The life and architectural career of Frank Lloyd Wright

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Introduction

Frank Lloyd Wright is renowned for his long and successful career where he has been widely credited for bringing American architecture to a wider audience.

The influence of the natural world is evident in his unique creations, where he successfully combined craftsmanship with technology to make his designs more accessible.

Wright actively took part in the design of the interiors of his buildings, coming up with furnishings as well as other custom elements like stained-glass windows. From Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Wright’s iconic structures have gone onto become major historic landmarks.

Here we discuss the life and career of an undoubtedly revolutionary architect.

Quick facts

  • Date of birth: Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8th, 1867.

  • Nationality: American.

  • Occupation: Architect, interior designer, writer, and educator.

  • Parent(s): William Cary Wright, Anna Lloyd Jones

  • Practice: Taliesin Associated Architects

  • Website: https://franklloyswright.org

Summary

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867-April 9, 1959) was famed for his architectural designs, as well as for managing to establish himself as a writer, educator, and interior designer.

Wright played a key role in revolutionizing the design of buildings in the U.S.A, and with 1,114 architectural works of various types, 532 of which were completed, he has left an extensive portfolio behind.

Wright initiated a philosophy that he referred to as organic architecture, which was a belief in architectural structures being connected to humanity and its surroundings.

His career spanned over seven decades, where he founded his own firm and pioneered an architectural movement known as the Prairie School Style. He also came up with the concept of the Usonian home found in Broadacre City, which represented his distinct idea for urban planning in North America.

Aside from dwellings, Wright also designed unique museums, churches, skyscrapers, and offices among other structures. He wrote several books and articles, whilst frequently giving lectures.

Wright’s revolutionary work led to his recognition by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

10 Frank Lloyd Wright facts

  • Wright’s mother decorated his childhood nursery with engravings of different English cathedrals that were sourced from a periodical.

  • Wright’s first worked as a draftsman for Joseph Lyman Silsbee before leaving to work for the Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan.

  • Wright famously refused to join the American Institute of Architects (AIA), even expressing disdain for the organization.

  • In 1926, he was arrested and charged with violating the Mann Act, a stipulation that prohibited interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes.

  • Until his death, Wright ran a successful business dealing in Japanese block prints.

  • Wright abandoned his life and practice for a year to spend time with Mama Borthwick Cheney in 1909.

  • A disgruntled servant at Wright’s Taliesin estate burnt down the structure’s living quarters and then proceeded to murder seven people within the resident.

  • He parted ways with his employer and mentor, Louis Sullivan, for taking on independent commissions, which were in breach of his contract.

  • He actively took part in all aspects of his work even in the last years of his life, taking trips to New York regularly to oversee the construction of the Guggenheim Museum.

  • While in the process of building Taliesin, Wright was commissioned with two significant projects: Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and Midway Gardens in Hyde Park, Southside Chicago.

Fallingwater House, Pennsylvania

Fallingwater House, Pennsylvania

Family

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867. His father, William Carey Wright, was an itinerant preacher and musician, and his mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, was a teacher who hailed from a large Welsh family that settled in the valley area situated near Spring Green in Wisconsin.

With roots in Massachusetts, William Wright initially worked as a Baptist minister, later switching to the Unitarian faith of his wife’s family.

Jenkin Lloyd Jones, one of Ana’s brothers and Wright’s uncle, played a key role in spreading the Unitarian faith in the Midwestern United States. He had four siblings: Maginel Wright Enright, George Wright, Charles Wright, and Mary Jane Wright Porter.

Early life

According to his biography, Wright’s mother Anna, decorated his nursery with engravings of a variety of English cathedrals that were sourced from a periodical so as to foster his ambition in architecture.

Anna bought Wright education blocks as a child, known as Froebel gifts, to play with. The blocks were geometrical in shape and could be assembled in a variety of combinations to form 3-D compositions. Wright has said, these early exercises influenced his approach to design, hence the geometrical clarity in many of his buildings.

