Frank Lloyd Wright was born just two years after the American Civil War ended and died two years after the space race began. He lived through a remarkable period of history that encompassed two World Wars, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, the ascent of consumerism and the cries of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a period of immense technological, social and political change. Wright took full advantage of these changes to develop a new architecture for the modern age. He transformed the way people lived and his ideas continue to impact our world today.
Wright was the first to believe in achieving a balance between structure and setting: a building should be sympathetic to the environment in which it is built. This principle was first embraced in the ‘Prairie House’. Wright replaced the standard ‘box’ shaped home with long, low rise, open plan houses that sat more sympathetically in the wide prairie expanse.
Open plan living was Wright’s response to the Victorian homes of the time which had rooms for specific purposes. He removed the walls between the living spaces so that areas flowed into each other. Over time the Prairie House came to be considered the first truly American architectural style.
Wright’s approach came to be called organic architecture and it was an concept that he continued to develop throughout his career. His early years living with his Welsh maternal family, who were farmers, greatly influenced his principles and ideas. The masterpiece of the drive for unity between building and land is considered by many to be Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. The house was built over a waterfall such that it became part of the water feature. It is a remarkable building that has become iconic.
In the drive for organic architecture, Wright was keen to adopt the the new building materials being developed. He hoped they would make his designs accessible to a wider public by reducing construction costs. The California Textile Block houses was the first attempt.
The ‘textile’ blocks were pre-cast concrete block reinforced with bars. The first house completed in this style was the John Storer house in Hollywood. Built into the hillside, the rooms were re-ordered to create vast views over the city. Unfortunately, the textile blocks did not deliver the cost reductions anticipated and cost overruns were common. Only four houses were built.
Developments in glass manufacturing were a more fruitful avenue for Wright. He was able to replace exterior walls with huge expanses of glass to create vistas across the countryside. In his Prairie Houses ornate stained glass windows were an integral part of the design.
However, Wright did not give up on the idea of accessible architecture. In the 1930s he designed what came to be known as the Usonian House. The houses were designed to be cheaper to build. The traditional timber frame construction was replaced with sandwich walls filled with insulating material and a grid system of concrete slabs which incorporated a radiant heating system. The buildings no longer had attics or basements. In the 1950s, the concept evolved into the Usonian Automatic houses. Wright hoped that people would buy the design principles and simple concrete slabs to create their own homes. In practice, the houses needed skilled labour to build and remained available to well off middle class families.
Over his lifetime Wright designed over a thousand buildings of which around 500 were built. He designed everything from houses to hotels, museums, places of worship, schools and offices. He also wrote 20 books and other articles, and he lectured. He set up the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in 1932 at this beloved Taliesin. Two years later, he moved the school to Arizona where he constructed Broadacre City, his idea of good urban planning, followed by Taliesin West which embodies his concepts of desert architecture. Today, students continue to move from one site to the other during the year.
In 1991, Frank Lloyd Wright was recognised by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time”.
Wright had a tumultuous life and often faced financial difficulties. After many unhappy years, his parents separated when he was 14 . He never saw his father again. Instead he spent time with his maternal family eventually changing his name from Frank Lincoln Wright to Frank Lloyd Wright as a mark of respect and love. He married Marries Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin in 1889, had six children and left her after twenty years of marriage. He set up home with his mistress Mamah Cheney at Taliesin which was to become his main home.
Mamah Cheney, along with her children and a number of others, was murdered at Taliesin by a cook who set fire to the property. Wright rebuilt it in her memory. He went on to marry a further two times and have another child.
Taliesin and Taliesin West became architecture schools and home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Wright’s greatest masterpiece and most well-known work was his last. The Guggenheim Museum in New York opened six months after he died, just a couple of months before his 92nd birthday.