What’s the Big Deal about Frank Lloyd Wright?

Frank_Lloyd_Wright_LC-USZ62-36384You have probably heard architects refer to Frank Lloyd Wright on several occasions.  I do.  Let me tell you who he was and then a few of the facts that I find most interesting and why I continue to bring him up (BTW, I highly recommend the Ken Burns film Frank Lloyd Wright for a thorough study of his life and work).

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect born on June 8, 1867 in Wisconsin and died on April 9, 1959, in Arizona.  It is not certain he ever graduated from high school and although he attended a couple of semesters part-time at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he never completed a degree.  He then began working as a draftsman with a series of architectural firms in Chicago. By the age of 21 he was working at the prestigious offices of Adler & Sullivan.  He worked there for 5 years, producing at least 9 “bootleg” houses on the side (violating Adler & Sullivan’s prohibition against moonlighting). At age 27 he began his own practice in Chicago, sharing an office with three other architects.

By 1901, age 34, he had completed about 50 projects and had begun to establish his own style–the “Prairie” style–typified by simple geometric massing, strong horizontal elements, low-pitched roofs with wide overhangs and natural materials that reflected the prairie around the Chicago area.  To be fair, he learned a lot from Louis Sullivan whose phrase “Form follows function” became the rallying cry of modern architecture.  Wright expanded this in his “organic” architecture philosophy.  Essentially it means that the form of a building (exterior shape and arrangement of spaces within the building) should lead logically from the functions of the spaces, so that rather than forcing functions into a preconceived form, the final form of the building is a direct reflection of the functions within.  Much like skin covers muscles that have functional purposes in their shape and location in the body.

For all his genius as an architect, he was very flawed as a person. For one thing, he was an enormously egotistical architect. From his pork pie hat and capes to his womanizing and family abandonment he was totally self-centered.  He was not a likeable character and he became increasingly eccentric as he grew older, experimenting with strange forms and self-imposed design restrictions. He believed that whatever he designed was sheer genius.  On one occasion he was in court to testify and upon being asked his occupation he replied “world’s greatest architect.” His wife Olgivanna, in court at the time, abruptly chided him out loud and he replied, “I had no choice, Olgivanna. I was under oath.”

What was undeniably revolutionary about his architecture was how he deviated from the common architectural styles prevalent at that time:  the heavily ornate Queen Anne style for residences and the neoclassical Beaux-Arts that perpetuated Greek and Roman classical elements.  Wright began his work at the end of the Victorian era and beginning of the Edwardian era.  Houses at this time had a multitude of individual rooms for specific purposes:  parlors, withdrawing rooms, servants’ quarters, smoking rooms.  Each room had a door and one or more individual windows.

In Wright’s houses rooms flowed into each other, usually around a large central fireplace (he loved the idea of the fireplace as the “hearth” of the home).  It was the beginning of the “open plan.”  He placed windows in series and often down to the floor to provide a visual connection between the interior and exterior.  Roofs were simple, low and sheltering. As he put it buildings should “rise naturally from the ground.”

So here you have a largely self-educated architect breaking new ground, leaving the ancient Greek and Roman stereotypes behind, gradually discarding ornamentation, and dissolving the cultural standards of little “cubicle” rooms.  Bold geometric shapes, large expanses of glass joining exterior landscaping with interior free-flowing spaces. His term for his philosophy of design was “organic.”

Therefore the low, sweeping roofs and buildings low to the ground–in his thought–echoed the wide, flat prairie around Chicago.


Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1937)


His buildings did not look “set upon” the ground, they appeared to grow from the ground, organically.  He called it a uniquely American style of architecture:  democratic, is the word he liked to use.

A two-volume folio with 100 lithographs of his designs was published in Germany in 1910, known as the Wasmuth Portfolio. This had a profound impact on European architects, notably Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, founders of the Bauhaus movement and Le Corbusier, leader of the International Style.  Suddenly their eyes were opened to the possibilities of forging a new direction in architecture. Within 10 years of the Wasmuth Portfolio being published they were turning out revolutionary open-plan designs of their own.  And they all credited Frank Lloyd Wright for their inspiration.  Almost single-handedly Frank Lloyd Wright invented Modern architecture.

He was also a very quotable architect.  Some of my favorites are:

Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

An architect’s most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board, and a wrecking bar at the site.

A doctor can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.

and, of course…

Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.

I read and re-read all the books I had of his in college:  The Natural House, Living City, and The Future of Architecture (not to forget the copy of the Wasmuth Porfolio published by Dover Architecture).

He was a towering figure in architecture, both in the US and abroad.  But it is interesting that so many people know so little about why he is considered one of the greatest architects of all time.