Frank Lloyd Wright - Biography and Legacy
American Architect and Designer
Richland Center, Wisconsin, USA
Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Biography of Frank Lloyd Wright
Early Life and Education
He was born Frank Lincoln Wright June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, USA, which - as many scholars have rightfully noted - was a mere two years after the end of the American Civil War. Thus his lifespan of more than ninety-one years extends between then and the dawn of the Space Age in 1959. And yet, Wright was not even the longest-lived notable American architect born that year: Henry Hornbostel, who left an indelible mark on Pittsburgh and other places, would survive until 1961. 1867, incidentally, proved to be a robust year for architects: in addition to Wright and Hornbostel, the world welcomed Dwight Perkins; and in Europe, two pioneers of Art Nouveau, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Hector Guimard, were also born.
On his mother's side, Wright was descended from a long line of prominent Unitarian Welsh farmers, the Lloyd Joneses, who owned a considerable amount of land in southern Wisconsin. Wright's predilection for architecture was understood from an early age: according to his own autobiography, while Wright's mother, Anna, was expecting, she declared that she would bear a son who would grow up to build beautiful structures. She decorated his nursery with prints of English cathedrals from a periodical. Wright grew up playing with geometrically shaped Frobel blocks that his mother had bought at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, which no doubt long afterwards influenced the geometric clarity of his buildings. As Wright later wrote "For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top ... and played ... with the cube, the sphere and the triangle... These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects ... which were ever got into the architecture of the world ... these smooth wooden maple blocks... All are in my fingers to this day."
Though the Wrights eventually settled in Madison, Wright's father William had difficulty providing for his family, and in 1884 he and Anna divorced, with William effectively abandoning his family. Wright claimed he never saw his father again, and changed his middle name to Lloyd in honor of his mother's family. Having attended Madison High School (apparently without graduating), he was admitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1886 as a special student, where he joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and took classes part-time in civil engineering for two semesters. His classmates remembered that even then he dressed foppishly, wearing a top hat and cape and carrying a walking stick. Bored with college work, and already instilled by his mother with a boundless faith in his own abilities, he boarded a train for Chicago in 1887 to begin his career.
Early Career in Chicago
In Chicago, Wright found a job as a draftsman with Joseph Lyman Silsbee, who was actually engaged in several projects for Wright's extended family, the Lloyd Joneses, in Wisconsin and in Chicago. He made fast friends with a co-worker, Cecil Corwin, moving in with him until he found his own space. Feeling underpaid, however, Wright soon quit for a job as a designer with another firm, Beers, Clay, and Dutton, but soon found he was out of his league, and returned to Silsbee - though with an increased salary.
Wright joined Adler & Sullivan, one of the city's leading commercial architecture firms, when he learned they needed a draftsman for the drawings of the Auditorium Building, on the 17th floor of which the firm would soon establish its new offices. Wright soon became Louis Sullivan's top draftsman, despite the fact that he made very few friends among his colleagues, with whom he occasionally fought physically (Sullivan was also known for chewing out his employees). But Sullivan took Wright under his wing; later on, Sullivan would become virtually the only architect Wright acknowledged as an influence on him, frequently referring to him as Lieber Meister (German for "Dear Master") in his writings.
Wright also secured a $5,000 loan from Sullivan and a five-year contract in 1889, which permitted him to build a new house for his new family, as he married Catherine ("Kitty") Tobin on 1 June of that year. Wright constructed the house, which he expanded three times over the next twelve years, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, nicknamed "Saint's Rest" because it was probably one of the most sedate locations in America. The Wrights lived lavishly, far beyond their means: Wright later wrote that as long as the family had the luxuries, the necessities could pretty much take care of themselves. Always in need of money, Wright turned his hand to designing houses on the side for many of Adler and Sullivan's clients, since the firm did not generally take on residential work. In 1893, Sullivan discovered Wright's moonlighting and fired him, after which the two men did not speak to each other for a dozen years.
Over the next fifteen years, Wright's work coalesced into what has generally been called ever since as the Prairie Style, which, however, was not unique to him: several of his colleagues around Chicago and the Midwest also gravitated towards this new, low-lying aesthetic and spatial vocabulary. Though his overwhelming charm meant that his practice flourished and his reputation grew, he was rarely an easy architect for his clients to deal with: frequently Wright's designs came in over budget, and Wright let it be known that he was in charge of the whole of any project, regularly expecting clients to decorate their houses as he saw fit, not necessarily with their own possessions.
