Frank Lloyd Wright – Greatest American Architect of All Time


It was 1905 when American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) was asked to design the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.A., which was the first building in the world designed entirely for poured concrete construction.

Dedicated in 1909 it is considered of central importance in the evolution of architecture. Many people saw it as the first modern building, despite the use of concrete in Roman times to reinforce buildings of that ancient world.

Frank Lloyd Wright observed that ‘buildings like people must first be sincere must be true and then withal, as gracious and loveable as may be’.

575.1953What his new method of construction certainly did was inspire other modernists to be innovative, like German-Architects Mies Van der Rohe and German Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969 , Swiss born, French architect, designer and writer Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer (1907 – ) and English architect, furniture and textile designer Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857 – 1941) who along with Wright were all pioneers of modern architectural style.

Wright’s belief that architecture reflects life and should feed the individual, physical, social and spiritual needs of its occupants was a concept that they all embraced and carried forward, as were his enlightened ideas about space in architecture.

One of the twentieth centuries foremost influential architects and designers, Frank Lloyd Wright was the son of a preacher man and a musician.

He witnessed extraordinary changes during his lifetime as the world he was born into swept forward from the darkest visages of the industrial age into the styles of gracious elegance that heralded the start of the twentieth century. He journeyed through the dark days of two world wars, a severe world depression and the exciting and stimulating advances of the rocket age.

He created his designs in a response to his love for nature and his need to integrate his work as closely as possible with the natural world. The key factors in Wright’s work were space, light and colour with space always his first consideration, especially from the building of the Unity Temple onward.

It was when he was designing this building that he realised, as he observed at a later date, that space, its creation and manipulation, is at the very heart and essence of any great building, and an integral aspect of great design in architecture.

People who have stood in ancient Greek temples or theatres built of stone have had the same experience, as they are enveloped and enclosed by the majesty of the space, which gives them a feeling of being set free.

The idea of space was an intellectual and philosophical concept vital to the birth of that ancient democracy and its ideas of liberty and freedom. Unity Temple has become an historic and iconic landmark, a symbol of the style of American democracy and world of architecture that Wright was passionate about.

Frank Lloyd Wright 2Wright noted that ‘architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men, to put man into possession of his own earth. It is at least the geometric pattern of things, of life, of the human and social world. It is at best that magic framework of reality that we sometimes touch upon when we use the word ‘order.’

Frank Lloyd Wright began experimenting with geometric shapes, volumes and mass as he studied and then married Catherine Lee Tobin when he was 22.

He designed and built his first house and studio in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park where he set up a lively household space for he and Catherine’s six growing children.

Tirrana FL WrightAs a young man Wright wanted to design homes that he believed would belong on an American prairie, with its long low vistas and challenging landscape. He found work in Chicago with two different firms before joining the prestigious partnership of Adler and Sullivan, working directly under Louis Sullivan for six years.

His home was an architectural laboratory, where he was able to experiment with design concepts that contained the basis for his legacy of architectural philosophy.

After a falling out he left Sullivan in 1893 and struck out on his own.

In his Prairie Studio years he opened the spaces between rooms to a point that they became continuous.  The organic architecture of his houses reached out into the garden beyond and blended well with their environment.

Landscaping became an important component and his preference for flanking the main doorway to the house with planted urns of greenery began at this time.

The Winslow House of 1893 in River Forest, Illinois bears his unmistakable stamp, its horizontal emphasis opens inwards as well as outwards.

It was his first independent commission and he gave it a broad sheltering roof and it had a delightful simplicity of style that attracted a great deal of local attention, much like the houses of Charles Voysey in England.

The horizontal emphasis and early influence of the Japanese architectural style on his work very evident

Phoenix Hall, Byodo

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-In Temple

At the World Fair in Chicago in 1893 Japan had built a copy of the now world heritage building the Byodo-in Temple in Uji on the outskirts of Tokyo for the 1893 Chicago exhibition.

The original temple had been conceived in 998 as a rural villa, which like a great Italian villa, sat in sustainable harmony in glorious natural surroundings.

Its Phoenix Hall constructed in 1053, has been likened to that great bird with its wings outstretched and it impressed the young architect.

Byodo-in Temple Uji, Kyoto

Wright expressed his concept of the open plan as an organic fusion of interior and exterior space in the house for Frank Thomas in Oak Park Illinois, c1901.

The principle of open wall elements replaced the window as a hole in the wall and drew upon the traditions of Japanese domestic architecture.

