Frank Lloyd Wright, American (1867 - 1959)

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1867, and died in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 9, 1959, at the age of 91.  (He often gave his birthdate as 1869, but records indicate that he was actually born in 1867.) His father was William Carey Wright, a preacher and a musician.  His mother was Anna Lloyd Jones, a teacher whose large Welsh family settled the valley area near Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright later built his home, Taliesin.  Wright had two sisters, Jane (1869) and Maginel (1877).  His family life was nomadic and unsettled in the early years. Before arriving in Madison in 1878, Wright lived in Rhode Island, Iowa, and Massachusetts, in addition to Wisconsin.  In Madison, Wright's father was a pastor of the Unitarian Church.  Wright lived in Madison from about age 11 until about age 20.  At age 11 Wright also began spending summers with his uncle James Lloyd Jones on his farm located near the Taliesin hill. 

Those early years in the Wisconsin countryside had a profound effect on Wright: "As a boy," he wrote in his autobiography, "I learned to know the ground plan of the region in every line and feature.  For me now its elevation is the modeling of the hills, the weaving and fabric that clings to them, the look of it all in tender green or covered with snow or in full glow of summer that bursts into the glorious blaze of autumn.  I still feel myself as much a part of it as the trees and birds and bees are, and the red barns."  Wright's father and mother divorced in 1885 and Wright never saw his father again.  To help support the family, Wright worked for Allan Conover, a dean of the University of Wisconsin's department of Engineering.  Wright spent two semesters studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin and also assisted architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee draft and supervise the construction of Unity Chapel (the Lloyd Jones family chapel still standing near Taliesin.)

The Chicago Years:  In 1887 Wright left Madison for Chicago where he worked for a few months with Silsbee.  In 1888 he took a drafting job with the firm of Adler and Sullivan where he worked directly under Louis Sullivan for six years. Sullivan was one of the few influences Wright ever acknowledged.  Sullivan, known for his integrated ornamentation based on natural themes, developed the maxim "Form Follows Function" which Wright later revised to "Form and Function Are One."  Sullivan also believed in an American architecture based on American themes not on tradition or European styles -- an idea that Wright was later to develop.  Wright and Sullivan abruptly parted company in 1893 when Sullivan discovered that Wright had been accepting commissions for "bootleg" house designs on his own, a violation of an earlier agreement between the two.  Many years later, the two renewed their friendship.  Wright often referred to Sullivan as his "Lieber Meister," or beloved master.  In 1889, at age 22, Wright married Catherine Tobin and built a home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. (The home is now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.)  In 1893, after parting company with Sullivan, Wright established his own architectural practice in Chicago.  He soon added a studio to his Oak Park home and moved his practice there.  Wright had six children by Catherine including Lloyd (1890-1978), John (1892-1972), Catherine (1894-1979), David (1895), Frances (1898-1959) and Robert (1903-1986).

Organic Architecture and the Prairie Houses: Wright's first revolutionary masterpiece from his own practice was the Winslow House built in 1893 in River Forest, Illinois.  This home for his first client, William Winslow, clearly portrayed Wright's direction in architecture with its expansive, open proportions.  Wright believed that architecture should create a natural link between mankind and his environment.  "Organic architecture" as Wright came to call his work, should reflect the individual needs of the client, the nature of the site, and the native materials available.  Some of Wright's most notable designs during this period were for "Prairie Houses."  These houses reflected the long, low horizontal Prairie on which they sat.  They had low pitched roofs, deep overhangs, no attics or basements, and generally long rows of casement windows that further emphasized the horizontal theme.  He used native materials and the woodwork was stained, never painted, to bring out its natural beauty.  This was his first effort at creating a new, indigenous American architecture.  Other Chicago architects were also working in this same manner and the movement became known as "The Prairie School." 

