Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect who is widely-regarded as one of the most influential figures on 20th century design. His 70-year career ushered in several important social and cultural dimensions to the field of architecture. This paper examines the design philosophy, influences and major achievements of one of the towering and most controversial figures of American architecture.
Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867. His father was a musician who abandoned the family in 1885. Wright was raised on a farm by his mother Anna and by a group of aunts and uncles (Constantino 6).
Wright studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin. It was here that he first displayed a talent in drawing and design. In 1887, Wright moved to Chicago, Illinois. For the next six years, Wright worked as an apprentice at the firm of Adler and Sullivan. In 1893, Wright left Adler and Sullivan to start his own practice (Constantino 7).
Like his professional life, Wright's personal life was also fraught with conflict and controversy. Wright married his first wife Catherine in 1889, and they eventually had six children. However, echoing his father's actions, Wright left his family in 1909 for Mamah Cheney, a wife of one of his clients. Although still married to Catherine, he returned with Cheney to Wisconsin in 1911, where the couple built a home and took up residence. In 1914, however, a servant murdered Cheney, her two children and four other people before setting the house on fire (Constantino 12).
Wright officially obtained a divorce from Catherine in 1922, after which Wright married Miriam Noel. Noel, however, was an unstable woman. The couple soon separated and divorced in 1927 (Constantino 13). These scandals regarding his relationships with women served to scare away many potential clients early in Wright's career.
Wright finally found a peaceful union with his third wide, Olgivanna Milanoff. The couple married in 1927 and lived at his house Taliesin, which also became a training center for Wright's architectural apprentices. In addition to studying, the apprentices were also put to work farming the land. In the mid-1930s, Wright left Wisconsin for Scottsdale, Arizona, where he built Taliesin West. From then on, this facility served as the winter home of Wright and his apprentices (Hanks 145)
II. Influences and Principles
Wright was the vanguard of a number of architecture and design movements. The common thread through all his designs, however, was the principle that Wright called "organic architecture." His designs feature flowing, dynamic structures with open interior spaces. These organic structures were a significant break from the Victorian box-like buildings that dominated the early part of the 20th century (Hart 8).
Wright was reluctant to acknowledge outside influences on his own work. However, he cited his mentor, Louis Sullivan, as an important influence on his work. Wright also gave credit to the clean lines and simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic, which is reflected in his extensive collection of wood-block prints. Wright was also deeply indebted to the British Arts and Crafts movement, which he helped introduce to the United States (Hart 8).
Wright was eager to try the new materials and techniques that were being developed during his lifetime. The architect's life spanned a time of great change. He was, after all, born two years after the Civil War and died just two years before the launching of the Sputnik satellite ("Frank Lloyd Wright"). Unlike many of his colleagues who continued to cling to Victorian and older European design techniques, Wright recognized the new material's revolutionary design potentials.
As an example of his visionary designs, Wright experimented with poured concrete as early as 1904, when he built a house of worship for a Unitarian Congregation in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright described his work as a "concrete monolith cast in wooden forms" (Hart 9).
The building's interior, particularly, represented a new kind of space for communal worship that was a marked departure from the house of worship's Gothic Revival predecessor. Weight-bearing volumes were cleanly defined by slender wooden uprights. Natural light filtered through ribbons of windows on the second story and through coffered amber skylights. A projecting podium served to unify the preacher with the audience (Hanks 98-99).
Wright was also a nature lover with a strong reverence for democracy, two principles that were apparent in his work. He believed in using native materials, and wanted his buildings to grow naturally from their surroundings. Buildings were supposed to be in harmony with nature, not massive disturbances. Taliesin, the Welsh word for brow, was named for the way the structure clung to the curve of a hillside ().
Wright's belief in the ideals of American democracy also contributed to his goal of low-cost, democratic architecture. Though many of his clients were wealthy, Wright believed strongly in creating designs that middle class families could afford ("Frank Lloyd Wright").
The twin motivations of incorporating nature, democratic ideals as well as his vision in using modern material were all important factors that contributed to the organic design of Wright's buildings.
III. Major Design Styles
A. Prairie Houses
Wright's first independent commission -- the 1893 William Winslow house in River Forest, Illinois -- was an early example of the prairie house. This house employed Wright's principle of organic architecture in the way the long, low structure hugged the Midwest prairie (Legler and Korab 26)
In later examples, such as the Ward Willits residence in Higland Park, Illinois, Wright's prairie house followed a cruciform plan divided into a grid of 39-inch squares. The living room and fireplace was at the core of the cross, while the living room, the kitchen and the quarters formed the various arms (Legler and Korab 48).
B. Usonian Houses
Wright wanted to design democratic architecture, but most of his prairie houses were commissioned by wealthy clients. To address this, he began designing the Usonian houses during the 1930s. The term "Usonia" is Wright's word for the United States of North America (Hanks 145)
Unlike the cruciform prairie houses, the Usonian house was usually designed around an L-shaped floor plan. This plan served to separate the living space from the quieter bedroom, which was situated at the other leg of the grid. To keep costs down, the floor was constructed out of concrete blocks, in a square grid of 4 by 4 feet for faster construction. Pipes ran below the floor, serving the dual purpose of carrying hot water while providing radiant heat (Larkin 143)
The first Usonian house -- the 1936 Herbert Jacobs house -- was built in Madison, Wisconsin. Wright created more than 50 houses, later varying the original L. plan to include modules in a grid of diamond or circular segments. In the 1950s, Wright once again showed his mastery of innovation by using masonry and a textile block system he pioneered in California. These new masonry blocks helped reduce the cost of the houses further, since clients could make the blocks themselves (Larkin 143)
C. Later monuments
The Prairie Houses and the Usonian Houses would have been enough to cement Wright's reputation as a master architect. However, it is with many of his later works that Wright achieved the greatest fame.
Fallingwater, one of his largest residences, was built in 1936. Built over a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania, Fallingwater looks like a natural outcropping of the waterfall itself. The water itself is part of the house, while the woods surrounding the house are visible from every room. One balcony appears to float over the waterfall (Larkin 150).
Although far from democratic -- the house was built for a millionaire department store magnate -- Fallingwater embodies Wright's concept of organic nature that is in harmony with the natural environment. Concrete balconies cantilever at right angles from the house's stone core, like branches of a tree. These cantilevers, however,…