Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was described in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as, “the greatest American architect of all time”. Some would say he was the most important architect of all time. He was a genius who believed he was destined to redesign the world. Over the course of his long year career, he designed over 800 buildings, including revolutionary structures such as The Guggenheim Museum, Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Building and Taliesin. Frank’s architectural achievements were often overshadowed by his turbulent private life. In his 92 years he fathered 7 children, married three times and suffered great personal tragedy through a fire and murder.
Born in the farming town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, Frank studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin but left before finishing his degree. He worked for a short time as a draftsman with the architectural firm of Joseph Lyman Silsbee in Chicago and then took up an apprenticeship with the most prominent firm in town, Adler & Sullivan. Due to Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 development in the city was plentiful and Frank soon became a star in Louis Sullivan’s office. However, throughout his life Frank spent lavishly beyond his means and after taking on moonlighting jobs to pay for mounting debts he was asked to leave Sullivan’s practice.
In 1889 Frank married his first wife Catherine Tobin and moved to the suburb of Oak Park. It was here he built himself a house and studio where he was to live and practice for the next 20 years. It was in Oak Park that Frank developed his famous “Prairie” style of architecture. When asked if he believed in God, Frank said Nature (with a capital N) was his God, that he took his inspiration from Nature and incorporated it into the building rather than using “natural” materials. The Prairie Style was a conceptual response to the flat, horizontal terrain of the mid-western prairie. Key characteristics of this domestic architecture were: shallow, hipped roofs and banded windows that emphasised the horizontal, overhanging eaves extending the building into the landscape and cantilevered overhangs, the first time this engineering was used in domestic design.
The building that made Frank world famous was Fallingwater, a very special house in Pennsylvania built over a 30’ waterfall. Designed for the Kaufmann family in 1936, it instantly received worldwide attention when it appeared on the cover of Time-Life Magazine and today it is a National Historic Landmark. The Kaufmanns thought Frank would design their new house with a wonderful view of the falls but instead he built it right on top of the falls as he said he wanted them to live with the waterfalls, to make them part of their everyday life, and not just to look at them now and then! Donated by the family to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 2002 it was restored at a cost of $11.4 million.
Frank’s last great undertaking, begun when he was 76, was The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The building, which Frank thought would guarantee his immortality, took him 15 years, 700 sketches and six sets of working drawings to create. The museum opened in 1959, ten years after the death of Solomon Guggenheim and six months after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation: www.franklloydwright.org