Five by Frank
Frank Lloyd Wright was not only one of the greatest American architects, he was one of the most creative innovators of the 20th century. This CultureMap spotlights five of his most influential structures and a few of his many groundbreaking approaches and techniques—as well as his downright juicy personal life. Most of all, though, we salute his transcendent designs, which revolutionized the way people think about buildings and move through interiors.
By 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright had risen through the ranks at the leading architectural firm of modernist Louis Sullivan and established his own studio, specializing in residences around Chicago. The Robie House, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, is the finest example of what came to be known as Wright’s prairie style, featuring horizontal expanses and earthen tones that reflect the Midwestern terrain. For all its straightforwardness and clean lines, the Robie House has been the backdrop for some untidy human drama. Wright and his mistress, Mamah Cheney, sailed to Europe in 1909, leaving spouses, children, the Robie House and other commissions behind. Wright’s colleagues finished the house, and Frederick Robie and his family took possession in May 1910. Within a year Robie was broke and his marriage had dissolved. Advertising man David Lee Taylor bought the house in 1911 but died a year later. In 1957 the Chicago Theological Seminary announced plans to raze it and build a dormitory. Wright, then 90, delivered the saving salvo: “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.” His words galvanized preservation efforts, and the Robie House stands today as a landmark of early-20th-century architecture.
Wright spent seven years working on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, inspired by his love of Japanese art and fueled by a desire to show his hand in the 1920s rush to transform Japan’s capital into a major world city. He designed every detail, including moldings, lighting systems, carpets and china services. The overall plan included a pyramid-shaped central block, where the public spaces were located, and lower surrounding wings that housed the guest quarters. As The Christian Science Monitor commented, the building worked “Western, Japanese and even a bit of old Egyptian architecture in one mass, and the surprise of it all is its uncommon unity.” Soon after the hotel opened, Tokyo was rocked by a massive 8.3-magnitude earthquake. Baron Okura Kihachiro, a businessman who was one of the principal investors in the hotel, sent Wright a telegram: “Hotel stands undamaged as monument to your genius.” The structure also survived World War II bombings but fell prey to Tokyo’s postwar building boom and was demolished in 1968. The central lobby and reflecting pool (from which water had been drawn to fight the firestorm caused by the 1923 quake) are preserved at the Meiji Mura open-air architectural museum in Inuyama, Japan.
The years of Wright’s rise to prominence were tumultuous for him personally. Scandal had surrounded his affair with Mamah Cheney, a client’s wife, who was murdered in 1914 along with two of her children at Wright’s Wisconsin retreat, Taliesin. In 1922 he divorced Kitty, his wife of more than 30 years, and in 1923 married schizophrenic, alcoholic and morphine addict Miriam Noel; they separated less than a year later.
Clients were put off by Wright’s personal reputation, but several commissions in Southern California came through—among them Hollyhock House, a hilltop Los Angeles compound built for heiress Aline Barnsdall. The low, flowing house surrounds a courtyard, and each room opens onto a porch or colonnade. Rooftop terraces overlook the city. Motifs of the hollyhock, Barnsdall’s favorite flower, are etched into concrete walls and woven into textiles. Wright’s commission called for a main residence, two smaller houses, studios, shops and a cinema, but financial and artistic differences soon surfaced, and he completed only three houses on the 36-acre site. In 1927 Barnsdall donated the property to the city of Los Angeles; Hollyhock House has been restored and outfitted with reproductions of Wright’s original furniture and is open to the public.
“What about the concrete block?” Wright once mused. While “it was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world…it might be permanent, noble, beautiful.” Wright patterned concrete blocks with ornate mosaics similar to the decorations on Mayan temples and used them to creative effect, often stacking them, in what came to be known as his Mayan revival style. By the early 1920s Wright was putting this “textile block system” to especially dramatic effect at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and several houses in Los Angeles. At Hollyhock House, for example, the blocks are interspersed with stylized, geometric designs of the namesake flower cast in concrete. The Mayan revival style appears most dramatically in Ennis House, built in 1924 on a hilltop overlooking Griffith Park in the city’s Los Feliz neighborhood. Seen from below, the horizontal expanses of richly textured interlocking 16-by-16-inch blocks create the illusion of a Mayan fortress. The concrete-block interior of the privately owned house has inspired many Hollywood sets, most notably the apartment of Harrison Ford’s character in Ridley Scott’s stylish 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner.
