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Designing Life: Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect April 23, 2012

Posted by keithgaff in Uncategorized.

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) is a pre-eminent figure in American architecture.  His open-plan interior and ornament-free exterior design was radically ahead of his time and profoundly influenced modern western architecture and consequently the way we live and work today.  Yet, like many visionaries, Wright would endure the scorn of his peers and ostracization from the architectural profession before finally winning back widespread respect and accolades – well into his mid-life – with a design of  breathtaking elegance and daring.  A relatively small commission to design the summer home of a wealthy East Coast family led to the construction of “Fallingwater”; an almost pure distillation of Wright’s design philosophies, aesthetic aspirations and ego.

Kaufmann House "Fallingwater" - Mill Run, Pennsyllvania 1939.
Named "best all-time work of American architecture" in 1991 by members of the Amercian Institute of Architects (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallingwater)

After his “rebirth” as an architect, Wright was in high demand and would go on to design a diverse abundance of buildings over many decades until his death.  He designed and oversaw the construction of churches, office buildings, skyscrapers, houses, a gas station and the Guggenheim Museum on 5th Avenue in New York City: his legacy is everywhere one cares to look.  Even the 1950’s ranch-style home that I  purchased in Fremont a year ago would likely not exist had Frank Lloyd Wright been discouraged in the pursuance of his design vision by the many who would take decades to “catch-up”.  Yet, it is the very home that I live in that made me wish to delve deeper into the man who so profoundly shaped the landscape of American architectural design and find out what made it so.


Like many of the entrepreneurial design “geniuses” we are familiar with today (such as Bill Gates, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and so on), Frank Lloyd Wright eschewed the path of formal education on his professional journey.

Born in Wisconsin, Wright was educated as a child by his mother using The Froebel Gifts – a series of educational aids consisting of geometric blocks and shapes aimed at developing spatial perception and awareness [McCarter 1991].   Wright dropped out of school at the age of 16 to support his family when his father left his mother.  He gained employment with civil engineer Prof. Alan D Conover at the University of Wisconsin-Madison assisting with construction projects and he attended classes in engineering at the university for two semesters but never gained a degree.  Instead, Wright primarily acquired his skills as an architect through on-the-job training and mentoring.  He left Wisconsin and gained work as a draftsman with the Chicago architecture firm Joseph Lyman Silsbee, later moving to the prestigious Chicago architecture firm Sullivan and Adler.  Wright was mentored by Sullivan himself and quickly rose to be head draftsman, but was fired when Sullivan discovered Wright working on his own private housing projects.  Being fired from a prestigious architectural firm might ruin the career of a less self-assured architect, but for Wright it fomented his drive to implement his developing philosophy of design free from the expectations of all that had come before.


To appreciate the originality and influence of Wright’s work it is necessary to understand the context within which he worked.  When Wright began his career as an independent architect the most popular architectural styles of the day were  Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Neo-classical architecture, all of which had considerable ornamentation, compartmentalized interior designs and destinctly vertical design elements.

Queen Anne style house - Lake City, Florida 1891

Design philosophy

“In organic architecture … it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishing another and its setting and environment still another”- Frank Lloyd Wright – Preface to Ausgefuehrte bauten und entwuefe, pulished by Wasmuth Berlin, 1910 [Kaufmann & Raeburn 1960]

Central to Wright’s design philosophy is the concept he expounded of organic architecture.  He proposed that the design of buildings should draw upon the natural landscape through the employment of simple design elements and the use of light, space and natural color.   Closely associated with this philosophy was his belief that the design of the house should unify all aspects of the design – the setting of the building upon the site, the form and layout, interior space, furnishings and decorations – to enhance the full experience of people using his buildings.

Wright’s architecture has strong horizontal design to harmonize with the ground, often featuring horizontal elements such as flattened roofs and expansive horizontal windows.   This is particularly evident in his Prairie-style houses; a style of architecture that he developed between 1901 and 1910.

Robie House - built 1909

Inside, Wright carefully designed both the interior and exterior of the house to manage the movement of people through and around the building.  This was the first of the open-plan interior spaces now commonplace in modern architecture and homes.  He designed his buildings right down to the smallest, seemingly most trivial details, including not only the furniture and carpets but even vases and dinner sets.   He made extensive use of built-in furnishings such as cupboards, closets, tables, shelves and benches to reduce clutter in his houses and thereby to create and control space [Maddex 2003].  He is reported to have required his clients to put their furnishings in the places specified in his plans and if they should rearrange them after taking residence, that they were to be returned to their specified places should he pay his clients a visit [Burns & Novick 1998].

