Exploring the Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biographical Journey
Ask the average citizen to name a famous American architect, and you can bet their answer will be Frank Lloyd Wright. For a good reason, Wright gained such cultural importance: he changed how we build and live. Designing 1,114 architectural works of all types — 532 of which were realized — created some of the most innovative spaces in the United States.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a pioneer in American architecture and design, known for his innovative and creative approach to building design. He believed in the harmonious integration of buildings with the surrounding environment and human beings, a philosophy he referred to as “organic architecture.” This concept emphasized the importance of considering the natural setting, the human experience, and the purpose of the building as integral components of the design process. One of the most famous examples of this philosophy in action is Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater (1935). This iconic building, which sits perched atop a waterfall in Pennsylvania, seamlessly blends into its natural surroundings and remains a testament to Wright’s commitment to designing in harmony with humanity and the environment.
Wright played a key role in the twentieth century’s architectural movements, influencing generations of architects worldwide through his works. With a career that spanned seven decades before his death in 1959.
Wright wrote several books and articles and was a popular lecturer in the United States and Europe. He was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.” In 2019, a selection of his work became a listed World Heritage Site as The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. His colorful personal life made headlines: leaving his first wife, Catherine Tobin, for Mamah Cheney in 1909, the murders at his Taliesin estate by a staff member in 1914, his tempestuous marriage with second wife, Miriam Noel, in 1923, and his relationship with Olgivanna Lazović, whom he married in 1928.
The mission of an architect is to help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one for living in, and to give reason, rhyme, and meaning to life.
Early Life of Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wis., on June 8, 1867, the son of William Carey Wright, a preacher, and a musician, and Anna Lloyd Jones, a teacher whose large Welsh family had settled the valley area near Spring Green, Wisconsin. His early childhood was nomadic as his father traveled from one ministry position to another in Rhode Island, Iowa, and Massachusetts, before settling in Madison, Wis., in 1878. Wright’s parents divorced in 1885, making financial circumstances even more challenging. To help support the family, 18-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright worked for the dean of the University of Wisconsin’s engineering department while also studying there. But he knew he wanted to be an architect. In 1887, he left Madison for Chicago.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s early career saw him work for multiple architecture firms before Adler and Sullivan’s prestigious partnership hired him. During his time there, he worked directly under the renowned architect Louis Sullivan for six years, gaining valuable experience and honing his skills. In 1893, Wright established his own successful practice in Chicago and opened a studio in his Oak Park, Illinois home in 1898. His first independent commission, the William H. Winslow House, showcased his signature style that was simple and elegant yet captivating.
The Prairie Style Years
Wright was determined to create an architecture that was uniquely American and reflected the spirit of the country. This led to the development of the Prairie Style, a style characterized by low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, no attics or basements, and long rows of casement windows that emphasized the horizontal lines of the buildings. Over the next sixteen years, he set the standards for this style and established himself as one of the most influential architects of his time.
In a Prairie house, “the essential nature of the box could be eliminated,” Wright explained. Interior walls were minimized to emphasize openness and community. “The relationship of inhabitants to the outside became more intimate; landscape and building became one, more harmonious; and instead of a separate thing set up independently of landscape and site, the building with landscape and site became inevitably one.”
Some of Wright’s most important residential works of the time are the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York (1903), the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois (1907), and the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago (1908). Important public commissions included the Larkin Company Administration Building in Buffalo (1903, demolished 1950) and Unity Temple in Oak Park (1905).
Notable public works (1900–1917)
Creatively exhausted and emotionally restless, late in 1909, Wright left his family for an extended stay in Europe with Mamah Borthwick (Cheney), a client he had been in love with for several years. Wright hoped he could escape the weariness and discontent that now governed both his professional and domestic life. During this European hiatus, Wright worked on two publications of his work, published by Ernst Wasmuth, one of the Wasmuth Portfolio drawings, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the photographs, Ausgeführte Bauten, both released in 1911.
These publications brought international recognition to his work and greatly influenced other architects. The same year, Wright and Mamah returned to the States and, unwelcome in Chicago social circles, began constructing Taliesin near Spring Green as their home and refuge. There he also resumed his architectural practice and received two important public commissions over the next several years: the first in 1913 for an entertainment center called Midway Gardens in Chicago; the second, in 1916, for the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.
