American Architecture Series
Frank Lloyd Wright

Biography of Iconic American Architect, Leader of Prairie School.

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Price Tower (1954-55)
Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

To see how architecture fits with
the arts, see: Definition of Art.
For more about the different design
disciplines, see: Types of Art.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)


How Frank Lloyd Wright Changed Architecture
Architectural Apprenticeship
First Period (c.1890-1914): Prairie School Architecture
Second Period (c.1914-35): Experimentation, Textile Block Houses
Third Period (c.1936-59): Fallingwater, Price Tower, Guggenheim
Usonian House
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Price Tower
Awards and Legacy

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For tower design, see: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).

If you are looking for a source
of rare or secondhand books on
Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie House
domestic building designs,
see: Rare Art Books.


Described by the AIA in 1991, as the greatest of all American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright was a multi-talented architect, interior designer, engineer and writer, who championed what he called "organic architecture". This organic approach to design - inspired by American colonial art as well as rustic 19th century architecture - assigned the highest priority to creating harmony within and between the different parts of a building, and between the building and its surroundings. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, this approach also paid the closest attention to craftsmanship and the use of natural, local materials. Two of Wright's best-known examples of organic design are Robie House, Chicago (1908-10), and the utopian site-specific Fallingwater (1936-37), a holiday home at Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Frank Lloyd Wright was the leading figure in the "Prairie School", a highly influential style of residential suburban architecture, which introduced new spatial and lighting concepts. Later in his career, he developed a more modest type of family residence, known as the Usonian house. Wright also produced numerous masterpieces of commercial 20th century architecture, notably Unity Temple (1905-8), the Unitarian church in Oak Park; The Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1915-22); the Johnson Wax Administration Building (1936-39) Racine, Wisconsin; Price Tower (1955), the concrete and copper skyscraper in Oklahoma; and the futuristic Guggenheim Museum, New York (1956-9). His contribution to American art featured designs for more than 1,000 buildings, including houses, churches, schools, offices, hotels, and museums, as well as several unique skyscrapers. Unlike many other architects, Wright also designed many of the fixtures and fittings in his buildings, such as the stained glass and the furniture. He was also a skilled lecturer in both America and Europe, and wrote more than 20 books. But Wright also attracted controversy, not least for his numerous marriages, extramarital relationships, bankruptcy, and the devastating environmental effects of his suburban designs, as well as the lurid 1914 murder of his mistress and six others, in his Taliesin studio in Wisconsin.



How Frank Lloyd Wright Changed Architecture

Wright's architecture is marked by a richness of conception, unity of expression and fertility of invention that acknowledges the fundamental laws of design while drawing strength and inspiration from a profound respect for American traditions, landscapes and native materials. In addition, his designs destroyed once and for all our age-old idea of interior space - that a room was the space enclosed by four walls - by creating interiors that were "defined" rather than strictly "enclosed". By this means the measurable values that had previously characterized interior space gave way to a space whose perimeters were no longer "absolute", but relative to the ever-changing position of the viewer. As a result, the space seems, psychologically, much larger, more restful and more varied than its actual dimensions would suggest, with the result that a comparatively small house or office not only appears much bigger than it is but also serves a greater number of functions. For these reasons, architecture since Wright has been different from before, a fact that secures his position as America's greatest designer and one of the leading architects of all time.

In addition, no matter how large or small the building, Wright supervised almost every detail of the exterior and interior design. As to the latter, for instance, he designed a huge range of different furniture, carpets, unusual glass windows, and lights, and was one of the first architects in America to design and supply purpose-built furniture and fittings. He was also highly innovative in his use of new building materials, including precast concrete blocks, glass bricks, zinc rather than lead cames for his windows, as well as novel glass lampshades.


Architectural Apprenticeship

Born Frank Lincoln Wright in the rural community of Richland Center, Wisconsin, Wright changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd in honour of his mother's family, following the divorce of his parents in 1885. While working summers on his uncle's farm he acquired his deep respect for nature, natural materials and the agrarian way of life. He never attended architecture school, learning instead by apprenticeship with architectural firms in Chicago: first with J.L. Silsbee, who specialized in revivalist Gothic architecture and other Victorian styles; then for nearly six years with Adler & Sullivan, after which he entered private practice in 1893. His subsequent career, primarily devoted to residential architecture, divides into three periods of approximately 25 years each.

