The way you live is being directly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovations in residential architecture. Mr. Wright’s “organic architecture” was a radical departure form the traditional architecture of his day, which was dominated by European styles that dated back hundreds of years or even millennia. He contributed the Prairie and Usonian houses to the familiar of American residential design, and elements of his designs can be found in a large proportion of homes today. While most of his designs were single-family, his collections include houses of worship, skyscrapers, resorts, museums, government offices, gas stations, bridges, and other masterpieces showing the diversity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s talent.
Not only did Wright possess genius skills in the spatial cognition, his approach to architecture through geometric manipulation demonstrates one aspect of his creativeness. Frank Lloyd Wright’s views on architectural space, ornamentation, and relationship to site, and concerning the place of architecture in art, life, and philosophy have inspired generations of architects and artists all over the world. Frank Lloyd Wright’s career was notable in several areas. As a practicing architect, he designed several hundred buildings, of which around 500 were built. Within his roles of architectural theoretician and academic, he wrote several books on architecture, and founded and ran a successful school in the field, training many architects. Mr. Wright’s design went beyond the building to the finest details of the interior design spaces, including furniture, art glass, and other aspects of interior designs. Frank Lloyd Wright’s views on architectural space, ornamentation, and relationship to building sites, and concerning the place of architecture in art, life and philosophy have inspired generations of architects and artists all over the world. Frank Lloyd Wright was an innovator who drastically influenced architecture of the twentieth century around the world.
Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect with a democratic vision. By integrating the city into the countryside, Wright was envisioning a decentralized city that stressed agrarian, or rural pastoral, living and familial connectivity. Many of Wright’s ideals and visions are rooted in his life experiences. Specifically, his childhood experiences in the countryside made Wright highly critical of the city, which ignited his vision of the city rooted in the Jeffersonian values. He believed the role of an architect to be that of a builder, not only of buildings but of the social structure, because he felt that if society were given conditions in which building had intelligence and raison d’etre the whole structure of human society itself would have the substance of strength and beauty. It was stated in Brooks book Writings on Wright that Wright was “Interested in politics and affairs of the state, he believed that architecture as the plan-in-structure of all things was the all-inclusive basis for every civilization and culture. He repeatedly related architecture to democracy, considering democracy the highest form of aristocracy man has ever known, a society based on the sovereignty of the individual” (24-5). Wright’s early work reflects his democratic ideals, especially Oak Park, as an importance was placed on family. His ideas about democracy grew into the vision of Broadacre City, which emphasized the important influence that technology would have on his envisioned democracy. It was through this vision that Wright sought to build for citizens of the United States. His vision of the city was placed in the countryside, where people could live free from centralization. Here nature and city would blend into one entity. Within this entity, the structural forms will be built to merge into and become one with the natural landscape.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s childhood experiences would later have a significant impact on his architectural and city designs. After spending a part of his childhood moving from place to place, the Wright family settled at his maternal family’s farm in Wisconsin. Although the family customs and life had an effect on Wright’s democratic philosophy, the greatest impact on his work came from the Froebel blocks his mother had purchased for this future architect. Before her son was born, his mother had decided that her son was going to be a great architect. Using Froebel geometric blocks to entertain and educate her son, she appears to have struck on a genius her son possessed. His early childhood travels, life on the farm, and manipulations of the Froebel blocks would all influence the physical and the ideological aspects of Wright’s designs. Wright would have his self-promotion, along with his mother’s support, pushing him to achieve great things in the field of Architecture for decades to come.
At the age of twenty, Wright moved to Chicago where the great fires had destroyed most of the old city allowing it to be built with the skyscrapers of glass and steel. This complimented the trend of residential design, which used Victorian influence. Wright found a job as a draftsman with Chicago’s Silsbee Architectural Firm, where his first project, the Hillside Home, was built for his Aunts Nell and Jane. Frank left his first position within a year and found a position with one of Chicago’s best-known firms at the turn of the century, Alder & Sullivan. Wright’s second employer influenced the young architect in a way that would change the course of American architecture forever. He apprenticed to Sullivan, who was to become Wright’s greatest mentor. Wright learned much from Sullivan in the aspects of design and architectural philosophy. According to Fishman, Sullivan created an “Architecture for Democracy,” where democracy was defined as “freedom for individual development and expression” (104-5). Sullivan also attached great importance on the architect that is similar to Wright’s view of the architect. For Sullivan, the “well-being of the republic depended upon the architect” to create forms reflective of and contributive to the “democratic idea” (105). By adopting the credo of democratic form, Wright took to designing homes that reflected his growing democratic and symmetric designs. While with the firm, his assignment to the residential design contracts led him to moonlight beyond the firm’s contracts. This led him to leave the firm and establish on his own.
