As an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright pushed the American boundaries of art, and for over seventy years he envisioned and physically brought to the world his vision of space, buildings, and a slight avant-guard construction in architecture. Wright, as an architect in the late 19th and early 20th century became synonymous with Prairie style houses as well as organic architecture.
In the following essay his exploits in the endeavor of architecture, as well as his career from early in his life to his later life will be examined. “Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the word ‘organic’ into his philosophy of architecture as early as 1908. It was an extension of the teachings of his mentor Louis Sullivan whose slogan “form follows function” became the mantra of modern architecture. Wright changed this phrase to “form and function are one,” using nature as the best example of this integration. ” (Elman).
It is with great accolades that Wright is thought of as one of America’s best architects, and with innovative style, his uncompromising nature as an artist, and his unyielding artistic view Wright is still considered to be ahead of his time (Ken Burns). Wright studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison but soon learned he had a great passion for architecture and so moved to Chicago. In Chicago he teamed up with architect J. L. Silsbee. After this apprenticeship, Wright moved on to the firm Sullivan and Adler.
It is with Louis Sullivan that Wright began to establish himself as an architect, as Westcott House states, “As an apprentice to Louis Sullivan, Wright shared Sullivan’s desire to create uniquely American architecture and to rebound from the chaotic restlessness in American architecture of the late 1800s. ” Although this conglomeration was beneficial for Wright, he eventually discovered that he was more interested in residential architecture, and broke with the firm in 1893 to begin his own business Oak Park Studio in Oak Park Illinois.
(Westcott). Although the tutelage that Sullivan offered to Wright was slightly traditional in scope, Wright managed to extrapolate from Sullivan and Adler the beginnings of his own ideas of space and architecture. In the architectural world, buildings were still being built as traditional and classical, along the lines of Greek facades, and clean, straight lines; mostly boxed shaped and unimaginative (Library). In this awkward and banal stage of architecture, Wright turned his attention to the Far East, for he found no muse with the Occident.
It was with Japanese style and tradition that Wright created the Winslow House (1939), as Westcott states, “From Japan, he borrowed the concept of the tokonama, a permanent element in the home and the focus of contemplation and ceremony. What is tokonama in Wright’s work? The hearth. The hearth is often the vertical axis from which the horizontal floors radiate. ” Frank Lloyd Wright’s early style was not yet as progressive as his later works such as the Guggenheim. In 1909 Wright traveled to Europe.
It was in Europe that Wright became more independent with his ideas of architecture. While most of the architectural world was focusing on the denial of the machine and technology, Wright was fully embracing the concept as Blake writes, …between 1889, when Wright built the first section of his house in Oak Park, and 1909, twenty years later, when his first two most beautiful Prairie houses – the one for Avery Coonley and Frederick C. Robie, respectively-were completed, Wright had actually built something like 140 houses and other structures!
In addition, he had completed nearly fifty project for various clients, and many of these were widely published and exhibited. Indeed, Wright’s work took up an increasing share of the annual exhibitions at the Chicago Architectural Club from 1894 onward…unlike the latter-day functionalists, Wright never believed that the machine look was an essential result of machine fabrication. ‘This plain duty (of dominating the machine) is relentlessly marked out for the artist in this, the Machine Age. ’ (Blake, 315).
Contemporary America was embellished with style works involved purely in height and construction materials, Wright was indulging his artistry in a completely different light. Although Wright was a great experimentalist, he also delved into the idea of space, and how space functions. Even in his early career, in works such as FLLW Home and Studio and Unity Chapel (Heinz), that expressed his Shingle Style, Wright was still very much obsessed with how space can be manipulated by the materials, or lack of materials around it, as Scully writes,
Through all these experiments in spatial continuity and abstract control Wright never entirely abandoned the rectangular module, nor did he ever entirely lose sight of European achievements…Wright remained, too, more sculpturally aggressive than the Europeans were at that period. His sculpture has the double quality of seeming almost solid and yet being fully expressive of his deeper considerations, the hollow of interior space. The Lloyd Lewis House of 1940 is an excellent embodiment of this expressive union (Scully, 27).
Throughout Wright’s entire career, the objective of union was pressing for him. Again, it was with the machine that Wright found a way in which art and environment engaged with one another. With steel and concrete Wright focused his attention on structure, and the advances that these materials made were innumerable especially when considering the Charnley residence. Though this house was built during his Sullivan years, Wright still harbored what would be known as his personal style, or even the influential Chicago style (Blake, 276) and the key element of modernity.