Although Wright himself rejected that label, he became its chief practitioner.   Wright also began to give public lectures and to write about his thoughts on architecture.  His most famous talk, "The Art and Craft of the Machine" was delivered in 1901 at Hull House in Chicago.  It marked the first decisive acceptance of the machine by an American architect and was widely hailed.  The Arts and Crafts Movement, popular at the time, believed that much of the decline in quality craftsmanship was directly attributable to the machine.  Wright, by contrast, embraced the machine and urged its use, not to imitate fancy hand-carving, but to bring out the simplicity and beauty of wood.  This emphasis on simplicity and his insistence that natural materials be treated naturally, was a hallmark of his work.  Some of Wright's most important works at the time were: the Martin House in Buffalo, New York (which introduced the horizontal bands of windows, a prominent feature of his later houses); the Robie House in Chicago, Illinois (one of Wright's most celebrated Prairie houses); the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York (for which Wright developed several innovations such as wall-hung water closets and the first metal furniture); and Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois (America's first important architectural work in poured concrete.) 

A Return to his Roots: In 1910, at the height of his career, Wright left his family and his practice in Oak Park, and went to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client.  While in Europe Wright worked on two portfolios of his work, published by Ernst Wasmuth and known as the Wasmuth Portfolio:  "Ausgefurhte Bauten and Entwurfe" in 1910 and "Ausgefurte Bauten" in 1911.  These publications brought international recognition to his work and greatly influenced other architects. In 1911, Wright returned to the land of his ancestors and began construction of his home, Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wisconsin.  There he resumed his practice and soon received a large commission for an entertainment center in Chicago called Midway Gardens.  In 1913 the Japanese contacted him regarding the design of a new Tokyo hotel.   The next year, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago working on Midway Gardens, an insane servant set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin, killing Mamah Cheney, her two children, and four others.  Although stunned by the tragedy, Wright began immediately to rebuild Taliesin. 

Soon thereafter, he met sculptress Miriam Noel whom he married.  Wright spent approximately six years (1915-22) working on Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, acclaimed for its earthquakeproof supporting structure.  It was one of few buildings that remained standing following the Kanto earthquake of 1923 which demolished much of Tokyo. (The hotel was demolished in 1968; however, the entrance lobby was saved and is on display in an architectural park near Nagoya, Japan.) Coinciding with this period, Wright began developing designs for several California residences such as the Hollyhock House and the Millard House.  The Millard House was Wright's first use of "textile block" in which specially designed pre-cast concrete blocks were woven together with steel rods and concrete.  Again in 1925, tragedy struck Wright when the living quarters of Taliesin were destroyed by fire, this time due an electrical problem triggered by lightning.  Wright, again, immediately began to rebuild, living for a time in Tan-y-deri, a house he had designed for his sister Jane Porter on what is now the Taliesin property.

The Taliesin Fellowship and establishment of Taliesin West: In 1928, Wright married Olga Lazovich (known as Olgivanna), daughter of a the Chief Justice of Montenegro.  With few architectural commissions coming his way  Wright turned to writing and lecturing which introduced him to a larger national audience.  In 1932, at the age of 65, he published "An Autobiography" and "The Disappearing City" both of which influenced several generations of young architects.  During the Great Depression, with almost no architectural commissions coming his way, Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna founded an architectural apprenticeship program at Taliesin.  The school was known as the "Taliesin Fellowship."  It was, according to Wright and his wife, established to provide a total learning environment, integrating all aspects of the apprentices' lives in order to produce responsible, creative and cultured human beings.  Apprentices were to gain experience not only in architecture but also in construction, farming, gardening and cooking, and the study of nature, music, art and dance.  Wright visited Arizona in 1927 when he was asked to collaborate on designs for the Arizona Biltmore. 

In the years following 1927, Wright and draughtsmen spent time at temporary sites in Arizona including a desert camp they constructed near Chandler which Wright called "Ocatilla."  During 1934 when Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship were in Arizona they worked on the Broadacre City model (still on display at the Hillside Home School at Taliesin).  Wright was at this time considered a great architect, but one whose time had come and gone.  In 1936, Wright proved this sentiment wrong and went on to stage a remarkable comeback with  several important commissions - the SC Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin; Fallingwater house in rural Pennsylvania (designed in 1935 but built in 1936); and Jacobs I (a functional yet inexpensive home, the first executed "Usonian" house).  These works were widely publicized and brought a flood of commissions interrupted only by World War II.  "His surge of creativity after two decades of frustration was one of the most dramatic resuscitations in American art history, made more impressive by the fact that Wright was seventy years old in 1937," wrote Robert Twombly in his 1973 biography of Wright.  In 1937, Wright designed "Wingspread" near Racine, Wisconsin, a residence for Herbert F. Johnson of the Johnson Wax company. 