In August 1914, Wright’s life with Mamah was tragically closed as she, her two children, and four others were killed in a brutal attack and fire intentionally started by an angry Taliesin domestic employee. Emotionally and spiritually devastated by the tragedy, Wright could find solace only in work, and he began to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah’s memory. Once completed, he effectively abandoned it for nearly a decade. He pursued major work in Tokyo with the Imperial Hotel, which was demolished in 1968, and in Los Angeles with the Hollyhock House and Olive Hill for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall.
Designing in Japan (1917–1922)
The years between 1922 and 1934 were both architecturally creative and fiscally catastrophic. Wright had established an office in Los Angeles, but following his return from Japan in 1922, commissions were scarce, except for the four textile block houses of 1923–1924 (Millard, Storer, Freeman, and Ennis). He soon abandoned the West Coast and returned to Taliesin. While only a few projects went into construction, this decade was one of Wright’s great design innovations. Among the unbuilt commissions were the National Life Insurance Building (Chicago, 1924), the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective (Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland, 1925), San Marcos-in-the-Desert resort (Chandler, Arizona, 1928), and St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowerie apartment towers (New York City, 1928).
With few architectural commissions coming his way, Wright turned to writing and lecturing, which introduced him to a larger national audience. Two important publications came out in 1932: An Autobiography and The Disappearing City. The first received widespread critical acclaim and would continue to inspire generations of young architects. The second introduced Wright’s scheme for Broadacre City, a utopian vision for decentralization that moved the city into the country. Although it received little serious consideration at the time, it would influence community development in unforeseen ways in the decades to come. At about this same time, Wright and Olgivanna founded an architectural school at Taliesin, the “Taliesin Fellowship,” an apprenticeship program to provide a total learning environment, integrating not only architecture and construction but also farming, gardening, and cooking, and the study of nature, music, art, and dance.
In 1936, Wright worked on several important commissions, including the S.C. Johnson and Son Company Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin; Fallingwater, the country house for Edgar Kaufmann in rural Pennsylvania; Herbert Jacobs House (the first executed “Usonian” house) in Madison.
At this same time, Wright decided he wanted a more permanent winter residence in Arizona, and he acquired some acreage of the raw, rugged desert in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale. Here he and the Taliesin Fellowship began constructing Taliesin West as a winter camp, a bold new endeavor for desert living where he tested design innovations, structural ideas, and building details that responded to the dramatic desert setting. Wright and the fellowship established migration patterns between Wisconsin and Arizona, which the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture continues to this day.
Acknowledging Wright’s stunning reentry into the architectural spotlight, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a comprehensive retrospective exhibition that opened in 1940. In June 1943, undeterred by a world at war, Wright received a letter that initiated his most important and most challenging commission during his late career. Baroness Hilla von Rebay wrote asking him to design a building to house the Solomon R. Guggenheim collection of non-objective paintings. Wright responded enthusiastically, never anticipating the tremendous amount of time and energy this project would consume before its completion sixteen years later.
He was still actively involved with all aspects of work, including frequent trips to New York to oversee the Guggenheim Museum’s construction. In April of 1959, he was suddenly stricken by an illness that forced his hospitalization. He died on April 9, two months shy of his ninety-second birthday.
Wright devoted his life to promoting architecture as “the great mother art, behind which all others are definitely, distinctly and inevitably related.” Seeking a consistent expression of underlying unity, he drew inspiration from the Japanese idea of a culture in which every object, every human, and every action were integrated to make an entire civilization a work of art. Above all else, Wright’s vision served beauty. He believed that every man, woman, and child had the right to live a beautiful life in beautiful circumstances. He sought to create affordable architecture that served that aspiration.
Frank Lloyd Wright Bibliography – Recommended Books
This bibliography consists of a selective list of books relating to the architects’ Architecture.
