“I wouldn’t like to change so much the way we live, as what we live in, and how we live in it.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
A pragmatist, technical innovator, and independent thinker, Frank Lloyd Wright designed cities and buildings and their interior furnishings across a prolific 72-year career, reflecting his vision of an ideal American society.
Raised in rural Wisconsin in a family of Unitarians, Wright relocated to Chicago and gained experience in various architectural practices, most notably with Louis Sullivan, who Wright referred to as his “Lieber Meister” (beloved master). In the office of Dankmar Adler and Sullivan, he absorbed an appreciation for technology and engineering—and for Sullivan’s exuberant organic ornament (as in Sullivan’s frieze paneling for the trading room of the former Chicago Stock Exchange, c. 1893).
In 1893, Wright established his independent practice, eventually opening a studio in his home in suburban Oak Park, Illinois, and becoming the leading figure of the so-called Prairie School of architecture. His Ward W. Willits House (1902–03) and Frederick C. Robie House (1908–10) showcased open plans and broad horizontal lines and cantilevers that evoked the expanse of the flat Midwestern landscape. His ideas for an organic architecture were predicated on an integral relationship of a building to its site, and a unity in design of all of its interior furnishings and colorful art glass windows, which he also designed.
While Wright shared the Arts and Crafts movement’s ethos of social reform and art and design having a role in improving society, he drew inspiration from many sources, including nature; Platonic geometric shapes underlying the theory and methods of the 19th-century educator Friedrich Froebel; and the abstraction inherent in the art and architecture of Japan, where he first traveled in 1905. He also embraced a lifelong interest in modern technology and materials, which could be applied toward system-built affordable housing (for example, his series of American Ready Cut Houses and Usonian houses), and which afforded possibilities for dramatic new formal expression, as in the daring cantilevers at Fallingwater, Edgar J. Kaufmann House (1934–37) , the dendriform concrete columns and Pyrex glass tube windows in the S. C. Johnson & Son building, and the central spiral of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943–59).
In 1909, Wright faced personal and professional crises that caused a rupture in his practice. Over the next two decades he spent time in Europe and had studios in Tokyo (where he designed a number of buildings, most notably the Imperial Hotel [completed 1923; demolished 1968]) and Los Angeles, where he produced a series of remarkable concrete block houses. He eventually settled at Taliesin (begun 1911), his home and studio at his family farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and later at a winter home and studio, Taliesin West (begun 1937), in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he established an apprentice program that remains an active school of architecture today.
Wright’s complex relationship with the city and America’s agrarian past reached its most ambitious expression in his visionary, polemical Broadacre City model (1935). The 12' x 12' scale model and its accompanying text panels depicted a four-square-mile section of a utopian, decentralized city, made possible by new developments in transportation and telecommunications. Within a grid of roads and highways, gas stations, houses, schools, factories, shopping centers, and office buildings were dispersed across the landscape—Wright’s antidote to the congested city.
Until his death in 1959, Wright remained prolific. In his many designs for houses, workplaces, and institutions such as schools, churches, and synagogues, he continued to explore materials and to expand his repertoire of planning devices, including designs based on hexagonal grids and circular elements. His efforts to reshape the modern city are evinced by large-scale civic and cultural-center projects for cities from Madison, Wisconsin, to Baghdad, Iraq, and in The Mile High Illinois skyscraper (1956), whose proposed height would far surpass that of any of today's tall buildings.
Note: Opening quote is from Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, “A Man 100 Years Ahead of His Time: Excerpts from the Mike Wallace Interview.” August 20, 2019. https://franklloydwright.org/a-man-100-years-ahead-of-his-time-excerpts-from-the-mike-wallace-interview/.
Peter Reed, Senior Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, 2016