The house is of a geometric shape, three stories high, with ‘Roman’ brick, or elongated brick, and the composition involved basic classical symmetry. Wright, in his early career focused much of his architecture with the block system. He enjoyed using rectangular shapes, and incorporated the classical manner with the base of the building, truncated masonry shafts, and a slab roof (Blake). The Charnley house was built in 1891, and exhibited the box look that Wright quickly shied away from as it was too pedestrian and stale for any modern way of approaching architecture.
He did however stick with this block system for a few more years and produced dramatic houses as Scully states, Wright went on to exploit his block system in many other houses which were as appropriate as the Millard House to the California landscape. In the Storer House he developed the blocks as piers and opened the building into an articulated pavilion; in the Freeman House he dramatized the system with great beams and elaborated the patterns and perforations of surface which the blocks made possible. The Ennis House used its hill as a Mayan temple base and loomed at the top like something from Tikal.
But the twenties were not rich in commissions for Wright, and his sometimes rather desperate search for stimulus led him to other Indian forms, as in the Lake Tahoe Summer Colony project of 1922, where the cottages not only closely evoked the shaped of the pines around them but also resembled the tepees of the Plains Indians. (Scully, 25). From the rectangle to the circle, Wright advanced in architecture and his ideas of what form should contain as Davis states, “Frank’s designs gradually evolved from rectangular, triangular, and hexagonal forms toward designs based on circle.
Some circular forms first appeared in solar residences, such as the Jacobses’ second house. ” (108). It is with this evolutionary concept that Wright made his mark in the architectural world. While in Europe, Wright was witness to various designs that incorporated environment in their composition. The strict adherence of the block that was so popular in America at the time had no niche in European style. Wright enjoyed seeing the German styles ebb and flow with their construction materials and he was undoubtedly convinced of their superior performance as part of the landscape than were skyscrapers (i.
e. Sears Tower, and others) that were being aggrandized in America in the early 20th century. The epiphany that introduced itself to Wright while in Europe can best be attributed to Raymond, and as Secrest states, What was equally distressing for Wright, perhaps, was a contemplation of the direction that modern art was clearly taking. If he had seen flowing movements in Germany closely, as no doubt he had, he should have seen the similarities between the landscape Raymond had painted, to which he had taken such a dislike, and similar landscapes painted by Kandinsky in 1909.
Raymond’s exaggerated distortions of line and color and his radical simplification of the actual scene being illustrated, all of which were meant to produce a far great emotional impact than, say the serene and naturalistic landscapes of the Impressionists, were in the accepted manner of the new group of Expressionist painters…Wright somehow knew that Expressionism and its closely related school, Abstractionism, were taking art, and architecture along with it, down a path to which he would become absolutely opposed.
(Secrest, 234). So, it was not with Expressionism that Wright found a kindred spirit but with Abstractionism that the revolution of architecture grabbed hold of Wright. The trip, and later trips to Europe greatly impressed Wright, however, it must not be surpassed that his own Midwest upbringing had great influence in his style. Wright brought to the architectural world the Prairie style .
This included low sloping rooflines, cantilevered overhangs that juxtaposed the concrete and windows that in turn created an horizontal line that gave the style the name Prairie (Westcott House). The natural landscape was a great influence on Wright throughout the breadth of his career, as Blake states, There was no chance for a free, democratic architecture, Wright felt, until man could make buildings unbend, until the building could be shaped by the desired flow of space in any and all direction.
Such buildings would be truly ‘organic,’ for not only did they express the aspirations of free men to free space, but they also expressed a kind of structure that had within it all the elements of living things in nature-muscles, tendons, fibers, skin-all woven together into a single organism acting in unison…To Wright, American architecture had to be Nature’s architecture-organic, flexible, free. Conversely, he felt, all straight, post-and-beam architecture was, in effect, an expression of a straight-laced, autocratic, European concept of society.
(Blake, 340). With the notion of organism, and the organic Wright left his early architectural ‘block’ years and traversed into his more controversial buildings such as the Usonian Houses. One very spectacular Usonian style was the Turkel house, built in Detroit in 1955. Usonian architecture occurred much later in Wrights career, and was an antithesis to how urban architecture was becoming in America; Usonian was ‘anti-urbania’. Though Wright is well known for his residential buildings, he also liked to maintain the involvement of nature in buildings.
Usonian buildings were seen as a sanctuary for Wright, one in which a person could feel rejuvenated and not pressed in by the foreboding buildings of the city. Wright taught his Taliesin Fellowship apprentices that architecture is about emotion and the expression of that emotion with reference to the landscape in which the building will reside. This reflection of nature in art would soothe the occupant’s spirit, and thus the philosophy of architecture for Wright in his later career was that of fluidity in design in all aspects.
