Progression of Art
Larkin Company Administration Building
The Larkin Company's headquarters was Wright's first large-scale commission, awarded to him through the influence of the company's accountant, Darwin D. Martin, who personally commissioned two houses from Wright and would remain a tireless lifelong supporter of the architect. Constructed in the midst of the soap company's industrial complex in the expanding city of Buffalo, Wright's structure of reinforced concrete appeared like a monolith sheathed in brick. It was organized around a large rectangular skylit atrium with gallery spaces that encircled it on four levels, not unlike the space of a Gothic cathedral's nave. Although Wright abhorred historical revival styles, one might well describe the building as a temple to work, whose rectilinear grid-like organization and open floor plan provided a sense of clarity and reassuring order, a quality matched by its advanced technology, such as the first large-scale use of air-conditioning in an office building. The filtering of light from above gave the interior an ethereal, uplifting quality - the principal moment where Nature entered the structure - despite the adjacent dirty urban environment. The balconies around the central space were adorned with encouraging mottos and slogans, comparable to the allegorical Biblical imagery seen in churches' stained-glass windows or relief sculpture. Much like medieval cathedrals functioned as communal shelter in times of inclement weather, the Larkin Building also could easily be read as a bulwark against the harsh climactic conditions of industrial America at the turn of the century.
The Larkin Building was unlike any purpose-designed office building of its time, so much so that contemporary critics and architects had difficulty understanding it using conventional standards of beauty, and many showered it with negative reviews. Nonetheless, the Larkin executives of the time loved the structure; its demolition in 1950 helped spark a larger movement towards the preservation of Wright's buildings that continues to the present day.
Buffalo, New York
Unity Temple is Wright's other major non-residential commission from his early career. It received much less critical attention than the Larkin Building, and those who did comment on it pejoratively remarked that it looked much like a "Mayan handball court." It is also the first of Wright's numerous churches, in this case designed for his own Universalist congregation in Oak Park after the previous structure was destroyed by fire, and it remains the most significant religious structure he would build. The church reopened in 2017 after a massive stabilization and restoration effort.
Like many of Wright's Prairie Style buildings, the church's entrance is indirect, from the side, and to reach the sanctuary, one must make three right turns, arguably emphasizing the link with a long spiritual journey to enlightenment. Once inside, the visitor enters a hallway sunken beneath the main sanctuary floor and then climbs a few steps up to emerge into its square central floor space, as if climbing up to a raised platform or mesa. The seating is arranged in balconies on three sides and in the central square, with the altar occupying the remaining side, thereby reinforcing a sense of community as the congregation is assembled to face each other in an intimate setting. The green, brown, and golden tones of the interior, typical of Wright's early period, evoke the connection with Nature, which is underscored by the natural light filtering in through the skylit ceilings and clerestory windows, as if one was sitting in a shady glade of trees. The placement of the windows in the monolithic concrete structure - also chosen by Wright due to its low cost - helps to reduce noise from the street. As a result, the atmosphere of the interior comprises a sense of extreme serenity, calm, and comfort. Likewise, the gridded rectilinearity as seen in the building's plan subtly mirrors the rectilinear street grid of the suburb; taken together, all of these aspects of Unity Temple point to its organic qualities, the way that Wright's architecture strives to integrate itself within its surroundings.
Oak Park, Illinois
Perspective of the K.C. DeRhodes House, South Bend, Indiana
Wright's architectural drawings form an integral part of our understanding of him in many ways. In more recent years, they have become crucial links to Wright's debt to Japanese artists and designers. Throughout his life Wright was a serious collector and dealer of Japanese prints, publishing a book on them in 1912 and making more money in the 1920s from his activities with them than from practicing architecture. He revered certain Japanese xylographers, especially the 19th-century master Hiroshige, and loved to be photographed or depicted with a Japanese print nearby. Nonetheless, Wright ardently denied during his career that the Japanese ever influenced him in his architecture. Undoubtedly, Wright's fascination with Japanese art was not unique to him: the artists of the Aesthetic Movement and the Arts & Crafts also contemporaneously cultivated an admiration for Japanese art.
Many of Wright's presentation drawings exhibit rendering techniques that mirror effects seen in Japanese woodblock prints, including this one, done in 1908 by Marion Mahoney, one of Wright's most trusted designers and drafters. In fact, the signature on this drawing is revealing, reading "Delineator Mahoney after FLLW and Hiroshige," which discloses how Wright directly encouraged his staff to follow his lead in adopting strategies from Japanese artists.
