Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius. No-one could deny that. But the architect was hell to deal with; a control freak. Deaf when it came to budget constraints, blind when confronted with building codes, inflexible when it came to getting his own way. Exasperated clients gritted their teeth.
Humility and modesty were not in the DNA of the charismatic showman with a trademark cape, cane and flowing hair. “If I had another 15 years to work,” he said shortly before he died in 1959, aged 91, “I could rebuild this entire country.”
No other American architect has had such a profound impact on design. Wright pioneered trends that we take for granted today. Carports (he hated garages, basements and attics – they encouraged clutter), solar and underfloor heating, tracking lights, the ensuite, rain-shower heads, bevelled doors, open-plan offices – Wright helped to popularise them all and many more.
Houses, churches, offices, a synagogue, mausoleum, civic centre, art gallery, hotel, bank, boathouse, windmill and petrol station made up the 1100 building designs he committed to paper, most of them in the last third of his life. But it didn’t stop there: carpets, leadlight windows, light globes, furniture, crockery, stationery and garden statues – even gowns for the lady of the house so she wouldn’t clash with, or distract from, his architecture – tumbled from his imagination from the time he designed his first house, in Chicago, aged 21.
At last Wright’s extraordinary work is being honoured at the most prestigious level. For the first time, the United States has selected examples of 20th-century architecture to be considered for UNESCO’s World Heritage List, with the submission “Key Works of Modern Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright”.
The 10 nominated buildings are: Unity Temple, Robie House, Taliesin and Taliesin West, Hollyhock House, Fallingwater, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House, Price Tower, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Marin County Civic Center.
The World Heritage Committee, which recognises sites of “outstanding universal value” and “a masterpiece of human creative genius”, will vote in July.
Wright’s work certainly meets UNESCO’s criteria. His influence has spread around the world and although there are many “faux Frank” buildings, nothing matches the real thing for originality and brilliant design.
It all began when his mother, Anna, decided her cherished child was to become an architect. She gave her young son a set of Froebel building blocks, designed by German pedagogue Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s. Wright kept a set nearby all his life and acknowledged their influence on his designs.
Arrogant, unpredictable, dismissive of what other people thought and convinced of his superior intellect, Wright saw himself outside the boundaries of conventional behaviour. His ingenuity flourished uninhibited. But there was a long dark period when, thanks to his scandalous private life, clients disappeared, friends crossed the street and the media turned vicious. A dangerous moral influence who squandered his genius, the papers declared.
In 1909, he and Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, wife of a Chicago client, began a very public affair. They left their partners and children and headed to Europe for a year, spending time in Berlin and Italy. Their behaviour caused outrage across America. Mamah was the love of Wright’s life but their relationship ended in tragedy. On August 15, 1914, she was at home in Taliesin, the house Wright had built for her in Wisconsin. He was in Chicago. During lunch, a deranged servant set fire to the house and killed seven people, including Mamah and her two young children.
Wright’s world imploded. For years very little that he designed was built, until one building resurrected his reputation and assured his future as one of the greatest contemporary architects: Fallingwater, the house he designed for the Kaufmann family in 1935. Since then, many of his buildings have been acquired by various trusts, renovated and opened to the public. Today they’re major tourist attractions.
Late last year I visited five Wright buildings nominated for the World Heritage List to see for myself the work of the man who left such an indelible mark on architecture. They did not disappoint. Far from it.
Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Nine months after department-store owner Edgar Kaufmann briefed Wright on the house he wanted built in pristine woods overlooking the Bear Run waterfall, some 100 kilometres from Pittsburgh, he rang the architect to see how plans were progressing. Come on over and see for yourself, said Wright, who hadn’t yet put anything on paper. Within a few hours, the drawings were complete, down to the tiniest detail. It was all in the great man’s head.
A feat of engineering, Fallingwater typified Wright’s organic approach to design. He was all about embracing nature rather than fighting it.
Kaufmann had envisaged the house would be built looking up at the cascades. “No, not simply to look at the waterfalls but to live with them,” said Wright, who perched the house above a nine-metre waterfall.
In the large square living room with waxed flagstone flooring he included a glass hatch, which telescopes back to reveal suspended concrete steps that lead down to the falls. Every room in Fallingwater has a magnificent view of Bear Run and the surrounding woodlands. The sound of running water and birdsong pervades. “I go to nature every day for inspiration...” said Wright. “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
At a glance, Fallingwater appears as one house built into a rocky outcrop. In fact, it’s two on three levels, each stepped back to trace the contour of the hill. The guesthouse at the top is joined to the main house by a covered walkway. The interior walls on the cliff side are made of locally quarried stone and the southern side looking into the glen is glass, with access to the famous cantilevered concrete terraces.
Fallingwater, constructed at a cost of $US155,000, was given to the public by the Kaufmann family in 1963; in 2015, more than 165,000 people visited.
The building featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1938 and revitalised Wright’s career. A triumph of the senses, it’s one of the most successful integrations of architecture and nature and, as architect Philip Johnson said: “One of the greatest houses of the 20th century.”
