Frank Lloyd Wright was an incredibly influential architect whose innovative designs, utilizing a style based on natural forms which he called organic architecture, have made him a major figure in modernist architecture.
Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867. His mother, the formidable Anna, was determined that her son become an architect, and hung postcards of famous buildings around his crib. His father, William, a controlling disciplinarian, wanted Wright to be a musician like himself, and forced him to play piano and organ, rapping his knuckles when he made a mistake. Anna and William Wright divorced in 1884; Wright maintained close contact with his mother throughout his life, but never forgave his father for abandoning the family. He refused to see his father ever again, and did not even attend his funeral.
Wright studied civil engineering for a few semesters at the University of Wisconsin, but then quit school, pawned his absent father's clothes, and moved to Chicago in 1887. He began working under Louis Sullivan in the office of the firm Adler and Sullivan. He soon met the beautiful Catherine Tobin ("Kitty"), daughter of a wealthy Chicago family; against her parents' wishes she and Wright married. He was 21, she 18.
The young couple moved to the quiet suburb of Oak Park, where Wright built his first house for them to live in using money borrowed from - and never repaid to - Sullivan. Wright's mother lived next door in a Victorian home; she was constantly at the Wrights', to Wright's pleasure and Kitty's chagrin, for she was apparently a strong willed woman who had her own ideas and little regard for tradition; she eschewed corsets, earning the epithet loose woman. Wright was like his mother in ignoring convention; he wore outrageous clothes, including capes and kimono; drove a yellow sportscar that earned him many of the first speeding tickets in Oak Park; and generally followed his own path in personal and professional matters.
Wright's first house shows little evidence from the outside of the Prairie Style he would later champion, but the interior includes many of Wright's characteristic design features. The house has no attic or basement, both of which the architect detested. On the main floor there is a circular, flowing movement from room to room; though common today, this was unusual for Victorian houses, which featured a narrow central hallway with box-like rooms coming off the sides. He put built-in benches and storage cabinets in the rooms in order to obviate the need for the large, bulky pieces of furniture popular at the time. The house had other signature Wright features: a recessed light fixture in the ceiling, several fireplaces, and banks of windows which Wright refused to adulterate with treatments, leaving them uncovered even in the master bedroom, a choice which scandalized his neighbours, though the house in those days faced prairie, not other residences. In this bedroom he and Kitty began a family, and soon had six children. Wright, impractical as always, hadn't made provision in his plans for children, and had to put them in his original studio, throwing up a partition to separate the girls' sleeping area from the boys'. In 1895 Wright built a small addition to house his studio. The addition impinged upon a tree Wright particularly loved; unwilling to cut it down, he built the room around the tree. Finally, in 1898, Wright added a separate studio alongside the house. The house and studio are owned by a preservation trust established in 1974 to save the buildings from demolition, and have been restored to their condition in 1909, just before Wright left the home and his family. I was very pleased to be able to take a tour of the property this year, and would recommend a visit to anyone remotely interested in Wright.
Wright's contract with Adler and Sullivan specified that he not obtain outside work, but Wright, perennially short of money, did just that, taking on clients for whom he designed "bootleg houses", as he called them, mostly in the neighbourhood around his house. These houses became more innovative in form, presaging the Prairie style to come, with low sweeping roofs overhanging walls of windows, the house centred on massive fireplaces at the heart. Sullivan discovered Wright's extra work in 1893 and fired him; thereafter, Wright worked independently. He was tireless, often remaining at his desk late into the night; Kitty, not surprisingly, was busy with the children, and the couple began to grow apart.
Wright's first non-residential contracts, gained in 1904 and 1905, were for the Larkin Building in Buffalo and the Unity Temple in Oak Park, respectively. (He gained the commission for the Larkin Building by claiming that many of Sullivan's large public edifices were his own, an outright lie.) These structures reveal Wright's distaste for the urban environment, and are inward-focused, separated from the surrounding city by thick masonry walls. They feature interior spaces lit by skylights and ringed with balconies or galleries; windows looking out to the street are often inoperable and placed so as to admit light but allow no view of the outside world. The Larkin Building was torn down in 1950, but the Unity Temple is open for public viewing and is worth a visit.
Wright soon began asking Kitty for a divorce; she reputedly told him that he always got everything he wanted, and wasn't going to get this. In 1905 he became involved with the wife a client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a feminist writer and mother of three. Subject to condemnation for his affair, Wright had a hard time gaining work for a time; he rented out his house and set Kitty and the children up in the restructured studio, then in 1909 ran away from approbation to meet his lover in Europe. His fame in Europe was soon consolidated by the publication in 1910 and 1911 of two editions of his work, and by an exhibition that travelled throughout the continent. After a year of exile Wright and Cheney returned to settle in Wright's childhood home of Wisconsin, where the busy architect began to find more work, as well as creating another home and studio, Taliesin. Tragically, a few years later, while Wright was away, one of Wright's employees locked all Taliesin's windows and all but one of its doors, set the house on fire, and bludgeoned anyone who attempted to flee. Cheney, as well as seven other people, including two of her children, died, and the house was destroyed, though later rebuilt.
