Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy Keeps On Giving

By Bruce Wentworth, AIA

The 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s death (April 9, 1959) is a milestone for anyone who cares about residential architecture, and an appropriate occasion for me to reflect on his vision and enduring influence. Wright’s personal residence-- “Taliesin East”-- in Spring Green, Wisconsin (near Madison) was a renowned landmark when I was growing up in suburban Milwaukee, and his famous school was nearby. Locals spoke his name with respect, honored that a person of his international stature shared our understated but lovely countryside.

When I was five, my parents decided to look for a family home just outside Milwaukee, and happened upon a contemporary that was inspired by Wright’s ideas: open floor plan, high vaulted ceilings, stone and wood construction. Awestruck, I asked my mother who ‘draws’ these houses? To which she responded “an architect”, “Then that’s what I want to be,” I replied. Afterwards, my mother mentioned Wright’s name often, and I began finding books about his work. That experience—aided by a sand box, tinker toys and building blocks-- set me on the path that eventually led to my career choice.

Throughout the 1950s, Wright’s work completely captured the public imagination. He became the virtual symbol of the notion that architecture can express social progress. Newspapers and magazines exulted in his design for America’s modern art Mecca: New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. I later learned that Wright had resided at the Plaza Hotel while in the city, and even developed an interior design for his suite.

Despite a turbulent personal and professional life fraught with financial ups and downs, Wright enjoyed a long and prolific career. He designed more than 1,100 homes and buildings of which 532 were actually constructed. His contributions to architecture (and social theory) ranged from ‘organic architecture’, the Usonian home, and the Prairie School of design to ‘Broadacre City’, a pioneering experiment in modern urban planning.

How Americans live today has been fundamentally shaped by Wright’s designs and lifestyle concepts. The Usonian home—a simple, rectangular form stripped of unneeded adornment—become the prototype for a futuristic egalitarian structure that sublimely marries form and function. Plans called for a moderate, inexpensive structure of about 1,200 square feet that features an open floor plan, built on a slab with radiant heat, no basement, a carport instead of a garage, no interior trim, no plaster, no gutters or downspouts, and no painting. In essence – a low-cost, perfectly balanced, yet small house that would require minimal maintenance.

Notably, Wright’s Pope-Leighey house (circa 1940) in south Alexandria perfectly illustrates the maestro’s vision. The economy of scale, use of natural materials, and glass walls inviting visual continuum with nature are all in evidence. Clerestory windows provide natural light along with privacy. Solutions are crisply articulated, highly functional and beautiful.

By the time of his death in 1959, at the age of 92, Wright had become internationally known. Still, 50 years after his death Wright’s core ideas still guide our designs, and our thinking.

Let us know how Frank Lloyd Wright has influenced you.

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