Several of these visual strategies are visible in this presentation drawing. The framing of the main subject matter - the house - in the center, with trees on each side and foliage in the extreme foreground, for example, was a favorite convention chosen by Hiroshige and Hokusai, among other printmakers. Likewise, the shading of the sky towards the top of the frame but not farther down towards the horizon, a device called notan, is also a favorite of Eastern artists. Finally, the loading of the foreground to block the view as space recedes in perspective and the spilling of certain objects out of the frame that otherwise encircles the elements of the scene also are favorite techniques of Japanese artists adopted here by Mahoney, through Wright's tutelage.
Pencil and ink on paper
Dining Room ensemble, Burton J. Westcott House
Wright's interiors and furniture remain some of the most famous among American designers. Because Wright tended to design literally everything when he was given a commission, the furnishings also often become works of art in themselves, being seamlessly integrated within the rest of the building's aesthetic - reflecting the principles of organic architecture. It also means that Wright's furniture usually was custom-designed for individual houses, and that each building's furnishings are unique to it.
Wright's dining room ensembles, especially from his Prairie Style years, are exemplary of several aspects of his furniture design. The most important of these is the encouragement of gathering and social interaction, which Wright accomplishes several ways. The high-backed chairs help to screen out the view beyond each person at the table, focusing attention on everyone seating around it. The chairs, with their upright backs, encourage proper posture, though this kind of vertical-back seating has notoriously proved to be uncomfortable. (Other Wright furniture designs, however, are remarkably ergonomic and accommodating, so this is not a defining characteristic of Wright's chairs.)
The sense of gathering is underscored by the lamps attached at each corner, which illuminate the table space and invite diners to sit down, while also blocking corner views beyond the table. The lamps further reflect the function of the table as an anchor for the space due to their permanent attachment to the floor for the electrical wiring, and in a larger sense, this notion of anchoring mirrors Wright's conception of the entire house to function as a bastion of domestic security in the midst of an increasingly changing, unstable, industrialized society.
Like many Arts & Crafts designers, Wright often built in the furniture in his houses, no matter whether the structure was for a wealthy client or one of modest means, and insisted that the placement of the moveable pieces be just so. Once, when a client dared change the positioning of items before Wright came to visit, he dragged them all back to where he intended them to be as soon as he arrived.
Frederick C. Robie House
The last major residence that Wright designed before he absconded off to Europe in 1909, the Robie House is often considered the epitome of Wright's work in the Prairie Style, though it is not the largest example. It was built for a wealthy bicycle and auto manufacturer who actually only lived in the house for about eleven months before being forced to sell it, and ironically it has functioned as a true residence for very little of its existence. Nonetheless, it is the consummate essay in Wright's pre-World War I vision of domestic space, and one of the few buildings that he actually fought to preserve when it was once threatened with demolition.
Like the Larkin Building and Unity Temple, the Robie House and the Prairie Style residences exemplify the way Wright represents Nature as a life-giving force to human existence, which in turn provides a modicum of stability in an increasingly complex, unstable, industrialized world - values that harmonize with the Arts and Crafts movement, with which Wright is sometimes associated. The Robie House exhibits a dichotomy between openness to the landscape and an emphasis on domestic privacy. The long, low, horizontals of the walls, emphasized by the Roman brick, overhanging eaves of the roofs, and projecting terraces, instantly locate it within the flatness of the Midwest. From the exterior, the house almost looks like a fortress with horizontal slits between the roof and walls to accommodate the windows, with the private aspect of the residence underscored by the nearly hidden placement of the main entrance at the rear, away from the sidewalk.
Once inside, though, the main floor opens up, flowing around the centralized hearth that anchors it and provides the division between the dining room and living space. Typical of Wright's Prairie residences, the hearth, with its permanent seating, symbolizes the locus of the family unit and the generation of life-sustaining warmth during the frigid Chicago winters. Wright underscores the residence's organic connection with the exterior world through ribbons of windows encircling the spaces (many of which use abstracted wheat motifs), the natural materials of wood, and brick, and the gold, brown, tan, and green tones of the interior surfaces.
The Imperial Hotel was arguably Wright's first significant commission where his prowess as an engineer was prominently and dramatically revealed. He fought vigorously to get the job, for which he was asked by the Japanese government to design a Western-style lodging complex that would appeal to foreigners. His response consisted of a brick structure that would become one of the last great hand-constructed buildings of the 20th century, done in a kind of Mayan Revival style that, ironically, must have seemed about as exotic to Europeans and Americans as it did to the Japanese. The hotel represented a Wright-ian Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, as Wright designed virtually everything associated with it, down to the dining room china and tableware. These qualities, combined with Wright's use of new technology such as reinforced concrete, reflect how his architecture of the middle of his career reflected both the traditions of the Arts & Crafts movement and the advances of the modern age.