In 1934 America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Wright’s fame was fading, and his commissions were few and far between. The architect had the good fortune to meet wealthy department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann, who hired him to design a country retreat outside Pittsburgh. Though the two men shared a love of nature and of forward-thinking design, theirs was not an easy partnership. They fought constantly. Kaufmann envisioned a house that would overlook a waterfall, and Wright designed a house practically inside one, on a series of concrete shelves that straddled the cataracts. Kauffmann on occasion undermined Wright’s engineering decisions and had his plans reworked. Wright at one point demanded his drawings back and offered to return his advance. Though his family enjoyed the house until 1963, Kaufmann never tired of pointing out leaks and referring to Fallingwater as a “seven-bucket building”; he called the house Rising Mildew. More influential commentary held sway: In 1938, soon after Fallingwater was completed, Time magazine featured the house on its cover, calling it “Wright’s most beautiful job.” Open to the public, Fallingwater has been acclaimed ever since and is one of the world’s best known and most admired structures.
“The prairie has a beauty of its own,” Wright wrote, “and we should recognize and accentuate this natural beauty, its quiet level.” For the Robie House and other prairie-style residences, Wright created designs that fit into their natural surroundings, with, as he put it, “gently sloping roofs, low proportions, quiet sky lines, suppressed heavy-set chimneys and sheltering overhangs, low terraces and out-reaching walls sequestering private gardens.” Wright united Fallingwater’s interior and the natural landscape to stunning effect. The house straddles a waterfall on the small river called Bear Run, and its spaces are filled with the sound of rushing water; Wright intended the residents to “live with the waterfall, not just look at it.” Low ceilings and bands of windows direct the eye into the surrounding forest. Textures and colors blend with those of rocks and trees. Ledge rock protrudes through the living-room floor. A hearth is constructed from boulders found on the site, and walls are fashioned from locally quarried stone. Franklin Toker, author of Fallingwater Rising, explains the essence of Fallingwater: “You’ve never seen a building that fits with nature so tightly. It’s not merely nature, it’s animated…a building that’s in constant motion.”
Wright’s last major work is one of America’s most beloved architectural landmarks. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened on October 21, 1959, six months after Wright’s death, to house its founder’s collection of impressionist and modern art. Many commentators admired the distinctive white spiral that resembles a snail shell rising above New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Wright himself said his design made the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art seem like a “Protestant barn.” New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses disagreed, calling the building “an inverted oatmeal dish.” Many of the artists whose works the museum would display were not enthusiastic either. Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and other avant-gardists signed a letter protesting plans for their paintings to be hung in small spaces on concave walls, titled backward, as Wright explained, “as on the artist’s easel.” Wright admonished naysayers that a box-shaped building was a “coffin for the human spirit.” Some museumgoers who climb the building’s six-story-high central ramp, beneath a huge glass dome, will fulfill Wright’s intention that visitors should enjoy art on “one great space on a continuous floor.” Others will simply be relishing the surroundings. It’s hard to imagine Wright would mind.
The Guggenheim Museum is Wright’s most renowned public work, and Fallingwater is his most famous residence. But they are only two among more than a thousand projects the architect designed over a long career that was still flourishing when he died on April 9, 1959, at age 91. Some 500 Wright buildings were built, and more than 400 survive. His only skyscraper, the Price Tower, soars 19 stories above Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Wright called it the “tree that escaped the crowded forest”; he had based the cantilevered design on the idea of a tree with a central trunk and outreaching branches that would rise alone above the prairie. Among his lesser-known works are 60 so-called Usonian (a substitute for the word American) houses—simple, practical middle-class dwellings in which living spaces flow into one another and focus on a fireplace intended to be a family gathering spot. He also built houses of worship and schools, and designed textiles, window glass and furniture. Even during his life Wright was hailed as one of the greatest American architects, and his residences and public buildings not only showcase superlative design, they continue to introduce us to new ways to live.