Due to the financial struggles of the Wright family, they moved from Weymouth to Spring Green before settling in Madison, where Wright’s father worked as a music teacher.

William and Ann divorced in 1885, which made their financial struggles even harder. William left Wisconsin soon after the divorce, and Wright claimed to never see his father again.

Education

Wright’s high school years were spent at Madison High School. Although it is not known if he graduated. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison starting in 1886 as a special student.

He was a part of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity while he was there, and he took part-time classes for two semesters. He closely associated with Allan D. Conover, who was a professor of civil engineering in the institution.

Wright left the university without obtaining his degree, although he received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the institution in 1955.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin West, Scottsdale Arizona

Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin West, Scottsdale Arizona

Early Training & Influences 

Wright moved to Chicago in 1887 in search of a job. His first job was as a draftsman for Joseph Lyman Silsbee's architectural firm. Wright had previous experience with Silsbee, having worked as a construction supervisor and draftsman on the Unity Chapel in 1886 for Wright's family in Spring Green.

While with Silsbee, Wright befriended Cecil Corwin, another draftsman who worked for Silsbee, and lived with him until he found a home of his own.

Wright made the move from Silsbee to Beers, Clay, and Dutton where he worked as a designer. He felt that he wasn’t being paid enough for the work he did in Silsbee, but upon realizing that he wasn’t cut out to handle building design just yet, he went back to work for Silsbee, after being offered an increment in salary.

Despite the Victorian and Revivalist architectural styles that were a mainstay in Silsbee, Wright aspired to be more progressive in his designs.

Wright found his next job when he was hired by the prestigious Adler & Sullivan architectural firm.

During his time there, Wright did not get along with his fellow draftsmen, but he worked closely with Louis Sullivan, one of the partners, who gave him considerable design responsibility.

In 1889 at 22 years old, Wright married Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin, who he had met at All Souls Church.

To help the young couple in terms of finances, Sullivan granted Wright a $5,000 loan and a five-year employment contract. Using the money he received, Wright bought a lot in the suburb of Oak Park, and he gave the existing Gothic Revival property to his mother, while a smaller shingle-style house was built along it for him and his wife.

At work, Wright had risen in rank to head draftsman in charge of handling all residential design assignments. Adler & Sullivan generally didn’t design houses, but upon request by a select few clients of their commercial projects, they would oblige.

Wright worked on the major commissions when he was at the office, and worked on house designs in the evening and during the weekend at his home studio. Although Wright took full credit of the design of the residential houses, the influence of Sullivan’s architectural style was evident in the form and motifs of the structures.

Despite the loan that Wright received from Sullivan, his financial situation was often dire partly due to his expensive taste in vehicles and wardrobe.

To pay off the debts he had accumulated, Wright took on several independent commissions without the knowledge of his employers. These independently designed houses were distinct from the dominant architecture at the time, with each unit emphasizing on simple geometric massing and including features like open floor plans and horizontal windows.

Upon discovering that Wright pursued independent ventures, Sullivan let go of him in 1893 because he was in breach of his 5-year contract. Wright’s acrimonious departure created a rift between him and Sullivan which lasted for nearly two decades. However, this encouraged Wright to branch out on his own.

Florida Southern College

Florida Southern College

Architecture career

Wright set up his own architectural practice in Schiller Building situated on Randolph Street after leaving Adler & Sullivan. He then relocated into the Steinway Hall Building, sharing space with Dwight H. Perkins, Myron Hunt, and Robert C. Spencer, Jr.

These architects drew inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as Louis Sullivan’s philosophies, collaboratively forming the Prairie School.

They were later joined by Marion Mahoney, a licensed female architect who designed leaded glass windows, furniture, and other features for Wright’s structures.

Early projects

During the early days of his career, projects that were carried out by Wright followed two distinct models.

His first independent commission was the William H. Winslow House, which attracted local attention with emphasis on horizontal lines and simple geometry that were combined with elements of Sullivan’s designs.