Situated in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Robie House is the epitome of what became known as Wright’s Prairie style, the first uniquely American design of the 20th century. Wright was in Europe with Mamah during much of the construction, between 1908 and 1910, but he dictated every detail, including where the lamps and sofas he’d designed were to be positioned. “You may not need these things but the house does,” he said.
Frederick Robie, 28, and Wright loved innovation, open spaces and plenty of light. They disliked the poky little rooms filled with Victoriana that were so popular at the time. So the master architect gave his client a low-slung home with strong horizontal lines. The free-flowing layout was perfectly adapted to the contemporary lifestyle; a new type of modernity. Given that he never quite grasped the pleasure of entertaining and certainly wasn’t a family man – “I hated the sound of the word ‘papa’,” the father of six wrote in 1932 – this was an achievement.
When, 14 months later, Robie’s marriage broke down and his father died, leaving him heavily in debt, he had to sell the house. It changed hands several times until the Chicago Theological Seminary bought it in 1926 and used it as a dormitory. In 1941, public protest stopped them demolishing Robie House. They tried again 16 years later.
Wright, by this time 90, was a vocal opponent of the plans. “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy,” he said.
The house was saved. In 1997, its current owner, the University of Chicago, put the building in the care of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which completed a $US6.5 million restoration in 2009.
Built at a cost of $US58,500 including furniture, Robie House is a magnificent work of art. Its long ribbons of leadlight windows are exquisite, the built-in furniture way ahead of its time. I can’t say it’s always comfortable but sitting on a Wright-designed sofa in Robie House with a glass of Prosecco at sunset is about as good as life gets.
Spring Green, Wisconsin
Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, surrounded by rolling hills, sandstone cliffs and woods – characteristics that shaped his designs. Taliesin, built in a nearby valley where he spent his summers, was Wright’s statement to the world.
Known as his “architectural laboratory”, the building represents everything he stood for. Its harmony with the prairie landscape, earthy colours and local limestone made a tranquil retreat for him and Mamah until that awful afternoon in 1914.
Wright’s lack of financial restraint went wild here. Tradesmen weren’t paid and plans kept expanding. He arrived home one day with two grand pianos. Fed up, Mamah moved out. He persuaded her to return but nothing changed.
The bank repossessed the property in 1927. With the help of friends (never repaid), Wright reclaimed it a year later. (When he died, all but 240 of the 1100 hectares were sold to pay back taxes, penalties and interest.) Welsh for “shining brow”, Taliesin was badly damaged by fire twice. The architect used the occasions to extend the rambling collection of buildings that originated in 1887 as a boarding school run by his two aunts.
Taliesin was Wright’s home and studio for most of his life. Mamah was buried a short distance away in the sightline of his bedroom and he was buried beside her. Today only a broken headstone marks her grave. (Wright’s body was exhumed and cremated after his third wife died, their ashes interred together at West Taliesin.)
In 1932, Taliesin became, and still is, home to an artistic community. Many of the residents are architecture apprentices who are part of the Taliesin Fellowship. They stay during the summer, working in the organic vegetable garden while learning about Wright’s educational philosophy, which marries nature and the arts with design. “An idea is salvation by imagination,” he once said.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York City, New York
Perhaps the most well known of Wright’s designs, the Guggenheim, on Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York, was his ultimate statement of urbanism. Standing in extreme contrast to surrounding apartment blocks, the circular building’s wide spiral ramps allow fluid movement over seven floors, while a glass-domed atrium provides light.
In 1943, Solomon R. Guggenheim told Wright he wanted a museum “like nothing else” for his art collection. Wright, with little work in the pipeline, embraced the project. “I am so full of ideas for our museum that I am likely to blow up or commit suicide unless I let them out on paper,” he wrote.
It took two years to complete the first drawings and Guggenheim became anxious. “It is a superhuman task. Almost,” wrote Wright. “The thing is... beautiful as a symphony.”
When he showed Guggenheim his drawings, the art collector apparently said: “Mr Wright, this is it! I knew you would do it.” Guggenheim died 10 years, and Wright six months, before their building opened in 1959. Today, more than one million people visit each year – as much to admire the building as the contemporary art on show.
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House
There should be as many types of houses as there are individuals, believed Wright. And so was born his functional Usonian house for middle-income people who didn’t have servants. About 60 were built but while they started out simple, they gradually became more elaborate and expensive.
In 1936, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs paid $US5500 for the first Usonian home, built in an L-shape on a concrete slab, with masonry and timber walls and a flat roof. The living room is large and open, the two bedrooms and kitchen adequate at best. Wright maintained you only sleep in a bedroom so why waste space? To discourage guests gathering in the kitchen, he designed one where a woman could, with little effort, reach stove, bench, larder and fridge with a baby on her hip.
Again, Wright’s organic approach to architecture is evident. Jacobs House, its interior walls lined with redwood boards, could be depressingly dark but floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows on the south side make the house appear to rise “out of the ground and into the light”, just as Wright planned.
Seeing Jacobs House first hand is, like all Wright’s work, inspiring. “Every great architect is, necessarily, a great poet,” he said. “He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.” This, Frank Lloyd Wright achieved in spades. ￼