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Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings

The name of Frank Lloyd Wright, like that of Leonardo da Vinci, may yet be spoken for another thousand years. Certainly, Wright's ever evolving architecture defined Modernism in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. But his abilities were not only demonstrated by his buildings but also by the drawings made to envision them. To the commercial art world, his drawings have set the upper ends of the market. To the architectural world, they have become a kind of "Holy Grail" that demonstrates a mastery of the graphic as well as the plastic arts.

Unlike Leonardo, whose paintings and drawn caricatures point to his fascination with the human form, Wright was communicating "architecture" and not the natural world. His technical drawings clearly display the length of a line, when the pencil lifts from the paper and any hesitations or revisions by the artist. In short, one can see the artist thinking on paper.

In the era of Wright's birth as an architect, Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts was considered the only real school. However, the curriculum there emphasized the drawing of elaborate "rendus," ravishing elevations and details of Classical styles that were often copied from the plaster casts in museums. After years of learning how to draw in this manner, the study of actual building techniques was reserved for the student's apprenticeship in a commercial architectural office. Wright would have none of it.


corinthean order
Typical Ecole-Type "Rendu"


In the decades after the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago was a grimy cauldron of hackneyed construction that occasionally brewed the most modern architecture. Classical styles were more often being built in the cities of the East Coast. So by 1887, it was Chicago and its open book of design that lured the Wisconsin farm boy even then determined to create his own universe.

Only 19 and with just a year at the University of Wisconsin behind him, Wright was eager to start his education in a real architectural office. His drawings must have impressed his first Chicago employer, Lyman Silsbee, who was compelled to hire the young Wright as soon as he saw them. Silsbee himself was known for his fine hand in the initial design renderings, which were then passed down through the office for his draughtsmen and "tracers" to finalize into shop drawings.

Even Wright was impressed with Silsbee's hand, drawing ornament that he recalls in his 1932 "Autobiography," as "...magnificent, his strokes were like standing corn in the field waving in the breeze."

But the work of the Silsbee office was far from the cutting edge. Every building was designed in the idiom of the day, which Wright and his fellow modernists joked was "Queen Anne" on the front and "Mary Anne" on the back. But his year at the office taught Wright how the nuts and bolts of a real building went together. He also came face to face with Silsbee’s collection of Japanese decorative objects and woodblock prints. Long part of the Aesthetic Movement, "Japonisme" and the Ukiyo-e, -literally: pictures of the floating world- had for years been given a comfortable home in those Queen Anne structures.


queen anne house
New Hampshire
"Queen Anne"
Hiroshige print
Hiroshige Print


Wright soon got the chance of his young life in the prospect of a job with Adler & Sullivan, then building Chicago's great Auditorium Theater. In his first job interview, Wright showed Sullivan not only his own versions of Silsbee ornament but of Sullivan's too. Quoting his 1932 narrative: "If Silsbee's touch was like standing corn waving in the fields, Sullivan's was like the passion vine in full bloom." Wright was immediately hired to provide finish drawings for the Auditorium project, abandoning what he called "ambitious Eastlake mimicry."

"I became a good pencil in the Master's hand, and at a time when he sorely needed one." Wright's drawings of ornament resembled those of Sullivan's so expertly, that it would be impossible to tell them apart except for the fact that the great bulk of Sullivan's were lost in the upheavals of his own life. Barely 200 are known to exist today.

He was so adept at not just drawing, but designing, that Sullivan had him take on the jobs of the residential commissions, including those for Sullivan's own use. The Astor Street house for James Charnley became a defining project for Wright and led him to an appreciation of the plain, unadorned wall. These projects became the ancestors of his later, solo designs.

Nearing the end of his contract, Wright left the firm after a dispute over "Bootleg" houses he had done on his own time. The Master and his pencil didn't speak again for 12 years.




Wright set up an office in the Loop in Sullivan's Schiller Building with Cecil Corwin, another Adler & Sullivan refugee. In 1893, his first commission, for iron fabricator William Winslow, was rising on a broad River Forest lot. Its plain walls of Roman brick, symmetrical window placement and massively overhanging hip roof was as different from its "Queen Anne" neighbors as was possible to achieve.

