Frank Lloyd Wright: Innovator in American Architecture
“…having a good start, not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but fully intend to be the greatest architect who will ever live. Yes, I intend to be the greatest architect of all time.” – Frank Lloyd Wright 1867-1959
It appears that from the very beginning, Frank Lloyd Wright was destined by fate or determination to be one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century. Not only did Wright possess genius skills in the spatial cognition, his approach to architecture through geometric manipulation demonstrates one aspect of his creativeness. Forever a great businessman, Wright seemed to know how to please his clients and still produce some of the most innovative and ridiculed buildings of the early century. While the United States appeared to be caught up in the Victorian style, Frank Lloyd Wright stepped out in front to face the challenge of creating “American architecture” which would reflect the lives of the rapidly growing population of the Midwest United States. Howard Gardner in his book “Creating Minds” does not make any mention of Frank Lloyd Wright, an innovator who drastically influenced architecture of the twentieth century around the world.
Born in 1867 Wisconsin, Frank Lincoln Wright grew up in the comfort and influence of a Welsh heritage. The Lloyd-Jones clan, his mother’s side of the family, would have great influence on Frank throughout his life. Unitarian in faith, the extended family lived within close proximity to each other thus enabling a strong support system for those born or married into the clan. Great themes within the Lloyd-Jones clan included education, religion, and nature. Wright’s family spent many evening listening to William Lincoln Wright read out loud the works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Blake. Uncle Jenkins was the family minister while Aunts Nell and Jane would open a school of their own which following the philosophies of, German educator, Froebel. With truth and unity stressed, Wright was brought up in a comfortable, but certainly not warm household. His father, William, moved from job to job, dragging his family across the United States. Financial troubles plagued the William Wright family and eventually they would return to the support of the Lloyd-Jones clan in the hills of Wisconsin. Despite reluctance from the clan, his parents divorced when Frank was still young. Wright would change his middle name to Lloyd. His mother, Anna (Lloyd-Jones) Wright, relied heavily upon her many brothers and sisters to help raise her children. Frank spent many hours working in the fields with his uncles, and was intellectually guided by the Aunts and his mother. Before her son was born, Anna had decided that her son was going to be a great architect. Using Froebel’s geometric blocks to entertain and educate her son, Anna appears to have struck on a genius her son possessed. Use of the imagination was encouraged and Wright was given free run of the playroom filled with paste, paper, and cardboard. On that door were the words, SANCTUM SANCTORUM. Wright would have his self-promotion (demonstrated by the opening quote), along with his mother’s support, pushing him to achieve great things in the field of Architecture for decades to come. Frank was seen as a dreamy and sensitive child, and cases of him running away while working on the farmlands with some uncles are recorded. This pattern of running away appears to continue throughout his lifetime.
FIRST BREAK: CHICAGO
In 1887, at the age of twenty, Frank Lloyd Wright, broke from the comfort of his childhood in Wisconsin and moved to Chicago. Chicago during the late nineteenth century was an exciting place. The fire of 1871 destroyed most of the old city allowing for it to be rebuilt in the new industrial age. Skyscrapers were the all the rage in architecture, using steel and glass to create “shrines” piercing the sky. This complimented the trend in residential homes where Victorian influence created pointed gables, lace-like ornamentation, plaster walls, and wooden structures. With education in Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Wright found a job as a draftsman in a Chicago architectural firm. It is rumored that Uncle Jenkins (the family minister), now in Chicago guiding a growing Unitarian community, helped his nephew Frank to find the position. During his short time with Silsbee, Frank began his first project, the Hillside Home for his Aunts Nell and Jane. Maybe because he wanted to break away from the Lloyd-Jones clan’s aid, or because he was impatiently moving forward, Frank left his first job within a year and found a position with one of the best known firms in Chicago at the turn of the century, Alder ; Sullivan . Sullivan was to become Wright’s greatest mentor. With the new industrial age, came a growing suburban population, and a division between home and work. While the firm of Alder & Sullivan concentrated on the demand for downtown commercial buildings, Wright was assigned the residential contracts. His work soon expanded as he accepted jobs outside the firms assigning. Sullivan discovered this in 1893 and called Frank on a breach of contract. Rather than drop the “night jobs”, Wright walked out of the firm. Once again, Wright would leave the confines of comfort to strike out for himself.
