WRIGHT, Frank Lloyd


WRIGHT, Frank Lloyd
    (1867-1959)
   Frank Lloyd Wright, the best-known American architect of the 20th century, designed both public buildings and private houses to develop a uniquely modern American style of architecture. Born in Wisconsin, Wright first studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin but left his studies to apprentice with Louis Sullivan. By 1893, he had opened his own architectural studio, specializing in domestic structures. Wright's goal was to create a house design that took into account the surrounding geography in order to better integrate homes into nature. This type of home, characterized by strong horizontal lines and large windows, is called the Prairie style house. First introduced in the Midwest, this house was typically a one-story dwelling with a heavy overhanging roofline that provides a horizontal echo of the flat landscape.
   Wright's most famous Prairie style home is the Frederick C. Robie House, built in Chicago in 1906-1909. The warm brick exterior spreads out to include terraces edged in white concrete and a dramatically cantilevered roof over the terrace sections. A wide chimney cluster rises from the center of the building, providing a sole vertical element that monumentalizes the symbolism of the family hearth. The floor plan of the house is open, with rooms that flow from one into another, much like Japanese architecture. In the Robie House, the living room flows into the dining room; the rich wood molding, ceiling beams, bookshelves, and niches found throughout the house unify the open space of the interior.
   One of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago, Wright often designed his own furniture to match his houses. In addition, he and his assistant Marion Mahony Griffin designed modern lighting and heating systems for his homes, bringing a higher level of comfort to the domestic space. New research has shown, in fact, that much of his furnishings, lighting, mosaics, and murals were actually completed entirely by Griffin. Griffin was the second woman to graduate from MIT, in 1894, and was one of the first to receive an architectural license in the United States. She was Wright's first employee at his studio in Oak Park. In her 14-year tenure with Wright, Griffin created the beautiful watercolor sketches that Wright has become known for, and like Wright, Griffin was influenced in her style by Japanese prints.
   By the 1930s, Wright was building his "Usonian Home," a less expensive adaptation of his Prairie House that was more visually suited to a varied geography. Ultimately, Wright designed over 362 homes across the United States, 300 of which survive today. His most daring home is the Edgar Kaufmann House, also called Fallingwater, built in 1937 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. This house is literally built into the landscape, right on top of a small cliff with a waterfall and a pool of water that runs off into a creek. A large boulder was integrated right into the hearth. With water running beneath the house, Wright then added widely cantilevered concrete slabs to create terraces across the exterior of the home to echo the stepped horizontal slabs of rock located around the waterfall. Worried about the structure of these slabs, the builder secretly placed steel inserts in the concrete despite Wright's objections.
   The Price Tower, located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (1952-1956), is the only cantilevered concrete skyscraper built by Wright, who was hired upon the advice of Bruce Goff, Dean of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. While Wright learned the structural aspects of skyscrapers during his apprenticeship with Louis Sullivan, the design of this 19-story building is novel. Here Wright created a central core of elevator shafts with the floors cantilevered outward like branches attached to a tree trunk. Described as "the tree that escaped the crowded forest," this building is now the Price Tower Arts Center, and plans for an addition to the museum, commissioned to Zaha Hadid, are under way.
   Although Wright is best known for his housing designs, his most famous building is the very prominent Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, located on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Built between 1943 and 1959, the museum is in the shape of a giant seashell, with tan concrete terraces that spiral down and inward onto a rectangular ground-floor base. The organic design of this building creates a dramatic break from the very geometric surrounding buildings that maintain the straight lines of the street. The museum houses a collection of modern art meant to be viewed on a descending spiral ramp beginning at the top of the broad foyer of the museum and sweeping slowly downward to arrive again at the entrance foyer. The museum visit begins with an elevator ride, and visitors can focus on the works of art that line the descending walls as they walk slowly downward, without having to navigate a labyrinth of galleries. This building, much like Wright's houses, was ultimately meant to be highly accessible to people. It is this accessibility blended with a high level of aesthetic beauty that ensured Frank Lloyd Wright's widespread and enduring appeal, an appeal that continues to be a source of inspiration for architects today.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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