Wright was then invited to sit down opposite the great Daniel Burnham, the Artistic Director of the concurrently running Columbian Exposition, who made him the offer of a lifetime. Wright's new wife and growing family would be taken care of while he would be sent to Paris for four years of study at the Ecole, followed by two years in Rome. All expenses paid. Of course the end result would be a position at D.H. Burnham and Company.

For Wright, the modernist, so much time spent rendering Greek and Roman forms would be equal to nothing less than six years in jail. "Great architecture IS severe discipline," Burnham was recalled to have said.

Wright politely declined.


Charnley House
House for James Charnley, 1892


Winslow House
House for William Winslow, 1893


He had come to see Classicism itself as foreign. It was therefore ironic that Wright saw something else in Burnham's Classical world's fair that led him to his most famous breakthrough. Discovering the Ho-o-Den, Japan's small pavilion modeled on an 11th Century temple and built on an isolated island in the lagoon of the fair, began Wright on an artistic journey at the opposite extreme from European Classicism. Its roomless interiors, deeply overhanging roof lines and pinwheel plan foreshadowed Wright's Prairie houses after 1900. This firsthand introduction to Japanese architecture, along with his awareness of the ancient woodblock prints, may have given him license to break with the normal Western vocabulary. "The old architecture, so far as its grammar went, for me began, literally, to disappear."

He also broke with Corwin to move into a loft space with other architects in Steinway Hall. The designer of that building, Dwight Perkins, introduced his cousin, Marion Mahony (pronounced: Mah-nee), to Wright, who hired her as his first employee. Fresh out of M.I.T., Mahony, through her extraordinary artistry, became Wright's chief renderer. Her touch had been influenced by the Japanese print, as well. It’s quite possible that the synergy of the two architects may well have led to the invention of the Prairie House. It certainly led to some of the most beautiful renderings to come out of an architectural office.

Both were intimately aware of the Arts and Crafts movement and its insistence on the unity of all the decorative arts. This linkage of the graphic arts with the plastic arts was a key to the difference between Wright’s approach from that of every other Western architect. Combined with his marriage of landscape to the built environment, the architecture it produced is the very definition of his description of "Organic."


Winslow House
Columbian Exposition, 1893


When Wright left his Oak Park practice in 1909 to take up with his mistress, he took dozens of Mahony’s originals with him to Europe so that they could be translated into line drawings for his Berlin monograph, the Wasmuth Portfolio.

Mahony's heavily landscaped images underwent the conversion into the more simplified drawings that the lithographers in Berlin would copy on stone. Wright, his Oak Park employee, Taylor Wooley and Wright's twenty year old son, Lloyd, redrew from her and from Wright's renderings as well as from photographs of the interiors.

It’s these line drawings that point up the difference between Wright and his various renderers. For instance, when drawn by his employee, Harry Robinson, the "Studio for Richard Bock" had been surrounded by precise, outlined trees and flowers. Each leaf distinct as a natural form. When Wright redrew it for the Wasmuth (Plate 62), he reduced the foliage to tiny triangles and squares. Clusters of leaves became jagged parallelograms or ovals. Straight edge lines, the "tectonic" lines, are not individual enough to identify the renderer but the handling of the organic line can be as accurate as fingerprints.

Mahony's tiny watercolor rendering of the Hardy House -showing it dramatically perched high up a lakeside cliff- was apparently not quite finished for Wright, though, as he added a flowering branch to the foreground of Plate XV.

Wright may have had a moment that passed as regret for walking away from his thriving Oak Park office and his loyal employees. The only time he seems to have credited another for work on his behalf was the little monogram of overlapping letters, "MLM" (Marion Lucy Mahony), he had hidden among the tree trunks at the bottom right in Plate XIV. When he had returned to the States after his year in Europe, Mahony turned away from Wright, leaving his employ altogether in 1914 to move to Australia with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. She changed her monogram to "MMG."


Winslow House
Ho-o Den at the World's Fair, 1893


Wright began the construction of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel in 1916 with the office drawings produced by perhaps twenty university students. However, an early perspective drawing, done at Taliesin and drawn on linen in late 1913 or early 1914, was created by Emil Brodelle, one of the seven people butchered by a Caribbean landscaper after setting fire to Taliesin in 1914.

