In this article, we explore some of the most inspirational buildings designed by American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright.
We take a look at Wright’s colourful, prolific life and design philosophy, highlighting eight of his most ground-breaking buildings.
Explore more about this fascinating architect!
Background and development of his style
A legendary influence on the world of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed over 1,000 structures over his 70-year career. Of these, over 500 were built and they ranged from public buildings to private houses and museums.
Wright was born in Wisconsin, the son of William Casey Wright, a preacher and musician, and Anna Lloyd Jones, a teacher. Wright’s mother’s family had Welsh roots and lived in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Frank Lloyd Wright’s family moved around due to his father’s job, and his parents divorced in 1885.
After studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Wright moved to Chicago and spent his early career at the prestigious architecture firm Adler & Sullivan in Chicago. For six years he worked under the highly regarded Louis Sullivan.
Aged 22, he married Catherine Lee Tobin and built a family home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, where they raised a family of six children.
Frank Lloyd Wright set up his first practice in 1893. Opposing the established styles of building designs, Wright developed an `organic architecture‘ design philosophy, believing that buildings should develop from their natural surroundings and be in harmony with them.
Wright said: “I’d like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”
Prairie School style
Wright’s signature style became known as the Prairie School. His aim was to create an indigenous American architecture – his designs involved an open plan floor layout and low pitched flat roofs with prominent eaves.
Prairie houses often featured long casement windows to emphasise the horizontal lines of the prairies, a central chimney and plentiful use of natural materials such as stone and wood. Wright’s work made much use of glass windows to maximise light and link the indoors with the outside world, creating a sense of uninterrupted space.
Wright believed that everyone should live in beautiful surroundings to enhance their well-being. Wright’s designs drew inspiration from the Japanese idea of a culture where humans and objects are integrated, and sought to create beautiful buildings. He collected Japanese prints and was influenced by Japanese architects.
Wright was an innovator and promoted the use of precast concrete blocks reinforced with steel rods, along with air conditioning. Wright designed offices, churches, hotels, museums, skyscrapers, as well as interiors for these buildings and his involvement could often extend to designing the furniture. Incredibly prolific, he also designed individual homes for private clients and schools.
Wright’s private life was often controversial, and he became something of a celebrity. He married three times, leaving his first wife and their children for Mamah Cheney in 1909 at a time of exhaustion and restlessness.
They went to Europe for some years and when they returned to America, Mamah Cheney was murdered with her two children at his Taliesin estate.
Wright rebuilt Taliesin and later married Miriam Noel, before marrying Olga Lazovich in 1928. They formed an architecture school at Taliesin, the Taliesin Fellowship, to provide education on architecture, construction, farming, cooking, nature and art.
In his later years, he built a winter home in Arizona called Taliesin West as a place to test architectural concepts in the desert. In 1942 he received the most important commission of his later career when Baroness Hilla von Robay asked him to design a building to house the Solomon R. Guggenheim art collection in New York, despite the backdrop of World War 2.
Now in his 80’s, Wright worked on a major exhibition `Frank Lloyd Wright: sixty years of living architecture’, which toured Europe and America. He continued to travel and lecture in Europe and American and wrote prolifically, while overseeing the construction of the Guggenheim Museum. Wright died two months before his 92nd birthday.
In 1991 Wright was described as the greatest American architect of all time by the American Institute of Architects.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1959
The Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City was commissioned in 1943 with the aim of providing a home for a collection of modern art works in a unique environment. Guggenheim’s collection included work by artists such as Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian and he wanted a building to house it in which was unlike any other museum.
At this time, Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s premier 20th century architects and this work is considered his masterpiece by many. Initially, Wright was not keen on the museum being based in New York, a city he considered to be over developed (Architectural Digest). A 16-year project, Wright described it as `having monumental dignity and great beauty” (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.) He died six months before The Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959.
Its design moved away from Wright’s traditional use of straight lines, to create a circular structure with horizontal lines and a spiral staircase created by ribbons of concrete. The outline is in striking contrast to the tall, rectangular buildings surrounding it in grid-based New York city. First impressions are of a large, airy rotunda, with a smaller rotunda echoing it.
On entering the building there is a sense of space, with walkways spiralling around the walls up to a skylight 96 feet above. Initially, the art is concealed, allowing visitors to get a sense of the space inside the heart of the building before they view it.
Visitors then start to climb the walls via concrete ramps which create a moving flow of people, looking at the art close up on the walls and also from another angle – across the rotunda. There is also a lift to the top, allowing visitors to view the paintings as they walk down the ramps.
When it opened, the building drew criticism from artists who felt their paintings were difficult to hang on the curved wall; other critics said that the architecture was so striking, it detracted from the artwork that people were meant to come and admire.
Today, The Guggenheim Museum attracts visitors from all over the world who are keen to experience modern art in its extraordinary space.
This private house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Wright’s most famous private house. It was built in 1939 for department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., as a weekend retreat with a view of the waterfalls. Fallingwater is famous for its organic architecture which blends nature and the built structure, and it is built from local sandstone and limestone along with concrete. Wright’s design involved cantilevered balconies over a waterfall in the Bear Run Nature Reserve.