Kitty and Frank had six children - including Lloyd (Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr.), and John, who would also become architects, sometimes practicing under their father - and Kitty thoroughly occupied herself with running the household. But Wright, whose personal confidence knew no bounds such that he did not believe that the conventions of propriety applied to him, was growing restless. Dissatisfied in his marriage, he began to seek companionship elsewhere amongst his clients, and found one in Mamah Cheney, the well-educated wife of Edwin Cheney, for whom Wright had designed a house in Oak Park in 1904. Wright and Mamah soon began an affair, which Wright did little to keep discreet, and local gossips in the otherwise serene atmosphere soon caught on to what was happening.
Wright also tired of his work in the Prairie Style, an idiom mostly suited for one-family houses, and yearned for bigger commissions, which had been few and far between since he left Sullivan's employ. Frank asked Kitty for a divorce in August 1908, which she refused, as she did again the following year. Feeling trapped, at the age of 42 in October 1909, Wright suddenly closed his office and abandoned his family, taking off for Europe with Mamah Cheney.
Europe and Taliesin, 1909-14
In Europe, Frank and Mamah traveled to Berlin, where Wright was in negotiations with the publishing house of Ernst Wasmuth to produce folios of his work up to that time, but settled ultimately in Fiesole, a small hamlet near Florence, Italy. Florence was still the nexus of the European expatriate community of English speakers, though Wright and Mamah did not ingratiate themselves within that community, preferring to keep to themselves. They did, however, make extensive visits to museums and explore the architecture of Tuscany with fervor.
In the meantime, Wright, sometimes joined in Italy by his son Lloyd (who was 19 by then) and Taylor Wooley, one of his former employees in Oak Park, worked on some commissions he had received before closing his practice in the United States and prepared the drawings of his previous buildings for Wasmuth. These, the first extensive published work of Wright's designs and formally titled Ausgefurte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (Executed Buildings and Projects of Frank Lloyd Wright), would be published in two volumes in 1911 after Wright had returned to the USA. Commonly known today as simply the Wasmuth Portfolio, they would cause a sensation among architects in Europe: reputedly, on the day that the Wasmuth volumes arrived in Peter Behrens' Berlin office, where Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier were employed, all work came to a standstill so that the staff could peruse the folios.
After Frank returned to the USA in the fall of 1910, Kitty had hoped for a reconciliation, but he made it clear that this was impossible. Wright moved to southern Wisconsin, where he convinced his mother to purchase land adjacent to the farms of her relatives, the Lloyd Joneses, near Spring Green. Wright stated that he intended to build a house there for her, but he really meant to build a new home for him and Mamah, who had obtained a divorce from Edwin Cheney and had reverted to her maiden name, Borthwick. He called the residence Taliesin, the name of a Welsh bard whose name roughly translates as "shining brow," and reflects the fact that Wright built the structure just below the crown of a hill. He struggled to rebuild his practice, which had nearly been destroyed by the scandal, which continued to dog him publicly upon his return. On Christmas Day 1911, Wright even called a press conference at Taliesin and declared that while conventional mores might govern the general population, he, Frank Lloyd Wright, was no ordinary man, and such customs therefore did not apply to him.
The culmination of this period of Wright's life came in 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago on the Midway Gardens beer garden and commuting between there and Spring Green. Wright had hired several servants at Taliesin, where Mamah and her children were staying. On August 15, 1914, their chef, Julian Carleton, served them lunch, then went outside ostensibly to clean some carpets. Instead, he locked all the windows and poured gasoline around the perimeter of the house and lit a match, engulfing Taliesin in flames within seconds. When Mamah and her children tried to escape through the front door, Carleton was waiting for them and hacked them to death with an axe. Wright was devastated when he got the news in Chicago. He buried Mamah in a simple pine box at Taliesin and set about rebuilding the charred wreck of his home.