When Wright returned to the States, he stayed for a time in Los Angeles building the great Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall. While he produced countless preliminary drawings, the presentation plans and elevations were made by his "amateur" superintendent, Rudolph Schindler with his son, Lloyd, the Hollyhock landscape director, creating the perspectives. Wright's oldest son had established his career in Los Angeles, producing for his own commissions some of the best drawings ever done by an architect.

Between trips from Taliesin in Wisconsin to Los Angeles, Wright managed to attract several commissions for Textile Block experiments on the West coast.  He also leaned heavily on Lloyd to act as superintendent for the constructions.   Since there were few other jobs coming his way -and few employees to do the drawing- the 1920s saw Wright and Lloyd producing dreamy, complicated perspectives and elevations for unbuilt projects.  But of the Textile Block houses, Wright’s own colored pencil perspective of "La Miniatura" later found its way into the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The West Coast sojourns presented Wright with very different landscapes from the Midwest. The steep hills, craggy ravines and desert locations of his projects not only changed his architecture from the right-angled forms that reflected the flat Midwestern grid to diagonal lines and triangular modules more responsive to the terrain. These changes also transformed his style of drawing. Natural plantings like cactus were much more architectural than any Wisconsin bush. The point of view at times shifted from the former format of a pedestrian looking up at the buildings to an aerial, "godlike" view looking down from above.

"I am not a teacher," Wright wrote in his autobiography. He was, however, fully aware of his importance to American architecture. So, needing a regular income after the drought of the 1920s, he created "The Taliesin Fellowship," providing him strong young students paying for the privilege of sitting at his feet, doing menial labor and providing simple draughting -now spelled "drafting"- work. It coincidentally brought him John H. Howe, who would fill Marian Mahony's old role as the "go-to" renderer of spectacular presentation drawings.

Many of Wright's most iconic drawings done from the mid-1930s to the end of his career would be done in collaboration with Howe. Though Wright attracted the public’s attention with his tale of creating all of the design drawings for the Kaufmann’s hillside house in the time it took for E.J.Kaufmann to drive to Taliesin from Milwaukee, it was John Howe’s collaborative perspective of "Fallingwater" that made the cover of Time Magazine.


Plate LXII Wasmuth Portfolio, 1910
Plate XIV Wasmuth Portfolio, 1910
La Miniatura, 1923
(Museum of Modern Art)
Fallingwater, 1936
(Taliesen Archives)


In March of 1962, New York's Museum of Modern Art produced "The Drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright." Though Wright's work had been shown there several times since 1930, this was the first time the drawings alone were the main exhibit. Arthur Drexler, then the Director of Architecture and Design, authored an important survey to accompany the exhibition of over 300 drawings.

Calling the mainly conceptual or preliminary drawings, "...a clue to the processes of his thought," Drexler reminded the viewer that Wright visualized the building in its entirety before he or his draughtsmen even began to sketch it out on paper. Final presentation perspectives, more about real estate than construction, may be the showiest drawings but it’s the technical, preliminary sketches where the architect communicates his intent to his army of workers.

The regular museum visitor would probably have been horrified to see the decrepit condition the drawings were in. Culled from the Wright Foundation archives, the drawings had been building documents in a working architectural office just a few years before. As such, they were often torn tracing paper sheets that had been taped together with decomposing cellophane tape. Even those on better paper had foxing damage, moisture spots and abraded surfaces. To this day, conservation of the drawings has been spotty, with only the most iconic images seeing the hands of a paper conservator. But in the 1962 show at MoMA, even those drawings that have come to be famous examples were seen in the worst shape they would ever be.

Drexler soldiered on, though, pointing out the main differences between Wright's graphic approach to that of other architects: "A distinguishing and persistent characteristic of Wright’s drawings is the placement of a building at the extreme top or bottom of the sheet. The amount of paper left blank is sometimes due merely to the drawing having been left untrimmed, but usually the unfilled area is part of the composition. It is intended to suggest a space between the observer and the building. Thus buildings are seen from below are most often placed at the top of the sheet, and when details in the landscape are omitted the presence of a vast and empty surface of paper suffices to convey distance."

Drexler described the drawings as possessing a "center of gravity" that usually falls in the center of the paper. And he pointed out that a vertical element, usually the trunk of a tree, could be found rising from the foreground at the edge, its horizontal branch framing the building rather like a stage flat of painted foliage frames a staged ballet.

