Frank Lloyd Wright

What, then, is architecture? It is man in possession of his earth. It is the only true record of him.. .While he was true to earth his architecture was creative.1

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect whose early designs were the catalyst for the emergence of Modern architecture around 1900, and whose seventy-two-year career has been the single greatest influence on the architecture of the twentieth century. Today, forty years after his death, Wright is the most famous architect in the world, and his designs, including Unity Temple, Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum, are among the most well-known works of architecture built in the twentieth century.

Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, in 1867, and raised in a family where the study of nature, the Unitarian faith and the ideas of American transcendental philosophy were all powerfully present. Aged 20, without any formal university training, Wright moved to Chicago and entered the practice of architecture. After five years in the office of Louis Sullivan, leader in the development of 'organic' architecture and the skyscraper, Wright opened his own practice in 1893. During the next sixty-six years, Wright designed over six hundred built works, revolutionizing architecture as we understand it in the modern world.

Wright idealized Nature (which he spelled with a capital N) as the absolute reference and evaluative measure for the works of man. Nature was the source of both ethical principles, for the living of life, and formal principles, for the design of architecture. Wright based this interpretation of nature on the writings of the American transcendental thinkers, Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau, Horatio Greenough and, most importantly, his beloved Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transcendentalists held as fundamental the fact that the material and spiritual worlds were inseparable, being in fact one and the same. Nature was the ideal manifestation of divine order, and Emerson called on his readers to 'esteem nature a perpetual counselor, and her perfections the exact measure of our deviations'.2 Every physical thing, natural or man-made, was the consequence of, and had consequences for, spiritual thought— all form had moral meaning. 'All form is an effect of character',3 Emerson said, and Wright believed that a person's character was an effect of the form and construction of the place in which they dwelled: 'Whether people are fully conscious of this or not, they actually derive countenance and sustenance from the "atmosphere" of the things they live in or with. They are rooted in them just as a plant is in the soil in which it is planted.'4

Wright's formal principles of architectural design were also drawn from the natural world. The formative experience of working on his uncle's farm during the summers of his childhood established Wright's great love and respect for nature. The Friedrich Froebel kindergarten training Wright received transformed this naive love of nature into a precise method of making form. Based on learning from nature, Froebel training taught the child to seek the fundamental geometries underlying all natural forms. From this training, reinforced by his later studies of nature-based ornament with Sullivan, Wright would develop his definition of architectural design: discovering the underlying geometric structure of nature and building with it. Wright believed that man does not learn from nature by merely copying its surface effects—the underlying structure and geometry of nature were nature's true gifts for the architect, to be discovered only through close analysis of both natural forms and their determining functions. The ideal of an 'organic' architecture, first proposed by Horatio Greenough in his 1852 essay 'Form and Function', and defined thirty-five years later by Wright's mentor Louis Sullivan as 'form follows function', was redefined by Wright as 'form and function are one'. Wright sought to build an architecture that attained the perfect fusion of geometric form and life-giving function he found in his studies of nature.

Yet for Wright, nature as the ideal source of geometric order for design (Whitman's 'the square deific') was not to be confused with the particular building site or landscape in which he was called upon to work. While idealized Nature was sacred, the inhabited landscape was always in need of the redemptive power of design. Wright believed that no site selected for building was ever untouched by the hand of man. 'Fallingwater', the most famous modern house in the world, was designed by Wright in 1935 on what most visitors today assume was a 'wild, natural' site, but which in fact had been inhabited for more than forty years—this most 'natural' house itself sits in the hill cut of a preexisting road. Wright believed that humans never built in and inhabited the natural world without fundamentally changing it, but he felt that, if the architect worked with the underlying geometric order of nature, it was possible to make the built landscape as beautiful, in its own way, as wild nature.