In 1905 (he was 38) he went to Japan with Catherine and they spent two months touring natural and historical landmarks.

Frank Lloyd Wright 4His obsessive collecting of Japanese prints first started after he had attended the World Fair held in Chicago in 1893. “I remember when I first met Japanese prints, I’ll never forget it,”Wright said once in a filmed interview. “Japanese art had a great influence on my feeling and thinking.”

Collecting Japanese prints would continue all of Wright’s life and surely influenced his decision to go there on his first trip outside the U.S.A., instead of to Europe like most of his contemporaries.

The culture and philosophies of Japan would add a huge dimension of influence to all his work. He was greatly inspired by their ideas about the melding of beauty and geometry, which is revealed in the emphasis of his architecture on horizontal lines.

Interesting he employed Walter Burley Griffin, who designed the capital city Canberra for the Australian government, as his land planner and landscape architect early in his career in his Oak Park studio.

Griffin oversaw the construction of the Willits House in 1902 and other important projects.

Wright left him in charge when he flew out for the first time to Japan, however they had a falling out after Wright returned that was never satisfactorily resolved.

The Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright

Among other buildings he visited in Tokyo was the Katsura Imperial Palace of Kyoto, which is not only a masterpiece of Japanese architecture, but also can be seen as a medium of Japanese art per se.

Wright responded to ’truly ordered simplicity [that] in the hands of the great artist may flower into a bewildering profusion exquisitely exuberant and render all more clear than ever’.

His creativity blossomed after this inspiring journey, which seemed for him to cement so many of his own ideas about architecture being of the earth and in harmony with it.  He loved the element of surprise and fused concepts and ideas from both east and west.

His prairie style house as it evolved retained certain characteristics; low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, no attics or basements, long rows of casement windows reflecting the long, low horizontal prairie on which they sat and emphasized the overall horizontal theme he preferred.

These include the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1903), the Avery Coonley House in Riverside Illinois (1907) and the Frederick C. Robie House (right) in Chicago (1908).

Characteristics of his work and his concentration on natural, local materials, warm earth tones, the effects on human scale and the integration of interior and exterior, all fit with Japanese traditions.

He installed windows that framed certain sections of the landscape beyond the house, a concept the Japanese call ‘shakkei.

The spatial complexity of his interiors, reflected as much variation as did the furniture he designed and made to furnish it.

Building-in seat and storage furniture was another way of extending space for Wright, who often included bench and window seating, as at the Oak house or for specially designed inglenook [seating near a fireplace] or as originally in the Robie House (now missing) and the Bogk House (pictured) in Wisconsin, which also has a bookcase built into the back of the bench.

Many of his interiors in the early part of his career show homage to the designs of late nineteenth century British arts and crafts leader William Morris. They were tidy and far less complicated. However, within a decade his style changed dramatically and would continue to be refined until the end of his life.

In his own Oak house the chairs for his dining room were designed to view from the back, pulled up to the table. This was very new thinking and by grouping tall-backed chairs around the table he created a space within a space.

One of the most important characteristics of his work was his innate sensitivity to colour and texture, which extended to encompass all his interior furnishings as well as his exterior landscaping. So many of the rugs and and fabrics have since been lost, but the few that survive show his innate sensibility for harmony that ensured his interiors always remained lively adding yet another layer of richness to their settings.

So many of his original pieces of furniture have been discarded, broken up or lost. His Barrel Chair from the Martin House, which does survive, is considered one of his furniture ‘masterpieces’.

The curve of the back is a form very difficult to make correctly because it curves in three directions. Besides the curve, it also tapers in thickness from the centre to the outside. The sculpted arms are set at just the right angle to accept the pressure points of a human arm and then allow it to relax.

His canopy bed has some design flaws in that parents who tuck their children in at night tend to hit their heads when getting up. Sadly many of the files about his furnishings, mostly the textiles have all but disappeared and fabrics and rugs originally in place have worn out and been updated.

When a client gave no specific indication of what they wanted then he used dimensions for the scale of the house based on his own body, just like his ancient predecessors, Palladio in sixteenth century Italy and the architects of ancient Greece and Rome.

An extended stay in Europe away from his family from 1909 -1911 with the wife of a client Mrs Edward (Mamah) Cheney, whom he was in love with was a huge social scandal of his time. It caused an uproar and his Oak Park studio closed its doors leaving his draughtsmen and clients in limbo.