THE ARCHITECT ON HIS OWN
Using the Lloyd-Jones’ philosophies of unity, truth, harmony, and simplicity; and Sullivan’s approach of “form follows function”, Wright quickly built up a practice in residential architecture. At one point in his career, Wright would produce 135 buildings in ten years. Patience, concentration, attention to detail, and constant revision marked Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in the studio; things that would be lacking in his personal relationships. Many stated that Wright had a great amount of nervous energy, and allowed no interference or suggestions from his clients. Wright took an integral approach to architecture by designing the interior furnishings of the building as well as the structure. He seemed to possess a skill of site memorization, and would visit the grounds sometimes only once before creating a building which blended with and complimented the site. His own houses were continuing experiments, especially the first one in Oak Park to which his studio was attached. Using nature as inspiration and geometric abstraction, both obvious influences from his childhood in Wisconsin, Wright created a unique type of architecture which would become known to the general public as the Prairie style. Marked by horizontal lines, this form would dominate his work from 1900-1913. Wright included the technology of the cities into the suburban residences of his design. Wright would continue to pass through at least two more recognizable stages in his architectural design, the textile block (1917-1924), and the Usonian (1936-1959).
In 1909 Wright took off for Europe, once again walking out of a comfortable home life including a wife and six children and a well established business. His European travels brought him fame across the sea at a greater level than that he had received in his native homeland. Wright did not stay long in Europe, returning in 1910 to Chicago and Wisconsin where he began construction on his second home, Taliesin in 1911. The year 1913 brought Frank a contract for Midway Gardens in downtown Chicago, an entertainment park on the south side of Chicago which exists today only in the original plans and drawings. In 1914 disaster struck Wright’s personal life and work on one fateful day, when Taliesin, completed by this time, burned and his present mistress, her two children, and four of Wright’s leading workmen, were murdered by a raging servant. Wright again ran away. This time it was across the Pacific to Japan.
THE SECOND ERA
The Imperial Hotel project provided Wright with an engineering problem as well as an architectural challenge. Finished in 1922, the Imperial hotel was criticized for its aesthetic design, but when it survived a 1923 earthquake, which left the majority of Tokyo in rubble, it found praise. Wright had managed to design a “floating foundation” for the building which combined oriental simplicity, in modern world comfort. This was one of the few periods in Wright’s life were his financial situation was at a positive level. Returning to the United States in 1922, Wright pursued the use of a new material in residential homes, concrete. Most of these “textile block” houses were built in California with a Mayan and Japanese influence. Though some claimed that Wright had peaked in 1910, with the Prairie houses, others claimed that in 1924 Wright’s development was only just beginning.
A 1932 autobiography sparked new interest in the architect and pulled Wright out of a plateau in his work with two of his most famous buildings: Fallingwater, Edgar J. Kaufmann’s home in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, and the Johnson Wax Company Administration Building in Racine,Wisconsin. Wright’s last “style”, Usonian, was caused by a shift in society in the 1930’s. Adapting architecture to the simple and economically tight lives of families in the 1930’s, Wright used down scaling to bring the house to a more appropriate human level and reflect the informal and comfortable lives of the average American family. The Wright Fellowship was opened in 1932, welcoming apprentices to live, learn, and work at Taliesin, an idea comparable to that of a medieval manorial estate, and reflective of Aunt Nell’s and Aunt Jane’s Hillside House. Wright taught principles and philosophies of architecture, not a style. Many apprentices came out of the large, caring, and often chaotic community to complete successful career’s in the world of architecture. During the thirties, Wright formed a social vision, associating the evils of society with the modern city. This was expressed through his design of Broadacre City, a section of an idealistic decentralized and restructured nation resembling not a city and not an agrarian community, but something in between. Wright continued to produce work into the forties and fifties including houses, churches, theaters, and stores. The Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is said by some to be his last great work, as he passed away in April 1959, six months before the museum opened. Wright left behind hundreds of plans that are being pursued today. Ground breaking for Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin occurred not three months ago. This Wright design, conceived fifty years ago, includes government offices, an auditorium, and rail terminal all in one mammoth civic center.
