Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretive Biography Wright, Frank Lloyd - Essay

Robert Charles Twombly


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wright, Frank Lloyd 1867-1959

American architect.

Wright is considered one of the most important and influential American architects of the twentieth century. Rejecting both the rationalist ideology and rigid machine aesthetic propounded by the leaders of the Modern Movement in Europe, Wright sought to accommodate social, environmental, and technological considerations through the creation of what he called "organic architecture." Wright's architectural philosophy found expression in both his public and private buildings. Of the former, his early office buildings, in particular, are considered advanced for their bold integration of functional and social considerations. However, Wright's numerous designs for private houses are generally thought to constitute his greatest and most enduring work. Acclaimed for their innovations in planning, expressive use of materials, and subtle integration with their natural setting, both the early Prairie houses and the later "Usonian" designs were extremely influential in the formation of postwar attitudes towards the American house.

Biographical Information

Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin. His childhood years were spent traveling with his parents, as his father, a Unitarian minister, sought to improve the family's precarious financial position. In 1877, the Wrights finally settled in Madison, Wisconsin. There Wright attended high school, although he never graduated. Nevertheless, in 1885 he was admitted to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied engineering for two years. His introduction to the architectural profession also came in 1885 when he met J. Lyman Silsbee, a successful architect. Beginning in 1887, Wright assisted Silsbee as a junior draftsman. However, he soon became dissatisfied with Silsbee's conservative approach to design and in 1888 he joined the firm run by Dankmar Adler and the noted commercial architect Louis Sullivan. Wright stayed with Adler and Sullivan until 1893, by which time he was already accepting independent commissions to design houses. By 1909, Wright's reputation as a leading avant-garde architect was solidly established in America. Yet he felt that he had nearly exhausted his creative powers, and frustrated as well by his domestic situation, he left his wife and family in 1909 and went to Europe, accompanied by the wife of a client. Upon his return to America in 1910, Wright found himself alienated from the professional classes that had previously supported him. He relocated to Spring Green, Wisconsin, and there built a home he named Taliesin. The structure was set ablaze in 1914; several individuals, including Wright's mistress, were killed. He would later build a second and third incarnation of Taliesin after this and another fire. In the mid-thirties, Wright received a number of important commissions. The first of these was a weekend house for the Edgar Kaufmann family known as Falling Water, completed in 1936. That year, Wright also received a commission for the S. C. Johnson and Son Company's administration building, and witnessed the completion of his first Usonian (a term Wright derived from "U. S. A.") house, the Jacobs house, designed as an efficient, low cost dwelling for the lower-middle class. The climax of Wright's postwar career was the construction of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, intended to display Guggenheim's renowned collection of non-representational art. The museum was completed shortly after Wright's death in 1959.

Major Works

Wright's career as an architect may be divided into three phases. Between 1889 and 1899 he designed several houses, most of which were derivative in style. The period from 1900 to 1914 marked the high point of Wright's early career. He designed a great number of houses in and around Chicago that defined what would become known as the Prairie style, which was characterized by an open, asymmetrical plan, interpenetrating spaces, long horizontal planes, and an unprecedented use of glass that brought the house into an intimate relationship with its surroundings. Wright also designed a number of public buildings before the First World War, most importantly the Larkin building and Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. The Larkin Building was distinguished by its open plan and monumental exterior, while Unity Temple was the first example of monolithic reinforced concrete construction in the United States.

The third period of Wright's career, which followed his return from Europe in 1910, features both the first design for his home in Wisconsin, Taliesin, and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo—a synthesis of Western and Japanese traditions. In the 1920s Wright also designed a series of innovative houses in California. Unlike the Prairie houses, these were formal and monolithic in appearance, typified by the Barnsdall house, a lavish villa, and the Millard house, considered his finest essay in concrete-block construction. Following the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing depression, Wright increasingly concentrated on writing, publishing An Autobiography and a book on urbanism, The Disappearing City, in which he advocated a radical decentralization of the traditional city and the creation of a quasi-rural utopia he called Broadacre City. Wright's work of the 1930s includes the well-known Falling Water. A dramatically cantilevered dwelling constructed over a wooded stream in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, Falling Water demonstrates Wright's mastery of reinforced concrete design and great subtlety in the integration of natural and man-made elements. Like that of Falling Water, Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum exploited the dramatic possibilities of reinforced concrete, and was deliberately envisioned as a free-standing monument in order to set it apart from the surrounding urban landscape of New York City. In the final portion of his career, Wright also offered a number of statements concerning his architectural principles of organic unity and integration, most of which were originally delivered as lectures, notably in An Organic Architecture. Late in his career he also published several revisions of The Disappearing City, which present minor reassessments of the Broadacre City plan, culminating in The Living City.