Other houses that were designed in the same mode include the Francis Apartments, Rollin Furbeck House, Husser House, and Heller House. Wright also designed more conventional houses, including the Moore House built In the Tudor Revival style and the Bagley House built in the Dutch Colonial Revival architectural style.

Beginning in 1900, Frank Lloyd Wright worked on residential houses which set the standards for the Prairie Style.

These houses were distinguished by their low-pitched roofs, lack of attics or basements, deep overhangs, and casement windows arranged in long rows which further added to the horizontal theme.

Notable structures that were built in the Prairie Style include the Darwin D. Martin House located in Buffalo, New York (1903), the Avery Coonley House situated in Riverside, Illinois (1907), and the Frederick Robie House in Chicago (1908)

Other than residential houses, Wright also designed public buildings, with some of the most notable being Cornell’s chapter of Alpha Delta Phi (1900), the Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin (1902), and the Unity Temple (1905) situated in Oak Park, Illinois.

He was a member of the Unity Temple and a lifelong Unitarian, which alsoled to him offering to work on reconstructing Unity Temple when it burned down.

Other significant public buildings early in his career include Larkin Administration Building (1905), the Geneva Inn (Wisconsin, 1911), the Midway Gardens (Illinois, 1913), the Banff National Park Pavilion (Canada, 1914), and the Imperial Hotel (Japan, 1922)

Following his return from Japan, Wright employed a textile block system method of design which he used on the Millard House (California, 1923), the Ennis House, Samuel Freeman House, and Storer House (1923).

Robie House, Chicago, Illinois

Robie House, Chicago, Illinois

Key projects

1. Fallingwater House

Fallingwater is considered to be Wright’s crowning achievement when it comes to organic architecture.

Wright met the owners, Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann in 1934. The couple, aware that Wright shared their passion for nature, commissioned him to build them a summer home in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the stream that ran through the property, Wright was determined to integrate it into the design of the home.

In Fallingwater, a series of reinforced concrete “trays” were anchored into the natural rock. Cantilevered terraces made of local sandstone combined well with the rock formations, seemingly floating above the stream.

The entry of the first floor, living room and dining room in the residence merge to form one continuous space, while a hatch door that is found in the living room opens to a suspended stairway which descends to the stream below it.

Fallingwater also incorporates glass walls which open the rooms even further to the surrounding landscape.

In 1938, Wright expanded the property by adding guest quarters that were set into the hillside situated right above the main house and joined by a covered walkway. Fallingwater was the home of the Kaufmanns for 26 years before they donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.

2. Robie House

Designed as two huge rectangles that give the impression of sliding past one another, Robie House is a residence that Wright designed for Frederick Robie.

It established an architectural style that was uniquely American, known as the Prairie style-it emphasized the horizontal elements over the vertical ones in response to the vast American plains. A twenty-foot cantilevered roof incorporated in the design shades ribbons of windows made from art glass below creating privacy and effectively connecting the interior and the exterior.

The interior of the structure features an open plan design that is centered around the main hearth. The impressive design of the Robbie House has made it the benchmark against which other buildings that are designed in the Prairie School style are compared.

Robie made the decision to sell the house after fourteen months due to financial months. It was almost demolished n 1957, but Wright championed it as a “cornerstone in American Architecture”, leading to its preservation.

3. Usonian Houses

Usonian Houses were middle-income family homes designed by Wright beginning in 1934.

Usonian Homes are distinguished as small, single-story structures that have limited storage and lack garages. In many cases, they are L-shaped so as to fit around a garden terrace on unique yet inexpensive sites.

They are constructed using native materials and were characterized by flat roofs and large cantilevered overhangs which served the purpose of passive solar heating and natural cooling.

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House was among the first Usonian Homes that Wright designed in 1937. Other Usonian Houses include Paul and Jean Hanna House (1937), Bernard Schwartz House (1939), and George Sturges House (1939) among others.

