Frank Lloyd Wright: American Architect


Robert Marshall, Architectural Historian

6 April 2011


Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was, by common consent, the leading American architect of his time. A Wisconsin man by birth, he died aged 91 in Phoenix, Arizona. In his very long life, Wright built houses and public buildings across 37 American states, most prominently California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania, but especially Arizona and Wisconsin. Celebrated for his writing and lecturing skills as well as his architectural practice, and for his skills as an interior designer (for example, in furniture and stained glass), Wright’s career as a designer of domestic and commercial buildings was indeed staggering in its scale and energy. In all he designed 532 homes, museums and office buildings, beginning with the unbuilt University Power House, Madison, Wisconsin (1885), and the Unity Chapel at Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1886. His very early collaborator on the Spring Green project was Joseph Lyman Silsbee, for whose architectural firm Wright worked for a time as a draughtsman. Later, he worked for the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan. Wright ended his career with the Lockridge Medical Clinic at Whitefish, Montana, Paul Olfelt’s house at St Louis Park, Minnesota, (both 1958) and the Norman Lykes house near Phoenix, Arizona. This last was begun in 1959, the year of his death, but wasn’t completed until 1968. His final project was the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas, Texas.

Interior of Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium

Eleven posthumous constructions were also built to his designs. The Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Tempe, Arizona, designed in 1959, was actually built quickly in 1962-4. But a large golf course clubhouse in Hawaii, designed in 1947-1957 had to wait until 1988 for completion. The Blue Sky Mausoleum in Buffalo, NY, designed in 1928, was not finished until 2004, while the Rowing Boathouse, also in Buffalo, was 102 years between conception (1905) and completion (2007).  The Scottsdale Spire (Scottsdale, Arizona) designed in 1957, was not finished until 2007. The only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Europe is the Mr and Mrs Gilbert Wieland House at Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Eire, designed and begun in the U.S.A. in 1959, then rebuilt in Ireland by Marc Coleman. Nevertheless, there are Wright structures in Canada, Egypt and Japan, as well as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr Office at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home was designed and built for himself in 1889, when he was 32, and married his first wife, Catherine Lee ‘Kitty’ Tobin (1871-1959).  This is at Oak Park, Illinois. A playroom and kitchen were added in 1895, and the house was remodelled in 1911. In 1974-1987 the house was restored as a memorial museum piece, and like a small number of other Wright domestic projects, is open to the public. 409 of the 532 Wright structures still stand.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio at Oak Park, Illinois  (1889)

Inevitably, in a career of this magnitude, there were a significant number of projects which were never built. The earliest of these, the Lake Tahoe Summer Colony in Utah, date from 1923, and the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland, from 1924. Big un-built hotel and homestead projects cover the years 1929-1956 (seven of them), while a Plan for Greater Baghdad, Iraq, dates from 1957-8.  A cottage studio in Connecticut for the American writer Ayn Rand is also a late un-built work.

Lloyd Wright’s house at Lake Tahoe Summer Colony, Utah  (1923)

In 1893, Wright, under the influence of Louis Sullivan’s ideas, and the Arts and Crafts movement, founded the Prairie School, from, of all places, the new Steinway Hall Building in Chicago. Horizontality and simplicity were the hallmarks of Wright’s new style, and by 1901, he had finished fifty projects. The Hillside Home School, Taliesin Spring Green, Wisconsin, dates from 1902, and the Frederick Robie Home (Chicago) and Queene Coonley House (Riverside, Illinois) date from 1907-9.

Wright’s personal life from 1903 (beginning with a long involvement with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, an early feminist, and wife of a colleague) led to many years of personal turmoil, indeed melodrama and tragedy, which were outside the scope of Robert Marshall’s talk. During the 1920s and 1930s, having built several big houses in the Los Angeles area, Wright developed his ‘Mature Organic Style’. The supreme examples of this were Graycliff, near Buffalo, NY (1926-31), Fallingwater (1934-37) for Mr and Mrs Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr, at Mill Run, near Pittsburgh, PA, and Taliesin West, at Scottsdale, AZ, Wight’s home and laboratory from 1937 to his death. He developed the idea of the ‘Usonian house’ during the 1930s. This was to be built on a concrete slab which incorporated the heating system of the house, had sandwich (insulated) walls, flat roofs, and was without and attic or a basement. The long-term influence of his approach to domestic architecture cannot be overestimated.

Fallingwater Pennsylvania (1939)

Outside the world of private houses, Wright is famous for the Price Tower, a nineteen-storey structure at Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the S.C. Johnson Wax Research Tower at Racine, Wisconsin. From 1948 to 1859, he was involved in designing the celebrated Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Fifth Avenue, New York City, described as ‘a warm beige spiral’ around a central spiral ramp, the floor ‘embedded with circular shapes and triangular light fixtures’ which complement the geometry of the building. The present writer has seen this building at first hand (at the time, the main exhibition was of the work of Claes Oldenburg) and can vouch for its originality, effectiveness, and continued visual impressiveness.

Robert Marshall’s highly-informed talk was illustrated with numerous images of the scores of Wright houses and other projects which he had visited, seen and studied at first hand. These included, of course, Robie House, Fallingwater, Taliesin (Spring Green), the Price Tower, Taliesin West,, the Johnson Wax HQ, and the Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

Dr Robert Blackburn

Text written in 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright in middle life

Frank Lloyd Wright in old age