150 years ago this month saw the birth of one of the most regarded, studied, influential architects of the twentieth century – American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. With a career spanning over seventy years, Wright developed his own distinct style of ‘organic architecture’, a new residential model of ‘prairie house’, as well as iconic schemes such as the Guggenheim in New York, and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
More than an architect, Wright was a social critic and visionary, just as well-known for his personal life as he is for his architectural contributions. The various stages of Wright’s career can be narrated in tandem with biographical episodes, as exemplified in the book “Lives built, Biographies of architects” by authors Anatxu Zabalbeascoa and Javier Rodríguez Marcos. In celebration of Wright’s birthday and life, we have compiled a list of biographical details to give you an insight into the man behind some of the twentieth century’s most enduring pieces of architecture.
This is what we discovered.
1. Less than 20 years old, and not yet graduated from school, he traveled to Chicago to fulfill his dream of being an architect.
2. His first job was working in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, the architect who had designed a church where his uncle preached.
3. Shortly after working with Silsbee, Wright left for a position as an apprentice in Adler & Sullivan’s office. The first building which Wright worked on for Louise Sullivan was the Auditorium Building, allowing him to establish a name both within the office and across the country.
4. At age 22, Wright decided to buy land in Oak Park to build the house where he lived with his first wife, Catherine. To pay for the house, Wright gets Sullivan to offer him a 5-year contract and a $5000 prepayment.
5. Between Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, a close teacher-disciple relationship ensued, which was broken in 1893 when Sullivan fired Wright after learning that he had been taking personal work in secret.
6. W.H. Winslow, a wrought-iron ornament maker, who’s decorations were used by Sullivan in his buildings, commissioned a young Wright to design the first of his prairie houses. The Winslow house was the first in a series of houses that defined Wright’s organic style, characterized by having a strong link with their natural environment and placing the staircase and fireplace the heart of the dwelling.
7. Wright often used his client’s homes as test laboratories, experimenting with styles such as English tutor, derived from the Scottish arts and crafts, or the Mayan geometry of Yucatan temples.
8. In 1893, Daniel Burnham of the renowned Burnham & Root studio offered Wright a partnership in his firm. Burnham offered Wright three years of training in Paris, where he could reside with his wife and six children, and two more years in Rome to learn from the classics. Wright rejected the offer.
9. At the age of 40, Frank Lloyd Wright had instigated a new style in domestic architecture, putting an end to wasted attics and damp basements.
10. Japan became a recurring destination for Wright, who worked in the acquisition and resale of Japanese prints, offering a relief to the financial problems that constantly afflicted them.
11. One of Wright’s passions was to spend time with his yellow convertible, a Stoddard Dayton that he himself had to build from scratch.
12. At the beginning of the century, popular magazines began to publish Wright’s homes and a German publisher became interested in his complete work. Chicago newspapers were also becoming interested in his private life, publishing controversial news about his infidelities with married women.
13. Wright designed and built Taliesin on a rural hillside to live with his mistress, Mamah Cheney. Here, some of the best architects of the twentieth century would come to learn from Wright.
14. While building Taliesin, he was commissioned with two of his greatest projects: Midway Gardens and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
15. Seven people died in 1914 including apprentices, students, Mamah Cheney and Wright’s two children as a result of a fire in Taliesin intentionally started by their butler.
16. The Miniature, in Pasadena, Californa, was the first of four houses that Wright would build with the “textile blocks” system, an experimental technique of concrete blocks ornamented with geometric patterns.
17. Taliesin would burn twice more, and as Wright did not have enough money for its reconstruction, a group of former clients organized a partnership to pay their debts. To keep Taliesin economically viable, the society devised programs in which students paid an enrollment to be able to learn and “experience the lifestyle of Frank Lloyd Wright”.
18. In New Mexico, Wright built Taliesin West, the home he moved to with his second wife, the Montenegrin dancer, Olgivanna Lazović.
19. Fallingwater was commissioned by the parents of Edgar J. Kaufman, a young historian living in Taliesin.
20. The journalist Herbert Jacobs commissioned Wright to design a small house that was so popular among young architects that its owner began to charge those who came to see it.
21. During World War II, when most of the buildings were stopped, Wright begins designing the Usonian houses, affordable housing that would revolutionize the American concept of domestic architecture.
22. Wright spent the last years of his life living in the suite at the Hotel Plaza in New York, from where he supervised the construction of the Guggenheim.
23. During his later life, Wright designed a house for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.
24. At the age of 80, he published manifestos in favor of horizontality, accusing verticality of provoking vertigo.
25. At the age of 90, he traveled to Baghdad to meet the king of Iraq, who commissioned an urban project that would not materialize due to the assassination of the monarch.
26. In the last years of his life, he dedicated himself to sharing his knowledge with younger generations through poignant lectures. In one of his last talks, he publicly paid tribute to Louis Sullivan, and the architectural revolution he had achieved.
“Lives built, Biographies of architects” by authors Anatxu Zabalbeascoa and Javier Rodríguez Marcos and edited by Gustavo Gili, brings together the biographies of 20 of the most celebrated architects that existed from the Renaissance to the Modern Movement. Each story is a fascinating story that explores the lives of each author, not with an eagerness to gossip, but because each biographical episode allows us to understand the origin of some works.