THE CREATIVE GENIUS
By the time of his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright had produced architecture for more than seventy years. What is even more remarkable is that Wright had redesigned American architecture for at least a century and created an area of the domain which America could claim as it’s own. As early as 1894, Wright was defining his philosophy of architecture. In a 1927 essay entitled “In the Cause of Architecture” Wright presented an outline stressing architectural design as truthful and obedient to purpose, site, occupants, and materials. He believed that buildings should be integral units, simple, unique, serving civilization and eliminating the “box” effect of the past. Space in Wright’s design was fluid, free, and informal. His scales were brought down to create comfort for the occupants and a feeling of oneness with the house and the natural settings. Wright used materials which would blend the house into the setting, and limited the variety of materials within a project. Stone, brick, wood, stucco, concrete, copper, and glass were all manipulated by Wright in a distinct way, that had never been done before. His exteriors and interiors of a buildings varied little, as he philosophized that one should move naturally into a shelter, feeling a certain flow rather than an abrupt transition. Wright often used the colors of autumn in the Midwest, however red was his signature especially in 1930’s. For light he relied heavily upon the sun’s power, and many of his building included skylights or subtle electrical lighting. The ornamentation should compliment all this, not distract from it . Treating the building as a integral unit, Wright often designed down to the littlest detail including all dining ware, furniture, and statues. His geometric designs were interpretations of nature. In furniture, textiles, and accessories, all designed by Wright, simplicity, respect for nature, and dignity if the individual was considered. His was an architecture of democracy for an era of political freedom. It is apparent Wright felt no constraints from the popular culture and faced harsh criticism many times for his works.
RELATIONSHIPS OF WRIGHT
Like many of Howard Gardner’s choices in his book “Creating Minds”, Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life, proved to be chaotic in comparison to his professional one. Although Frank’s father failed to contribute much stability to his childhood, he did provide Frank with exposure to a wide musical background which later fed Frank’s interest and appreciation of classical composers. Later on Wright would make comparisons to music and architecture in relation to the mathematical aspects of both. Women appeared to be both blessings and curses throughout Wright’s life. Anna Wright’s support and devotion to her son made up for the instability caused by the continuous financial problems and uprooting. This love of Anna’s proved troublesome for Frank later in life as she saw any other woman to be a rival and treated them so. Anna followed Frank to Chicago after he had become established in his Oak Park house with his wife Catherine Tobin, or Kitty. Kitty and Frank had married in 1889 despite protest from both families saying they were to young. Kitty was described as practical and mature for her eight-teen years. For 20 years they lead a quite life in Oak Park along with their six children. It was hard for Kitty to admit that the marriage was over when Frank left for Europe in 1909 with his new mistress, Mamah Cheney. Kitty would not grant Frank a divorce until 1923.
Mamah Cheney ushered in not only a new personal life for Wright, but a change in his architectural work. Mamah Cheney was the wife of one of Wright’s former clients. Some say the affair started while Wright was working on a home for the Cheney’s. Intellectual, individualistic, and eccentric, Mamah proved to be quite a contrast to Kitty’s personality. It was discovered that while in Europe, Wright and Mamah had registered as Mr. and Mrs. Wright. Expectedly this caused a scandal in the States. Mamah officially moved into Taliesin in 1913. On August 15th, 1914 Wright received a call in his office at Midway Garden’s sight. Taliesin was burning and Mamah had been murdered.
Wright received many letters of condolence as his love and his home lay in ashes. One letter he received was of particular importance. Maude (Miriam) Noel had written Frank around Christmas of 1914 offering sympathy for his disaster by relating them to hers. They met in person soon after and a summer at Taliesin in 1915, was followed by Miriam escorting Frank to Japan for his work on the Imperial Hotel. When the Hotel was completed they returned to the States and in 1923, after being officially granted a divorce, Wright married Miriam. She was his second wife. Their time together was not blissful by any means. Miriam’s addiction to morphine is often thought to be the cause of bouts of maniac fantasy. She left Wright in 1924, less than one year after their marriage.
