Frank Lloyd Wright’s career spanned nearly three quarters of a century and began in 1887 when he dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to work for the Chicago architect Joseph Silsbee. Wright had already been paying his way through school by working for Silsbee on the Unity Chapel, built for Wright’s uncle who was a Unitarian minister. George Grant Elmslie and George Washington Maher were his fellow draftsmen and would later form part of the pioneering group Wright described as the New School of the Middle West, with Dwight Perkins and Thomas Tallmadge among others. In addition to the simple shingle style of the chapel, Silsbee employed Richardsonian Romanesque and Colonial Revival designs. Wright was later to describe Silsbee’s influence as ‘a contrast to the awkward stupidities and brutalities of the period elsewhere’. But he swiftly moved to the firm of Adler and Sullivan, where he also absorbed the father of modernism’s concept of a purely American architecture, seeding the Prairie School movement, which sought to create a democratic architecture suited to the American way of life and free of historical references.
In 1889 Wright built an Arts and Crafts home for himself and his wife Kitty in Oak Park, one of the Chicago suburbs where most of his first 20 years of work would be built. By one estimate, a quarter of his life’s output was produced there. His extensions to the house were paid for in part by royalties from the Luxfer Prism Company whose square sheets of ribbed glass featuring abstract compositions of beading were used to refract light into deep courts and wells, or to bring natural light into factories and offices. Wright patented 41 designs, although only one flower pattern of Luxfer’s Iridian prism tiles actually went into production.
While working for Sullivan, Wright’s champagne tastes and beer pocket forced him to accept illicit independent commissions for at least nine ‘bootleg’ houses and, in 1893, his moonlighting got him the sack. ‘Come with me to the offices of Frank Lloyd Wright, architect…’ he wrote. ‘Upon leaving Adler and Sullivan, Cecil Corwin joined me (not as a partner) and we opened offices on the tower-floor in the Schiller Building, Chicago – a building that owing to Sullivan’s love for his new home in the South had been more largely left to me than any other…Cecil and me had a drafting room each, either side of the common central room for business. Defending this room was an anteroom or vestibule but the ceiling dropped down to the top of the doors. A straight line glass pattern formed this ceiling – glass diffusing artificial light. The effect of this indirect lighting in the small anteroom was light sunlight, no fixtures visible.’
At home, rather than a conventional chandelier over the dining table, Wright recessed a lamp in the ceiling shielded behind rice paper and a wood grille with stylised oak leaves and arabesques so that the light filtered through ‘much subdued’.
In 1893, Wright also visited the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition for which Silbee designed a moving sidewalk, a forerunner of moving walkways, and Sullivan designed the Transportation Building at the Columbian Exposition. But it was perhaps Japan’s national pavilion that had the greatest effect on Wright. His interest had probably been woken already by seeing Silbee’s extensive collection of things Japanese but the experience spurred him to go to Japan in 1905. He returned with a huge selection of prints which were to become a lifelong passion and influenced him to use flat areas of colour encased in black lines in the designs of his furniture and lighting.
At this time, Wright’s architecture began to employ a new vocabulary of space, form and pattern characterised by horizontal forms that alluded to the flat, stratified landscape of the Midwest. The rectilinear Prairie style emphasised horizontal lines, open plans, flat or hipped roofs with overhangs and windows grouped in horizontal bands that sought to evoke native vistas; solid construction, disciplined ornamentation, craftsmanship and honest materials that drew on the ideals of the Arts and Crafts, and integration with the landscape informed by Transcendentalism.
This is also when he began to develop the well-documented philosophy of an organic architecture that reflected a building’s place, purpose and time, showing Sullivan’s influence. He famously summed it up when he demanded of his apprentices, ‘can you say when your building is complete, that the landscape is more beautiful than it was before?’ Edgar Kaufmann, who was a resident apprentice at Wright’s Taliesin East School and Studio from 1933 to 1934 (and son of the businessman for whom Wright designed the landmark Fallingwater residence), believed that Wright’s ideology stemmed from a transcendental belief that human life and nature are inextricable.
