Frank Lloyd Wright, an American Architect

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 in Wisconsin, the son of teachers, but by the time he died in 1959, he had become, without question, the most well-known and admired architect in America. He had been instrumental in the development of the Prairie School of architecture, an influential movement through much of the first half of the 20th century, and he established himself as an internationally respected designer and aesthetician rather than merely a builder of buildings.

Wright accomplished all this with very little formal education. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but he didn't complete a degree, and when he moved to Chicago in 1887, he was unemployed and eager to find a job. The aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871 had necessitated a building boom, and Chicago at the end of the 19th century was a focal point for cutting-edge modern architecture. Wright got a job as a draftsman, first with the firm of Joseph Silsbee, then with Adler & Sullivan. At this second firm, Wright became the protege of Louis Sullivan, who was himself destined to achieve legendary status among American architects.

While he worked for Sullivan, Wright secretly completed residential projects on his own; these early Wright houses were largely built in the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, but even here, in the houses' pronounced horizontal lines and bold geometric forms, the seeds of the Prairie style were present.

Just before the turn of the century, Wright left Sullivan and started his own firm in Chicago. Working on his own, Wright designed dozens of houses and other buildings in the Chicago area, including many in the suburb of Oak Park, where Wright himself made his home. 

The buildings from this period constitute the early Prairie style. The typical characteristics of the style included low, horizontal roof lines with shallow slopes and pronounced overhangs, horizontal bands of windows, strongly emphasized geometric masses and open floor plans. The aim of the style was to create an unmistakable connection between the building and the landscape by echoing the broad, flat local geography in the form of the building, and by blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior of the building.

Wright's later career was marked by scandals and tragedies in his personal life. In 1901, he left his wife, Kitty, and their children to travel to Europe with his lover, Mamah Cheney. When he returned a year later, he built a house near his mother's home in Spring Green, Wisconsin; he called his estate Taliesin, and he and Cheney moved in there in 1910. Four years later, while Wright was away, Cheney and six other people were murdered at Taliesin by a servant, who also set fire to the home.

The rest of Wright's life was no less tumultuous. Another fire at Taliesin, two more marriages and the construction of a winter home in Arizona, called Taliesin West, followed.

Two of Wright's later projects are easily his most famous. Fallingwater is a house that he built for Edgar J. Kaufmann in rural Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh; it was finished in 1937. The house sits cantilevered over a waterfall, and it is the epitome of Wright's connected-to-nature style. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1943-1959), with its nearly monolithic exterior and its spiraling galleries, exhibits Wright's desire to build his buildings on a foundation of pure geometry.

Wright's Prairie Style has been influential for more than a century, not just in architecture, but in all areas of art and design. You can find hints of Wright's influence in Jon Allen's line: in the rich colors, in the compositions that rely on balancing of geometric masses, and in the emphasis on clean horizontal and vertical lines.