Critical Reception

Particularly in his early career, Wright is thought to have been principally influenced by the expressive functionalism of Louis Sullivan. Sullivan's The Autobiography of an Idea is likewise considered the model for Wright's own An Autobiography. Concerning his other literary works, critics have stressed that Wright offered only a small number of architectural ideas—simplicity, decentralization, and an organic integration of nature, art, and living—which he frequently restated in his writings and lectures. His social vision has been typically characterized as Utopian, and perhaps somewhat nai̇ve, relying as it does on the simple extrapolation of his basic design ideals to society as a whole. And, while Frank Lloyd Wright's structures are no longer held in universal regard, such particular monuments as the Guggenheim Museum and the early Prairie houses are still considered important, innovative contributions to twentieth-century American architecture. Moreover, his influence on architectural theory in America persists, given the general acceptance of the open plan as well as the widespread use of natural building materials, both hall-marks of his architectural credo.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. 2 vols. [also published as Buildings, Plans and Designs and Drawings and Plans . . . The Early Period (1893-1909)] (nonfiction) 1910

The Japanese Print: An Interpretation (nonfiction) 1912

Modern Architecture: Being the Kahn Lectures for 1930 (lectures) 1931

An Autobiography (autobiography) 1932

The Disappearing City [revised and expanded as When Democracy Builds, The Industrial Revolution Runs Away, and The Living City] (nonfiction) 1932

"Broadacre City: A New Community Plan" (essay) 1935

Architecture and Modern Life [with Baker Brownell] (nonfiction) 1937

An Organic Architecture (lectures) 1939

Genius and the Mobocracy (nonfiction) 1949

An American Architecture [edited by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.] (nonfiction) 1955

In the Cause of Architecture: Essays by Frank Lloyd Wright for Architectural Record, 1908-1952 [with others] (essays) 1975

Frank Lloyd Wright (essay date 1908)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "1908: In the Cause of Architecture, I," in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941, pp. 31-45.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1908, Wright discusses the principles of his architectural style, which emphasize simplicity, unity, and organic integrity.]

Radical though it be, the work here illustrated is dedicated to a cause conservative in the best sense of the word. At no point does it involve denial of the elemental law and order inherent in all great architecture; rather, is it a declaration of love for the spirit of that law and order, and a reverential recognition of the elements that made its ancient letter in its...

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Frank Lloyd Wright (essay date 1914)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "1914: In the Cause of Architecture," in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941, pp. 46-58.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1914, Wright responds to detractors of the "Prairie School" of architecture—a movement formed of his disciples and imitators—by dissociating himself from this school.]

"Nature has made creatures only; art has made men." Nevertheless, or perhaps for that very reason, every struggle for truth in the arts and for the freedom that should go with the truth has always had its own peculiar load of disciples, neophytes, and quacks. The young work in architecture here in the Middle West, owing to a...

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Meyer Schapiro (review date 1938)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Architect's Utopia," in Partisan Review, Vol. IV, No. 4, March, 1938, pp. 42-47.

[In the following review, Schapiro critiques Wright's social vision as it is represented in Architecture and Modern Life, observing numerous "contradictions and naivetés" in the work.]

Frank Lloyd Wright believes that only "organic architecture" or primitive Christianity—"Jesus, the gentle anarchist"—can solve the crisis. This was also the theme of his earlier book, The Disappearing City, written in the depths of the depression. If we forget the undergraduate poetizing of the great architect, now seventy years old ("the earth is prostrate, prostitute to the...

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Nikolaus Pevsner (essay date 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Lloyd Wright's Peaceful Penetration of Europe," in The Rationalists, The Architectural Press Ltd, 1978, pp. 34-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1939, Pevsner assesses Wright's influence on European architecture.]

