Asked to name an influential architect of the 20th century, we are certain that Frank Lloyd Wright would be one of the first to come up. Born just two years after the American Civil War, Wright was very much of a different time. Yet his designs, a few over a hundred years old, seem to speak to us now more than ever; they still make an impact on the way we see and use buildings.
You may wonder why should we make an effort to understand the architect’s work? After all, aren't watches our primary focus? We would venture to suggest that great architecture, and Wright’s work specifically, combines some of the same elements that get us excited about timepieces. Similar ideas of design, proportion, and functionality are at play. In their own ways, important watches and great architecture can be seen as forms of liveable, useable art.
Possibly his most recognisable work, the Guggenheim museum in New York.
For those of you who can remember, last year we conducted an interview with the Art Advisor and watch collector Todd Levin, who owns a Usonian project built by Wright, called the Stuart Richardson House. This glimpse inside the angular home of Levin's led us down a rabbit-hole of Wright’s work and his legacy. In the same way that others have peeled back the layers to explain why the original Royal Oak or the Patek Philippe 2499 have become such icons, we took the opportunity to speak to those far more knowledgeable than ourselves, hoping to offer a glimpse into what makes Wright’s work so impactful.
With a career spanning seventy years, working on everything from small, single residential units to city planning, Wright’s career cannot be defined by one building; although you would be forgiven for instantly picturing the Guggenheim in New York when you hear his name. Wright, as we will explore below, developed uniquely American styles of architecture that not only became synonymous with his work but also deeply affected the way we build our homes and live our lives. Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology, as well as the curator of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibition at the MoMA in New York in 2017, simply says that “the guy was a genius architect”. Of that, we have no doubt. With roughly 400 built structures to his name and close to 1,000 designs, his body of work is an endless resource for inspiration. Indeed, it is a resource that people are looking back on more frequently, with arguably more relevance today, than ever before.
Frank Lloyd Wright showing one of his apprentices, Ling Po, some work at Taliesin West, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Frank Lloyd Wright obviously did not draw every single sketch, nor did he dream-up every aspect of all of his buildings. What he did do, however, is pioneer an approach in building and designing that all of his work followed. While his designs may not have been transplanted into modern architecture, it is his philosophies that seem to be more relevant today than ever before. As Bergdoll puts it, “a lot of his ideas about nature and architecture are ones that have a renewed urgency and relevance today.”
Who was Frank Lloyd Wright?
It can be said that the man was as eccentric and unconventional as his buildings were. Not built for domestic life, Wright attracted his fair share of scandal and rumour. One anecdote goes that he had an affair with the wife of a previous client, which was only discovered due to the windows he had designed being angled, such that the neighbours could see in and witness their extramarital activities.
Frank Lloyd Wright's bedroom at Taliesin, his home and office in Wisconsin.
While this story is only a hearsay, and there are many more like it, it is believed that work remained the architect’s main concern throughout his lifetime. Wright was born to a heavily religious Welsh family and according to Stuart Graff, the President and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, his mother’s side of the family were known as the “God-almighty Lloyd Jones’s”. This may go some way to explain why walking into a Wright house has often been described as a religious experience, although it should be noted that Wright himself was not a particularly religious man.
As Wright’s career progressed and he gained more and more recognition, he began to become a household name. With his fame, he acquired this larger than life status, not just in the design and architecture world, but in the social consciousness of America. He was known for the unwavering self-confidence in his work and his ideas, once stating, “early in life I had to choose, between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and I see no case the change now.” Known to frequently wear an oversized cape, wide-brim hat, and carry a cane, it’s easy to understand why the man himself grabbed peoples’ attention.
His initial recognition came from his instantly recognisable design style. Many refer to it as “organic”, due to the fact that Wright took patterns and structures from nature and incorporated these into how his designs were put together. Instead of drawing a building to resemble a tree, he would identify the building blocks and repeatable patterns that make up the tree and use this to inform his designs.
The architectural drawing of Fallingwater shows how it is built into, and not on top of, the landscape, courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).
We spoke to Jennifer Gray, the curator of drawings and archives at the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University, which now includes the entire Frank Lloyd Wright archive, containing some 1.3 million objects, drawings, and artifacts. Gray mentions that “Wright would take his students out into the desert at Taliesin West to do abstract pattern studies. They would be asked to draw a cactus. Not its form, but the underlying structures that make it up.” We don't imagine that would have been particularly easy, especially in the over 100°F heat of the Arizona desert...