The Usonian ideal built itself out of this philosophical outlook and ten Ohio projects were finished after World War Two (Westcott House). The Usonian design can best be described with the Jacob’s house built in 1937. The culmination of flawless design and organic architecture proved to apex with the Jacob’s house. Wright still had a decade plus left in his career, but the joining of his ideas and construction materials can best exhibited with the Jacob’s House as McDonough states,
Wright included other design innovations in the Jacobs house, such as the use of glass, stained wood, and brick walls in order to eliminate the need for paint, varnish, plaster, and wallpaper,. In place of a cellar, Wright tripled storage space with a row of closets running the length of the outside wall of the bedroom corridor. Holed piercing the house’s roof overhangings conducted rainwater into drains in the foundation blab, eliminating gutters and downspouts. He replaced the garage with a carport that was walled on only two sides and connected to the front entry.
Wright removed doors from kitchen cabinets, abolished light fixtures and radiators, and designed much of the furniture himself. (McDonough, 92). Wright had complete control over this house and its construction, right down to the furniture. He was completely in power for every inch of the plans. The innovation involved in the Usonian style was progressive. The layout of the house, with the absence of gutters was very non-traditional. Though Wright’s contribution to architecture was expansive, until 1949, he was not fully recognized by the American Institute of Architects .
Wright was criticized for his somewhat post-modern glimpse into the world of architecture. His organic style though praised overseas in Europe did not win a large audience in the states, “Despite the face that Frank had never joined the American Institute of Architects and over the years had been quite critical of its members, he received their prestigious gold medal in 1949. Ironically, Frank cherished this award more than any other. At last, he had received the highest of honors from professionals in his own country. ” (Davis, 119).
This was a great moment in Wright’s career, previously rebuffed by the American architectural community for being avant-guard, he now owned a captivated audience, and from his Prairie, to his Usonian style, Wright was still breaking architectural boundaries. Wright was the leading architect in the Chicago style as can be exhibited with his Charnley residence, as previously stated, and from his Shingle style in his early career, the block style which he quickly abandoned to the Usonian and Oriental style residencies, he came to be one of America’s leading architects.
He lead the trends in buildings, and surpassed the ideals of the classical, Greek look to come to his own influenced Oriental style houses such as the Guggenheim museum. Wright was being recognized the world over as an innovative and purely pioneering architect, …Wright’s genius began to be recognized and honored throughout the world. The Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Wright a gold medal (1939), he was inducted into the National Academy of Architects in both Uruguay (1941) and Mexico (1942), and he was invited to represent the United States at the International Convention of Architects in Moscow 91937).
On the domestic scene, he received honorary degrees from Wesleyan, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Wisconsin. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an extensive retrospective of Wright’s work from November 1940 to January 1941, and he was featured in the Masters of Four Arts Exhibition at Harvard’s Fogg Museum along with French sculptor Aristide Maillol, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. (McDonough, 100).
With this recognition, Wright is still known throughout the world today as one of America’s best architects. His buildings scope the expanse of seventy years worth of work. He used a myriad of styles and ideas to construct buildings and in his imaginative approach he created for architects a way in which nature twined with machine, and through his Usonian concepts, conglomerated into a work of not just construction materials, but art. In the culmination of Wright’s career, the apex can best be attributed to his plans and development of the Guggenheim museum.
World renowned for its genius in design, the Guggenheim museum offered Wright the chance to display his Oriental concepts in a building that was purely his own. In the development of its lines, its structure, its very shape, denied the urbania movement in American architecture, in fact nothing in the world existed quite like the Guggenheim, nor is it imitated to the degree for which Wright conceptualized it. In its flowing movements of the outbuilding, to its naturalistic color scheme of clay, did Wright ever produce something so similar to an organism in nature.
The Guggenheim museum was a statement for Wright; one in which he favored the ideas of going against the mainstream popular notion of steel construction in a city. With the Guggenheim, again, Wright created the antithesis to the city, he gave the city something natural, which made the building stand out even more- the steel surroundings and glass were eclipsed with the clay design of the Guggenheim, The Guggenheim Museum was almost finished when Wright died in April 1959. Apart from its importance as a plastic statement, it is important as Wright’s last slap at the city.
No building could be designed to fit less well into the established urban pattern-and that, in Wright’s view, was about as great a compliment as you could pay a building. Both in form and in its clay color the Guggenheim Museum looks like a growing organism in a graveyard-not pretty, but certainly alive and kicking. Its exterior is perhaps a little too plain and crudely finished-one of the few unornamented Wright buildings, perhaps because Wright wanted nothing to distract from the boldness of the principal statement.