Usonian House, Rosenbaum House

Usonian House, Rosenbaum House

4. Hollyhock House

Hollyhock House was Wright’s first and consequently most well-known West Coast design.

Built in 1917, the property is perched on a 36-acre hilltop located in East Hollywood. The Hollyhock House served as a transitional structure for Wright, and he went on to describe it as a “California Romanza”.

Aline Barnsdall, the client who commissioned Wright to build Hollyhock, was an American oil heiress who had strong feminist beliefs. Aline was anything but conventional, initially envisioning a complex of multiple residences, theaters, and shops although financial constraints and artistic differences prevented this from being realized.

Hollyhock House is made up of numerous terraces, pergolas, and colonnades which join the interior and exterior surfaces.

The rooftop terraces allow for magnificent views of the Hollywood Hills and the Los Angeles Basin. In 1923, Barnsdall provided the Hollyhock House as well as 11 acres of her property to L.A to function as a park and public library. The city initially turned down this offer, changing its mind in 1927 to accept the land and its buildings.

5. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum is one of the few buildings that has managed to generate considerable controversy thanks to its design.

Built in 1956, the museum stands out from the conventional Manhattan structures that surround it, resembling a white ribbon that is curled in a cylindrical stack and spiraling towards a glass ceiling.

A helical spiral ramp gently ascends from the ground level to a skylight that is found at the top. Despite being dismissed by contemporary critics and even avant-garde artists, the Guggenheim liberated museum architecture from its conventional limitations in the long run.

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Personal life

At 22, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin, with whom he had six children and established a home in the Oak Park suburb.

Midlife problems

In 1909, due to being emotionally restless and creatively exhausted, Wright left his family for Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients with whom he had fallen in love with.

During his extended stay in Europe, he worked on two publications both of which were released in 1911. These publications of his work brought him even greater recognition and prominently influenced other architects.

During the same year, Wright and Mamah returned to the United States, but they were received with hostility in their Chicago social circles.

This pushed Wright to kick off construction of Taliesin located near Spring Green to serve as their home and refuge. He set up his architectural practice in Taliesin, and it was there that he received the Midway Gardens commission in Chicago and the Imperial Hotel commission in Japan.

In 1914, Mamah, her two children, and four others were tragically murdered in a brutal attack and fire which was started by a disgruntled employee at Taliesin. Distraught, Wright threw himself into his work and began rebuilding Taliesin in Mamah’s memory.

Catherine, who had initially refused to divorce Wright despite his affairs, granted him the divorce in 1922.

In 1923, his mother, Anna, died. Wright married his then-mistress, Maude “Miriam “Noel in 1923, but the marriage failed in less than a year.

In 1924, Wright met Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenburg, moving in with her into the rebuilt Taliesin in 1925. In the same year, another fire destroyed Taliesin.

Wright worked on rebuilding the living quarters, naming it “Taliesin III”. In 1926, Wright and Olgivanna were arrested in Minnesota and charged with violating the Mann Act. These charges were later dropped. Wright and Olgivanna married in 1928 after his divorce from Miriam Noel was finalized.

Later career

With fewer architectural commissions to work on, Wright turned his focus to writing and lecturing which helped to introduce him to a larger audience.

In 1932, he released two significant publications: “An Autobiography” and “The Disappearing City”.

The former was critically acclaimed and continues to inspire younger generations of architects, while the second one served to introduce Wright’s plans for Broadacre City, which envisioned decentralization that would bring the city into the country.

Around this time, Wright and Olgivanna started an architectural school at their Taliesin that was known as Taliesin Fellowship, an apprenticeship program that aimed to provide a learning environment that integrated architecture and construction, music, art, dance, farming, gardening, and cooking.

In 1936, Wright's career as an architect saw a resurgence with several important commissions that included the S.C Johnson and Son Company Administration Building located in Racine, Wisconsin; Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and Hebert Jacobs House in Madison.