These Natural design elements can be seen in his most recognisable work; from the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim that curves seamlessly into the wall, to the stepped nature of Fallingwater, which seems to become part of the waterfall rather than just sitting astride it. He is often quoted saying that a house should never sit atop of a hill but rather become part of it.
How did he change the world we live in?
While there used to be a school of architecture named after him, you would be hard-pressed to find any active architects that fully sign-up to a Wright method of architecture. He was completely, and remains, unique in his methodology and ideology. However, Gray argues that “many of his ideas of how houses should be built are far more relevant today than they were twenty years ago.” While Wright would not have been designing “green” or “sustainable” houses, he was a fervent supporter of using natural materials that would have been sourced locally to make the house. Graff also adds that “he wanted the beauty of these natural materials to come through, so he wanted the wood to look like wood, concrete to look like concrete, so you could see the aggregate that was in it and, in turn, make that beautiful.”
This technique is on full display in Levin’s Richardson House, which is only made of four materials: brick, red concrete for the flooring, glass and old-growth tidewater cypress wood. The Richardson House is known as one of Wright’s “Usonian” houses. Usonia was the word Wright used for North America, as he felt it capsulated the feeling of the country more than “America”, as that was the name of the whole continent. Calling it that would be overlooking Canada, Mexico and all of South America. Wright’s Usonian houses then were his expression of quintessential American qualities; a country where every man could have a home and a plot of land for his family.
The first example of this comes from the first Jacobs house, or Jacobs First House, or Usonia One as it is also known. It was built for journalist Herbert and his wife Katherine Jacobs, who wanted a house for $5,000, far less than what Wright was used to designing for at the time. This was in the middle of the Great Depression, but instead of dismissing a project with such a low budget, Wright saw it as an opportunity to bring to reality some of the ideas he had worked on in his Broadacre city model.
The Broadacre city model was a project which, if realised, Wright believed would mark the end of the city. He first presented the idea in his 1932 book, The Disappearing City, where he outlines his concept for what we would today call suburbia. He envisioned that each house would have at least one acre of land, with green areas all around it. This wouldn’t just be somewhere for people to live, as there would also be farms and local food production as well as workplaces, all located in the same community. The architect hoped that this would eliminate the need for built-up city blocks and congested highways, which had started to emerge at this time in America.
Wright also believed that architecture and urban planning had the ability to affect how people consumed culture. At this time, in the developed world, most middle-class families had a car, a radio, and a telephone. This meant that you no longer had to be in the city centre to consume culture. Wright’s ideal of a spread-out and spacious plan would allow its residents to interact with nature, while the technology of the day meant they could still consume and be a part of the modern culture they were used to. Little did Wright know just how far technology would advance in the coming century.
Taking these ideals, Wright produced, what many believe to be, the purest of his Usonian forms, the Jacobs House. With an L-shaped footprint, the two-bedroom house was made from a 2 ¼ inch thick plywood sandwich wall, with some bricks supposedly diverted from another of Wright’s buildings to help keep the cost down. This proves that while many of his designs may appear grand and even outlandish, perhaps his most profound work was created when he was restricted in budget. He stripped everything back and stuck to simple ideologies, which might have seemed almost socialist to some. In fact, it is known that he took a trip to the Soviet Union while designing Broadacre and was full of praise for certain aspects of how their society functioned.
The living room of the Jacobs First House.
As we mentioned, the Jacobs House was not one of Wright’s first projects. In fact, Jacobs first met Wright when interviewing him for an article. Before firmly establishing the Usonian style, he was best known for Prairie style houses and large, more grand, public buildings.
The Prairie style was the first revolution that Wright caused in the world of architecture. Disrupting the way that houses had been built in America since the first settlers, he broke up many common conceptions about the homestead, which he saw as being illogical and impractical for living in America in the 20th century. The standard box house that America was known for, moving from the 19th into the 20th century, was severely partitioned and very effective at separating the outside and the inside. As Graff put it, “they were made up of boxes within boxes”. It was Wright’s idea to open these boxes up, to allow you to pass from one space to the next without realising it, as well as letting the outside in, without letting the weather in too.