There lived near London an architect known to many for his adventurous early buildings and designs, his brilliant writings on the social movement of the arts and crafts, his Campden experiment in craftsmanship, husbandry and community life, and his charming personality, Mr C. R. Ashbee. He was about seventy-five, [C. R. Ashbee died in 1942.] and could claim amongst his other titles to fame that of having discovered Frank...

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Paul Goodman and Percival Goodman (essay date 1942)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1942, pp. 7-28.

[In the following essay, Goodman and Goodman summarize Wright's architectural thought and compare his concept of Organic Architecture with the International Style of Le Corbusier.]

As is natural to a teacher and polemicist, a propagandist when he cannot build and a critic of what he has built,—and all this for forty-seven years!—the publications of Wright are voluminous, the more so since his larger conception of architecture as "organically" related to society and the cosmos leads him to talk of nearly everything. For the same reasons, however, these writings are...

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Paul Buitenhuis (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aesthetics of the Skyscraper: The Views of Sullivan, James and Wright," in American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall, 1957, pp. 316-24.

[In the following essay, Buitenhuis examines the development of the skyscraper in relation to the views of American life held by Louis Sullivan, Henry James, and Wright.]

When a new form is invented, whether it be in art, literature or architecture, a new aesthetic has to be created so that the form, in its various manifestations, can be evaluated and criticized. Some of the worst and most misguided criticism is always written during the infancy of a new form, but also some of the most original and incisive. The views of Louis...

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Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fine Arts and Frank Lloyd Wright," in Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture, 1963, pp. 27-37.

[In the following essay, Kaufmann explores Wright's relationship to modern art, highlighting the architect's desire that art be integrated with life.]

Frank Lloyd Wright spent the last decade of his life blast ing away at (among other things) modern art; at the same time, he was engaged in a long and eventually successful campaign to build the Solomon Guggenheim Museum for modern art. On these grounds he is accused of designing the museum to show the superiority of his own art—architecture—over the arts of painting and sculpture. Now Wright dearly loved a...

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G. Thomas Couser (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Prophetic Architects: Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright," in American Autobiography, University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, pp. 120-47.

[In the following essay, Couser evaluates and compares the autobiographies of Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan, emphasizing the prophetic scheme of both works.]

The contributions of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright to the growth of modern architecture in America are familiar; their achievements as autobiographers are less well known. The similarities between their autobiographies should not be surprising, for the two men had closely linked careers and closely parallel lives. Both cherished their rural...

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James Dougherty (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Utopia," in The Centennial Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 239-56.

[In the following essay, Dougherty describes Wright's Utopian vision of a reintegrated America"Broadacre City. "]


For the last thirty years of his long life, Frank Lloyd Wright's work was directed by his vision of an ideal city, called Broadacre City. Though primarily a domestic architect, and a resident of rural Wisconsin and the Arizona desert, he wanted to plan a city. In The Disappearing City (1932) he proclaimed that the megalopolis soon would begin to disappear, absorbed into a new city invisible...

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John Roche (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Democratic Space: The Ecstatic Geography of Walt Whitman and Frank Lloyd Wright," in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer, 1988, pp. 16-32.

[In the following essay, Roche considers the shared conception of America's limitless space held by Walt Whitman and Wright, and discusses other affinities in their geographical outlook.]

The map speaks across the barriers of language;...
A map invites attention alike synoptically and
analytically. s

—Carl Sauer, "The Education of a Geographer"

Walt Whitman is our great poet of geography—a fact readily apparent...

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Larzer Ziff (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Prairie in Literary Culture and The Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright," in The Nature of Frank Lloyd Wright, edited by Carol R. Bolon, Robert S. Nelson, and Linda Seidel, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 173-85.

[In the following essay, Ziff investigates the effect of the Midwestern prairie landscape on American literature and architecture.]

"My dear and honored Walt Whitman," Louis Sullivan began the letter of February 3, 1887, in which he introduced himself to the poet. When he read Leaves of Grass, he told him, "you then and there entered my soul, have not departed, and will never depart."1 The democratic faith of Whitman,...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Secrest, Meryle. Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Alfred

A. Knopf, 1992, 634 p. Biography of Wright that makes use of previously unavailable photographs, letters, books, and other materials from the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation.

Twombly, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretive Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 373 p.

Biographical and critical study emphasizing the impact of Wright's complex personality on his architectural designs. This work features an extensive bibliography.

Wright, John Lloyd. My Father Who Is On Earth. New Edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois...

(The entire section is 541 words.)