Turmoil and Travels, 1915-28
In late 1914 Wright received a letter of sympathy from Maude Miriam Noel, a sculptress who had also experienced great personal tragedy, including the death of her husband. By the end of the year she had moved into Taliesin, and when Wright received the commission for the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1916, he took her with him to Japan. The two would shuttle back and forth across the Pacific several times over the next six years as the complicated process of designing and building the hotel dragged on. But their relationship was a rocky one, to say the least. Soon Wright discovered that Miriam was unstable, violent, and addicted to morphine. They fought frequently. Jealous, she accused Wright of stepping out on her, and given his history, she had reason for her suspicions.
In Japan, Wright befriended a number of Japanese architects, and some of his American staff designers, including Antonin Raymond, used the opportunity to launch their own careers. Although he loved Japan, Wright's health also frequently suffered whenever he visited the country, and probably for that reason, once the Imperial commission was completed he himself never returned to the Far East. Throughout his life Wright nonetheless remained a serious dealer of Japanese xylographs, an activity he had launched during his first trip to Japan in 1905.
In September 1923, soon after the Imperial Hotel was finished, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, leveling 80% of the city. Wright, who had moved his practice to southern California, hoping a change of venue would change his career fortunes, waited nervously for several days afterwards for news of the fate of his structure. Finally he received a telegram from one of his close Japanese colleagues, Arata Endo, which reported that the Imperial was one of the few structures that had survived, nearly unscathed. It served as a key relief center for the extensive subsequent rescue efforts. Basking in this triumph, which he gleefully leaked to the press, Wright was sure that he would be celebrated as both a great architect and engineer and that a flood of commissions would soon follow.
But he was wrong. Although in the early 1920s he managed to garner the difficult job of building a new house for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall in Hollywood (which she donated to the city soon after its completion) and a few other residences for clients in Los Angeles, in general his practice in California stalled. In 1924 Wright left the west coast to return to Wisconsin. Kitty Wright had granted Frank a divorce in 1922, and, after a required one-year waiting period, he married Miriam in 1923, hoping that the union would improve their relationship; instead, it grew worse. Within a year they had separated, though it would take another three years until Miriam granted him a divorce in 1927.
Even after he returned to Wisconsin, in an era when most American architects flourished in the midst of the first skyscraper boom, Wright's career continued to flounder, as nobody with the cash to build wanted to take a chance on the infamous Frank Lloyd Wright. Without work, Wright, who had never been smart with money, began to experience severe financial troubles. The Bank of Wisconsin foreclosed on the mortgage of Taliesin as Wright was rebuilding it following a second fire in 1925. Friends, including some of his former clients, bailed him out. Project after project fell through, including one job for apartment towers in lower Manhattan called St. Marks-in-the-Bouwerie. At age 62, Wright's career looked definitively over when the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out his one remaining commission, a resort in the Arizona Mountains.
Rejuvenation and Stability
In 1924 Wright had met Olga ("Olgivanna") Lazarovich Hinzenburg, a Montenegro-born estranged wife of a Russian architect, at an opera performance in Chicago. She was a follower of Georgi Gurdjieff, an Armenian philosopher whose understanding of humanity argued that most people were not nearly as aware of themselves or the world around them as they could be; in effect they were wandering through life asleep. Wright made a comment to Olgivanna that the performers seemed to be dancing as if they were asleep, which immediately caught her attention.
Frank and Olgivanna soon moved in together, though neither of them had obtained divorces from their spouses. Despite their estrangement, when Miriam found out she began to make Wright's life hell for him, frequently barging in on the two lovers. To escape Miriam's harassment, Wright and Olgivanna fled to the Minnesota woods under assumed names (which they could never quite remember correctly). The local sheriff, alerted to their presence, arrested Wright under the federal Mann Act, which made it a crime to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes, though the charges were later dropped. The two eked out a spartan existence at Taliesin, even cutting up curtains to make handkerchiefs. In the depths of the Depression reputedly neither of them had bought clothes in four years - which must have been torture for Wright, whose tastes in fashion unequivocally ran towards the high end. Olgivanna rejoiced when one winter, Wright's sister in New York sent her a secondhand winter coat to wear. During these years, in fact, Wright made significantly more money dealing in Japanese woodcuts than as an architect.