The long and low profile of the Robie House, taken by James Caulfield, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Chicago
The first embodiment of the Prairie style, and what many believe to be one of the purest expressions of it, is the Robie House that was designed in 1909 and is located in the grounds of the University of Chicago. Not only was Wright responsible for the structure of the house and its layout, but he also designed the furniture, lighting, rugs, and textiles, as he believed that all of these details made the house. In fact, he deemed it impossible to design one without the other. This is also where we see the masterful development of the open plan system of rooms.
The overall structure of this home is what made it stand out when it was first completed in 1909, with its low-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves that protrude past the exterior walls. The Prairie style buildings are also known for integrating into the landscape, instead of dominating it. Take, for example, Wright’s studio in Arizona, Taliesin West. Again, this building has a long and low silhouette, that hugs the rocky landscape in which it resides. This makes the most of the local rocks in the construction, while the large windows let light flood into the workspaces as far as possible.
It was on this site where Wright taught his apprentices, or as they’re sometimes referred to his disciples, and where they would work on projects such as the model of Broadacre city or the entire town of Usonia in New York State. As we mentioned earlier in this article, there were about 400 buildings constructed under Wright’s name and it was thanks to the work of these apprentices that such a high number was reached. It was this scale that is perhaps one of Wright’s most impressive feats.
A perspective of the Guggenheim Museum courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).
The community that he and his apprentices created at Usonia, on 100 acres of wooded land just an hour north of New York City, was aimed at proving his theories of living. Where each household had a plot of land, the houses themselves were small and looked out onto nature. The community interacted thanks to the open layout of the neighbourhood. Dubbed the “Best designed small town in the U.S.” by Architectural Digest, it seemed idyllic at first. The large-scale co-op allowed all of the original residents to live in a house and community that fit their needs and gave them the support which would not have existed had they been in a conventional apartment complex or sleepy neighbourhood – although it wasn’t quite as perfect as Wright had hoped. As the families that moved into these homes began to outgrow them, they moved on, vacating the Usonian structures that turned out to be much harder to sell than they were to build.
With small kitchens and a strict set of unwritten rules that had to be followed when updating and renovating them, prospective families were put off from joining the co-op. Eventually, it became harder and harder to sell these homes as tastes began to shift away from small homesteads to larger, more spacious dwellings with multiple areas in the home for the family to congregate in. The fact that these homes had such small kitchens became such a pinch point for so many owners that most of them have had to be extended.
Was he ahead of his time?
Wright’s homes, whilst stylistically ground-breaking, weren’t always the most practical in construction. They were prone to faulty roofs and never had air conditioning, as “Wright believed in natural ventilation”, Levin tells us. Before he moved into his Wright home, he made sure that a full air conditioning system was sympathetically installed. Even Wright’s most famous designs weren’t immune to these structural flaws. Fallingwater, with its stacked cantilevers, has undergone multiple restorations in its 90-year history. With the balconies deflecting nearly as soon as they were built. There is one famous quote, where a recent client of Wright’s complained about a leaky roof causing water to drop on his head during a dinner party. Wright’s response, “move your chair.”
The inner sanctum of Wright's Unity Temple, taken by James Caulfield courtesy of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation.
These problems with the construction showed that Wright’s designs were probably just ahead of his time. His ideas were often practically strenuous, considering the technical constraints of the period. His engineers and builders would have to dream up new ways to make the components that would go into his buildings. There were plans at one point to build a factory that would produce the materials needed for Usonian homes, allowing them to be made for a much lower cost, however, this never materialised due to Wright’s commitments to bigger and more time-consuming projects later in his life.
Another extreme example of Wright’s designs being ahead of their time was his drawing of the Illinois tower: a mile-high skyscraper that he envisioned for Chicago’s skyline. There was no commission for this drawing, and no client behind it. Bergdoll believes it was purely a piece of public relations, “Wright imagined it and presented it as a kind of polemical gift to the world.” The drawing itself is eight feet long and is often described as a manifesto of architecture due to all of the extra details that Wright included.
A to scale section of the Guggenheim museum showing how the famous spiral would be built, courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).
He listed numbers such as the total occupancy of the tower, 130,000 people, as well as a list of people that Wright admired. These people include Louis Sullivan, one of the first people Wright worked for as an architect, and John Roebling, the civil engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge. These lists sit above the drawing, while at its base Wright has sketched some of the other great, tall structures of the world. From the Washington monument to the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. Bergdoll describes this as “a sort of World’s Fair at the bottom with this pantheon of great men, architects and engineers at the top.” Bergdoll believes that this drawing also has a second purpose: “this, ultimately, is Wright’s last autobiography”. He wrote a formal one in the 1930s, which he amended a few times, “but this” Bergdoll argues “is how Wright wants to be seen in the future, as a landmark in the history of architecture.”