For details of European designers active at the turn of the century, see: Joseph Olbrich (1867-1908); Victor Horta (1861-1947); Hector Guimard (1867-1942) and Peter Behrens (1868-1940).

First Period (c.1890-1914): Prairie School Architecture

The first period, reaching maturity in 1900 and continuing until World War I, was characterized by the so-called Prairie house. These long, low buildings, with broadly overhanging low-pitched roofs and often without an attic or basement, integrated comfortably into the flat prairie landscape on the outskirts of Chicago, their rows of casement windows and extended wall surfaces emphasizing the horizontal dimension and thus helping create a powerful and restful sense of repose. Materials were of the region, the woodwork being neither planed nor painted, only stained against the weather. The new Prairie design - for which Wright borrowed a number of ideas from Japanese art and architecture - created a connection between the house's inside and outside, that was unknown to western architecture.

Wright's first successful house design was for William H. Winslow House (1893) in River Forest, Illinois. This attracted the attention of Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), former pupil of William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) and the most influential architect in Chicago, who tried and failed to headhunt Wright as principal designer for Burnham and Root, offering a 4-year education at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as a sweetener. Other examples of Wright's pre-Prairie House architecture included: Heller House (1896) and Rollin Furbeck House (1897). These were followed by the first mature examples of the new style - the Ward Willits House (1901), Highland Park, Illinois; the Darwin D. Martin House (1904), Buffalo; the Edwin H. Cheney House (1904), Oak Park, Illinois; the Frederick C. Robie House (1910), Chicago; and the Avery Coonley House (1908), Riverside, Illinois - a design progression that moved increasingly toward greater abstraction. In addition, he also designed more traditional homes for his more conservative clients. These included: These included Bagley House (1894), a Dutch Colonial Revival style residence; Moore House I (1895), a Tudor Revival style house; and Charles Roberts House (1896), a Queen Anne style residence.

Near the end of this period Wright built Taliesin, his own home and studio, at Spring Green, Wisconsin. In non-domestic Prairie architecture, he strove for greater monumentality while inventing powerful yet beautifully integrated forms that expressed the diverse functional parts of the building: the Larkin Administration Building (1904), Buffalo; and Unity Temple (1908), Oak Park, Illinois, being the best-known examples. Unity Temple, the most abstract and block-like of Wright's early designs, is thought to have been inspired by Wright's childhood use of Froebel kindergarten toys, which could be assembled to form three-dimensional shapes.

Wright did not work in isolation but was at the head of a vital and highly creative movement known as the Prairie School. It included Robert C. Spencer, Jr, Myron Hunt, Dwight H. Perkins, and Marion Mahony, who also designed leaded glass windows, light fixtures and furniture for Wright's houses. These were the years of the Arts and Crafts movement and Craftsman and Mission furniture, as well as the California bungalow, all of which were interrelated with the Prairie School and, like it, succumbed to the new wave of conservatism and revivalism that followed World War I. However, a number of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural principles had a significant influence on Europrean architects, including Le Corbusier (1887-1965) as well as designers at the Bauhaus Design School, founded by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in Weimar.

Second Period (c.1914-35): Experimentation, Textile Block Houses

During Wright's second period - which began with the tragic axe murders of his mistress Mamah Cheney, her children and four others, at Taliesin, which was then destroyed by fire and lasted until the mid-1930s - he executed few commissions apart from the Imperial Hotel (1915-22), Tokyo, which he had designed before the war. These years, however, proved immensely inventive as he explored and developed a whole new grammar of architectural forms and structures based on geometric shapes other than the square and rectangle: acute and obtuse angles, octagons, hexagons, circles and arcs.

Among his experiments were the "textile block houses" he designed and built during the 1920s, on the hills of Los Angeles. Inspired in part by Pre-Columbian art, these structures used precast concrete blocks with a patterned, exterior surface, decorated with geometric motifs and joined to one another using steel attachments. Designed so as to be well protected from the outside heat, with internal shaded patios and areas of water, well-known examples include the Alice Millard House, Pasadena; the John Storer House, West Hollywood; the Samuel Freeman House, Hollywood; and the Ennis House in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles.

This period of experimentation provided him with an entirely new vocabulary that he exploited during the final quarter century before his death in 1959, the spiral Guggenheim Museum (1943-59), New York, being the best known example.

