Frank Lloyd Wright The Great American Architect

Essay, Research Paper

The Great American Architect

Mike Gavin

Architecture can be defined as the art or science of planning and building structures. Architecture is important because it satisfies the basic human need for shelter. Architectural structures serve specific purposes. Examples include: government buildings; other public buildings, such as libraries or museums; commercial buildings, including offices, banks, or shops; buildings for transportation- airline terminals, train stations, etc.; religious buildings; and, of course, residences.

Each structure has a function but also a particular character or style. Style is a characteristic, or a number of characteristics that we can identify as constant, recurring, or coherent. In art, the sum of characteristics associated with a particular artist, group, or culture, or with an artist’s work at a specific time. This, in my mind, is what makes architecture art.

It is impossible to talk about architecture without mentioning the name Frank Lloyd Wright. Many consider him to be the greatest American architect of his time as well as the greatest designer of residential architecture. Wright himself once said, “…having a good start, not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who yet lived, but fully intend to be the greatest architect who will ever live. Yes, I intend to be the greatest architect of all time.”

Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin. While growing up, his mother’s side of the family always had a great influence on him. The family was Unitary in faith and lived close together. The family stressed the values of education, religion, and nature. Wright’s family spent many evenings listening to Willliam Lincoln Wright read the works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Blake out loud. Also, his aunts Nell and Jane opened a school of their own in which they stressed the philosophies of the German educator, Froebel. Wright was brought up in a comfortable, but certainly not warm, household. His father, William Carey Wright, worked as a preacher and musician. He moved from job to job and frequently moved his family across the United States. His parents divorced when Wright was still young at a time when divorce was very uncommon.

Even before her son was born, Anna Wright had decided that her son was going to be a great architect. Using Froebel’s geometric blocks to entertain and educate her son, Mrs. Wright must have struck the genius her son possessed. Use of the imagination was encouraged and Wright was given free run of the playroom that was filled with paper, cardboard, and paste. On the doors were the words, “Sanctum Sanctorum” which is Latin for, “Place of Inviolable Privacy”. Wright was seen as a dreamy and sensitive child. Cases of him running away while working on the farmlands with his uncles are documented. Running away became a pattern that continued throughout his life.

In 1887, at the age of twenty, Frank Lloyd Wright moved to Chicago. With a brief education in Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Wright was able to find a job as a draftsman in a Chicago architectural firm of J. Lyman Silsbee. During this time, he started on his first project, the “Hillside Home” for his aunts, Nell and Jane. Impatiently moving forward, Wright got a job at one of the most well known firms in Chicago, Adler and Sullivan. Sullivan was to become Wright’s mentor.

Wright Referred to Sullivan as “Lieber Meister” (beloved master). He admired

his talent for ornamentation, and his skill of drawing intricate plans and designs. Wright learned these skills from Sullivan and soon moved ahead of Alder in importance within

the firm. Wright’s relationship between him and his employer caused great amounts of

tension between Wright and his fellow draftsmen, and as well as in-between Sullivan and

Adler. Wright was assigned the residential contracts of the firm. His workload increased as he accepted jobs outside of the firm. When Sullivan found out about this in 1893, he

called Wright on a breach of contract. Rather than drop the “night jobs”, Wright

walked out of the firm. When Wright left the company, Sullivan’s quantity of contracts

declined quickly. Sullivan soon ran into economic troubles and his international

reputation dwindled by 1920. Sullivan was soon regarded as worthless to the architectural world. He resorted to alcoholism and died in 1924 without regaining the

glory of what was held in their early years of Chicago.

Using the Lloyd-Jones’ philosophies of unity, truth, harmony, and simplicity; and Sullivan’s approach of “form follows function”, Wright quickly built up a practice in residential architecture. At one point in his career, Wright would produce 135 buildings in ten years. Patience, concentration, attention to detail, and constant revision marked Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in the studio. Ironically it is these things that would be lacking in his personal relationships. Many people thought that Wright had a great amount of nervous energy. Also, he allowed no interference or suggestions from his clients. Wright took a complete approach to architecture by designing the interior furnishings of the building as well as the structure. He seemed to possess a skill of site memorization, and would visit the grounds sometimes only once before creating a building, which blended with and complemented the site.

His own houses were continuing experiments, especially the first one in Oak Park to which his studio is attached. Using nature as his inspiration and geometric abstraction, both obvious influences from his childhood in Wisconsin, Wright created a unique type of architecture, which would become known to the general public as the Prairie style. Marked by horizontal lines, this form would dominate his work from 1900-1913. Wright included the technology of the cities into the suburban residences of his design. Wright would continue to pass through at least two more recognizable stages in his architectural design, the textile block (1917-1924), and the Usonian (1936-1959).