Wright-designed dining table for Robie House

Wright summarized his design objectives as follows [Kaufmann & Raeburn 1960]:

  1. To reduce the number of necessary parts of the house and separate rooms to a minimum, and make all come together as enclosed space – so divided that light, air and vista permeated the whole with a sense of unity.
  2.  To associate the building as a whole with its site by extension and emphasis of the planes parallel to the ground, but keeping the floors off the best part of the site, thus leaving that better part for use in connection with the life of the house.
  3. To eliminate the room as a box… Make all space liberally human, with less wasted space in structure, and structure more appropriate to material and so the whole more livable.
  4. To get the unwholesome basement up out of the ground, entirely above it, as a low pedestal for the living portion of the home
  5. To harmonize all necessary openings to outside or inside with good human proportions and make them occur naturally – singly or as a series in the scheme of the whole building… The room as such was now the essential architectural expression.
  6. To eliminate combinations of different materials in favor of mono-material so far as possible; to use no ornament that did not come out of the nature of materials to make the whole building clearer and more expressive as a place to live in.
  7. To incorporate all heating, lighting, plumbing so that these systems became constituent parts of the building itself.
  8. To incorporate as organic architecture – so far as possible – furnishings, making them all one with the building and designing them in simple terms for machine work.   Again, straight lines and rectilinear forms.
  9. Eliminate the decorator.  He was all curves and all efflorescence.

Influences On Wright

There never was exterior influence upon my work, either foreign or native, other than that of Sullivan, Adler, Rebling, Whitman and Emerson, and the great poets of worldwide.   My work is original not only in fact but in spiritual fiber.  No practice by any European architect to this day has influenced mine in the least. Frank Lloyd Wright  [McCarter 1991]

Wright claimed that his architecture was entirely original and influenced only by his mentors Sullivan and Adler.  McCarter [1991] suggests Sullivan influenced Wright’s philosophy and instilled in Wright a desire to break from the past in an attempt to develop an indigenous architecture to suit the American landscape and democratic culture.   Additionally biographers [McCarter 1991, Hoppen 1993] cite his early education with the Froebel Gifts as influencial in developing his understanding of geometric patterns and form and in developing an sense of unity.   Frank Lloyd Wright was also keenly interested in and influenced by Japanese art [McCarter 1991].  He wrote an article on Japanese prints in 1900, visited Japan with clients in 1905 and built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo between 1915 and 1923 .  Despite Wright’s claim that his architecture was entirely original, the influence of Japanese art and architecture can be seen in the strong horizontal lines flattened roofs and open-plan of his Prairie-style houses.

Ward Willits House - Highland Park, Illinois,1902

Master works

No really Italian building seems ill at ease in Italy.   All are happily content with what ornament and color they carry naturally. – Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright’s concept of organic architecture matured considerably after living in Italy for a year in 1911.  In addition to his Prairie-style houses, Wright is famous for the buildings he designed and constructed after his return from Italy, including the houses Taliesin (his home in Wisconsin), Taliesin West in Arizona (his winter house), the Fallingwater house, and finally the Usonian houses that were intended as low-cost housing for the masses.

Jacobs first house, the first of Wright's Usonian houses - Madison, Wisconsin 1936

Showing a continuation of form development and further maturation of the organic architectural style, Wright’s famous later works made greater use of curves, such as the Johnson Wax Headquarters with its giant lily-pad like columns and pyrex tubing ceiling and the Guggenheim Museum with its spiral interior and exterior.

Johnson Wax Headquarters – Racine, Wisconsin, 1939 (Photo: Bo Mackison)


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - 5th Avenue New York City, built 1959

Relevance to 20th-century architecture

Wright’s emphasis on ‘simple’ functional design, horizontal layout and open-plan interior space was a significant departure from the transplanted European design traditions that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His work has inspired much of modern architecture not only in the United States but also in Europe and throughout the western world.  European Modernist architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other members of the International Modernism style cited Frank Lloyd Wright’s simple functional design as a major influence in their earlier work [Burns & Raeburn 1998].   Similarly Wright’s Usonian house with its compact, open-plan architecture and extensive use of built-in furnishings inspired the design of post-war ranch-style houses that populate tracts of the South Bay, including my own house and the area that I live in; a post-war designed residential community whose occupants are required to preserve the integrity of their ranch-style homes and open landscapes.

Critical analysis and reflections upon Wright’s designs

When I see Wright’s buildings I am moved by their simple beauty, their empathy for the landscape and the minute detail in his design.  Each one of his buildings stands today as a testament to the enduring relevance of his philisophy of organic architecture.