Around this time, Wright set up his winter residence in Arizona where he and the Taliesin Fellowship established Taliesin West at the lower reaches of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale.

In June 1943, Wright received a letter from Baroness Hilla von Rebay that commissioned him to design a structure that would store the Solomon R. Guggenheim collection of non-objective paintings. This would be one of the last projects he oversaw before his death on April 9, 1959.

Other public projects he undertook during the last decades of his life include the Research Tower for SC Johnson Company, a skyscraper in Oklahoma, a number of buildings for Florida Southern College, and a Unitarian meeting house in Madison.

Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AZ

Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AZ

Architecture style & influences

Over time, Wright’s style and design evolved as he drew influences from American society

Prairie style

From 1899 to 1910, Wright’s work had elements of what was known as the “Prairie Style”. The Prairie house has an open plan structure with low roofs, deep overhangs, and casement windows which are arranged in long rows so as to enhance the horizontal theme.

Usonian

After the Great Depression in 1929, Wright began working on affordable housing which evolved into the Usonian House. Usonian Houses are relatively small, single-story structures that don’t have much storage space.

Organic style

Wright incorporated elements of the environment into some of his designs, as seen in the Fallingwater House.

Textile block style

This style incorporated a textile concrete block system that was reinforced by a system of bars internally. It was evidenced in his design of the Millard House and Ennis House among others.

Furthermore, Wright is generally believed to have had five major influences:

  • Louis Sullivan

  • Japanese art and prints

  • Nature

  • Froebel Gifts

  • Music

Why is Frank Lloyd Wright so famous?

Frank Lloyd Wright was famed for his architectural achievements as well as his writing, art collection, and philosophies. He greatly influenced a considerable number of architects, and he also established himself as a visionary.

He played a key role in introducing American architecture to the world, which led to him being recognized as one of the greatest architects of all time.

How did Frank Lloyd Wright die?

Wright was hospitalized on April 4, 1959, due to abdominal pains. He died on April 9, two months short of his ninety-second birthday.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s top 10 buildings

  1. Fallingwater

  2. Taliesin

  3. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

  4. Frederick C. Robie House

  5. Hollyhock House

  6. The Marin County Civic Center

  7. The Unity Temple

  8. The Price Tower

  9. Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House

  10. Imperial Hotel

Staley House , North Madison, OH

Staley House, North Madison, OH

His legacy

After his death, Wright’s apprentices worked to finish his remaining commissions, including the Marin County Civic Center in California, which has been ranked among some of his most important works.

Wright’s practice continued to function, becoming known as Taliesin Associated Architects (TAA).

Some of the important commissions that TA received include the Kaden Tower in Louisville, Kentucky, the Rocky Mountain National Park Administration Building in Colorado, and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West was established in 1937, serving as Wright’s winter home and headquarters of the Taliesin Fellowship.

School philosophy

The school philosophy is to “inspire the world through beautiful spaces that are thoughtfully designed and experience”

Team

  • Kevin Conley-Vice President of Public Engagement

  • Jeff Goodman- Vice President of Communication & partnerships

  • Joy Hanson- Vice president of Finance & COO

  • Stephanie Pierotti- Vice President of Licensing

  • Fred Prozzillo- Vice President of Preservation

  • Danielle Segura- Vice President & Chief Development Officer

Awards

  • The AIA Gold Medal in 1949

  • The Franklin Institute’s Frank P. Brown Medal in 1953

  • Gold Medal Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1941

Famous quotations

  • “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” 

  • “Early in my career...I had to choose between an honest arrogance and a hypercritical humility... I deliberately choose an honest arrogance, and I've never been sorry.”

  • “Building becomes architecture only when the mind of man consciously takes it and tries with all his resources to make it beautiful, to put concordance, sympathy with nature, and all that into it. Then you have architecture.” 

  • “If it sells, it's art.” 

  • “A professional is one who does his best work when he feels the least like working.”