If you are a lover of architecture and design, then there is one name you’ve heard time and time again. Indeed, it’s the name of the famous American creator, Frank Lloyd Wright, the popular Wisconsinite who didn’t like to adhere to his contemporary ideas of modernism.
Even people outside the industry know his name, which brought him success during (and beyond) his career. That’s because Wright was fearless in sharing his views and creative secrets. One of his most famous interviews is the one with Mike Wallace, a show host that America followed every evening. And one evening in 1957, Wallace invited the architect. Then, design and Wright’s name entered every household. Never to leave again.
A Short Biography
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 in Wisconsin during the industrial boom years. Businesses and workers increasingly left artisanship behind to focus on new techniques, technologies, and materials. His father was a musician and composer, while his mother was a teacher originally from Wales. So, the American creator didn’t come from a design or architectural design. Everything he learned, he learned by doing. Especially since his family struggled financially.
Despite no proof of his graduation from high school, his attendance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1880s is undoubted -although he didn’t complete his studies. So, the American wannabe architect wasn’t wealthy, and he wasn’t a model student. But he was a gifted one.
In fact, even without degrees, Frank Lloyd Wright began his career in Chicago at the end of the 1880s. In the Windy City, which he found chaotic and messy, the Midwesterner started working as a draftsman at the Joseph Lyman Silsbee studio. Later, he moved on to the firm of Adler & Sullivan, where he began getting in contact with bootleg houses and townhouses. However, he was fired from the firm, and the creator from the American Midwest opened his studio in the 1890s.
In the following decades, Wright created his signature style and aesthetic after many trials and errors. He even spent five years working in Japan (1917–1922), leaving his mark on buildings such as the Yodoko Guesthouse and the Hotel Imperial in Tokyo. When he returned to the United States, the creator from the Midwest continued to design iconic buildings all over the country, from Ohio to Florida, until he died in 1959.
Frank Lloyd Wright: More Than Prairie Houses
The Midwesterner was famous for doing things his own way. And everything began with his style, which evolved with the years and worldwide movements. His first concept (and creative reference) was at the Sullivan studio, even though the experience could have been better for Wright. Design experts defined it as the “Sullivanesque ornamentation.”Louis Sullivan had a unique signature, which focused on ideas that later Frank Lloyd Wright would adopt. Some of these concepts included:
- The use of geometrical lines in the design
- Light but necessary ornamentation like terracotta or small sculptures
- Vertical bands of windows
Earlier in his career, the architect from Wisconsin adopted some of these ideas, taking inspiration from simple and clean lines. While his career progressed, so did his style. In fact, Wright was part of the Arts and Crafts movement with other international names such as John Ruskin and William Morris. As the name suggests, this movement encompassed all arts, architecture, and design. Part of the ideology constituted returning to the roots, artisanal craftsmanship, and decoration.
It was a definite departure from the modernist movement, which focused on functionality without any frills. Instead, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright liked the right size, shape, and amount of decorations. Born in the United Kingdom, the Arts and Crafts movement reached the American shores, inspiring creators who didn’t like to conform. Still, the architect from Wisconsin only partially disdained elements of the industrial boom.
This is particularly visible in the materials that Wright used from the very beginning of his career. For example, the Winslow House in River Forest (Illinois) dates back to 1893. The facade reflects the architect’s love for decoration, but the materials, such as concrete blocks and glass, are typically industrial. Indeed, concrete was essential to Wright’s designs; he also created his own system, which he called the “Usonian Automatic” system or, as industry experts call it, the textile concrete block system.
What does it mean? He used precast blocks, which he had reinforced with internal bars to make the blocks more versatile in color and texture. Solid but light. But he also loved to use glass in his buildings to create an indoor/outdoor effect through large expanses of glass between the spaces. These inspirations and elements are visible in Wright’s signature designs and buildings.
The Innovation of The Prairie Houses
There is no doubt that Frank Lloyd Wright invented this unique style, mixing the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement with the possibilities of industrial materials and technologies. All of these houses, no matter where they are and when they were built, have some elements in common:
- Precast concrete blocks
- Zinc for the leadlight windows
- Glass bricks
- Custom-made electric light fittings
- Light decorations in elements such as carpets, windows, and fittings
Every one of these elements had one goal: creating unity, a wholesome space where every element fits like a perfect puzzle. There is a balance in every one of Wright’s Prairie Houses between the solid walls and the lightness of the glass.
So, what is the Prairie style? It featured horizontal lines, solid construction, and flat or hipped rooftops. Plus, a discipline in ornamentation. Not too much, but not too little. These buildings fit perfectly with the landscape without creating chaos or ugly corners. Instead of the frills and decorations of Roman classicism, Wright calculated every move. Instead of modernism’s industrial coldness, Wright chose between cold and warm.