In 1909 Wright left the United States for Europe with Mamah Brothwick, the wife of a former client. He left behind a comfortable home life including a wife and six children and a well-established business. His European travels brought him fame across the sea at a greater level than that he had received in his native homeland. Wright did not stay long in Europe, returning in 1910 to Chicago and Wisconsin where he began construction on his second home, “Taliesin” in 1911. The year 1913 brought Frank a contract for Midway Gardens in downtown Chicago, an entertainment park on the south side of Chicago, which exists today only in the original plans and drawings. In 1914 disaster struck Wright’s personal life and work on one fateful day, when “Taliesin”, completed by this time, burned and his present mistress, her two children, and four of Wright’s leading workmen, were murdered by a raging servant. Wright ran away again. This time it was across the Pacific to Japan.

In Japan, Wright completed one of his masterpieces, The Imperial Hotel. The project provided Wright with an engineering problem as well as an architectural challenge. Finished in 1922, the Imperial hotel was criticized for its aesthetic design. The hotel was designed to be stable in an area plagued by earthquakes. The design found praise when the hotel survived without damage a devastating earthquake just a year after it was completed. Wright had managed to design a “floating foundation” for the building, which combined oriental simplicity, in modern world comfort. This was one of the few periods in Wright’s life were his financial situation was at a positive level.

Imperial Hotel

Returning to the United States in 1922, Wright pursued the use of a new material in residential homes, concrete. Most of these “textile block” houses were built in California with a Mayan and Japanese influence. Though some claimed that Wright had peaked in 1910, with the Prairie houses, others claimed that in 1924 Wright’s development was only just beginning.

Wright’s last style, Usonian, was caused by a shift in society in the 1930’s. Wright used down scaling to bring the house to a more appropriate human level and reflect the informal and comfortable lives of the average American family. The Wright Fellowship was opened in 1932, welcoming apprentices to live, learn, and work at Taliesin, an idea comparable to that of a medieval manorial estate, and reflective of Aunt Nell’s and Aunt Jane’s Hillside House. Wright taught principles and philosophies of architecture, not a style. Many apprentices came out of the large, caring, and often chaotic community to complete successful careers in the world of architecture. During the thirties, Wright formed a social vision, associating the evils of society with the modern city. This was expressed through his design of Broadacre City, a section of an idealistic decentralized and restructured nation resembling not a city and not an agrarian community, but something in between.

In 1937, Wright completed what many consider to be his masterpiece. The Kaufmann House in Bear Run, Pennsylvania (usually known as “Fallingwater) is sited beside a stream with a small waterfall. The house was masterfully designed to take advantage of the surrounding landscape. It is made of stone, quarried from the area, and concrete. The house successfully emphasizes the waterfall and makes it seem as though it is an extension of the house. The beauty of this house is that it does not dominate the landscape, but instead coexists with it. It seems to sprout form its surroundings almost like a plant.


Wright continued to produce work into the forties and fifties including houses, churches, theaters, and stores. The Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is said by some to be his last great work, as he passed away in April 1959, six months before the museum opened. The huge skylight provides light for the entire museum. The spiral/snail shell design seems to grow out of the ground. The design allows people to see the art in a continuous manner. The viewers are intended to take an elevator to the top and walk all the way down viewing the exhibits.

Guggenheim (inside) Guggenheim (outside)

By the time of his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright had produced architecture for more than seventy years. What is even more remarkable is that Wright had redesigned America for at least a century and created an area of the domain, which America could claim as its own. As early as 1894, Wright was defining his philosophy of architecture. In a 1927 essay entitled “In the Cause of Architecture” Wright presented an outline stressing architectural design as truthful and obedient to purpose, site, occupants, and materials. He believed that buildings should be integral units, simple, unique, serving civilization and eliminating the “box” effect of the past. Space in Wright’s design was fluid, free, and informal. His scales were brought down to create comfort for the occupants and a feeling of oneness with the house and the natural settings. Wright used materials that would blend the house into the setting and limited the variety of materials within a project. Wright manipulated stone, brick, wood, stucco, concrete, copper, and glass in a distinct way that had never been done before. His exteriors and interiors of a building varied little, as he philosophized that one should move naturally into a shelter, feeling a certain flow rather than an abrupt transition.

Wright often used the colors of autumn in the Midwest, however red was his signature especially in the 1930’s. For light he relied heavily upon the sun’s power, and many of his buildings included skylights or subtle electrical lighting. He believed that the ornamentation should compliment all of this, not distract from it. Treating the building as an integral unit, Wright often designed down to the smallest detail including dining ware, furniture, and statues. His geometric designs were interpretations of nature. He was an architect of democracy in an era of political freedom. It is apparent Wright felt no constraints from the popular culture as he faced harsh criticism many times for his works.

Wright left behind hundreds of plans that are being pursued today. Ground breaking for Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin occurred not long ago. This design, which was conceived by Wright fifty years ago, includes government offices, an auditorium, and rail terminal all in one mammoth civic center.

Wright’s creations have stood the test of time. His influence is still strong today. I believe he succeeded in his mission of being the greatest architect of all time.


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