frank Lloyd Wright would settle there in later years. His early life had a nomadic nature because of his father’s ministry positions.
This influence in the changing nature of various locations influenced his bond to an aesthetic style that would enhance the location rather than overtake nature with a structure imposed upon the landscape.
In his early years, he spent time in Rhode Island, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Madison, Wisconsin.
Uncharacteristic for the age, his parents divorced. This occurred in 1885 when he was 18 and put a strain on him and his family.
In addition, they had had some challenging finances. To help support his family, Frank Lloyd Wright worked for the dean at the University of Wisconsin in the School of Engineering.
However, engineering was not his calling.
In 1887, he left for Chicago, where he found work at the prestigious architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan. He worked with Louis Sullivan for seven years, and this training started to define who he would become, not only as an architect, but it set the tone for his work ethic.
In 1889, he negotiated a 5-year contract with Louis Sullivan in exchange for a loan to build his own home.
At 22, he had just married Catherine Lee Tobin. He proceeded to build his first home, which included a studio. It was located in Oak Park and featured the East Coast Shingle Style, known for its prominent roof gables.
This began his experimentation with geometric shapes and volume, something that would be iconic in his style throughout his career.
In 1893, he left the architectural firm in an acrimonious disagreement that has never been fully revealed by biographers. However, it is postulated that it was because he was taking on independent commissions for residential homes.
Start of His Firm
Frank’s first commission was the William H Winslow House. It was conservative compared to his future work, but it showed the beginnings of his architectural freedom and the style that was soon to be called the Prairie style.
This style was emulated by many of his contemporaries and can be seen dotting the Midwest.
Most of his work was on homes, although most people think of him as a commercial building architect. During this early time in FLW’s career, he built many of his iconic residences on the National Registry of Homes.
Transformation of Spirit
In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright went on an extended stay in Europe with client and lover Mamah Borthwick. He left his wife and six children, although it was several years before a divorce was finalized.
Upon his return, he began working on Taliesin, his iconic home near Spring Green, the valley where his mother had emigrated to in her early life with her Welsh family.
He received two important public commissions. During this time, one was an entertainment center called Midway Gardens, located in Chicago, Illinois. And The New Imperial Hotel is located in Tokyo, Japan.
Another personal pivot in life was the brutal murder of Mamah, his lover, and her children by a disgruntled servant. Wright was working in Chicago when the incident occurred. Then, on August 15, 1914, Julian Carlton set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin, in the wing that was their home.
Carlton then murdered seven people with an ax as the fire burned. This horror propelled Frank Lloyd Wright deeper into his work. After Mamah Borthwick’s death, Wright’s style inclined towards and incorporated a pre-Columbian-influenced design that was foreboding:
- Echoing ominous Mayan temples
- Obscure Aztec symbology
- Utilizing concrete blocks as building materials and “inverted” windows
- Mayan Revival–style roof décor
Although lovely, these buildings have a severe style and a sense of gloom.
1889 to 1910 marked the years of what has become known as the Prairie Style. This is an iconic Midwestern appearance with a long open structure with high straight sides. It is said to imitate the appearance of the prairie.
The hallmark of this style was bland colors, roofs that were cantilevered, interiors contoured with minimalism, and unusual silhouettes. The interior walls were minimized and emphasized openness and community, and created a harmonious blend with the landscape.
The Usonian style arose because of the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression. It emphasized affordable housing, and Frank Lloyd Wright was sympathetic to the plight of others.
Frank Lloyd Wright began creating a basic philosophy encompassing architecture during this time. He’s quoted as saying in 1959-
“No architecture is without philosophy. There is no art of any kind without its own philosophy.”Frank Lloyd Wright
Five Elements to His Philosophy
Design for Democracy
Frank Lloyd Wright always looked at the environment and the functionality of a home and infused it with eloquence and humanity. Then, he looked at creating architecture for everyone through standardization.
Integrity and Connection
He’s quoted saying, “above all integrity, buildings are like people and must be sincere and true.” He believed in nourishing and enhancing the lives of all those who experienced his buildings. He believed in every man and woman, and the child had the right to live in a beautiful space.
For him, a genuinely organic building was in harmony with its inhabitants, time, and place. The spirit of these structures is that they are conceived together and work as one cohesive unit. A circle of nature within and without.
Machines and Materials
As each new technology and technique emerged within the architecture and engineering fields, Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated these elements into his buildings. Nevertheless, he wanted to create unique structures and be thoroughly modern for their own time.
The Great Mother Art
Frank Lloyd Wright was often quoted as saying, “the great mother art, behind which all others are definitely, distinctly, and inevitably related, is architecture.” From there, he developed many crafts that were incorporated within his buildings, not only in their structures but also in the furnishings.