In the same year, 1937, Wright decided he wanted a more permanent winter residence in Arizona and he acquired several hundred acres of raw, rugged desert at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Here he and the Taliesin Fellowship began the construction of Taliesin West as a "Desert Camp" where they planned to live each winter to escape the harsh Wisconsin weather.   Taliesin West, as conceived by Wright, was to be a bold new endeavor for desert living--"a look over the rim of the world," in the architect's own words.  Taliesin West would serve as Wright's architectural laboratory for more than 20 years.  There he tested design innovations, structural ideas, and building details.  Taliesin West was for many years Wright's winter "camp" where he and his young apprentices took on the task of building their home, shop, school and studio, all the while responding to the dramatic desert setting. 

During these years Wright also began the first of many versions of his Monona Terrace Civic Center for Madison, Wisconsin.  In addition, he continued to work on the designs for his "Usonian" homes, homes which proved to be just as popular as his Prairie houses.  "Usonian" homes were low-cost, one-story houses for individuals of moderate means.  They included such innovations as radiant heating (through hot water pipes placed in the cement slab floor); pre-fabricated walls made of boards and tar paper (a cheap and efficient building technique); the open plan with greater flow of space; and the invention of the carport.

The Final Decades: In the last decades of his career Wright received many awards, titles, medals and citations.  And several international exhibitions were developed, including "Sixty Years of Living Architecture" which opened at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in 1951.  He continued to write, producing "The Natural House" in 1954.  This book discussed the Usonian home and a new concept called the "Usonian Automatic" - a house that could be owner built.  In 1955, the University of Wisconsin conferred an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree on Wright.  Upon receipt of the degree, Wright returned to Taliesin and began to work on a "thesis" called "The Eternal Law" which he submitted to the president of the university.  In 1955, Wright took an apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to work on plans for the Guggenheim Museum.  He completely redecorated the apartment with black and red lacquer furniture and thick peach colored carpet and called it "Taliesin East."  The next year Wright was honored by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who proclaimed October 17 as "Frank Lloyd Wright Day in Chicago."    Wright also produced a book called "The Story of the Tower" in honor of the construction of the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. 

That same year, 1956, ground was at last broken for the Guggenheim Museum - a project that Wright had worked on from 1943, when he received the commission, to the end of his life.  Although the majority of Wright's work during his lifetime had been for residential designs, 1957 marked a change.  That year 59 new projects came into his studio - 35 of which were for public buildings.  The most significant of these works was the commission for the Marin County Civic Center in California.  Wright also traveled to Baghdad in 1957 to confer with the Shah of Iraq concerning the design of an opera house and other municipal works.  The Iraqi revolution of 1958 brought a halt to this endeavor.  In 1957 Wright also designed a state capitol building for Arizona and a house for Marilyn Monroe, neither of which were built.  

And finally, in this whirlwind year, at age 90, Wright produced another book, "A Testament" in which he, according to Archivist Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, made "his final statement concerning the place of his work and his art in the 20th century." In 1958, with Wright now in his nineties, 31 new commissions came into his studio, bringing the total number of different commissions on the boards to an astounding 166.  He also produced the book "The Living City" that year and continued to supervise the Guggenheim which was completed after his death.  In 1959 he worked on a design for a large auditorium for Arizona State University, (Grady Gammage Auditorium) also completed after his death.  Of the more than 1100 projects Wright had designed during his lifetime, nearly one-third were created during the last decade of his life.  Wright had an astounding capacity for self-renewal and was tireless in his efforts to create an architecture that was truly American.  Through his work, his writings, and the hundreds of apprentice architects that trained at his side his ideas have been spread throughout the world.

Biographical Information from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Website


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