For an artist who insisted that his work be "organic," it's the architectonic lines of T-Square and straight edge that compel Wright, not the crooked lines of nature. In looking at his earliest drawings, it's apparent that extreme care was given to the tectonic line but the natural world was much less defined. Quick and somewhat careless, his trees and bushes are obviously subsidiary to his more precise building form.

The Japanese print most likely led to his and Mahony's use of the outlined foliage that breaks the frame line itself. "The elimination of the insignificant..." as Wright remembered its impact in his autobiography. Clusters of leaves often bleed to the edge of the paper as perhaps a metaphor for the architecture itself breaking out of the box. The sky is frequently colored with vertical or graduated horizontal colored pencil lines of blue. And the dotted line is often used for framing when a continuous one would be too harsh. The major difference is the use of Western, two-point perspective instead of the Japanese tradition of one point and isometric perspective.

His perspective drawings were often begun using mechanical projection. That is, the building's plan is placed at the bottom at an oblique angle corresponding to the angle the perspective will be drawn. Next, a horizon line with opposing vanishing points is established above the plan. Then vertical lines are drawn at the plan’s intersections that, carried upward, establish the building's corners. In this way, the renderer doesn’t exaggerate the true proportions of the building, leading to a clarity not present in most other architectural drawings.

Throughout his career, colored pencils were Wright's favorite medium as he tended to use tracing paper, the thin, onion skin type prevalent in architectural offices. His drawings are most often preliminary or "conceptual" drawings. Watercolor or brown ink washes from the earliest period are probably those drawn by Mahony for the final presentation rendering.

Though Wright certainly directed and sometimes participated in those renderings, their time-consuming detail was something he would have never done. After the introduction of office reprographic machines, the pencil drawing would sometimes be run through the device to create a diazo or ozalid print of it (similar to a light tan blueprint). Different color schemes could then be tried out that resulted in a half print/half drawing hybrid.

The actual hand of Wright can often be identified by a finer line from a frequently sharpened pencil, rather like that created on a copper sheet by an etcher's needle. Also, Wright tended to overlap straight edge lines with those on opposing axes. In other words, the corners of his walls and roof lines become defined by their continuing lines at each intersection. His renderers would have erased those overlaps. Also, his organic plantings come out looking more like architectural topiary than anything naturally grown.

The 1962 MoMA exhibition did not differentiate the various hands involved, preferring the age-old practice of the profession, that even when the drawings are produced by others, architects should be likened to symphony conductors who may not play the individual instruments but are creating each performance. Therefore, all the drawings from the Wright office are considered to be his.

In February of 1994, another exhibition, "Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect" opened at the Museum of Modern Art. Organized by the Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, Terence Riley, and his assistant, Peter Reed, the show included vintage and contemporary photographs and modern floor plans but also attempted to identify the various hands involved in the drawings. As in 1962, the Wright Foundation opened its archives to the museum. MoMA and the foundation collaborated on the research, underlining the thoroughness of the scholarship that would have been perhaps the last opportunity to get the input of Taliesin employees who participated in the actual jobs. Despite their efforts, too much time had elapsed since the original projects had seen their draftsmen and many of the drawings will forever remain unidentified.



Just as the artist's workshop of the Renaissance would have had many hands, it was still guided by only one. Whether Wright was assisted by Birch Burdette Long or Marian Mahony in the early years or John H. Howe and Allen Davison in the later ones, all of the drawings that came out of his studio had the imprint of the one genius who conceived the buildings.

In the end, all architectural drawings are really "conceptual art." They are not about themselves as virtuoso works, they are always about something else. The drawings are always about the building itself.

When he was still working with Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright had thought of himself as his Master's "pencil." When he became the master, his own pencils, each of his talented draftsmen, would have been just one of his many tools.

Link to Frank Lloyd Wright's Biography Page

Link to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Three Golden Ages

Link to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie House: The Wasmuth Portfolio

Plate IX Wasmuth Portfolio, 1910
Hunt House
House for Stephen Hunt, 1907
Hunt House
House for Charles Perry, 1913
Plate XV Wasmuth Portfolio, 1910
Hokusai print, 1833

David Jameson
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730 North Franklin suite 200
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