Olgivanna Hinzenburg came into Frank Lloyd’s life in November of 1924 when they met at a ballet. Olgivanna was a member of the Gurdjieff movement and was born in Montenegro, Yugoslavia. It is speculated that Wright was attracted to the exotically alien background of Olgivanna and her cultural elegance. In 1925 she moved into Taliesin and proved devoted to Wright. The peace and happiness found in their married life did not come easily. They fought for many years against suits wrought upon Wright by the now rejected Miriam. Immigration officers pursued the Olgivanna and her daughter from a previous marriage, Sveltana, claiming the two had broken immigration laws. The situation concluded in 1928 with Wright’s marriage to his third and final wife, Olgivanna Milanoff Hinzenburg. Together they had one daughter, Iovanna, who proved to be the apple of her father’s eye, and built a home, Taliesin West, in Arizona where they lived out their last days together.
SUPPORT WITHIN THE DOMAIN
Wright’s relationships outside of the home differed greatly. When arriving in Chicago in 1887, Wright was not alone in innovative thinking. Social reformer, Jane Addams (Hull House); John Dewey, reformer of education; the historian Frederick Turner, William Jennings Bryan, and Carl Sandburg had all congregated in the Midwestern States, specifically Chicago, by the turn of the century. It was a mecca for independent thinkers and reformers of the times. Wright had contact with many of these leaders and had been a known visitor at Hull House.
Throughout his life Frank Lloyd Wright depended on many individuals to help through his economic troubles. Fortunately Wright had a gift of interpersonal relations. Despite his arrogance and unpredictable ways, Wright had many acquaintances and former customers which would support him even when he proved unable to manage finances. Many of these people would retain friendships with Wright during good times and bad times. Wright loved to entertain.
Louis Sullivan: Lieber Meister
However it was Wright’s second employer that influenced the young architect in a way that would change the course of American architecture forever. Wright referred to him as his “Lieber Meister” and admired Louis Sullivan’s talent for ornamentation, and his skill of drawing intricate plans and designs. Wright picked up on the philosophy of Sullivan and was so loyally devoted to his employer that he soon moved ahead of Alder in importance within the firm. Sullivan was extremely critical of classicism which was appearing across the USA during the 1990’s in reaction the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair exhibits. Wright’s relationship with his employer caused great amounts of tension between Wright and fellow draftsmen, and well as in-between Sullivan and Alder. When Wright left the company, Sullivan’s quantity of contracts declined quickly. Sullivan had reached his peak of innovation, and without a young prodigy to carry it on into the new century, many potential clients turned away. Wright would call on his “Lieber Meister” when Sullivan ran into economic and personal troubles. His international reputation had dwindled by 1920 and Wright found him rejected, ignored, penniless, and dealing with alcoholism. Sullivan died in 1924 without regaining the glory of that the firm held when during Wright’s early years in Chicago.
WRIGHT IN RELATION TO GARDNER’S MODEL
It surprises me that Howard Gardner in his book “Creating Minds” did not choose Frank Lloyd Wright as a subject, let alone mention him. When you compare the life trends of Gardner’s choices and that belonging to Frank Lloyd Wright, it is rather obvious that by Gardner’s standards Wright is a creating mind of the modern era. Beginning in the early stages of childhood, Wright, like others Gardner choices, showed prodigious tendencies which were nourished, later developing from mastery into creative innovation. The development of Wright’s skill and creative output continued throughout his life, which is a rather extraordinary occurrence, since he lived for ninety-two years and produced for over seventy years. This length of time and the rate at which Wright produced buildings, addresses a question raised during the class discussion time of whether a prolific individual has a better chance of hitting on a product considered creative.
Certain trends which I picked up on from Gardner’s model relate directly to Wright’s childhood of comfort rather than warmth including a touch of estrangement, distance from society but not ignorance, a value of learning and achievement, and high expectations for oneself or from another. In reference to the retention of childlike qualities, it could be argued that Wright’s lack of concern in financial situations and his habit of running away from comfortable situation represents this in a negative sense. In a positive light, Wright rejoiced in the creative essence of daily life through his productions. Often his inspirational breakthroughs would not come at night, rather he would be in the fields working or awake in the middle of the night. The concept of marginality also applies to Wright’s case and is best explained by the Lloyd-Jones motto “Truth Against the World” which he placed above the fireplace of his houses. Many of Gardner’s choices went through a period of both religiosity and despondency . Wright’s Unitarian background and his marital behavior are examples of contradictory manners throughout his lifetime. Wright exhibits the pattern of stubbornness, pride, and self-confidence in Gardner’s choices. He often saw himself as a misunderstood and persecuted genius. Wright’s move to Chicago directly coincides with the migration to a metropolis in adolescence where the creative individual found a support group of peers. Often times of Gardner’s choices became isolated from the supportive peers after discovering a problem in the domain, which for Wright could be seen as the popularity of classicism, and his falling out with fellow draftsmen.