The vast majority of Wright's buildings were built in the American suburbs, where the original landscape had been sub-divided into lots served by street grids and utilities, and where often most of the original trees and vegetation had been removed before any houses were built— these suburbs were far indeed from being 'natural' places. From the very beginning of his career in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago where Wright built his house in 1889, Wright conceived of the architect's task in designing houses for the American suburbs to be one of reconstitution of a lost natural balance, a nature now fundamentally changed through the inhabitation of man. For Wright, man was an integral part of nature; 'Man takes a positive hand in creation whenever he puts a building on the earth beneath the sun. If he has birthright at all, it must consist in this: that he too is no less a feature of the landscape than the rocks, trees, bears, or bees of that nature to which he owes his being.'5

Wright thus conceived of architectural design as encompassing both the landscape and the architecture that engaged it. The 'Prairie Houses' of 1900-15, Wright's first important domestic design innovation, also involved an equally innovative (if rarely noted) strategy of relating to the landscape. Wright's Prairie Houses were often located at the edge of their suburban lots, allowing their gardens to occupy the geometric centre of the sites (usually reserved for the house itself), and weaving together interior and exterior spaces so that the house and landscape were inextricably bound to one another. Rather than the free-standing object in the landscape, so typical of much later Modern architecture, Wright from the very beginning of his career constructed a remarkable interdependence between house and landscape, such that neither appears complete without the other.

Wright's was a truly 'organic' design ethic, embracing both architecture and landscape, and all that takes place within them:

'buildings are the background or framework for the human life within their walls and the natural efflorescence without; and to develop and maintain the harmony of a true chord between them . These ideals take the buildings out of school and marry them to the ground.'6 Wright began each design by incorporating the formative power of the landscape as the primal place of inhabitation—the building literally began with the ground on which it was to stand: 'It is in the nature of any organic building to grow from its site, come out of the ground into the light— the ground itself held always as a component basic part of the building itself'.7

Wright believed that architecture was determined by 'the nature of materials' of which it was constructed. He believed that the way a space was experienced was directly related to the way it was made or constructed. Wright built with both the underlying structures of nature (the cantilevered skyscraper based upon the tree) and the actual materials of nature. Wright employed each material in its natural state, displaying its inherent colours and texture, whether it was stone mined from a nearby quarry, concrete cast into ornamented block, or wood cut in the mill, and exposing the marks of cutting and shaping inevitably involved in taking materials from nature and preparing them for use in construction. Wright employed each material so that it contributed its own unique character to the spatial experience of inhabitation—the 'natural house' was literally made from nature. In this way, Wright believed his buildings were natural places within and without, where man could truly be at home in nature.

For Wright, architecture was literally mankind's place in nature, our particular manner of dwelling on the earth, under the sky. Whatever the commission, Wright always designed for a balanced condition—man in nature and nature in man. In the public urban building, such as Unity Temple, Johnson Wax and the Guggenheim Museum, vertical sunlight fell from above, filtered through the 'natural' geometric forms of skylights, bringing nature deep into the very heart of the city. In the private suburban house, such as the Coonley House, the Robie House and the Jacobs House, horizontal views, sheltered by the brow of the broad overhanging roof, opened to the surrounding landscape, bringing nature all the way into the hearth at the centre of the house. The public urban building was given the arc of the sun, and the private suburban house was given the line of the land—sky and horizon, as respective boundaries of the natural world, brought by Wright into the spaces of daily life.

Wright held that it was essential for daily life to be lived in direct communion with nature, and that architecture should be designed as a place in nature. Wright believed, following Emerson and Thoreau, that because man was a product of nature, he was only able to learn about his own essential nature through regular and intimate contact with the natural landscape. Wright felt that the American democratic experiment would ultimately fail unless all its citizens had the opportunity to live intimately in nature. In 1935, the same year he designed Fallingwater, Wright designed the first of his 'Usonian' Houses, modestly priced prototype homes for the growing American middle class. The Usonian Houses were L-shaped in plan, framing two edges of their suburban sites in such a way that the garden was the centre of both the site and the spatial composition of the house itself. Flooded with light, these gardens became the focus of the house and the life that took place within it; Wright strove to 'make the garden be the building as much as the building will be the garden, the sky as treasured a feature of daily indoor life as the ground itself'.8