Through it all, Olgivanna turned out to be the one person in Wright's life who could tame him. They married in 1928 exactly one year after Wright's divorce from Miriam Noel became final. Olgivanna encouraged Frank to write, both on architecture (in 1928 Wright published in an obscure journal one of the first English-language reviews of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture) and then a full-scale autobiography, published in 1932, a brilliant move that allowed Wright a modicum of control over the public narrative of his life, which he updated in subsequent editions before his death. She also was the brainchild of a new venture wherein Wright brought in apprentices to Taliesin to teach them the principles of his architecture, for $650 a year (about $10,500 in today's money).
Launched in 1932, the Taliesin Fellowship immediately attracted a core group of students, including some of Wright's most well-known followers today, such as Edgar Tafel and William Wesley Peters (who became Wright's son-in-law after he married Olgivanna's daughter Iovanna). The Fellowship was a true oddity, as Wright himself disdained formal architectural education and institutional associations. He had never joined the American Institute of Architects and posted signs at the entrance to his property saying "KEEP OUT" and "NO TRESPASSING," which he did not take down even after launching the school.
The structure of the Fellowship's curriculum was equally unorthodox. Befitting his personality, what Wright ultimately established was a tribal compound, wherein he was a chieftain directing a group of presumably adoring laborers. Large portions of the apprentices' time was spent doing agricultural work around Taliesin, helping to plant and harvest the fields and repairing or constructing anew farm buildings, especially in the first couple of years when Wright had virtually no clients. Architectural instruction picked up after 1934, when Wright received the first of his commissions for the low-cost Usonian Houses from Malcolm Willey, a professor at the University of Minnesota. There was also no expected timeframe for students to graduate and establish their own practices; instead, choosing to leave the Fellowship was considered anathema, and frequently Wright shunned those who struck out on their own.
The Fellowship took on both men and women as apprentices, but Olgivanna was in charge of running virtually everything in the domestic sphere and women apprentices were expected to take on many of the traditional female household responsibilities. Olgivanna arranged marriages (and divorces) between apprentices and was particularly strict on Wright's female students, being particularly watchful if any got too close to Wright.
Wright's reputation was the magnet that kept the apprentices at Taliesin and continued to attract more over the last quarter-century of his career. Regardless of how they felt about Wright as a person, many possessed a reverence for his dicta, being able to recount moments of his brilliance with ease decades later. When E.J. Kaufmann commissioned Wright to build Fallingwater in 1935, Wright visited the site, then did nothing for three months. One day, Kaufmann phoned Wright from Milwaukee and mentioned that he was going to drive to Taliesin in order to see how the plans were coming along. Apprentices recount how Wright then sat down at the drafting table and proceeded to draw, from scratch, the complete set of plans and elevations for the weekend house over Bear Run in less than three hours. Upon Kaufmann's arrival, Wright stood up, walked over and stuck out his hand and boldly pronounced, "Welcome, E.J., we've been waiting for you!"
Taliesin West and Wright's Late Career
In the mid-1930s, Wright's doctors advised him to spend winters in a warmer, drier climate. Having visited Arizona during the 1920s for commissions that ultimately evaporated, starting in 1933 he and the Fellowship now began to trek to Arizona every November and stay until the following May. In 1937 Wright acquired land in Scottsdale, then far outside Phoenix, where he began to build a permanent winter home at the foot of the McDowell Mountains, soon called Taliesin West. The apprentices constructed the complex mostly out of local materials over the next five years, though Wright continued to modify aspects of it until his death.
While today the landscape around Taliesin West is situated on the edge of the sprawling suburbia of Phoenix, in Wright's day it remained quite isolated, akin to Wright's existence at Taliesin. When news of Pearl Harbor reached the Fellowship in December 1941, life continued on as if nothing had happened. Although Wright was a pacifist, during World War II many of his apprentices were drafted into the armed forces, and several went to jail for resisting impressment into service.
In the last two decades of Wright's life, he was kept busier than ever before. He also became increasingly in tune with modern technology, despite the fact that he was rapidly approaching 90 years of age. Wright's media appearances on radio, records, and especially on television are well-documented, and some can be found online. He appeared on news specials and game shows, never failing to hide his enormous ego or his infectious charm. When interviewed on television by Mike Wallace in 1957, Wright reflected on his career by declaring, "If I did say that I was the greatest architect who ever lived, I don't think it would have been very arrogant." In the same session, he claimed that if he was given another fifteen years to work, he could "redesign the whole country" because he "could just shake [buildings] out of [his] sleeve."