The modern architecture inspired by Wright’s design is usually, alas, a pale imitation: often merely austere and functional, it ignores the landscape and disregards the user’s aesthetic experience to the expedience of cost.   If only the Fremont ranch-style house in which I live had a few of the humanizing design elements Wright included!  While my house alludes to his concept of using natural light with its expansive windows, borrows from his notions of simple design, natural color and open-space, it lacks the overall integrated “flow” and harmony of Wright’s careful planning.  While each of Wright’s individual buildings harmonize with their surroundings in their own unique way, the 1950’s ranch-style homes – and the same could be said for many other modern construction zones – were built for en masse demand.  Developers seeking to meet the rapid demand for housing, while keeping costs low, clearly benefitted from the new aesthetic of minimal decoration and use of “mono-materials”, open-plans and simplified forms propounded by Wright and those who followed in his footsteps.  However, Wright’s philosophy of organically integrating the building into its surroundings and the occupants’ with the building is completely missing.

But is the cheapened distortion of Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture wholly lamentable?  It is clear to me that while Wright’s work has had a profound effect on our lives and is testament to the power of excellent design, even he realized after his attempt to design the Usonian homes for “ordinary people” that he was unable to marry his philosophy to the budgetary constraints of ordinary people.  When designing large projects with abundant budgets Wright was renowned for excessive cost overuns in order to achieve his complete design.  Furthermore, while he designed space to allow for the “free movement” of persons through that space, his rigid proscription of furniture placement and wish for complete control of even the smallest of design elements in “his” homes would not be agreeable to how most people would wish to live.  Wright purported to be developing an “indigenous architecture to suit the American landscape and democratic culture”, while also being reluctant to yield his control over the minutest aspects of his designs and how people should live within his buildings – even dictating the dinnerware they should keep in their cupboards!  In this we see an internal contradiction to Wright’s design aspirations and philosophy which renders it unworkable as a philosophic design for the masses.

So when I think about the ways in which my ranch-style home fail to live-up to the grand aspirations of the master of the design’s origins, I also rejoice in having the freedom to play with the space as my own, to be able to choose my own furniture and decorative elements and to open-up or close-off spaces within the house to suit my own aesthetic sense.  I sincerely hope, however, that Wright’s philosophy of organic integration of a building with its surroundings and empathy to the landscape is ready to be heard again, as we lose something vital to the human condition when we close ourselves off to the environment in which we live.  Perhaps we may see a re-emergence of Wright’s influence on design in this area as people continue to look for ways to accommodate environmental concerns into their office and housing designs?


Burns K & Novick L 1998, “Frank Lloyd Wright: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick”,  PBS Home Video

Hoppen DW, 1993 “The seven ages of Frank Lloyd Wright”, Dover Publications, Mineola NY.

Kaufmann E, 1955 “An American architecture.  Frank Lloyd Wright”, Horizon Press, New York

Kaufmann E & Raeburn B, 1960 “Frank Lloyd Wright.  Writings and buildings”, Horizon Press, New York

Maddex D, 1993 “Wright-sized houses.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s solutions for making small houses feel big.

McCarter R, 1991 “Frank Lloyd Wright.   A primer on architectural principles”, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

wikipedia 2012  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Lloyd_Wright  accessed 04/20/2012



1. jhpittman - April 23, 2012

Keith –

Nice job distilling the essence of a very complex and often contradictory person. How relevant do you think Wright would be today, 50 years after his death? His concept of Broadacre city, in which every person had an acre of land, actually led to urban sprawl. How do you think (or do you think) Wright would have adapted to today’s conditions.

Your points about the contraditions between Wright’s view and his behavior only scratch the surface. It does make one think about the quirkyness of creative genius.

— Jon

2. Marina Shrago - April 23, 2012

Keith, thank you, this is fascinating! Great point about Wright’s insistence on complete control. The theater in Taliesin West has seats that are designed to lead the user to cross his or her legs and turn the torso slightly to the left, something Wright perceived to be a natural relaxing pose. I saw a left-handed person try to sit in one of these seats. It was mildly hilarious.

3. Laura Brandner - April 23, 2012

Thanks for the insights into FLW and his design philosophy – I really enjoyed learning more details on someone I’ve heard a lot about. I appreciate that you gave both sides of the story.

Your mention of other design “geniuses” and visionaries and how they are comfortable striking out on their own and making their own way makes me wonder which comes first. Are they able to have these visionary ideas because they go their own way, or are they essentially forced to go their own way because they think so differently from others…?

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