|Description by publisher: Frank Lloyd Wright Designs is the most important and comprehensive book to be published on the drawings, designs, conceptual sketches, elevations, and plans of Wright, emphasizing the development of certain important projects. It includes the best-known and beloved projects-like Fallingwater, The Coonley House, Midway Gardens, the Guggenheim, and the Imperial Hotel-as well as a range of intriguing, unfamiliar, and previously unpublished drawings by Wright.SHOP NOW →
|Description by publisher: In May 1939, the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited London and gave four lectures at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The meetings were hailed as the most remarkable events of recent architectural affairs in England. The lectures were published as An Organic Architecture in September 1939 by Lund Humphries. The texts remain an important expression of the architect’s core philosophy and are being reissued in a new edition to commemorate the 150th anniversary in 2017 of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. In the lectures, Frank Lloyd Wright covers a wide range of topics, including his Usonian houses, his visions for the future of cities both in North America and elsewhere, particularly in Britain, Taliesin and the Johnson Waxworks factory, the then-imminent Second World War, and the ‘Future.’SHOP NOW →
|Description by publisher: Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography contains the master architect’s own account of his work, philosophy, and personal life, written with his signature wit and charm. Wright (1867-1959) went into seclusion in a Minnesota cabin to reflect on and record his life experiences. In 1932, the first edition of the Autobiography was published. It became a form of advertising, leading many readers to seek out the master architect–thirty apprentices came to live and learn at Taliesin, Wright’s Wisconsin home/school/studio, under the master’s tutelage.
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|Description by publisher: The world’s greatest architect here meets the urgent problem of suitable shelter for The Family in a democracy in a magnificent and – as was to be expected – challenging book. Here, presented at last in full detail, is the natural house. The moderate-cost houses described in this book and profusely illustrated with 116 photographs, plans, and drawings are houses – of infinite variety for people of limited means – in which living has become for their owner’s purposeful new adventure of freedom and dignity. Mr. Wright tells the story of the world-famous ‘Usonian’ houses so that we now see, in text and illustrations, how they have evolved from original conception to final execution.SHOP NOW →
|Description by publisher: This meticulous compilation from TASCHEN’s previous three-volume monograph assembles the most important works from Wright’s extensive, paradigm-shifting oeuvre into one authoritative and accessibly priced overview of America’s most famous architect. Based on unlimited access to the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives in Taliesin, Arizona, the collection spans the length and breadth of Wright’s projects, both realized and unrealized, from his early Prairie Houses, through the Usonian concept home, epitomized by Fallingwater, the Tokyo years, his progressive “living architecture” buildings, right through to later schemes like the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and fantastic visions for a better tomorrow in the “living city.”SHOP NOW →
|Description by publisher: This seminal volume offers a deeply immersive tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most legendary building. A landmark volume to commemorate what is arguably the most significant private residence of the twentieth century. With stunning photography commissioned especially for the book, Fallingwater captures the much-loved masterpiece by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The book includes authoritative texts on Fallingwater’s history, structure, restoration, and collections, including the house’s relationship to its setting and its importance to the sustainability movement; its meaning in the context of Wright’s body of work; the analysis and planning process that went into Fallingwater’s restoration and how a seemingly unsolvable problem was overcome through modern engineering.SHOP NOW →
Other Recommended Books:
- Frank Lloyd Wright: The Houses. Publisher: Rizzoli; Illustrated edition (November 1, 2005). Language: English
- The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright: A complete guide to the designs of an architectural genius. Publisher: Chartwell Books (August 15, 2016). Language: English
- The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, Revised Edition. Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Revised edition (November 1, 2006). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography. Publisher: University of Chicago Press; First PB Edition (May 8, 1998). Language: English
- Drawings and Plans of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Early Period (1893-1909). Publisher: Dover Publications (January 1, 1983). Language: English
- Wright Sites: A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright Public Places. Publisher: Dover Publications (January 1, 1983). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright: Natural Design, Organic Architecture: Lessons for Building Green from an American Original. Publisher: Rizzoli; Illustrated edition (October 16, 2012). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright: The Rooms: Interiors and Decorative Arts. Publisher: Rizzoli; Illustrated edition (October 21, 2014). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright on the West Coast. Publisher: Gibbs Smith; Illustrated edition (September 1, 2014). Language: English
- The Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright (Chicago Architecture and Urbanism). Publisher: University of Chicago Press; First edition (April 9, 2021). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids: His Life and Ideas (For Kids series). Publisher: Chicago Review Press; Second Edition, Second edition (July 1, 2014). Language: English
- Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright. Publisher: Knopf; Illustrated edition (October 1, 2019). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright’s House on Kentuck Knob. Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1st edition (May 18, 2000). Language: English
- Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: The House and Its History. Publisher: Dover Publications; 2nd Revised edition (January 1, 1993). Language: English
- Art, Vision, and Symmetry: The Hidden Geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright. Publisher: John Shoaff (August 19, 2020). Language: English