But the chances are that when the planting begins to trail over the curved parapets, the Guggenheim Museum may look a good deal softer than it did on its opening day-almost mellow toward its surroundings…(Blake, 379-380). In its lack of conformity, Wright made his architectural statement best with the Guggenheim museum. The organic shapes, from the outside as well as the inside lead the viewer to fully engross themselves in a mixture of light and air, which are common sensations exhibited with Usonian works.
The exhibition area is a concave dome with a glass covering at the top. The space inside the museum creates the atmosphere of fluidity so prevalent in Wright’s designs. The genius of the art museum is that Wright had a completely new concept of how art should be displayed. The spiral’s continuity allows the viewer to see art in an uninterrupted fashion and the narrow galleries allow the viewer to become involved in the art because they are seemingly accosted by it, forced to view it. (Janson, 37). It is with organic form that Wright can best be remembered as an architect.
The organic form is prevalent even in his early Prairie house style, though the block style does not exactly call attention to this. His organic style is one that developed from Wright’s love of the Orient, and the early Japanese houses he accomplished. Wright was not simply interested in the art of organic architecture but in the philosophy behind the designs, as he writes, Many people have wondered about an Oriental quality they see in my work. I suppose it is true that when we speak of organic architecture, we are speaking of something that is more Oriental than Western.
The answer is: my work is, in that deeper philosophic sense, Oriental. These ideals have not been common to the whole people of the Orient; but there was Laotse, for instance. Our society has never known the deeper Taoist mind. The Orientals must have had the sense of it, whatever may have been their consideration for it, and they instinctively built that way. Their instinct was right. So this gospel of organic architecture still has more in sympathy and in common with Oriental thought than it has with any other thing the West has ever confessed.
(Wright, 218-219). Wright’s mark in the architectural world is strongly tied with his philosophy of the organic. Wright, while talking about instinct, developed for future architects a way in which buildings gave residents a sense of something natural in space. The walls, the ceilings, the floors in each of Wright’s buildings each gave a sense of heightened space, of air and light moving naturally through the framework of the lines of the building. Wright did not like to see limitation in architecture, but chose to see possibility.
In this possibility such works as the Imperial Hotel, Fallingwater, Johnson Wax and the Guggenheim were each created. It is the possibility of space existing not separate from the design but twined with the environment, and harboring to the natural landscapes own detail that made Wright famous (as can be best seen in Fallingwater, where the house doesn’t disrupt the flow of water, but allows the building to converge with the water, and thus gives that fluidity so governed in Wright architecture). As Wright writes,
But in this land of ours, richest on earth of all in old and new materials, architects must exercise well-trained imagination to see in each material, either natural or compounded plastics, their own inherent style. All materials may be beautiful, their beauty much or entirely depending upon how well they are used by the Architect. In our modern building we have the Stick. Stone. Steel. Pottery. Concrete. Glass. Yes, Pulp, too, as well as plastics. And since this dawning sense of the ‘within’ is the new reality, these will all give the main motif for any real building made from them.
The materials of which the building is built will go far to determine its appropriate mass, its outline and, especially, proportion. Character is criterion in the form of any and every building or industrial product we can call Architecture in the light of this new ideal of the new order. (Wright, 61). In America still there exists Wright’s philosophy of the organic. It is with his use of light and space in his buildings that his career culminated in a worldwide acceptance of genius paired with artistic persuasion.
The materials involved in creating a building are very harsh, they denote sharp lines, and geometrical alignment. Wright gave architecture a new and innovative way in which buildings could be unified with the earth. Modern architecture would not be the same if Wright had not developed the Usonian style, and thus give freedom from the block, and classical styles incorporated even today in architecture. Wright wrote, I learned to see wood as wood and learned to see concrete or glass or metal each for itself and all as themselves.
Strange to say this required uncommon sustained concentration of uncommon imagination (we call it vision), demanded not only a new conscious approach to building but opened a new world of thought that would certainly tear down the old world completely. Each different material required a different handling, and each different handling as well as the material itself had new possibilities of use peculiar to the nature of each. Appropriate designs for one material would not be at all appropriate for any other material.
In the light of this ideal of building form as an organic simplicity almost all architecture fell to the ground. That is to say, ancient buildings were obsolete in the light of the idea of space determining form from within, all materials modifying if indeed they did not create the ‘form’ when used with understanding according to the limitations of process and purpose (Wright, 23). For Wright, and other progressive architects today, function has a different meaning, one other than synonymous with blocks. And the shapes of buildings are forever changed with Wright’s organic style.
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