Frank Lloyd Wright: Wright and Wrong
The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright constructed his personal legacy as deliberately as his buildings. Both were flawed.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) is a revered architect known for visually striking buildings integrated with the natural environment. His influential output includes Fallingwater (completed 1937) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (completed 1959).
Born in rural Wisconsin, Wright studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Chicago in 1887 and worked under famed modernist architect Louis Sullivan. Wright’s early residences pioneered the Prairie School of single-family home design. In 1915, he accepted a commission from the Japanese Emperor to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (completed 1922, demolished 1958).
Upon returning to the United States, Wright published several well regarded books, including The Disappearing City (1932). He founded the Taliesin Fellowship to train aspiring architects from his stunningly designed complexes in Wisconsin and Arizona. His 1930s Usonian ranch houses would have a lasting effect on 20th-century suburban home design. In all, he completed over 500 structures, of which over 300 survive. In 2019, eight of his buildings were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Taliesin studios.
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most iconic architects of all time. Of the more than 1,000 designs he completed during his 91 years, a remarkable 532 have been built. On a Who’s Who list of great architects, Wright is uniquely prolific. Considering Wright’s output, it probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when his structures began to reveal their flaws over time. But practical failings haven’t diminished the significance of Wright’s philosophies.
Dan Nichols: Wright saw God’s work in nature, and he strove to have his work compliment nature, and that can be seen in many of his buildings.
Stuart Graff: In some ways, the radical nature of his buildings helped him select his clients. He referred to some of the business magnates that would hire him to do work as American men of vision and ideals.
Indeed, Wright saw himself as more than a mere designer of buildings. He was a social architect intent on changing the very shape of American life. He subscribed to an ideal popularized by the composer Richard Wagner in the mid-1800s. Gesamtkunstwerk, or, “total work of art”. In pursuit of aesthetic unity, Wright selected every single component for his creations, including the furniture.
Jennifer Gray: He’s trying to create a streamlined environment that will be open plan, more modern, easier to clean, all these different sorts of things. You can interpret the total work of art as also being very kind of fascist or totalitarian because he’s controlling everything about the design.
The same qualities that made Frank Lloyd Wright a groundbreaking architect also made him a hard person to be around. Gruff, egocentric, demanding. Wright struggled with finances and fidelity throughout his life, but he was also a genius marketer who became a household name through a clever combination of self-curated exhibitions, high-profile interviews, and creative promotional strategies. From 1915 to 1917, Wright even made his designs available to the masses through pre-designed home kits, similar to those sold through the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
Gray: Right, he uses all different technologies, whether it’s the exhibition, the radio, publishing, newspapers. He even did sort of like self-published newspapers, television, so he’s trying all different means to publicize himself. At the same time, because of his maybe anti-authoritarian or kind of antiestablishment sort of attitudes, I think he tended to kind of alienate people sometimes, and he would be kind of brusque or whatever else, which if you’re a PR person, it’s probably not the way you would handle things. But in his case, because he’s such a celebrity figure, I think that probably only contributed to his celebrity status.
And Wright’s fame as an architect was only compounded by his infamous personal life. In 1909, he ran away to Europe with a client’s wife, Martha “Mama” Borthwick Cheney, leaving his own spouse and their six children behind. On their return to the states, Wright and his mistress moved into Taliesin, the home and studio he built in Wisconsin. But in 1914 while Wright was away on business, a disgruntled servant locked and then set fire to the dining room. Seven people died, including Mama Cheney and her two children. In 1923, Wright married again, but it was less than a year before he began an affair with a dancer named Oglivanna Lazović. Shortly after Lazović moved into Taliesin in 1925, fire destroyed the house once again. This time because of faulty wiring, but happily with no fatalities. The steady flow of drama kept Wright’s name in the papers, but Stuart Graff says we shouldn’t bother wishing that Wright had lived a simpler life.
Graff: I guess I’ll refer you to a wonderful joke that he himself made. The house in Wisconsin burns twice. The adjoining studio, and buildings are physically connected, the adjoining studio is never touched by fire. And so, he said, “God burned the house down, left the office. I guess he doesn’t approve of my morals, but he likes my work.” While I wouldn’t necessarily approve of the choices that he made in his personal life, what we’re seeing is the sign of a man who doesn’t feel bound by convention. The same things that leave him, whether it’s faculty or idea or an impetuous nature that leave him unconstrained architecturally, professionally, he’s not going to be bound by any convention or rule of building and design. Well, he applies that to his personal life as well.
But though his private foibles generated a lot of chatter, Frank Lloyd Wright’s work still earned its own reputation.
Nichols: I’ve never lived in a house before where I’ve been so conscious of the phases of the moon, the way the moonlight comes into that house and how the moonlight is changed when there’s leaves on the trees or when there’s not leaves on the trees. You notice things differently in a house like this. There’s a sense of drama when one approaches a Wright building. Wright has you entering from a certain side of the site. You’re approaching the building often on a diagonal. On the Usonian house like ours, the entrance is by means of going beneath the very dramatically cantilevered carport roof to the entrance to the house, and there’s this sense of compression, where you’re going from being outside with the high sky dome to having this compressed space of maybe a 7 1/2-foot-high ceiling. And then one comes through a door that’s surrounded by mitered glass where the glass comes together with no post, where there’s this blurring of being indoors or out. You make a left-hand turn, you open into the living room. The living room opens up with a much higher ceiling, and there’s a release of that compression that you feel as you come inside, where he makes this room that has a 12-foot-high ceiling seem like it’s really much taller, and you’re seeing nature in front of you. And it’s as if you left the world of highways and streets and parking lots and you’ve entered this very different world when you’ve entered the house.