A life taking place in nature was what Wright sought to make possible through his house designs, and thus his opposition to the flattening of landscape contours or the mechanical control of climate: 'To me air conditioning is a dangerous circumstance.. think it far better to go with the natural climate than to try to fix a special artificial climate of your own. Climate means something to man. It means something in relation to one's life in it.'9 The remarkable energy-efficiency and unerring solar orientation of Wright's houses from the very beginning of his career, though unprecedented in architectural practice, is entirely consistent with his vision of architecture's harmony with nature. While often considered 'ahead of his time' in his willingness to embrace and employ technical developments, Wright remained absolutely opposed to the instrumental aspects of the modern industrial era that in any way diminished mankind's experience of being at home in nature. Primary among these were land speculation and speculative building, which Wright believed were inherently evil and unnatural, noting that in the typical American suburb 'architecture and its kindred, as a matter of course, are divorced from nature in order to make [architecture] the merchantable thing.It is a speculative commodity.'10

Wright's designs engaged both the natural land form and the history of human occupation of the site. He believed agriculture (to care for and cultivate) and architecture (to build and to edify) were related human activities on the earth—the tending and transforming of the landscape. Broadacre City, designed in 1935, was Wright's greatest and most comprehensive counter-proposal to the crowding of the traditional city, but also to the isolation of both agrarian life and the developer's speculative suburb. For Wright, culture and cultivation were closely related, and the level of culture of a society was directly indicated in the level of cultivation of its landscape: 'You will find the environment reflecting unerringly the society'.11 At the most fundamental level, Wright believed that the natural environment should be integrated into daily domestic life: each of his designs was intended 'to be a natural performance, one that is integral to site, integral to environment, integral to the life of the inhabitants'.12

Notes

1 'Architecture and Modern Life', Collected Writings, vol. 3, p. 222, 1937.

2 Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Prudence', Emerson's Essays, New York: Harper & Row, p. 166, 1926, 1951.

4 Wright, The Natural House, New York: Horizon Press, p. 135, 1958.

5 'Architecture and Modern Life', p. 223.

6 'In the Cause of Architecture', Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 95, 1908.

7 The Natural House, p. 50.

10 'Architecture and Modern Life', p. 237.

11 'Concerning Landscape Architecture', Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 57, 1900.

12 The Natural House, p. 134.

See also in this book Emerson, Ruskin, Thoreau

Frank Lloyd Wright's major built works

Larkin Company Building (demolished), Buffalo, NY, 1903. Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, NY, 1904. Unity Temple, Oak Park, IL, 1905. Avery Coonley House, Riverside, IL, 1907. Frederick Robie House, Chicago, IL, 1907.

Frank Lloyd Wright House/Studio, 'Taliesin', Spring Green, WI, 1911-25.

Midway Gardens (demolished), Chicago, IL, 1913.

Imperial Hotel (demolished), Tokyo, Japan, 1914-22.

Aline Barnsdall 'Hollyhock' House, Los Angeles, CA, 1919.

Samuel Freeman House, Los Angeles, CA, 1923.

Edgar Kaufmann House, 'Fallingwater', Mill Run, PA, 1935.

Johnson Wax Buildings, Racine, WI, 1935, 1944.

Herbert Jacobs House, Madison, WI, 1936.

Frank Lloyd Wright House/Studio, 'Taliesin West', Scottsdale, AZ, 1937.

Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL, 1938-59. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1943-59. H.C.Price Company Tower, Bartlesville, OK, 1952. Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park, PA, 1954. Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael, CA, 1957.

Frank Lloyd Wright's major writings

Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, ed. Bruce Brooks Pfieffer, New York: Rizzoli, 1992-5:

Volume 1:1894-1930 (1992) Volume 2:1930-1932 (1992) Volume 3:1937-1939 (1993) Volume 4:1939-1949 (1994) Volume 5:1949-1959 (1995)

Further reading

Hoffmann, Donald, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Nature, New York: Dover, 1995.

Levine, Neil, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 1996. McCarter, Robert, Frank Lloyd Wright, London: Phaidon Press, 1997. Riley, Terrance (ed.), Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect, New York: Harry Abrams/

Museum of Modern Art, 1994. Sergeant, John, Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses, New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1976.

ROBERT McCARTER

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