The Prairie Houses were supposed to be authentic, true American style. Some of the most notable examples are:
- Robie House in Chicago, built in 1906. It follows the horizontal lines of Wright’s aesthetic. It also features cantilevered roof shade ribbons of art-glass windows. Inside, the open plan is light-filled and features an indoor/outdoor idea. Surrounded by trees, Robie House is in the heart of the metropolis, but it doesn’t feel like it.
- Taliesin, or going back to the past. The American architect moved back to this town, a familiar place. Here, he built this home, a memory of his Welsh heritage. Once again, the buildings merge with the landscape thanks to the use of local materials like yellow limestone and river sand. Of course, there is the typical open floor plan.
- The Stockman House, built in 1908 in Mason City, is a triumph of Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic. The clean lines appear even cleaner thanks to the colors of the building, a shiny white complemented by the verandah, horizontal bands of windows, and a hipped roof.
- The American architect left his footprints in Michigan with the Meyer May House (1908). This is a two-story building with skylights, perennial gardens, and terraces. It features Wright’s love for glass in the art of glass windows and his passion for decorating geometrically patterned screens and lanterns.
- Wright loved to use nature as a protagonist in his Prairie Houses. And he did so in the Avery Coonley House(1907). With a pond in the outdoor yard, separate wings for everyone, and an overhanging hipped roof, this building is a typical Prairie House.
- A later and more significant project, dating back to 1915, is the Allen-Lambe House in Wichita. It features an enclosed lily pool and garden inspired by his years in Japan. Once again, the ornaments are just the right amount, with the interiors featuring art glass windows, gold leaf coverings, and bookcase doors.
The Prairie Houses are open to visitors: often, the description of these design and architectural masterpieces isn’t enough. Often, it’s better to see them in person to get a feeling of both the place and the mind that created it. While some of Wright’s Prairie Houses are privately owned, others are open to the public. Here are some of the must-see:
- The Meyer May House also offers an online tour. The in-person guided tour is free of charge, and it takes visitors to the interiors as well. The house is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
- The Taliesin House in Spring Green, Wisconsin, offers different types of tours, not just of the house. Visitors can tour the whole estate and even enjoy the landscape, made of green hills and farmland.
- The Robie House in Chicago is the heart of the charming Hyde Park neighborhood, made of colonial houses and city parks. Interesting is the Wright Plus Housewalk, which takes place once a year.
- Finally, design and architecture lovers can tour the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City. Or they can choose to book a room in this unique building designed by Wright, mixing education with pleasure.
These are only some examples of the Prairie Houses designed by the famous architect. But they weren’t his only projects.
Frank Lloyd Wright: The Most Famous Projects
Everything that the American architect designed had his unique signature. Every building is made with concrete blocks, and it features horizontal windows and small yet elegant ornamentation inside. Here are five buildings that have brought him fame and success:
- The Hotel Imperial in Tokyo (1923). Wright’s designs have a new life and aesthetic to this building, which had previously closed down after an earthquake. He chose the alphabet as a theme, with the guest rooms’ wings shaped like an H and the public rooms shaped like an I. While the American architect respected the Japanese aesthetic and culture, he still put his typical touches and finishes, creating a building that went beyond the Prairie Houses.
- The Fallingwater House (1935) in Pennsylvania is a masterpiece that unites indoors and outdoors, a building that seamlessly merges with the landscape of tall trees and waterfalls. The house is built on a 30-foot waterfall and features a series of terraces, balconies, and horizontal concrete elements. It’s a true example of the Wright style, geometrical and luxurious.
- The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1943-1959) features a central nucleus focused on geometrical lines and clear shapes. It’s the perfect place to showcase the museum’s collections while looking down the Adrenalin central spiral ramp.
- The Weltzheimer/Johnson House (1948-1949) in Ohio is nowadays part of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. It respects the architect’s desire to create buildings in a unique American style, featuring terraces, flat roofs, and native materials. This house has an L-shaped plan, the use of redwood, and tall glass walls. While this is no Prairie House, this estate has all the markers of the Wright style.
- The Gammage Memorial Auditorium on the main campus of Arizona State University (ASU) was built in 1964, so it’s one of Wright’s posthumous works. The design follows the architect’s directions, although it has a very different aesthetic, especially compared to the Prairie Houses. It features 50 concrete columns and a round roof. Its colored walls make the auditorium stand out, while the view from the balcony spaces through the ASU campus.
Frank Lloyd Wright created over 400 masterpieces during this long career; these five are only a small slice of a large pie.
In His Own Words
Describing Wright’s aesthetic and heritage isn’t easy. He created something that didn’t exist before. And that, after, no one could replicate. Perhaps he said it better during his interview with Mike Wallace.
“Architecture lies within yourself. Within the nature of the thing that you yourself represent, as yourself. That’s where architecture lies, that’s where humanity lies, that’s where the future we’re going to have lies. If we are ever going to amount to anything—it’s there now, and all we have to do is to develop it.”