Born in 1867, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright spanned seven decades, creating some of the most innovative spaces—designing over 1100 architectural works of all types, of which 532 were realised. Eight of them were designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 2019, such as Falling Water, Guggenheim Museum and Unity Temple.
It is said that Wright changed the way people build and live, by his sensitive use of materials, and pioneered ‘organic architecture’ referring to buildings that created a harmony with their environments. His works were characterised by the deployment of ornamental detail, earthy colours and rich textural effects.
Falling Water is an abstract of a forest with the vertical lines replacing the trees and horizontal lines replacing the bushes and rocks. The water flowing inside the building shows that man and man made can be part of nature itself, showing Wright’s sense of abstraction.
No wonder, in 1991, the American Institute of Architects called him ‘the greatest American architect of all time’. Wright himself paraphrased his architecture by saying: ‘ The mission of an architect is to help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one for living in, and to give reason, rhyme, and meaning to life’.
In his early years, his architectural style, which was intrinsically American, was referred to as the ‘Prairie Style’, with buildings like ‘Robie House’ which had horizontal lines and long, low roofs embodying the country’s landscape.
Subsequently, as the Great Depression enveloped the economy, Wright developed the Usonian house concept, which enabled affordable housing and a simplified approach to residential construction. Thus, Wright created a living environment that was affordable, enjoyable and beautiful; and he continued designing Usonian houses for the rest of his life, but here again he brought in variations to reflect the tastes and budgets of a diverse variety of clients.
Even though Wright adapted his designs to the times he lived and in synch with the socio-economic environment, there is no denying his vision and the timelessness of his creations. For instance, The Google Cultural Institute have teamed up with New York City’s iconic Guggenheim Museum, designed by Wright, to open its doors through Street View.
Guggenheim Museum is a building where the ramp acts as both the walkway and the display gallery with an atrium defying Human scale and gives a sense of wonder. The building itself is a masterpiece enclosing masterpieces of many artists.
At the age of 65, Frank Lloyd Wright brought out two publications, An Autobiography and The Disappearing City. While his autobiography was well-received and still continues to inspire generations of young architects, the second outlined his futuristic vision for decentralization that encouraged a movement from the city into the country, which decades later would influence community development.
Robie House. Designed as two large rectangles that seem to slide past one another, the long, horizontal residence that Wright created for 28-year-old Frederick Robie, boldly established a new form of domestic design: the Prairie style.
His autobiography contains an interesting anecdote about his mother, Anna Lloyd, who while expecting her child announced that he would grow up to build beautiful buildings; and she decorated his nursery with engravings of English cathedrals. When he was about 9 years old, Anna, a trained teacher, introduced him to a set of educational blocks known as Froebel Gifts. Young Frank spent a lot of time playing with the blocks which were geometrically shaped and could be assembled in various combinations to form three-dimensional compositions. Many of Wright’s buildings are known for their geometrical symmetry. He acknowledges these influences in his design philosophy: ‘For several years, I sat at the little kindergarten table-top… and played… with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks… All are in my fingers to this day...’
Taliesin is Wright’s estate – constructed as his home and studio and built atop the Wisconsin hill close to his grandparents’ former home.
His personal life witnessed various tribulations—he made headlines leaving his first wife, Catherine Lee Tobin and their children for Mamah Borthwick, a client. Tragically, Mamah, her two children and four others were killed in a fire set by an employee at his Taliesin estate. Later this was followed by a tempestuous marriage with his second wife, Miriam Noel; and his subsequent relationship with Olga Lazovich, who became his third wife. Olga provided the stabilizing influence he needed in order to refocus on “the cause of architecture” he had begun decades earlier.
The last decade of his life featured a large international exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright: Sixty Years of Living Architecture, traveling to Florence, Paris, Zurich, Munich, Rotterdam, and Mexico City, before returning to the United States for additional venues. Despite being in his eighties, Frank Lloyd Wright extensively continued his pursuits like travelling, lecturing, and writing; making frequent trips to New York to oversee construction of the Guggenheim Museum. In April 1959, suddenly stricken by an illness, he passed away.
Wright committed his life to creating a total aesthetic style of architecture which could be genuinely transformative, and enhance society’s well being. ‘Above all integrity,’ he would say: ‘buildings like people must first be sincere, must be true.’ Architecture was not just about buildings, but about nourishing the lives of those within them.
(Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect with experience in practising & teaching architecture, and co-founder of SIDART Photography.)