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Frank Lloyd Wright


Fifty years after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright continues to be recognized as the greatest architect of the Twentieth Century. His seventy-two year career was punctuated with worldwide fame, hostile derision and artistic triumphs. Wright's acknowledged masterpieces outnumber the entire output of many other architects. And the complete body of his work was so vast that historians now summarize his career into three "Golden Ages."

The career of Frank Lloyd Wright commenced after only a few months of college course work at the University of Wisconsin, when he apprenticed to Chicago architect, J. Lyman Silsbee. His first buildings, like those of Silsbee, were in the prevailing shingle style of Queen Anne architecture. Soon after, though, he found a position with Adler and Sullivan, one of Chicago's most important architectural firms. Louis Sullivan became for Wright the only other architect he consistently admired, always referring to him as "Lieber Meister." The two formed a design synergy that surpassed the usual employee hierarchy, and where Wright often felt he was "the pen in the master's hand."

Louis Sullivan

Sullivan, during his reign over what would be named "The Chicago School of Architecture," devoted his main energies to large commercial buildings, leaving the design of houses to his staff. Wright designed several of those houses people assumed were authored by his lieber Meister, including Sullivan's own home in Chicago and his vacation getaway near the Gulf Coast.The young draftsman was even acknowledged as co-designer with Sullivan for the important Astor Street residence for James Charnley.

The egocentric Wright's talent, however, was far too advanced to continue in an apprenticeship with anyone for long and he began taking on independent design jobs in secret. The discovery of these "bootleg houses" resulted in his termination from Adler and Sullivan and the startup of his own firm at age 26. Though the two wouldn't speak for years after this indignation, Wright's first house after leaving Sullivan hinted at the master's influence, marking the William Winslow House of River Forest as perhaps the most "Sullivanian" of Wright's great early houses.

Oak Park

When Daniel Burnham's Neoclassical Columbian Exhibition opened in Chicago in 1893, Wright found only one building irresistible, the 'Ho-O-den' Japanese pavilion standing alone on the lagoon's wooded isle. Seeing the traditional wooden structure of simple post and beam construction, its wide eaves embracing the landscape, he may have had the inspiration for his first Prairie houses created a few years later.

The fourteen years of business at the Wright Studio in Oak Park were highly productive both artistically and politically. He found iconoclastic clients willing to push the boundaries of architecture just as the Arts and Crafts Movement provided the philosophy of spare utility and cohesion of design that found sympathy in Wright's organic approach to environmental context.

The Midwestern environment and pioneer mindset opened Wright to several major developments in his aesthetic. Gone was any vestige of the Queen Anne vocabulary or Greek revival plan. Instead of defined 'rooms' he worked in volumetric spaces. Picturesque silhouettes of turrets and finials were replaced with hovering planes in command of rhythmic vertical elements. He had found that the 'geometry' of architecture was more compelling than any formulaic application of traditional grammar and could be customized to the setting, the uses and the client.

The Prairie House

After a few years of refined experimentation, Frank Lloyd Wright began the 20th Century by transforming architecture into a modern language with new rules of grammar, his rules. The more avant-garde architects and designers in the Midwest followed Wright's lead as well as the latest currents flowing out of Europe to create a new direction for architecture: the Prairie School.

Primarily used in suburban houses, the Prairie vocabulary challenged the rigid demarcation of rooms by eliminating wall partitions to let the living spaces flow together seamlessly. Carpets, textiles and art glass shared similar motifs and color was limited to muted earth tones instead of the riotous palettes and clashing styles of fashionable upscale houses. The building materials were limited to those found in the immediate area; brick, if the earth yielded clay; stone, if the ground was rocky; and natural, not painted wood, from nearby trees. These elements, used logically, became one definition of his new concept, 'Organic Architecture.'

20th Century

Wright's self-described 'New School of the Middle West' became known in Europe from articles published in the International Studio. Deep currents of modernism were coursing through Austria and Germany with designers Adolf Loos, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser leading a crusade for the avant-garde. And Scotland's Charles Rennie Mackintosh demonstrated with his astonishing interiors that modernism was a force that defied traditional environments.

The year 1900 arrived with Wright establishing his artistic primacy with the first of many Prairie houses and landmark office and apartment buildings. His Unity Temple in Oak Park updated the church as a formalist exercise in simple cubic volumes and horizontal planes, utilizing reusable concrete forms in modular arrangements. The same vocabulary was applied to Buffalo's Larkin Building, the first modern office building of the Twentieth Century. Because it was to be built next to a smoky and noisy railroad yard, its windows were sealed and the first practical air conditioning was installed to regulate its atmosphere. Built-in metal furnishings and wall-hung toilets made it easier to maintain. Wright was now the preferred architect modernist clients requested to create their visions of this new century. The Frederick Robie House in Hyde Park capped this early period as the most sublime urban house ever conceived.