Wary of the ever-present threat of earthquakes on the Pacific Rim, Wright designed the Imperial as a series of separate, linked pavilions with floating foundations set on concrete piles driven deep into the ground below, thereby allowing the structures to move independently in case of ground movement. The H-shaped plan placed the reception and common areas, including an auditorium, in the central wing that connected twin long, two-story wings containing the guest rooms set perpendicular to it. Wright's genius was confirmed when a little over a year after the hotel's completion in 1922, the Great Kanto earthquake devastated Tokyo. When the report arrived that the Imperial had not only survived with only very minor damage, but also stood like a beacon of hope among the fire and rubble of much of the rest of the city, Wright was momentarily hailed as a structural wizard. Though many other Tokyo buildings survived the disaster, Wright did nothing to dispel the false rumor that the Imperial had been the only one to emerge intact.
A victim of changing tastes, damage during World War II, uneven natural settling of the foundations, and the need to accommodate an increasingly larger number of guests in a city where land was scarce, Wright's Imperial was demolished in 1968 and replaced by a new high-rise design. Its central section, however, was salvaged and relocated to Nagoya and, after being painstakingly reconstructed over a period of 17 years, can still be seen today as part of the Meiji-Mura Museum.
Never realized, and never exactly finished, Broadacre City nonetheless remains the most complete statement of Wright's vision for what American urbanism should be. Wright introduced the ideas for Broadacre City in his 1932 book The Disappearing City, whose titular phrase succinctly sums up Wright's conception of urbanism. Over the next three years, Wright kept his apprentices at Taliesin busy during a shortage of actual clients by constructing the model for Broadacre City. The project was financed by Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store magnate who commissioned Fallingwater as his vacation house. Wright exhibited the model at Rockefeller Center in 1935 and then at Kaufmann's Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh as part of a show called New Homes For Old sponsored by the Federal Housing Administration. He would continue to tinker with it until his death.
Broadacre City consists of a decentralized metropolis, spread out over several acres of countryside, such that by default the automobile has become the primary means of circulation. The acreage is broken up roughly along a gridded road plan into various zones for different purposes, segregating residential, commercial, industrial, and governmental or institutional buildings, and interspersing them with farmland. Nearly all structures are low-rise, with the exceptions of a few apartment buildings, some of which resemble Wright's designs for the apartments at St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie for lower Manhattan, which would morph into Wright's Price Tower in Oklahoma in the 1950s. As the project continued to evolve, frequently Wright's new building designs would show up in the renderings illustrating it in his publications.
Broadacre City was produced during the Great Depression at roughly the same time as various other large-scale theoretical urban planning projects, like Le Corbusier's Radiant City, which also sought to establish a strict zoning method and circulation based on the automobile. As ways that many architects like Wright kept busy when commissions were few and far between, these schemes represent the faith in the car to fully reshape Western society once the economy improved again; in the United States in the postwar era, with the rise of suburbia and urban renewal programs, a version of Wright's vision would come to fruition, but with highly controversial and often devastating results - such as displacing urban-dwelling minority populations to isolating, dangerous housing projects and destroying communities in the process.
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wright's most famous building, and likely the most famous modern house in the world, Fallingwater is often seen as the commission that revived Wright's career. It was built as the vacation home for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., and his family. To a large extent, Fallingwater is Wright's response to the International Style architects in Europe such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, among many others, whose work was seen as cutting edge at the 1932 Modern Architecture - International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In that show, Wright had been portrayed as merely a precursor to architectural modernism, and famously feuded bitterly with curators Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock during the planning stages about not being more prominently featured.
Wright's philosophy of organic architecture sought to integrate buildings within the landscape, and indeed Fallingwater accomplishes this masterfully, with a central vertical core of local stone that anchors the house on the outcropping above Bear Run, whose waterfall cascades below. Wright built the house around the Kaufmanns' favorite sitting spot above the falls, allowing its rock to poke through the living room floor to preserve it. From a distance, the house appears as a series of abstract rectilinear trays of terraces floating in the trees above Bear Run (the name of the stream that runs under the house), such that one can nearly always hear, but never see, the stream from within the house. In this sense, Wright seems to be taking the rigid planes of the International Style and beating the Europeans at their own game. It re-established Wright's preeminence and in the wake of its completion (and that of the Johnson Wax Administration Building) Wright was honored with a feature on the cover of Time magazine, along with a sketch of Fallingwater, and his own one-man show at MoMA in 1940.
