Frank Lloyd Wright

An American architect, designer, writer, and educator, Frank Lloyd Wright promoted organic architecture, which was best exemplified in his most famous work—Fallingwater. During his seventy-year career, Wright designed over 1,100 buildings (seeing over 500 of them realized), authored twenty books and numerous articles, and was a popular lecturer in the United States and in Europe until his death. Already renowned during his lifetime, Wright is now considered the “greatest American architect of all time.”

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Frank Lincoln Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1867, to William Carey Wright, an itinerant music teacher, composer, and Baptist minister, and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, a school teacher. Following his parents’ divorce in 1885, Frank changed his middle name to Lloyd to honor his mother’s family.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Though his ambitious and strong-minded mother decorated the walls of his nursery with pictures of European cathedrals, it was not man-made beauty that initially captivated Wright. Growing up in rural Wisconsin on a plot of land originally settled by his mother’s Welsh ancestors, Wright spent his days surrounded by—and indeed a part of—the changing natural landscape. A patchwork of open fields, lush green valleys and rock-edged streams fed by the Wisconsin River all proved influential in the formation of his later organic design philosophy.

Wright’s family lived on a farm and, as a boy, his experiences taking care of animals and harvesting a life out of the earth made an indelible impression on him that influenced him consciously and, even more importantly, unconsciously, throughout his life. During his youth, he spent many hours purposefully observing the subtle behavior of sunlight, the shifting shadows of dusk and the changing of the seasons. Enthralled, he later sought out great thinkers whose beliefs affirmed and ultimately refined his, such as Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman.

Wright’s reverence for the natural world became the cornerstone of his pioneering theories of “organic architecture” and would shape, define and enhance every project he approached for the rest of his life. Generations would hail Frank Lloyd Wright as a genius…one of the greatest architects who ever lived. But like the sunny fields where he played as a child, his life would also have its shadows.

It has been noted that Wright’s career ran concurrently with the birth and evolution of modern architecture. He began his career in 1887 in Chicago, first in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee and then at the firm of Adler & Sullivan, under the supervision of the famed architect Louis Sullivan.

When it was discovered he was soliciting his own commissions, he then set up a private practice in his Oak Park home, adding a drafting studio and visitor reception room in 1895. There he perfected his signature Prairie Style, emphasizing open spaces and shallow, sloping rooflines. The Prairie Style, especially houses like that for Frederick C. Robie, was extremely influential in the Midwest especially, and is considered a milestone in the history of modern architecture.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright’s productivity was matched in intensity by the public’s fascination with his personal life. A high-profile affair with a client, the resulting well-publicized separation from his wife, and a year-long sojourn through Europe culminated in his return to the United States in 1911 and his purchase of a plot of ancestral land in Wisconsin, where he would build his renowned retreat and studio, Taliesin.

The valley surrounding Taliesin was originally settled by Wright’s maternal family, the Lloyd Joneses, during the Civil War. Welsh immigrants, Wright’s maternal grandfather and uncle were Unitarian ministers, and his two aunts had founded the Hillside Home School, a co-educational boarding school. The Lloyd Jones family, their ideas, religion, and ideals, greatly influenced the young Wright, who chose the Welsh word Taliesin, meaning “shining brow” for his sanctuary positioned on the “brow” of a favored hill.

Subsequent sensational events at Taliesin included the murder of seven people, including Wright’s mistress at the time, by arson in 1914. Coinciding with the collapse of his second marriage in the 1920s, a second devastating fire at Taliesin in 1925, and the onset of the Great Depression, Wright’s career faced a loss of commissions. What was designed as a refuge from public scrutiny soon flourished to become an experimental architectural apprenticeship program as Taliesin slowly grew to encompass the former Hillside Home School buildings when Wright formed the Taliesin Fellowship with his third wife, Olgivanna, in 1932.

Wright used the Fellowship as a way to explore and enact his ideas of organic architecture. Taliesin was riddled with misfortunes, but it was also there that the genesis of Fallingwater took shape. With its extraordinary Wisconsin landscape and romantic relationship with nature, Taliesin signaled a maturity that would fully blossom—only a few years later—among the rhododendron in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

In 1934, having just returned to the United States from a long stay in Europe, Edgar Kaufmann jr. was introduced to the unique concepts of Frank Lloyd Wright quite by chance. A friend had suggested he read An Autobiography, Wright’s 1932 accounting of his life in which the 65-year-old architect opined on his upbringing, his buildings, and the somewhat radical ideas that led to his reputation as a colorful genius and innovator of the “organic” approach to modern architectural design and construction. Instantly captivated by Wright’s belief that art has a humane and noble task to serve man in harmony with his natural surroundings, the Kaufmann felt the architect’s words “flowed into my mind like the first trickle of irrigation in a desert land.” He visited Wright at Taliesin in September 1934, and by October had taken his place among the apprentices there.

Though he had no plans to become an architect, the young Kaufmann also began to enthusiastically discuss Wright’s ideas with his parents. Following a visit to Taliesin in 1934, Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., began a casual correspondence with the architect regarding several potential civic projects in Pittsburgh. Kaufmann quickly recognized their mutual passion for new ideas, aesthetic beauty and the relationship between man and the natural world and Wright found a patron that would change the course of his life, his career and, indeed, modern architecture itself.