The prolific Wright, an accomplished draftsman at 20 and an established architect by 26, had fed his ego and pocketbook with a string of acclaimed houses for important individuals. His personal life, though, was anything but settled. His head was turned by the wife of client Edwin Cheney, whose new Oak Park house was being designed with Mamah Borthwick Cheney's considerable input. Conservative Oak Park was appalled when Wright left his wife and six children to live openly with Mrs. Cheney. This major social transgression, along with his discontent at not progressing to major, corporate clients downtown, led to the end of his Oak Park practice in 1909.

Wasmuth Portfolio

Wright had arranged a publication deal with Berlin publisher Ernst Wasmuth, to produce the definitive architectural monograph of his career. Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, otherwise known as The Wasmuth Portfolio, was produced in 1910 when Wright was only 43 years old.

Utilizing the few renderers remaining in his Studio as well as his gifted young son, Lloyd, Wright feverishly reproduced idealized versions of his best Prairie works for the high quality lithographs to be used in the two volume portfolio. He retreated to a Tuscan villa to refine the images before publication in Berlin, incidentally finding new inspiration among the medieval stones of Fiesole, Italy.

As a long time collector of Japanese woodblock prints, Wright tried to approximate a similar aesthetic in his monograph. Each of the plates, showing a perspective in a natural landscape, a detail or a floor plan, was to be a complete story of a building that could stand alone as an art object. The completed work remains his greatest work of illustration art.

The portfolio's arrival on the drafting boards of European modernists was a sensation, inspiring already gifted architects to transformations of their own. Sharing the same Berlin office of Peter Behrens, discovering this work together, were Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and a young man who would later be known as 'le Corbusier.'


There were no cheering crowds upon his return. Having poisoned the well of Oak Park clients and confronting an office empty of draftsmen, he and Mrs. Cheney left for his boyhood home near Spring Green, Wisconsin. In 1911, on the brow of the most scenic hill overlooking his family's valley, he began to build Taliesin, a self-sufficient farm that combined home and studio into his own private Xanadu. Throughout his life, Taliesin would remain his anchor and design laboratory.

In 1914, a deranged servant set fire to the house after blocking all but one of the exits for escape. In the rush to flee the burning building, several people were butchered by the crazed man, including Mrs. Cheney and her two children. Wright was in Chicago when he received the news and immediately raced to Wisconsin to deal with the event, no doubt assumed by his old Oak Park neighbors to be Divine retribution.

The fire destroyed a number of preassembled portfolios and water damaged those in the vault. To this day, individual plates from surviving sets of this seminal work have become symbols of the 'First Golden Age' of Wright and a personal connection to his tumultuous life.

Though The Wasmuth Portfolio had convinced Europe of Wright's leadership in modern American architecture, his stature here had plunged as a result of his social indiscretions. His once radical houses had become less alluring to potential clients increasingly drawn to the comfort food of colonial American and vernacular European styles. The lack of commissions here resulted in his flight to Japan and the multiyear project to design Tokyo's spectacular Imperial Hotel.


Los Angeles, home to two of his sons, became the focus of a new burst of artistic endeavor by the 1920s. For his new clients there, he employed a cast stone 'textile block' method of building re-enforced walls, ironically adapted from those sons' experiments in modular construction. John Lloyd had invented 'Lincoln Logs,' still sold in toy stores, and Lloyd had already been using a cast stone modular unit he'd named 'Knit Blocks.' Whatever the inspiration, Wright's new method was perfectly in tune with the sunny environment and ancient context of indigenous American construction, imparting a somewhat Aztec/Mayan look to these spectacular hillside houses.


From the late-twenties on, Wright had led his Taliesin entourage to the Arizona desert in an approximation of an Arabian fantasy he called 'Ocotillo Camp.' By the mid-thirties, the beauty of the landscape and the desire to avoid Wisconsin's harsh winters helped push him to invent the 'Taliesin Fellowship' and to construct 'Taliesin West.'

His past fame was re-ignited by a new generation of young architects, eager to actually pay for the privilege of sitting at the feet of the great man. There would be plenty of opportunities for foot sitting, but his other goal was to have strong, youthful bodies digging foundations, gathering stones and otherwise constructing his new desert fantasy.


The 1936 weekend retreat Wright designed for Edgar Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store mogul and the father of one of his young draftsmen, became America's most famous modern house and his thumb in the eye to the new 'International Style.'

Still regarded as the greatest 20th Century house ever built, Fallingwater pushed Wright's organic architectural concepts to new technological limits. Responding to the geological strata of the site, his mastlike tower of stacked shale stone seemingly held aloft three cantilevered levels hovering over Bear Run, a tiny river that exploded into a graceful waterfall on the Kaufmann's favorite parcel of land.

