Wright, Frank Lloyd 1867-1959
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 InformationWright 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.
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.
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.