Before it became popular and necessary, Frank Lloyd Wright illuminated the landscape with his ideas that are now known as sustainability.
He used local rocks, soil, and timber to create his many structures. His belief, in his words, was: “Rather than create a structure that overtakes the landscape, that it should flow and blend with the environment is an act of architectural transcendentalism.”
Landscaping was vital to his designs, as were windows and outdoor spaces. To him, everything needed to meld nature and living areas together seamlessly.
His incorporation of natural light rather than harsh and domineering electrical light made way for unique structures that implemented windows and skylights.
By combining concrete with local soil, the look and sustainability of these homes blended into the landscape.
Some of His Iconic Works
Some of Wright’s most important residential works were created between 1903 and 1908. Included in those were the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1903), the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois (1907), and the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago (1908).
These were in addition to important public commissions, including the Larkin Company Administration Building in Buffalo (1903) and Unity Temple in Oak Park (1905).
The most famous in most people’s minds is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, with its white spiral structure dominating the landscape across from Central Park. Its swirling, slightly inclined walk, web-like skylight, and white-walled interior stand as a testament to technology and innovation.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is the highest accolade in the architectural world. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was built between 1956–1959 and is one of the standout Museums in the world. Although there are many other Guggenheim Museums, it is known as “The Guggenheim” because of its unique design.
There are several Frank Lloyd Wright Houses in the U.S. that welcome visitors.
Taliesin West was Wright’s winter home in his later years. A UNESCO World Heritage site located in Scottsdale, Arizona.
When Wright began to travel to the Southwest in 1935 to escape the harsh Midwest winters, this came about because of doctors’ orders.
There he would instruct his students until he died in 1959. Taliesin West is constructed out of native rock, cement mixed with local materials, and Arizona sand. It is framed by redwood beams.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Wright designed his private home and studio. It was representative of the East Coast shingle style in Oak Park, Chicago, when he was 22. It has an open-concept layout.
The Rosenbaum House, located in Florence, Alabama, is the refined version of his Usonian style. It was formed in a classic, minimal L-shape. It features built-in furniture and is heated with radiant floor heating.
Hollyhock House, located in East Hollywood, Los Angeles, was commissioned just following the death of Mamah in 1919. This home is another UNESCO World Heritage site. He incorporated pre-Colombian influences into the design, like his famous “inverted” windows, which are windows that aren’t visible from the outside.
The Hanna-Honeycomb House is located in Stanford, California, in San Francisco. It is a hexagonal structure with a simple, utilitarian style and resembles a honeycomb.
Frederick C. Robie House
Often defined as the definitive prairie-style home, the Robie House is located in Chicago’s upscale Hyde Park neighborhood. It features a cantilevered roof and exaggerated overhanging eaves and has an open floor plan.
Fallingwater is located in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is an example of organic architecture that draws from Japanese design and integrates the delicate relationship between man, design, and nature. Considered the most famous of all the homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright
Cedar Rock is located on a limestone bluff above the Wapsipinicon River in Independence, Iowa. Wright created every detail of the home and the living space, even the cups and plates that graced the dinner table. As a result, it commands sweeping Midwestern vistas.
Kentuck Knob In Dunbar, Pennsylvania. Frank Lloyd Wright was 86 when he took the project on, and it was part of the last homes he ever built. Although it is quintessential Usonian in design, it has an unusual hexagonal structure.
Muirhead Farmhouse is in Kane County, Illinois. It has a box shape and employs the Usonian style, and is described as architecture to meet the purpose of its existence.
Seth Peterson Cottage
Unfortunately, FLW died before the Seth Peterson cottage was complete. But, it is considered one of the best examples of all his principles distilled down into an 880 sq. ft. cottage.
After World War 2 in 1945, many apprentices returned, thus allowing the studio to flourish with work. Over the next decade, he created the Research Tower for the SC Johnson Company, a Unitarian meeting house in Madison, a skyscraper in Oklahoma, and several buildings for Florida Southern College.
In addition to his apprentices, he taught classes in his style and philosophy. “Form follows function” is the heart of everything he does and teaches.
There are courses specifically on his style and philosophy in colleges and universities. Still, there are also online courses where you too can delve into the wonderful world of Frank Lloyd Wright.
His forward-thinking trends involving sustainability, using local materials, and careful use of landscaping in the structure of a building, still inspire many architects today.
Despite the tragedies and ups and downs of his life, during his 70-year career, Frank Lloyd Wright put his stamp on the American landscape with unique homes and buildings. He created an aesthetic that still withstands the test of time.