Dan Nichol’s home, named Sweeton House, is one of about 60 Usonian homes in the United States. Usonia was Wright’s utopian vision for a new America, first put forward in his 1932 book, The Disappearing City. Wright believed homogeneous, mass-produced developments were anathema to the rugged individualism of the American spirit. He envisioned spacious suburban communities embedded in nature. Each single-family home in Usonia would be custom-made and sit on its own acre of land. One town did actually try to take him up on this idea. A 47-building subdivision outside of New York City, now called the Usonia Historic District, was commissioned by a cooperative of young couples in 1945. But the true guinea pigs of Usonia were the Taliesin Fellows. Starting in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, when commissions were few and far between, Wright began bringing apprentices to Wisconsin. They would pay for the privilege of helping to build his ever-expanding studio and home.
AJC: Is it true that it was more expensive to go there than it was to go to an Ivy League school?
Gray: Yes, Taliesin was more expensive than going to Penn, for example, by almost double, and that was the very first year it opened. I think it was a thousand dollars compared to five hundred and the tuition just went up from there, and I asked myself too, why would people pay all this extra money to go to Taliesin? And obviously, it’s not as, at the time, not as well recognized as maybe these East Coast institutions, and I think people went there seeking this alternative lifestyle. They were seeking a community where different views were accepted, so they didn’t just go there for architecture. They also went there to be in the orbit of Frank Lloyd Wright. There was this persona about him, and he must have been very charismatic, very just like an aura about him, and I think what he was preaching about this different way of living was just very appealing to certain people, and so they went for that. They didn’t just go to study architecture. They went for this much bigger thing.
AJC: But no great architects came out of there.
Gray: I mean, that’s one of the ideas put forth. I mean, some of the great architects that passed through Taliesin, like Richard Neutra or something like this, they only stayed for a short time. So I think it is fair to argue that did Taliesin, did Frank Lloyd Wright produce other Frank Lloyd Wrights, essentially? And no, probably not.
AJC: Was that ever the intention though?
Gray: Probably not, I mean, I think Frank Lloyd Wright was more interested in his own legacy surviving, not necessarily allowing other legacies to start to move beyond him.
Nonetheless, students flocked to Taliesin. But as Wright aged, the Midwest winters became ever more difficult to bear. In 1937, he and the fellows moved south to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, Wright would enjoy the most productive period of his life, creating watershed designs, including the Guggenheim Museum. He had only come to Arizona for the weather, but the desert would also change Wright’s perspective in some radical ways.
Graff: There was this raw, startling landscape different from anything that he had experienced in Wisconsin. He sometimes describes the desert as pure geometry, and he says, “It’s like standing on the rim of the world at the moment of creation,” because everything is just raw and pure and available to him. Now, for a man that’s inspired by nature who wants to find a way for people and buildings to fit into the natural world in this way, it’s sort of like an ecosystem that will sustain itself. This is a complete rebirth.
Nichols: Wright always had a sense in his work of how the building interacted with the environment, how the sun played on the building, how the different seasons played on the building, and I think that that’s very relevant to what’s called the “green movement” now, where we’re looking for ways to passively have our buildings help with heating and cooling and experiencing the seasons.
Gray: At the same time, Wright was also very open to changing the natural environment to suit his needs. So, he engaged in many larger-scale environmental planning projects where he would dam up waters and drudge waters to create new environments. Today, we might be a bit more skeptical about such heavy-handed interventions, but in the early 20th century when he’s doing that, there was less concern about that. So, he is an environmentalist, but he also thinks that he as the architect, has the power to also change nature. He’s not just accepting of how it’s given to him.
AJC: He’s often criticized for the lack of durability of the buildings, but really, buildings didn’t get to be durable until after the Second World War. Things leaked for a very long time. Is it unfair to criticize him for the durability of the buildings?
Gray: I think it is. I mean, obviously as an architect, the building needs to stand up and ideally resist water and the weather and things like that. So, I mean, it’s not a totally unfair thing to bring it up. But I think to have that be the main critique against him as a talent as an architect is very unfair, because he’s experimenting with new structural systems, with new formal ideas, with new open-plan arrangements. And so, the experiments, since they are brand-new, I mean he’s constantly breaking building codes, for example. The Guggenheim broke however many building codes, it’s so radical. So, when you’re that radical and experimental, there are gonna be things that don’t work perfectly, because you’re the first one ever doing it. So, I think that it’s unfair to have that be the whole argument, because he’s pioneering entirely new tracks, and of course, there’s gonna be missteps or things that aren’t perfectly worked out.
Today, a national landmark, the Guggenheim Museum has closed for two major multi-year, multimillion-dollar renovations since 1989. And when Dan Nichols moved into Sweeton House in 2008, he estimated that its rehabilitation would require 20 renovations over 20 years, but Nichols had his eye on an even longer game: what it would mean to preserve a piece of architectural history.
Nichols: I’ve seen the house as a great puzzle for an architect to solve. How do I fix this thing? How do I keep it true to Wright’s vision? But have it be affordable to keep and keep it together for the next 40 years, for the next guy to take care of.
When he was alive, Frank Lloyd Wright determined his own fate as much as might be reasonable for any mortal. In death, his legacy is in the hands of others.