While in Chicago, Wright began to come into his own as an architect and as a social philosopher. Using the Lloyd-Jones’ family philosophies of unity, truth, harmony, and simplicity and Sullivan’s approach of “form follows function”, Wright quickly built up a practice in residential architecture. Patience, concentration, attention to detail, and constant revision marked Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in the studio. Wright took an integral approach to architecture by designing the interior furnishings of the buildings as well as the structure. Using nature as inspiration and geometric abstraction, both obvious influences from his childhood in Wisconsin, Wright created a unique type of architecture, which would become known to the general public as the Prairie style. Marked by horizontal lines, this form would dominate his work from 1900-1913. Wright included the technology of the cities into the suburban residences of his design. Wright would continue to pass through at least two more recognizable stages in his architectural design, the textile block (1917-1924), and the Usonian (1936-1959). His homes at Oak Park were developed simply to reflect “democratic individuality” and the family, especially evident in Wright’s use of open spaces that centered around the hearth (111). Implicit in Wright’s designs at Oak Park was his developing views on society, which were highly influenced by the socio-political stances of the Progressive Party. According to Rosenbaum, the Progressives gave great weight to the individual and to the developing technologies used by corporate enterprises. As Rosenbaum points out, Wright was influenced by the “progressive causes of reform, modernization, better economic balance between cities and rural areas, equality between the sexes, and restraint of the excesses of the ruling class and advancement opportunities for the less fortunate” (28).
These social beliefs and views on modernization not only had an impact on Wright’s early work, but also impacted his later development of Broadacre City. Wright’s early criticisms of the city are evident in his later critique of the modern city. In Wright’s The Living City, he points to the problems inherent in the mechanization and centralization of the city and the attempts to develop solutions that focus on Jeffersonian democratic beliefs. On problems he sees with the modern city is that centralization has created a social structure based on the notion of rent, where property and work are given monetary values that serve to benefit the select few. From this scenario grows a society based on a system of production that controls consumption, which, consequently, creates a society that is functionally inorganic. Another problem Wright has with the modern, centralized city is the overabundance of skyscrapers in the overcrowded city. These skyscrapers not only bring about the exploitation of the citizens; they also bring about a concentration of traffic within the city. As a higher concentration of citizens inhabits the city, the traffic problem causes the city to become overwhelmed by population (30-60). Therefore, over the course of his career, Wright’s criticism of the modern city remained an ever-present factor in his work. Frank Lloyd Wright had a response to the modern city, which maintained that the city and the countryside were to be made into one Broadacre City. This model of Wright’s became his lasting achievement and was produced by a vision that sought for a decentralized, agrarian, democratic place.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian model came about in response to the social and economic misfortunes of the Great Depression. As Fishman points out, the 1929 stock market crash strengthened Wright’s belief that “the nation needed a change in its physical and economic organization” (122). The change that Wright suggested was to be brought through a model that decentralized the physical and the social power of the modern city, with the inclusive fusion of Jeffersonian democratic ideals with technology. The imagery of Broadacre City was developed through a philosophical convergence of the organic and the inorganic. From the structure of the homes to Wright’s notion of work, there was an inherent attempt to fuse the ideas of pre-modern agrarian life with the ideas of modern industrial life. Wright’s merging of town and country is an attempt to unite the polarized aspects of the city and the country. As Fishman explains, Wright’s Broadacre vision was one that sought to have “no more distinction between urban and rural lifestyles” as technology served as a mechanism for the promotion of democratic beliefs and citizen connectivity that serves to unite the rural landscape into a viable city.
