Architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

If there is any one architect about whom the proverbial John Q. Public knows something, it is surely Frank Lloyd Wright. People who have not read a word of his writings do not hesitate to invoke his name.

Many who are not the least a word bit familiar with the principles of organic architecture crave to live in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Simon and Garfunkel have even sung about him. It is no exaggeration to say that there is something of the legendary about Frank Lloyd Wright. Further, Frank Lloyd Wright was a legend of sorts even in his own time. In no small part, this was due to Wright's flair for self promotion and scandal-ridden personal life, as is made clear in a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, Many Masks. But Frank Lloyd Wright's genius and originality played a much greater role in the creation of the Frank Lloyd Wright legend.

Frank Lloyd Wright's beginnings (Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867) were not especially promising. His father was a talented minister, more notable for his setback than his accomplishments. The family warmth that Frank Lloyd Wright would later seek to reflect, and create in his early prairie houses simply was not present in his own home. Nor was rootedness, another desideratum of the mature Frank Lloyd Wright, a distinguishing feature of his childhood. By the time Frank Lloyd Wright was seven, he had moved a number of times. His record as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was hardly an inspring one. There is a notion that Frank Lloyd Wright was predestined to become a great architect and that the cathedral prints his mother hung over his crib provided him with early inspiration. This myth has recently been laid to rest. No one doubts, however, that the Froebel blocks that Frank Lloyd Wright's mother gave him to play with greatly inspired the budding architect.

Nonetheless, after a stint with the architectural firm of Joseph Silsbee, well known for its work in the Queen Anne style, Frank Lloyd Wright signed up as a draftsman with the indomitable Louis Sullivan. The latter, admittedly, was more noted for his commercial than for his residential architecture. He was also more given to ornamentation than the young Frank Lloyd Wright. Still, Sullivan left an indelible imprint upon his assistant. Although Frank Lloyd Wright would break with Sullivan after a few years and not speak with him for many more years, he always remained in the older man's debt. It was Sullivan who taught Frank Lloyd Wright that the form of a building should express its underlying function. Largely because of Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright early on developed a contempt for the beaux-arts architecture that was so popular in the late Victorian United States. It was Sullivan who compelled Frank Lloyd Wright to recognize that architecture was as much a social manifestation as it was an art. Most of all, Sullivan provided an example of daring, creativity, and independence of thought.

Sullivan, of course, was not the only influence on Frank Lloyd Wright. His Unitarian upbringing undoubtedly had some effect on both his views and his work. When Frank Lloyd Wright lived in the prosperous Chicago suburb of Oak Park, IL, near the turn of the century, Frank Lloyd Wright was in close touch with a number of Unitarian ministers. One such minister, William C. Gannett, wrote a book that made a powerful impression on Frank Lloyd Wright. Gannett's The House Beautiful made a bold plea for simplicity and gracefulness in housing design. The Unitarian influence on Frank Lloyd Wright was not limited to housing, as Oak Park's Unity Temple (1906) and the much later Unitarian Meeting House (1947) of Madison. To Frank Lloyd Wright, all architecture was "a sermon in stone". He truly believed there was the a realm of the divine within nature and that it was the architect's duty to capture it, even if that meant spitting against wind. It is a small wonder then that Frank Lloyd Wright has been dubbed a "minister of reform".

The Orient also exerted a profound influence on Frank Lloyd Wright. Japanese art made its U.S. debut at the 1876 Centennial. Seventeen years later, Japanese architecture would have its turn when the Ho-oden Palace was put on display at the Chicago World's Fair. Frank Lloyd Wright was undoubtedly familiar with these examples, but his own attachment to things Japanese did not become apparent until his trip to Japan in 1905. The young architect became quite taken with Japanese print makers, who in his eyes caught the essence of natural materials in rare and beautiful fashion. But Frank Lloyd Wright was also enamored of Japan's architecture. The Ward Willitts home (1902) of Highland Park, IL, clearly betrays the influence of Japan. So too, of course, did the Imperial Hotel (1922) in Tokyo, a seemingly indestructible edifice, which survived a severe earthquake during the 1920s only to be demolished years later. One commentator has gone so far as to suggest that the praire style with which Frank Lloyd Wright distinguished himself in the early years of this century could more accurately be termed the Japanese style.