Horizontally, this connection is emphasised by Wright’s use of glass, blurring the boundaries between the typically low and dark spaces of the interior and the world outside and dissolving the building’s solidity. Vertically it is expressed in clerestory windows and leaded skylights. Aaron Betsky, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture notes that ‘the windows usually offer the best views when you are sitting down, emphasising that you should be at rest within the realms he created. In urban structures, skylights draw your eye away from the confusion around you and towards the abstraction of the sky, a place even larger than the most expansive and thrusting metropolis.’
Between 1885 and 1923 Wright designed more than 160 buildings that contained ribbons of uninterrupted glass – mainly clear but segmented by abstract geometry – the strip fenestration Wright called light screens ‘that took the place of the walls and were now often the windows in long series’. Stained glass expert Julie L Sloane of North Adams, Massachusetts, says that Wright designed at least 4000 windows, not including ceiling panels. She contends that when Wright broke away from traditional leaded glass designs in 1895, ‘the vocabulary of the Prairie window was born’. Its most ambitious execution was perhaps at the Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield, Illinois, where Wright designed around 450 windows, skylights, door panels, sconces and light fixtures. Its 250 leaded windows depicting the fauna and flora of the prairie defy comparison, says Sloane. ‘With these windows, Wright defined the idiom of the Prairie window into a symphony of light that remains unsurpassed’. The Dana house also contains Wright’s Butterfly lamp, ‘the most ornate and beautiful of Wright’s light fixtures,’ she adds. The Frederick C Robie House, completed in 1910, was Wright’s last Prairie-style construction. Its cantilevered steel beams create long, uninterrupted spaces that extend out through windows to porches and balconies and thus ‘open the box’, in Wright’s words. However, it also features 175 doors and windows designed by Wright including a 15m-span of 24 leaded casement doors leading to a balcony that extends along one side of the building. In the series of lithographs from 1910 known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, Wright described his aim as being ‘to make of a dwelling place a complete work of art’, so perhaps it is not surprising that he should integrate the furniture and the lighting in designs such as that of the Robie House.
From the mid-1930s Wright began to design modest-sized houses that he dubbed Usonian, meaning of the USA, and reflecting both the generally grim economic environment and Americans’ changing habits and aspirations. After a hiatus during the Second World War he received commissions at a pace. Florida Southern College at Lakeland (1940–49), the VC Morris Shop (1948) in San Francisco, the Marin County Civic Center near San Francisco, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City stand out in particular. They were not all without problems or critics.
This year the British critic Rowan Moore gave Wright a back-handed compliment when he described Marin County as ‘a fusion of a UFO and a Roman aqueduct rendered in baby blue, pink and gold, whose sheer silliness, combined with undiminished bravura and invention in placing it in the landscape, relieves the asphyxiation of his more revered achievements’.
The circular Guggenheim with its cantilevered, spiral ramp, which Moore decried as offering only one way to go, created a continuous space as revolutionary as the modern art in the museum’s collection. Its construction though, was a notoriously bumpy ride that took more than 15 fractious years, by which time Wright had died having created what has been described as ‘one of the great architectural spaces of the 20th century’, its horizontals at a tilt and topped by a glazed dome.
The two buildings of the SC Johnson world headquarters near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Administration Building (opened in 1939) and the Research Tower (opened in 1950,) which famously made use of translucent Pyrex tube glazing, remain among his masterworks.
The Administration Building, known more popularly as the Johnson Wax Building, is essentially a blind, two-storey brick box. It contains the Great Workroom for clerks and typists, a vast open space with dendriform concrete columns on a 6x6m grid, each capable of supporting six times its own weight. Wright called them lily pads and a glade of trees. The Great Workroom relies on clerestory lighting from horizontal Pyrex tubes; while admitting light they also dripped water until they were replaced with sealable acrylic. Meanwhile, the light admitted by the 15-floor Research Tower’s 7000 Pyrex glass tube windows was so bright that the chemical company’s scientists were issued with sunglasses. Nevertheless, as Meredith L Clausen writes (page 36) many people found the design liberating. In both cases the buildings’ users were spared the industrial view, which Wright, the honestly arrogant, erstwhile country boy, disdained.