He expressed the rocky site by metaphorically lifting the stones out of the riverbed to create the interior floor planes, using the largest rock, the Kaufmann's choice spot to sunbathe, as the hearthstone for the living room fireplace. And instead of orienting the structure to face the falls, Wright floated the entire structure over the falls, merging the house inseparably into the total natural picture.

Fallingwater resurrected Wright's career and his image in the public consciousness, punctuating for historians his 'Second Golden Age.'

The other great structure of the thirties that cemented his newfound fame was Racine's Johnson Wax company headquarters, whose mushroom columns and pyrex clerestories transformed the modern office workspace into a cathedral of the future.

His poetic forms of the new modernism were the direct opposite to the cold austerity of the International Style. These two projects became icons for an America remaking its image into a technological, political and cultural powerhouse.

The Usonian House

At the beginning of his career, Frank Lloyd Wright became known for his custom dream homes for the wealthy. But by the mid-nineteen thirties he felt that quality design should not be dependent on a large budget. He invented a spare, efficient, modular based concept for building that would provide a homeowner all the luxuries that counted in his early houses: interpenetrating spaces, extravagant light, varied ceiling heights and the all-important central hearth. His name for this type of building was a modified acronym for 'United States of North America.' That the 'Usonian' House was an alliterative cousin to 'utopian' could only enhance its marketing appeal.

Built on a concrete slab, it was closer to the ground and thus more interactive with nature. Early Usonians abandoned the pinwheel plan of the Prairie houses, opting for L-shaped or linear plans that reduced the sleeping areas into cells and opened the kitchen or 'workspace' into the largest floor areas devoted to living and dining. Traditional walls built of 2 x 4 studs were replaced inside and out with layered plywood and board panels that self-insulated against wind or sound.

By his late sixties, Wright was the most famous architect in the world, presiding on the cover of Time Magazine. Twice before considered passé, this supremely egocentric artist had been vindicated in his sense of self-esteem and was widely considered the greatest living architect.


The 1940s and 1950s were his final years of experimentation and the 'Third Golden Age' historians have named. But Wright could not rest on all the laurels he'd accumulated through his astonishing career.

So many people vied to have the master design their houses that Wright had the luxury to choose which clients would have that privilege. He customized his Usonian houses to a wider range of wealth than those initial utopian versions for the common man, expanding the modules into myriad triangles, circles and parallelograms.

The major project that consumed most of those years, however, was his Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on New York's Fifth Avenue. Initially commissioned in 1943, Wright fought through years of zoning battles with the city and many design revisions until he arrived at the final concept and one of his greatest buildings.

He ignored the unrelenting grid of Manhattan real estate and traditional museum presentation to create a continuous spiral gallery around a monumental central space. Along the Central Park site, its white, splayed parapets counterpointed the masonry cliff of apartment buildings much as Fallingwater effected as it floated above its waterfall.

Finally, Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrated his magic on a New York stage, and did it on one of the most prominent sites in the city. His virtuoso result led many to criticize that the museum building itself was the greatest holding in the collection, overshadowing the modern art it displayed. In any case, the Guggenheim Museum achieved instant legitimacy in the public art consciousness and continues to push the boundaries of architecture in its worldwide locations.


When Wright died in 1959 at ninety-two, he entered into the pantheon of the greatest artists in world history. In architecture, his influence is felt whenever building must respect the natural environment.

Architecture is the unifying force of art and science. Technology must seamlessly merge into aesthetics for architecture to become, as the Greeks believed, the greatest of all the arts. Frank Lloyd Wright is an important artist because he crossed all disciplines and found each one to be a link in a great chain. Painting and drawing, sculpture and music, performance and spectacle, even geometry and physics; all are quests for beauty.

Nature itself has an architecture that Wright clearly understood. Perhaps his greatness lay in the simple fact that his own creativity was intertwined so completely within the language of nature.

The Twentieth Century was an ocean of change in world history. Frank Lloyd Wright is the bridge that connects an architecture of antiquity to an architecture of personal expression. To this day, Wright's influence on Modernism remains unchallenged.

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Avery Coonley house, Frank Lloyd Wright
Avery Coonley house

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright

Wasmuth Portfolio, Frank Lloyd Wright
Wasmuth print

Henry Fuerman , Frank Lloyd Wright
Fuermann photograph

Wasmuth Portfolio, Frank Lloyd Wright

Wasmuth porfolio, Frank Lloyd Wright

Iannelli sculpture at Midway Gardens
Iannelli sculpture
at Midway Gardens

David Jameson
ArchiTech Gallery
730 North Franklin suite 200
Chicago, IL 60654

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