I was curious about this killer, about what might have motivated him to commit this heinous act, and what happened to him after. Julian Carlton was a West Indian hired to work as a butler; his wife was a cook. Newspaper reports of the time refer to him as a "crazed Negro", but nobody really knew what sparked his murderous spree. I don't know whether he died at the scene or was incarcerated for the crime. Newspaper reports at the time were much more interested in the prurient fact that Cheney and Wright were not married; this reporting grieved Wright, who felt, rightly, that his love was being unjustly defamed in death as she had been in life.
Fame At Last
In 1916 Wright received a commission for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Long interested in Japanese culture and art and a collector of Japanese prints, Wright jumped at the chance, and spent much of the next six years in Tokyo. The hotel was erected on concrete supports and built from carved volcanic rock, reinforced by brick and concrete; the walls moved independently so that the structure would survive earthquakes. And survived it did, most spectactularly emerging intact from the terrible earthquake that in 1923 flattened much of the city. The hotel was demolished in 1968, though the lobby was saved and reconstructed at the Meiji Mura architecture museum in Nagoya.
Kitty finally granted Wright a divorce in 1923; in a spectacular show of poor judgement, he quickly married Miriam Noel, a schizophrenic, alcoholic and morphine addict who threatened him with a knife before leaving him the next year. He fell in love again, this time with a Russian woman, Olgivanna Ivanova Milanor Hinzenberg. Miriam harassed the couple for some time, but finally relented and granted Wright a divorce. Predictably, he married his latest love; she was 26, he 55. The two lived at Taliesin, which had been rebuilt yet again after a fire, this one accidentally caused.
Meanwhile, Wright was in debt and living far beyond his means as always. Though the Imperial Hotel had secured him a heroic reputation, surviving the earthquake as it did, he was also known as a flamboyant, impractical, and controlling character, and often had trouble finding work. He designed furniture for his homes based on look rather than comfort, and even went so far as to draw hostess dresses and napkins which harmonized with his decor. He would drop in unannounced at his former clients' homes, only to be horrified if anything had been changed from his original specifications.
In part to gain money and also, probably, acolytes, he and Olgivanna set up a school at Taliesin where students would pay to study under the master, and many did, though he often used them for manual labour in his constant rebuilding efforts, rather than teaching them architecture. Wright's biggest commission at this time, and one of his most enduring legacies, was for Fallingwater, nicely noded on everything2, so I won't say more about it here. After this the architect, now 70, began an incredibly fertile period. He designed and built dozens of Usonian style homes, named after the United States, which he conceived of as affordable, middle class homes to be built on a mass scale. Like many contemporary social reformers, he believed that well-designed, tasteful dwellings would produce a harmonius and enlightened society. The dwellings were single storey houses built under a massive concrete slab, family homes with adjoining carports. They were meant to cost $5000, but typically ran over-budget, often costing twice that.
In 1937 he and his wife began to spend their winters in the Arizona desert at Taliesin West, a utopic community of master and disciples living and working in a series of buildings that many consider the essence of Wright's design principles. Partially embedded in the earth, the buildings incorporate native stone and concrete mixed from desert sand and are meant to recapture the values and culture of the original inhabitants of the area. Wright conceived of the undertaking as archaeological, rather than architectural, and wanted the structure to look primitive and excavated. The building is still open to the public. The crowning glory for Wright's career and reputation was, of course, the commission to build the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which he received in 1943 when he was 76. The building, completed after his death, takes the form of a spiral, an upside down ziggurat, and is Wright's final condemnation of modernist architecture, an almost organic, and certainly striking, structure that is unique in design.
In 1959, at age 92, Wright died from complications after intestinal surgery. He was buried at Taliesin near Mamah Cheney and his mother. Olgivanna died in 1985; in keeping with her dying wish, her followers secretly exhumed Wright’s body, had it cremated, and brought his ashes to Taliesin West where they rest next to hers in a garden wall.
Although my father is an architect, I'm not, and I really only became interested in Wright after seeing Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's masterful documentary, Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time of the release of the documentary PBS launched an excellent accompanying website, and much of the factual and biographical information I include comes from these two sources. See the website at
There's an exhaustive compendium of resources on the architect at
I also learned a lot during my recent tour of Wright's house and studio at Oak Park, Chicago.