Frank Lloyd Wright

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Strongly individualistic, flamboyant, and arrogant, Wright designed and built more than four hundred structures which reflect his architectural genius. Wright, directly and indirectly, heavily influenced twentieth century architecture with his diverse use of geometry in his designs.

Early Life

The life of one of America’s most eccentric, dramatic personalities began simply enough on June 8, 1867, when Frank Lloyd Wright was born in the small town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, the eldest of three children born to William C. Wright, a Baptist preacher, and his young wife, Anna Lloyd-Jones. After his parents were divorced in 1885, Wright was reared by his mother, and he sustained a close relationship with her during her lifetime. Anna Wright’s use of the Froebel kindergarten method, which introduced children to pure geometric forms and their patterns on grids, provided Wright with the foundations of sophisticated geometric design so evident in his later architecture.

Wright grew up in a rather comfortable, middle-class home during the 1870’s and 1880’s. With the hope of studying at the University of Wisconsin, he moved to Madison in 1885, seeking part-time employment and admission to the university. A local contractor took Wright on as an apprentice, and he worked his way up to construction supervisor within two years. At the same time, Wright took engineering and graphics courses in 1886, his only year at the university. To further his architectural apprenticeship and training, Wright left Madison in 1887 for Chicago, where he secured a position with a family friend, the successful residential architect, Joseph Lyman Silsbee.

Wright’s position with Silsbee exposed him to the architects who were transforming Chicago in the 1880’s. With Silsbee’s permission, he soon took on his own commissions and gained confidence as a residential architect. In 1888, he moved to the firm of Adler and Sullivan, where he was given the firm’s home designs. This position introduced him to Louis H. Sullivan, the most innovative and influential architect of Chicago at the time, and established Wright’s talents as an architect specializing in houses. He collaborated with Sullivan on the seminal Transportation Building for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a design which testified to the innovative talent of each man. As Wright’s position became more secure, he married and built a home for his new wife in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, where he lived until the marriage dissolved in 1909.

In 1893, at the age of twenty-six, Wright left the firm of Adler and Sullivan and established a full-time private practice. The break with Sullivan was uneasy, especially because Sullivan had developed a close personal relationship with Wright, treating him as a son. Wright, however, had learned all he could from Sullivan by the early 1890’s and believed that the time was right to launch his own independent career.

Life’s Work

As he began his independent career, Wright had an established reputation as an excellent domestic architect. From 1893 to 1910, he created many houses in the prairie-house style, an amalgam of Japanese and American influences. A style which he perfected, the prairie house epitomized Wright’s perspective of America, which was rooted deeply in the nineteenth century. In contrast to crowded urban Europe, America’s was an open, expanding society. Wright believed that American architecture should reflect that environment of the frontier, of an abundance of land; thus, he created homes with strong horizontal shapes, with large roof overhangs, and with a dynamic asymmetry to create a sense of the horizon, of motion, and of spaciousness. His interior designs, influenced by the Japanese style of large open spaces using modular units, called for expansive central rooms, few closed corners, ample windows, and a geometric emphasis in the rooms’ decor. For the most part, the exterior of Wright’s prairie houses was unadorned, although he often created an ornate entranceway in homes otherwise characterized by bold simplicity. To complete the dramatic design, Wright integrated the house into the landscape so that the building seemed to grow out of the ground and to belong on its site.

One of the best extant examples of Wright’s prairie-house style is the Robie House (1909), adjacent to the University of Chicago. This red-brick-and-stone structure contains many innovations which were pioneering techniques and designs in American domestic architecture. Features Wright used in the prototype prairie house included the casement window, the corner window, cathedral ceilings, built-in furniture and lighting, a concrete slab foundation with radiant heat, and the carport. Many of these ideas appeared in mass housing almost a half century after Wright incorporated them as trademarks of his successful prairie style.

Wright’s professional success in the first decade of the twentieth century, with more than 140 houses and buildings to his credit, did not translate into a successful home life. In 1909, as had his father before him, he abandoned his wife and family and traveled in Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a former client. Europeans were beginning to discover Wright at that time, and he and his new companion escaped much of the scandal in the United States over their affair by remaining in Europe for more than a year. Upon their return to the United States, Wright settled at Spring Green, Wisconsin, near his...

(The entire section is 2280 words.)