Wright also famously claimed that he hated cities, but nobody could deny that he had an infatuation with New York City, which he visited numerous times while working on the Guggenheim Museum. For the last five years of his life, Wright rented an $8,000-a-year apartment at the Plaza Hotel, which he redecorated soon after his arrival and was eventually nicknamed "Taliesin East." (He became famous with the Plaza's accounting department for constantly being in arrears for rent and room service.) He also exhibited equal fondness for both cars and horse-drawn carriages. Film clips exist of Wright riding around midtown Manhattan in a horse-drawn cab with a reporter, pointing out every skyscraper along Park Avenue and the minutiae of what he believed was wrong with modern architecture. Not to be outdone by the architects of the International Style, in 1956 Wright conceived of a mile-high skyscraper, called The Illinois, which he planned for Chicago, to be serviced by atomic-powered elevators (not surprisingly, he found no takers).
In early 1959, Kitty Wright passed. Wright's son David withheld the news from his father for several days, and Wright wept when he heard it. Then he asked, "Why didn't you tell me as soon as you got the news?" "Why should I have bothered? You didn't give a damn about her while she was alive," David replied. Working right up to the end, Wright himself died several months later, just two months short of his 92nd birthday at Taliesin West. His body was returned to Wisconsin, and was borne to the gravesite at Taliesin on a horse-drawn hearse.
The Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright
After Wright's death, his apprentices worked to finish the remaining commissions with which he was charged, some of which, such as the Marin County Civic Center in California, have been ranked among Wright's most important works. Wright's own practice became known as Taliesin Associated Architects, which continued to function as a cooperative architecture firm, with at times as many as 14 principals, all of whom had been Taliesin Fellows. TAA received numerous significant commissions, including the Rocky Mountain National Park Administration Building in Colorado; the Kaden Tower in Louisville, Kentucky; and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The Fellowship itself evolved into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, with seasonal campuses at both Taliesin and Taliesin West. The school recently has been renamed the School of Architecture at Taliesin, and it offers a three-year program leading to an accredited Master of Architecture degree. Threatened recently with losing its accreditation due to its ties to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, its formal separation from other institutions has enabled its programs to retain approval from the Higher Learning Commission and the National Architecture Accrediting Board.
Meanwhile, organizations such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Trust are involved with worldwide preservation efforts for Wright's extant buildings. Wright's voluminous archive is now divided between the drawings (now in the care of the Museum of Modern Art and the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University in New York City) and his correspondence and documents, still stored at Taliesin West.
Wright's status as the greatest American architect has been secured. He designed buildings of nearly every possible type: along with his hundreds of houses, he prepared plans for no fewer than 10 apartments, 7 churches, 3 hotels, 5 apartment complexes, 4 schools, 3 corporate headquarters, 2 gas stations, 2 banks, 2 medical clinics, a college campus, a warehouse, and an art museum. His work has produced myriad disciples and inspired a huge volume of writing and scholarship, including its own journal, the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly. Wright's legacy can be highlighted by the fact that the Museum of Modern Art has devoted more one-person shows to his work than any other architect, including a monumental exhibition that opened in 2017 on the sesquicentennial of his birth.
Writers, entertainers, and composers have depicted Wright in several of their works. Ayn Rand's title character in The Fountainhead is based loosely on Wright, and was itself made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. Supposedly, film rights are being negotiated for Franklin Toker's monograph Fallingwater Rising, which recounts the history of the construction of Wright's most famous building. Other works include the novels Loving Frank, The Women, and The Wright 3 along with the opera Shining Brow. In 1969, Paul Simon composed, upon request from his partner Art Garfunkel, the song "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," despite the fact that Simon himself admitted that he knew nothing about Wright. The song is included on Simon & Garfunkel's last studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Beyond that, however, Wright's personal legacy remains far from certain. Wright espoused a philosophy of architecture that was supposedly democratic, but increasingly he adopted an elitist attitude and regarded the general public as vulgar and stupid, famously referring to popular culture as "the mobocracy." His enormous ego often got in the way of relationships, including ones with those particularly close to him, and there were few people that Wright regarded as his equal. Wright had trouble setting limits on his desires, and many of his biographers regard him as essentially a child who never grew up.