That is a slight exaggeration. Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style was fashioned in the main as an indigenous U.S. response to what Frank Lloyd Wright perceived as an architectural wasteland. Just as his contemporary, John Dewey, rebelled against the classical tradition in philosophy, Frank Lloyd Wright lashed out at the neoclassical hegemony in architecture. Such architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright held, was hopelessly derivative and shamefully un-American. That is to say, it was more reflective of the Renaissance than it was of the U.S. physical and cultural landscape. The architecture of the Renaissance, according to Frank Lloyd Wright, was little "but the bare bones of a life lived and dead". Even the genuine article Frank Lloyd Wright viewed suspiciously. As if to drive home the point that the Greek way was not, or rather should not be, the American way, Frank Lloyd Wright added that Greek architecture was itself largely a sham. Admiring though Frank Lloyd Wright was of Greek sculpture and the Minoan architecture of the island of Crete, Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the more typical work of the Hellenistic period was insufficiently sensitive to the natural environment and largely indifferent to the importance of using native materials. What was more, form had no real connection with function in the architecture of the ancient Greeks. Their architectural efforts were, in a word "pagan poison".

The architecture of the late nineteenth-century United states, of course, was not purely a copy of the classical and Renaissance. But there was enough of the old wine in the new bottles to horrify Frank Lloyd Wright. (The work of McKim, Mead and White comes to mind most immediately.) Frank Lloyd Wright was especially aghast at the cornice, which in his mind symbolized all that was false and meretricious in architecture. Cornices slapped nature in the face, but served no useful function whatseover. They were dangerous to boot. Perhaps even more significantly for Frank Lloyd Wright, the cornice "had much-much too much-foreign baggage in its train, ever to be allowed to come back to America."

The note of cultural nationalism souded here is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist sage who had made a similar plea for an American literature in the age of Andrew Jackson. The similarity is probably not fortuitous because Frank Lloyd Wright read and admired Emerson. But Frank Lloyd Wright was insisting that the Unites States emancipate itself from its European fetters, Frank Lloyd Wright was also suggesting, in the wein of progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that the Midwest no longer look to the Eastern seaboard for inspiration. With its closer ties to Western Europe, the East had at least some justification for its aping of the old. The Midwest had no such excuse.

Enter the prairie style. It is perhaps best to delineate the architectural features of this style before enunciating the doctrine behind it. Those who make the pilgrimage to Oak Park are struck by, among other things, the wide doorways and freely circulating rooms, the neat and lengthy exterior trim, and the amount of window space, not to mention the overhanging eaves and gently sloping roofs. Each of these served a wider purpose. The open plan reflected Frank Lloyd Wright's long standing aversion to boxiness. ("The box is a Fascist symbol", Frank Lloyd Wright started with characteristic hyperbole during an interview in the early 1950s.) The trim gave a certain unity and continuity to the Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and the expanded fenestration invited nature inside. The eaves provided shelter from the outside world, a principal concern of Frank Lloyd Wright's during the Oak Park years. Frank Lloyd Wright 's preoccupation with privacy was even more evident in the entrance to his homes they were often exceptionally difficult to locate. It should be noted that at this stage in his career Frank Lloyd Wright was more interested in familial than in individual privacy. To many a sensitive soul in this period of rapid and often jarring social change, the nuclear conjugal family was indeed a haven in a hostile world, to use Christopher Lasch's term. Frank Lloyd Wright captured the warmth and his sensitively designed fireplaces; the hearth, in his eyes, was the perfect symbol for family togetherness. Perhaps harmony within the home was more aspiration than actuality for Frank Lloyd Wright, as several of his own marriages would be racked by scandal and intrigue.