Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect: Residential Work
The American Institute of Architects named Frank Lloyd Wright [June 8, 1867—April 9, 1959] “the greatest American architect of all time.” Certainly he was among the most prolific, designing houses, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels and museums, urban landscapes—as well as interiors, stained glass, furniture, and textiles. Wright’s career spanned seven decades and took him far beyond his adopted hometown of Chicago, to Los Angeles and Buffalo, Germany and Japan. Wright was also a prolific writer and educated apprentices at his studios Taliesin and Taliesin West (in Wisconsin and Arizona, respectively).
More: Did you know you could spend the night in a Wright house?
Students of residential architecture will be most interested in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School period; in the residential masterpiece, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania; and in his experimentation with middle-class houses, which included model designs for the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine and his Usonian Houses.
PRAIRIE SCHOOL, broadly 1893–1916
Prairie School is the name given to architects working on a new, more modern domestic architecture in the area around Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Architect Louis Sullivan’s teachings and philosophy were one inspiration for the style—Sullivan was Wright’s early mentor. Frank Lloyd Wright set the standards for the genre, which was based on the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. (Indeed, Gustav Stickley embraced the designs of the Prairie School, publishing Wright and others early on in the pages of The Craftsman magazine.)
Yet it was, on purpose and by design, a Midwestern style: “modern” and “progressive,” and linked to the broad landscape of the prairie. Lowered ceilings, using a change in level to demarcate space, open planning, indirect lighting—all these can be traced to this modern, American style.
Two suburban house plans of modest scale, designed by Wright for a middle-class budget, were published in Ladies Home Journal in 1901; one article was called “A Home in a Prairie Town.” The low-slung massing with shallow roofs and extended terraces were considered to complement the flat topography of the Chicagoland prairie. Along with the terraces, the indoor-outdoor line was blurred with the use of bands of windows. Already a Japanese influence was evident.
Wright was the undisputed leader in the movement; see his own Home and Studio (1889–1909, Oak Park, IL: a transitional house with Shingle Style exterior and Prairie planning inside), the Winslow House (1894, River Forest, IL, proto-Prairie style), the Willits House (1901, Highland Park, IL), the Dana-Thomas House (1902, Springfield, IL) and the Darwin D. Martin House (1903–1905, Buffalo, NY). Later Prairie masterpieces designed by Wright include the Coonley House (1908, Riverside, IL) and the Frederick Robie House (1909, Chicago).
Wright pioneered the use of bands of horizontal windows, cantilevers, simplified massing and strong geometry, open floor plans, and innovations in the use of concrete. Wright designed flat ornament throughout his career; his best known is the art glass of the Prairie years. Simple geometric shapes in colored glass are held by zinc cames to produce intricate windows that allow transparency without a loss of the border between indoors and out.
TRANSITIONAL HOUSES, 1923–1936
During the Prairie School period, Wright received commissions in Buffalo, N.Y., through his connection with Darwin Martin of the Larkin Soap Co. One important house, recently restored and open to the public, is Graycliff (1926–1931), the summer estate built for Darwin Martin. Again, terraces and cantilevered balconies connect with the outdoors, this time with views of Lake Erie.
Of interest, too, are Wright’s residential works during the mid-1920s in California, referred to as the textile block houses. These were made from precast concrete blocks with a patterned surface. See the Alice Millard House (Pasadena), the John Storer House (West Hollywood), and the Ennis House (Griffith Park, Los Angeles).
Perhaps the world’s most famous house was built as a summer retreat for Mr. and Mrs. Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., at Mill Run, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. With a bold geometry of limestone piers and concrete balconies, Fallingwater is set over a stream and waterfall.
More: Fallingwater Minor
Wright had always been interested in suburban planning. Beginning around 1932, he worked on development concepts which he called Broadacre City, which called for design of a new dwelling type for modern, middle-class suburban life, houses modular and not expensive. He called these Usonian houses (after the USA, or United States of North America).
Houses built for private clients in Minneapolis, MN, and Madison, WI, during the 1930s exemplify the idea: a concrete slab with radiant heat, walls with plywood cores (not traditionally framed), with near-flat roofs and neither basements nor attics. Small kitchens were designed as simple workspaces just beyond flowing living/dining areas outfitted, as the Prairie Houses had been, with built-in seating and other furniture.
The Usonian houses were also like Prairie houses in that the living room focused on the hearth; bedrooms were small and private, encouraging family members to gather in the common rooms. Though they were modern, the Usonian houses might be seen as the last generation of Arts & Crafts houses. Fewer than 60 were built, the last one in 1963.
Features of Wright’s Usonian houses were picked up by spec builders and developers nationwide, and informed “modern” suburban housing of the 1950s through 1970s. —Patricia Poore