Where can you see his legacy today?
The work of Frank Lloyd Wright has captured imaginations for over 100 years, and it seems to be more captivating than ever right now. Some of his buildings have reached levels of fame far beyond what any could have imagined, with the Ennis House being a notable example. A house that historians have dubbed as being made in the “Aztec revival style”, or in Wright’s “Textile style”, it uses a series of patterned concrete blocks for its exterior and many of its interior walls. This house is so eye-catching that it has an IMDb page longer than most working actors, with over 90 titles to its name. Most notably, Blade Runner made use of the property as Deckard’s house. Although the actual house itself was only used for exterior shots, they recreated the interior on a sound stage to shoot everything else.
Ennis House in its dramatic surroundings overlooking LA, courtesy of Hilton Hyland.
Inside the Aztec theme continues, courtesy of Hilton Hyland.
Another of Wright’s textile block buildings was used in the popular television series Westworld, as the set of Arnold’s and Bernard’s home. The Millard House, or La Miniatura, is located in Pasadena and the repeating, Aztec like blocks paired with the overgrown horticulture outside seem to create the perfect otherworldly setting for the show. The Marin County Civic Center also graced the silver screen as the backdrop and inspiration for a lot of Naboo in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The Sci-Fi link doesn’t stop there, however, for this building as it was also used as a set in the 1997 film Gattaca.
Film and television are not the only ways you can experience Wright’s work, however. While many of his buildings that are still standing are public, allowing you to just walk right in and have a look around, many are still in private hands. If you want to visit the home of where Wright brought life to so many of his ideas and taught his apprentices, you’ll need to book a visit to one of the two Taliesin sites with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Both Taliesin and Taliesin West were built by Wright, as homes and working studios for his practice to run from.
The working studio inside Taliesin West that can still be visited by the public, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
The original Taliesin site is found in Wisconsin and embodies what Wright thought a building should be, with the property built into and around a hill that he loved as a child. Using the natural wood and stone from the area, this estate grew in the sixty-plus years that Wright lived there as his work and ideas grew. Many people refer to it as his autobiography in wood and stone. The Taliesin West site in Arizona was built later in Wright’s life, when he began to need warmer climates to teach and work through the winter months. You can see that its style departs from the Prairie that we see at the original site, bringing more of his textile and organic elements into the construction.
Both of these buildings along with six other of Wright’s designs have recently gained UNESCO World Heritage site status, showing widespread recognition of the architect’s work. The others include Unity Temple, Robie House, Hollyhock House, Fallingwater, Jacobs House and the Guggenheim Museum. These are the first examples of modern architecture to gain the prestigious designation, and while it does not grant the sites any additional funding, it does add a mandatory “buffer zone” around the properties that ensure the surrounding areas do not come into conflict with the architecture in any way.
One of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites that Wright has designed, courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Beyond the buildings he left behind, Wright’s most lasting legacy is perhaps his insistence that structures should live in harmony with humanity and their environment. His philosophy of organic architecture is probably more salient than ever, in a world where the disconnect between people, the structures they live in and nature seems rather significant. While Wright would have never used the buzz word of the moment, “sustainability”, Gray argues that his buildings and his techniques would have been considered very green. As he puts it, “Wright was extremely concerned with Nature and not only looking at it but incorporating the local habitat into his design".
Gray also argues that to comprehend the impact of Wright’s work, we need look no further than the current crisis the world finds itself in, which has renewed the focus on individual and communal health. Wright’s insistence on breaking down walls in the home, to allow for more communal activity and interaction, is just what we need – instead of being shut in our boxes inside boxes. It was Graff who told us about research that showed how just being able to see nature, can shorten hospital stays.
Whilst no one is still building Wrightian houses, his beliefs and ideologies are still alive and well in our open-plan living spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and in the way we conceptualise communities in an architectural sense. Wright may have been born over 150 years ago, but he was every inch a modern man.
For this article we would like to thank Stuart Graff, Jennifer Gray, Barry Bergdoll, and Todd Levin for giving up their time to talk to us and share their common knowledge and passion for Frank Lloyd Wright.
We would also like to thank the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University for supplying the fantastic images that illustrated this article.