The architecture used to create a city within the valley represents the simple or organic use of structure. Brought from his childhood experiences in the countryside, Wright explains that “organic architecture” shapes democratic life through its simplicity. Wright notes that organic architecture connects the citizen to her land in such a way that roots her in freedom from the constraining notion of the centralized city. Contrary to the city upon the hill, Wright envisions a city without walls, a city without limits, stretching across an infinite plane. Organic architecture places the individual into this plane where “democracy triumphs and builds the great new city” and where no person will live as a “servile or savage animal; holing in or trapped in some cubicle on an upended extension of some narrow street” (96). Therefore, Wright’s use of organic architecture was one that sought to create a city where the citizen is free in both mind and body. Broadacre City is seen as Frank Lloyd Wright’s enduring legacy. The creation of Broadacre City represents the accumulated knowledge and beliefs that Wright envisioned for the design of a democratic city. Although Wright’s vision of the Broadacre City was in a constant state of change and expansion, there were common elements that brought his decentralized, democratic vision to life. One important feature of Broadacre City was the Usonian home situated on one acre of land housing each single family. The simple nature of these homes, dedicated by Wright to the citizens of the United States, represented a reverence to organic life centering around individuality and family life. The homes gave the individual a freedom from others, especially since the dwellings were spatially placed in the models four square miles. Other important features of Broadacre City are Wright’s different institutions used in conjunction with activity and function. The community center was used to promote entertainment facilities and social gathering spaces. The governmental administrative buildings were placed at a distance from the housing facilities. The institutions that were of the most importance to Wright were the educational facilities. Fishman points out that Wright placed such as a high emphasis on education so that individuals could master the modern technologies as well as gain as “understanding of the wisdom of the past” (137). But, Wright was critical of the growing specialization of knowledge because it contributed to the expansion of corporate interests. Wright referred to his ideal school as a “culture center” that placed an emphasis on nature and individualism. In his view, the children at the ideal school would be taught to be “Individualists capable of intelligent cooperation with Principle, growing up not mistaking personality for individuality or license for freedom” (189). To uphold the notions of individuality in production, design centers played an important ole in the creation of products in such a way that preserved the independence of the citizens. Wright points out that these institutions would “do much to reclaim and vitalize all American society” (191). Centered in this philosophy, organic architecture will serve as the basis for weaving the democratic fabric throughout the city. Broadacre City was a response to the emerging congestive cities. Alofsin points out that “Broadacre City allowed for the reemergence of the citizen and his transformation from citizen to the inhabitant of the landscape” (14). Wright’s use of organic architecture and his vision of Broadacre City meshed the city into the countryside in such a way to preserve nature, individualism, and democracy.
Implicit in Wright’s vision of the city is the necessary connection to nature. In many of his works, structures are built into the natural landscape. Wright stressed architectural design as truthful and obedient to purpose, site, occupants, and materials. He believed that buildings should be integral units, simple, unique, serving civilization and eliminating the “box” effect of the past. Space in Wright’s design was fluid, free, and informal. His scales were brought down to create comfort for the occupant and a feeling of oneness with the house and the natural settings. Wright used materials, which would blend into the setting, and limited the variety of materials within a project. His exteriors and interiors of a building varied little, as he philosophized that one should move naturally into a shelter, feeling a certain flow rather than an abrupt transition. Treating the building as an integral unit, Wright often designed down to the smallest detail including all dining ware, furniture, and statues. His geometric designs were interpretations of nature. In furniture, textiles, and accessories, all designed by Wright, simplicity, respect for nature, and dignity if the individual was considered. His was an architecture of democracy for an era of political freedom. Although Wright claimed that his design was driven by principle, his materials decisions were not consistent with any discernable paradigm except for the production of beauty. Patterson expresses this concept in stating, “Wright’s response to Louis Sullivan’s claim of searching “for the rule so broad as to admit no exception” to be revealing in this regard” (8). It has been shown that, although Wright’s materials were important to his architectural expression, his imagery was not always harmonious with the nature of substances and products as defined by technical properties. This circumstance can be reconciled with his artistic success and his claim to have focused on the nature of materials (237). Most of Wright’s architecture is characterized by the purposeful role of materials in the design - whether or not their nature is expressed. The visual success of these buildings gives the materials a sense of correctness (242)
Kaufmann writes in Commentaries on Frank Lloyd Wright that, “Wright saw human life as one of the processes of nature, not as some exceptional form of creation. Within nature people are active, adapting nature to suit their wants; they contribute feedback within the natural system. Similarly, Wright saw architecture as a natural process of human life, in turn nourishing it’s parent system. To Wright architecture human kind and nature were joined in a grand dynamic continuity, and continuity within architecture indicated that people were aligning themselves - as he believed they should - with the natural forces of life” (123).
Romantic genius, artistic critic, and heroic individualist were the labels Wright attached to himself and the standards against which he measured his own behavior. The secret of Wright’s architecture will not be found on the surface but in its heart. If we wish to find it for ourselves, we must make our own way to the unity he managed to discover in so many corners of his universe: in the romantic words of a Concord preacher father, in the geometric lessons of a kindergarten toy, in the gentle prospects of a Wisconsin landscape, in the beauty of a Japanese temple and, perhaps, even in the persistent leaks of Wright’s own roofs.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Alofsin, Anthony. Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1994.
Brooks, H. Allen. Writings on Wright. Cambridge: Mit Press, 1981.
Fishman, Robert. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and LeCorbusier. Cambridge: Mit Press, 1989.
Gill, Brendan. Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons,
Kaufmann, Edgar, Jr. 9 Commentaries on Frank Lloyd Wright. Cambridge: Mit Press, 1989.
Lind, Carla. The Wright Style. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Patterson, Terry L. Frank Lloyd Wright and the Meaning of Materials. New York: International Thomson Publishing, Inc., 1994.
Rosenbaum, Alvin. Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1993.
Secrest, Meryle. Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1992.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Living City. New York: Horizon Press, 1958.
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