His time in Europe meant that he was able to write for the first time and he produced two publications that brought him international recognition and greatly influenced other architects.

He came back to America in 1911 where he and Cheney began construction of Taliesin near Spring Green as their home and refuge.

He also resumed his architectural practice and over the next several years received two important public commissions: the first in 1913 for an entertainment center called Midway Gardens in Chicago.

In 1914 while he was in Chicago working Cheney, her two children and for other people were murdered in a shocking incident as an insane servant set fire to the living quarters at Taliesin.

His life entered a period of profound tragedy and in 1916 he abandoned America and took up work in Japan where he would stay for some years working on the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Demolished in 1967 (It’s entrance survives in a theme park!)

Wright was to comment in later life  “I have sometimes been asked why I did not make this opus more ‘modern.’

The answer is that there was a tradition there worthy of respect and I felt it my duty as well as my privilege to make the building belong to them so far as I might. The principle of flexibility instead of rigidity here vindicated itself with inspiring results.”

His collection of Japanese prints was the key to his survival during this terrible time as he sold them to settle his debts.

When he was flush he always purchased more and they provided money at times in the future when he needed it.

He did not return to the U.S.A. until 1922 when he found that commissions were scarce and while his time until 1934 was busy and creative producing innovative designs, many of them were not realised, putting him into fiscal difficulties.

Catherine had refused to agree to a divorce for him when he had left with Mamah Cheney.

However in 1922 she granted it and a whole new chapter of his life started in 1928 when he married Olga Lazovich, who proved to be the stabilizing influence he needed to help him re-focus his architectural direction.

As well as working now he turned to writing and lecturing which widened his audience base. He developed ideas for community living that did not receive much consideration at the time, but would influence developments of the future.

He founded a school of architecture at Taliesin which had an apprenticeship program to provide a total learning environment, integrating not only architecture and construction, but also farming, gardening, cooking, and the study of nature, music, art, and dance.

He constructed Taliesin West (pictured) as a Winter camp for students in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale where desert living tested his design innovations, structural ideas and building details. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture is still operating today.

His innate understanding of the philosophies of Taoist Zen Buddhism are evident in the design of one of his most successful compositions, the massive house and garden built in 1936 entitled Fallingwater.

Located on a stream in Bear Run, Pennsylvania Wright fully used the attributes of the all newly available reinforced concrete to his advantage.

He also ensured that some materials used in the house were taken from that particular environment. Stone quarried in the vicinity and wood from the nearby trees, so that it was quite unique and could not be reproduced anywhere else.

The principles associated with line and mass and the mood of minimalism intrinsic to the siting of this great house, which many consider Wright’s best, are strictly observed as a sort of architectural noble mindedness became his guideline.

His creative imagination and the natural environment come together at Fallingwater in a holistic concept that is both visually pleasing as well as environmentally sound.

The strong horizontal lines of the building integrated well with its precipitous siting, accommodating its wonderful prospect over the water, which is the binding element that unifies the whole composition.

Wright’s idea of multipurpose rooms was to ensure that the main living rooms were allotted the highest proportion of space for living, as he believed it that it should be a nurturing environment.

This was often achieved at the expense of bedrooms, but you only slept in those, most of your daily life taking place in rooms for living in.

He loved the use of light and windows placed in the middle of walls early in his career moved to the ends and edges later.

He was sought after by several companies to produce various different material lines for them.

Most of his buildings were built of red brick, which was used frequently on the exterior and interior. It featured as piers, fireplaces and entry hall floors.

By using colour in an integrated way he brought unity and harmony to all his designs. He added more colour into the mix however it always remained dominated by the main colour being used in different shades and tones that were repeated in rugs, art glass, wall plaster and so on.

He worked well into his eighties, travelling, lecturing and writing prolifically and he died in 1959 a few months this side of his 92nd birthday.

The American Institute of Architects honoured Frank Lloyd Wright in 1991 as the ‘greatest American architect of all time’.

Twelve of his structures are listed as being in the top one hundred most important buildings of the twentieth century and ten have also been named for World Heritage site listing. His legacy of work was impressive, his ideas groundbreaking and his ideals were about everyone having an opportunity to grow in nourishing sustainable environments.

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to achieve inner harmony, which was a key aspect of his design, because he believed forming character in both a building and a person was one and the same.  He said it was like what ancient Greek philosopher Plato called the ‘eternal idea of the thing’.

‘Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature it will never fail you’. 

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014-2019


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