Fallingwater is important as it defines the ideas behind his work – that architecture should be in harmony with nature, with blurred lines between the natural world and the building, which uses nature’s colours and materials to blend into the landscape.
A photograph of Fallingwater appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1938, giving Wright fame in the final decades of his career. Fallingwater is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Robie House, 1906
Designed for bicycle maker Frederick C. Robie, in Chicago, Illinois, this building is one of the most prominent examples of Wright’s early style and the prairie style he came to represent. The horizontal lines echo prairie plains, together with overhanging, flat roofs and cantilevered roofs representing the wide, open Midwest landscapes.
The use of balconies, walls and terraces helps to alter horizontal planes while the boundaries between the house and the outside world are merged using glass walls. A chimney takes centre stage inside the open plan layout, and leaded windows add a further feature. Wright designed furniture for the house too.
The Unity Temple, 1908
This church was built almost completely from reinforced concrete to work with a budget of $45,000 and it redefined thinking about church architecture. The tight street corner plot in Chicago resulted in the cubic design to maximise use of the available space.
The site’s location was noisy and Wright resolved this by using concrete walls with few windows to let noise in. It has a flat roof and overhanging eaves with light entering through a square shaped ceiling with 25 skylights made from amber tinted glass, creating a sense of warm sunlight.
Wright’s design also makes the best use of the space inside, where features include wood and more stained glass windows. Wright’s furniture was perfectly proportioned to create an atmosphere of tranquillity. This building’s modern style reflects the church’s principles of unity, truth, beauty, simplicity and freedom. It connects to Unity House, a secular space with a central meeting hall and balconies.
Taliesin, 1911 (rebuilt 1914 and 1925)
In 1911 after spending time in Europe, Wright returned to build one of his most famous homes in the hills of Wisconsin. Wright’s Welsh grandparents lived in the Wisconsin River valley where he built Taliesin which was named in honour of a Welsh bard – the name means `shining brow.’ The house, which has 524 windows, stands on Wright’s 800-acre estate. This is the third model of Taliesin; two previous structures burn down and were replaced.
Wright spent most of his time here over 60 years, using it as his main home and workplace. Taliesin was built in his typical prairie style – he described it as `low, wide and snug.’ It was made from local materials such as yellow limestone, sand from the river and featured his trademark cantilevered roofs, wide windows and an open plan design.
Wright modified the estate’s buildings over the decades, to function as a home, workplace and school of architecture. Since 1990, Taliesin Preservation has looked after the estate in agreement with The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
The aim is to preserve the property’s built and natural environment and hold educational and cultural events for young architects. It is open to the public (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation). The present house is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Insider, 2020).
Tokyo Imperial Hotel Lobby, 1915
As part of the Tokyo Imperial Hotel expansion project In Inuyama, Japan wanted to demonstrate its links with the Western world. Wright was engaged to design a structure which blended Japan’s rich heritage with western architecture. The hotel was built from concrete and Oya (lava stone) and decorated by intricate carvings.
Wright’s design adopted a Mayan Revival style and was engineered on a floating foundation using reinforced steel – it survived an earthquake in 1923 with minimal damage. The hotel was demolished in 1968, but in 1976 Wright’s entrance lobby and reflecting pool were saved and rebuilt in an architectural museum in Nagoya (My Modern Met, 2021).
The Price Tower, 1952
Wright’s only skyscraper, this 19-storey, 221-foot-high tower was built in Bartlesville, Oklahoma for oil and chemical business owner, Harold Price. Wright called it `the tree that escaped the crowded forest’ as it has a central trunk of four elevator shafts from which the floors cantilever like tree branches. The walls are decorated in patinated copper leaves and materials include gold-tinted glass, cast concrete walls, pigmented concrete floors and aluminium trims.
It was bought by Phillips Petroleum in 1981 and now houses a museum and hotel in the top half of the building (Curbed 2019). Now a National Historic Landmark, the tower is open to the public.
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Undated. Frank Lloyd Wright. [Online]. Available from: https://franklloydwright.org/frank-lloyd-wright/ (Accessed 22nd June 2022)
Architectural Digest. Undated. Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful houses, structures & buildings. [Online]. Available from: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/frank-lloyd-wright (Accessed 21st June 2022)
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Undated. 7 iconic Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. [Online]. Available from: https://franklloydwright.org/peek-inside-7-iconic-frank-lloyd-wright-buildings/ (Accessed 20th June 2022)
Insider. 2020. Best buildings Frank Lloyd Wright designed. [Online]. Available from: https://www.insider.com/best-buildings-frank-lloyd-wright-designed (Accessed 21st June 2022)
My Modern Met. 2021. Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. [Online]. Available from: https://mymodernmet.com/frank-lloyd-wright-buildings/ (Accessed 20th June 2022)
Curbed. 2019. Frank Lloyd Wright best buildings. [Online]. Available from: https://archive.curbed.com/maps/frank-lloyd-wright-best-buildings-map (Accessed 20th June 2022