Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most revered architect, was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867. His parents had reputations of being strong-willed and quirky. When Wright was in utero, his mother declared that this child would grow up to construct beautiful buildings.
She decorated his nursery with illustrations of English cathedrals torn from periodicals. She purchased a set of children’s educational blocks called Frobel Gifts; these geometrical blocks could be arranged in various combinations to form three-dimensional constructions. Wright spent a lot of time experimenting with these blocks as a young child, and he later wrote about their influence in his autobiography. His architecture is indeed renowned for its geometrical clarity.
Wright’s parents divorced when he was 14. His father left, never to return. So Wright assumed financial responsibility for his mother and two younger sisters.
Though Wright never attended high school, he was admitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1885. He enrolled part-time for two semesters, while serving as an apprentice with a local builder and civil engineering professor. He left the university in 1887 without a degree to move to Chicago.
Chicago was still rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Wright joined the architectural firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, but left within a year for Adler & Sullivan. He built his first home in Oak Park, Illinois, plus a home for his mother; he added a studio later. In 1889 he married his first wife, Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin. By 1890 he was responsible for all of the firm’s residential design work.
Wright left Adler & Sullivan in 1893, as they discovered he had been accepting private commissions to better support his family. These privately commissioned homes are called Wright’s “bootleg” designs; they’re located on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park near the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.
Wright quickly established his own practice. From 1900 to 1917, Wright designed Prairie Houses; this is known as his Prairie period. This architectural style features extended low buildings with shallow, sloped roofs; clean sky lines; suppressed chimneys; overhangs; terraces; and unfinished materials. These residences are called Prairie Houses, as the design complements the land surrounding Chicago. These homes exhibit the very first open floor plans.
Examples of Wright’s Prairie Houses include the Darwin D. Martin House, the George Barton House and the William Heath House, all in Buffalo, New York; the Unity Temple in Oak Park; and his own residence, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. These residences display Wright’s bold manipulation of interior space, plus his belief that humanity should be the keystone of all architectural design.
The Westcott House, built between 1907 and 1908 in Springfield, Ohio, signified a pivotal point in Wright’s career. This home combines the Prairie style with Wright’s passion for Japanese art and culture, embodying traits common to traditional Japanese design.
Other residences that are considered masterpieces from his late Prairie period are the Frederick Robie House in Chicago, plus the Avery and Queene Coonley House in Riverside. The Robie House features soaring, cantilevered roof lines supported with a 110-foot long steel channel; its living and dining areas share one large open space.
This residence is sometimes hailed as the “cornerstone of modernism.” It deeply influenced upcoming European architects following World War I.
Wright’s designs were born of his devotion to organic architecture, which naturally evolves from the surrounding environment. For example, homes built in wooded areas utilized wood; homes built in deserts incorporated stone; homes built in rocky areas such as Los
Angeles featured cinder block. This devotion to organic architecture infused even the smallest of details, including windows, doors, contemporary furniture, carpets, light fittings and decorative elements.
Wright was one of the first architects to design custom-made contemporary furniture and fittings that functioned as integral components of the overall architectural design. His earlier clients often commissioned him to return and design internal elements. His Prairie Houses incorporated themed, coordinated design elements, usually based on plant life, that are repeated in windows, carpets and other décor details. “I believe a house is more a home by being a work of art,” he said.
Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first architects to design custom-made light fittings, including some of the first floor lamps. He utilized the spherical glass lampshade, which was quite novel at the time due to the restrictions of gas lighting.
Some of the built-in contemporary furniture remains in the homes he designed. Some restorations feature replacement pieces produced using his plans.
Wright’s Prairie contemporary furniture designs are still being produced today exclusively by one manufacturer, based on original drawings. Prairie furniture is reminiscent of Mission or Arts and Crafts furniture styles.
Pieces include The Barrel Chair from Teliesin; the Robie Tabouret from the Frederick C. Robie House, which functions as a seat, tea table or ottoman; The Occasional Chair, Plant Stand and Buffet from the Dana-Thomas House; the Hall Table from the E.E. Boynton House; and the Oak Park Spindle Box Seating sofa and loveseat. Wright’s contemporary furniture designs reflect his fondness of gathering with friends and students, as well as relishing solitude with his books. One can also find nesting end tables, beds, dressers and chests based on Wright’s exquisite designs.
Wright’s projects following the Prairie period include the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, 1923; Graycliff Estate in Derby, New York, 1926; and Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1939. The famous Fallingwater was designed to place the occupants as close to natural surroundings as possible; a waterfall runs beneath a portion of the building.
In the 30s, Wright designed Usonian residences. They were intended to be practical for middle-class owners, and their design focused on simple yet elegant geometry. Suburban development was based on such Usonian design, with open floor plans, slab-on-grade foundations and simplified construction techniques. Wright boldly used new building materials such as precast concrete blocks, glass bricks and even Pyrex glass tubing.
Wright utilized glass more frequently as the glass industry developed during his career. He likened glass to the mirrors of nature: lakes, rivers and ponds. He would place glass panes side by side along entire walls, aspiring to achieve a balance between airiness and the solidity of hard walls. His most well-known art glass hails from the Prairie period, when he composed intricate windows with simple geometric shapes.
Perhaps the most famous specimen of Wright’s architecture is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, built from 1943 to 1959. It’s a large beige spiral on Fifth Avenue, and the interior is
reminiscent of the interior of a seashell. Wright intended for visitors to ride an elevator to the top floor, then descend the central spiral ramp to view artwork. The ramp is embedded with circular shapes and triangular light fixtures.
Wright built 363 homes, about 300 of which survive as of 2005. He passed away on April 9, 1959 at age 91.
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