It is difficult to pin-point Wright’s creative “breakthroughs” for reasons relating to the field of architecture and to Wright’s personal philosophy that all houses should be site appropriate and unique. Time often passed from the creation of a building on paper and the actuality of it in stone, brick, etc. Also, many of Wright’s designs were created and not built for years or decades. An example of this is a civic center currently under construction in Madison, Wisconsin of Wright design, although the creator passed away three decades ago. Though many of his buildings can be fit into a period of his production, such as the previously mentioned Prairie houses, textile block houses, and the Usonian houses, the period’s (Frank Lloyd Wright refuted that his architecture was about a certain style, rather it reflected a philosophy) edges are gray, and many projects overlapped on creation and production. The trend I recognize in Wright’s development may be comparable to a series of waves. There tends to be a peak where one of Wright’s buildings “defines” the period of architecture that he used as a base, and could be (and sometimes is) considered as the model .
From perusing his personal life I would have to agree that the financial difficulties that continuously faced Wright, and the disasters of his personal relations could be seen as his Faustian bargain. The destruction of Taliesin twice by fire and constant revisions were major burdens placed on Wright’s financial situation because of his creative lifestyle. There appears to be only one period when Wright was financially stable. This was after completing the 4.5 million dollar Imperial Hotel in 1921. It is remarkable that the sometimes devastating financial situations troubled Wright little. Like other creators, he welcomed challenges. Creative life was not supposed to be comfortable for Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was a fighter in relation to his work. Boulton marks Wright’s toleration of disorder at the core of his creative lifestyle.
So again I address the question, why not Wright? The only deviance from Gardner’s model is Wright’s geographic location. While all the other members of Gardner’s model were greatly influenced on the European continent, Wright defied this by creating an American architecture based on the environment surrounding and the lifestyles affecting the people of the United States during the first half of the century. The time frame is right, the geographical position is wrong.
To conclude my study of Howard Gardner’s creative mind model and Frank Lloyd Wright in reference to Howard Gardner’s model, I ask a series of questions. Why did Gardner choose creative geniuses of Europe during this time when it appears that Chicago had the same draw for reformers during the modern era? Specifically in reference to Wright, I wonder what his production would be if he was still alive today. Would Wright’s work have continued to evolve as the lifestyle of the US citizen and the environment surrounding their habitats had changed? What would Wright think about computers roles in the field of architecture and how would he incorporate this new technology into the home? Is it ethical to build a Wright design from the 1930’s in the society of the 1990’s? Would Wright have wanted this? Should those now owning Wright designed homes maintain the decor and at all costs or discomforts should the integration be maintained? The is a question which could be addressed to the work of various creative individuals thorughout time. It is a question of respecting the creative work versus the natural evolution of the domain and deterioration of materials. Would Wright have wanted the houses to be revised with the changing lifestyle ? Did Wright change architecture forever? Most of these questions are being addressed by those in architecture today, and will be for as long as the name of Frank Lloyd Wright is associated with the title of Greatest American Architect.
For further information on Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and works check out these WWW sites: http://flw.badgernet.com:2080/flw.htm or http://www.mcs.com/~tgiesler/flw_home.htm
Boulton, Alexander O. Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect: An Illustrated Biography, Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1993. Color pictures and text following Wright’s personal and professional life.
Gill, Brendan, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1987. Text biography concentrating on Wright’s hidden motivations and true personality.
Heinz, Thomas A., Frank Lloyd Wright: Architectural Monographs No 18, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1992. Color photographs of the interior/Exterior of restored Wright homes.
Lind, Carla, The Wright Style, Simon ; Schuster, New York, 1992. Photographs of Wright’s works, with text discussing his architectural productions and approaches.
Secrest, Meryle, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York, 1992. Text biography of Wright’s work and life.