The 1920s and early 1930s saw him turn increasingly to the written word, and in 1932, at the age of 65, he published An Autobiography, which, along with his other articles, books and lectures, introduced a new, nationwide audience to his ideas and brought him an increasing number of clients and commissions. That same year he founded the Taliesin Fellowship for training young architects.

Third Period (c.1936-59) Johnson Wax Building, Usonian House, Fallingwater, Price Tower, Guggenheim

Wright's third great period began in 1936 with three stunningly different designs - Fallingwater (1936); the Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower (1936, 1944), Racine, Wisconsin; and the Paul R. Hanna House (1936), Stanford, California.

Usonian House

He also returned to the problem of the small, single-family house, and, while incorporating all of the spatial ideas originally invented for the Prairie house, he produced a much more modest type known as the Usonian house, a name derived from "United States of North America." Usonian houses were flat-roofed structures, without attic or basement, built on gridded concrete slabs. Typically, they featured sandwich walls with wood siding and plywood cores, and small kitchens ("workspaces") adjoining the dining area. Living areas featured built-in seating and tables, and the focus (as in Prairie Houses) was the fireplace. Wright built dozens of different types of Usonian house, beginning in the mid-1930s. An early prototype is the Malcolm Willey House, Minneapolis (1934), but the Usonian ideal reached maturity in the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House, Madison, Wisconsin (1937). Later versions included the Gregor S. and Elizabeth B. Affleck House, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1941), and the Hanna-Honeycomb House (1937) in Palo Alto.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The New York Guggenheim Museum (1959), one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous piece of architecture took 16 years to finish (1943–1959), and sparked a huge debate as to whether art museums should merely present artworks or constitute a work of art in their own right. The building's unique spiral layout was intended to allow visitors uninterrupted viewing of the museum's chronological collection of abstract art, by strolling down the circular ramp. Unfortunately, some temporary displays are currently designed to be viewed by walking up the curved walkway! The illusionist exterior of the museum features a widening concrete coil which appears to grow larger with height, and bulges restlessly, which only adds to the impression that the building is somehow alive.

Price Tower

One of two important skyscrapers designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - the other is the Johnson Wax Research Tower in Racine - the 19-story Price Tower (1956) was commissioned by Harold C. Price of the H. C. Price Company, a local oil pipeline and chemical firm. Wright was one of the few skyscraper architects to reject the minimalism and rectilinear geometry of the Modernist style, and so produced a uniquely faceted design for this concrete and copper building. In addition, the tower featured a new structural system which employed a reinforced concrete and a core system of cantilevering that permitted a more flexible layout of floor space and an exterior which was quite different from the square or rectangular modernist box.

Wright was so dismissive of the "International Style", championed by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and the Second Chicago School of architecture, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, that he nicknamed the latter's owners Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings and John Merrill "three blind mies!"


During his long career, Wright received numerous honours and awards for his pioneering designwork. They included Gold Medal awards from both The American Institute of Architects (1949) and The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1941. He was also awarded the Franklin Institute's Frank P. Brown Medal in 1953. In 2000, in an informal poll at the AIA convention in Philadelphia, Fallingwater, his famous Prairie house, was named "Building of the 20th century". In the poll, Wright featured alongside many of the USA's top architects including Eero Saarinen (1910-61), I.M. Pei (b.1917), Louis Kahn (1901-74), Philip Johnson (1906-2005) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), but was the only architect with more than one building on the list. The other Wright buildings cited were the Guggenheim Museum, the Robie House and the Johnson Wax Building.

Now regarded as one of the greatest architects of the modern era, Wright's unique contribution to modern art consists of his revolutionary 'open-plan' design for houses, combined with his use of natural resources - features which have become the basis of 20th century residential architecture around the world. He set a clear example to his contemporaries, who were perhaps overly impressed with European design styles, that American traditions were more than capable of supplying innovative solutions in the field of domestic and public architecture.

Other Famous American Architects

Greek Revival
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)

William Thornton (1759-1828)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)

Gothic Revival
Richard Upjohn (1802-78)
James Renwick (1818-95)

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)

Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

Early High-Rise Buildings
Chicago School of skyscraper architecture (c.1880-1910)

Twentieth Century Tower Design
Fazlur Khan (1929-82)

Postmodernist Deconstructivism
Frank O. Gehry (b.1929)

• For more about Prairie School architecture in the United States, see: Homepage.

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