The lore of Fallingwater's creation (recounted in Wright's biography above), combined with its subsequent history, has only added to its significance. It is also the most notorious example of Wright's engineering failures, as its lower cantilevers began to fail due to inadequate amounts of steel reinforcement almost from the moment they were constructed, despite numerous warnings at the time. Eventually the house famously required, in 2002, a complete post-tensioning repair that stabilized the terraces. As a result, it now also comprises one of the most significant moments in the histories of both historic preservation and structural engineering.
Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower
Together with Fallingwater, Wright's headquarters and research facilities for S.C. Johnson & Son, makers of popular household products, marked the resurgence of his career in the last half of the 1930s and early '40s. He was forced by company chairman Herbert Johnson to design it for the center of Racine, which was an eyesore of an industrial city, so, to cope, Wright decreed that there would be no exterior windows. The Johnson Wax buildings are Wright's consummate statement in the Art Moderne style, a more austere, streamlined offshoot of Art Deco. The headquarters and research tower are constructed of Roman brick with raked mortar and rounded corners to emphasize the structure's horizontality (the rounded corners particularly connect to Art Moderne).
Even though the enclosed space is walled off from the exterior, the interior contains numerous references to nature. The main interior space, or "Great Workroom" as Wright named it, is organized by a grid of dendriform columns. Wright filled the ceiling spaces in between the columns with skylights of Pyrex glass tubing - which proved difficult to seal, but is nonetheless used extensively elsewhere as one of the building's signature features. The glowing quality of the Workroom when flooded with natural or artificial light and buzzing with activity has prompted comparisons with a beehive. Meanwhile, the design of the columns, whose forms have also been likened to lily pads, produced another triumphal moment for Wright's reputation as an engineer. The state of Wisconsin insisted on a proof that they could support 12 tons of weight as required by law. In the demonstration that followed, captured on film, the columns successfully held 60 tons of material before buckling.
The research tower, one of two skyscrapers Wright completed in his life, represents his major structural innovation to the type. Called a "taproot system" by Wright in reference to a tree trunk, it uses a central column with a base of piles sunk deep into the ground; all of the floors are cantilevered off of the vertical structure like tree branches, leaving the exterior walls of tinted glass to simply hang off of the floors. Its form could be said to resemble that of an upright battery, arguably symbolizing the way that scientific research is the generator of the household products put out by the company. In this light, the organization of the columns in the administration building and its radiant glow could be read as an electric grid illuminated by the power of science.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Testament to Wright's genius is the fact that he designed several significant buildings so late in life that he did not live to see them completed. The Guggenheim Museum, for which Wright received the commission in 1943, ranks at the top of this list. It is one of only two Wright buildings in New York City (the other is a small house on Staten Island), and to his credit, he displayed considerable tenacity in the long struggle to get the Guggenheim built, knowing that it was essentially his one chance to leave his mark on the country's largest city. In so doing, Wright essentially shifted the entire discourse on what museum design should be.
While Wright was commissioned to house and highlight Solomon Guggenheim's significant collection of modern art, he decided instead to create a museum that would itself compete with the art as the actual showcase. Its design of a main gallery that consists of a spiral ramp encircling a skylit atrium was a radical departure from all previous museums, and allowed Wright to finally explore a form - the spiral - which he been musing about for years but never realized. The spiral shape of the main display space tapers outward as one ascends through it, meaning the interior walls are slanted and making them difficult to use for hanging artworks. When revealed to the general public, Wright's plans provoked a storm of protest from several major modern artists who insisted on the impossibility of properly exhibiting their work there. They lost the fight. But other obstacles stood in his way. Luckily Wright had Robert Moses, the city's "building czar," on his side; when legal technicalities stalled progress on construction, Moses famously intoned to his underlings, "I don't care how many building codes you have to break; I want the Guggenheim built."
Though located on the Museum Mile, the Guggenheim's gleaming white exterior and form easily holds its own against every other building in the city, making it a landmark that is virtually impossible to miss. Since the Guggenheim's construction, the question of designing most notable museums has always included a debate on the building as an architectural gem in itself and whether it will overshadow the art housed within it. The museum continues to function as a measuring stick for every architect whose work is exhibited there, as the comparison with Wright is all but inevitable.
New York, New York