Seven Great Houses by Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most prolific and influential architects of the 20th century. He developed a language of architecture that was unique to the United States. Wright had an incredibly long career, beginning in the late 19th century and lasting until the 1960s. Wright saw the rise and fall of European Modernism. In some ways, he was the American equivalent of the European Modernists, but he actually disliked their work. Wright created buildings that were equally radical, but he had an ability to integrate them with the landscape. This stemmed from his deep love of nature. This gift marked him out from pioneers of Modernism like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Wright’s work actually has more in common with the English Arts and Crafts tradition. This article examines seven of his greatest houses: the Winslow House, the Robie House, Taliesin, Hollyhock House, La Miniatura, the Ennis House and, of course, Fallingwater
The Winslow House at River Forest, Illinois (1893) is a very early design for William H. Winslow. Wright designed this when he was 26. It is a composition of absolute symmetry with a strong, formal composition. The materials are in rich autumnal colours. It has an overhanging roof, which creates a feeling of shelter and protection. All of Wright’s houses embody this primal need for protection. The formality of this design is very modern, but this is a 19th century house and it still has elements of tradition. For example, this terracotta frieze running under the roof is in the decorative Victorian tradition.
Wright’s work quickly became more radical. In the 1900s, he designed a celebrated series of houses called the Prairie Houses. They got this name because they were inspired by the flat planes of the Midwestern landscape. The American prairie, with its far horizon, signified freedom to Wright and the Prairie Houses all have a strong horizontal emphasis, echoing the flat landscape. Wright saw the Winslow House as his first ‘Prairie House’.
Wright developed the Prairie Style in a large number of commissions for private homes in Chicago. The Robie House (1909) was Wright’s most mature expression of the Prairie Style. This has a strong horizontal emphasis, which is exaggerated by the use of ribbons of stone and red brick for the walls. This gives the sense of cascading planes. It has a daring cantilevered roof on the west side, which is reinforced with steel. This massive plane gives the living room privacy and shelter from the sun. The house is three storeys high, but it seems to hug the ground. Again, it is a paean to the flat landscape of the prairie. The interior is a free-flowing space, which was very radical and modern. However, the space is anchored around a central fireplace, which is very prominent and emphatic. Wright saw the fireplace as the centre of family life and in his work it has an almost spiritual significance.
In his domestic work, Wright aimed to create a truly North American architecture. The individual house is part of the American psyche – it embodies the American belief in individual freedom and the family unit. If you think of Western films and the importance of the homestead; it’s an outpost of civilisation in the wilderness. Frank Lloyd Wright’s domestic architecture preserves that notion.
Wright built a house for himself and his partner Mamah Cheney at Spring Green in Wisconsin. Wright was proud of his Welsh ancestry so he named the house Taliesin, a Welsh word meaning ‘shining brow’. It was also the name of a Welsh bard. The house was built on a hill and it was part of a 600 acre country estate. Like the Prairie houses it grew out of the landscape, echoing the contours of the hill. It has rustic limestone walls, which give it the feeling of a Welsh castle. A garden court was built into the house. Taliesin was a site of a tragedy in 1914. A chef called Julian Carleton murdered Mamah Cheney and her children, then set fire to the house. He was later found hiding in the furnace in the basement. He’d tried to kill himself by drinking acid. Wright later had the house rebuilt.
After the tragedy at Taliesin, Wright began working in California and designed a house in Hollywood. Hollyhock House (1917–21) was designed for the oil heiress called Aline Barnsdall. This is solid and monumental. Wright had a great knowledge of the architecture of pre-Columbian America, i.e. before America was discovered by Columbus. He was inspired by ancient Mayan and Aztec architecture, which in his words ‘stirred my wonder [and] excited my wishful admiration.’ At Hollyhock House, the tiered structure and receding walls recall the Mayan stepped pyramids of Mexico.
This is called Hollyhock House because Wright decorated it with an abstract motif based on the hollyhock, the client’s favourite flower. There is a frieze of abstracted hollyhock motifs along the parapet. It was also applied to pinnacles.
As with many of Wright’s residences, this is an introverted building with small windows, so it’s not easy to decode from the outside. It’s very defensive. The rooms open onto a shaded court at the rear. Wright added a square pool of water to give a sense of coolness amid the baking heat of California. The house included a theatre.
The interior uses lustrous wood fittings and abstract stained-glass. The chairs reiterate the hollyhock motif. Again, the fireplace was imagined as the heart of the house. This features an abstract representation of the client sitting in a throne overlooking the mountains and the sea.
Textile Block Houses
Later in his career, Wright began to explore the structural and expressive possibilities of concrete. In the 1920s and 30s he developed an experimental method of building using textured concrete blocks. He designed a block that could be moulded on site. It was small and light enough to be carried by one person. Theoretically, very little skilled labour would be needed to construct the house. Each block had grooves in the edges, which meant that when two blocks were placed together, a tube was formed between them. The idea was that steel rods could be inserted to hold the blocks in place and give structural stability.
The most famous textile block house is the Ennis House (1923) in Los Angeles, designed for Charles Ennis. This is the most monumental of the textile block houses; it’s composed of temple-like pavilions. Again, this house reflects Wright’s interest in Mayan temple design. The blocks feature an abstract pattern composed by Wright. This design is very iconic and it was used in the film Blade Runner.
Unfortunately, the textile block method turned out to be horribly intricate and it was not a success. On top of that, concrete is vulnerable to pollution and the Los Angeles smog has corroded the surface, so the buildings are now badly decayed.
Another textile block house is La Miniatura in Pasadena. This was sited at the bottom of a ravine in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Unfortunately, the ravine was prone to flooding, so the house has been damaged by water. You can see the discolouration on the walls. However, it still has the mysterious aura of pre-Columbian architecture and because of the setting it looks like an ancient ruin, a jungle temple.
In 1935 Wright received a commission from Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store owner – his son had studied in Wright’s architectural fellowship at Taliesin West. The client had chosen a site at Mill Run, Pennsylvania, which had a waterfall running through it. This commission resulted in Wright’s most imaginative house and one of his most famous buildings. Wright visited the site and wrote to Kaufmann: ‘The visit to the waterfall in the woods stays with me, and a domicile has taken vague shape in my mind to the music of the stream.’
Falling Water (1934) is a house built in harmony with nature. It was built over the waterfall and it consists of a column of sandstone that rises from the rock-face and anchors the house to the site. Overhanging concrete decks project from the stone core and cascade down to the water. These concrete slabs echo the rugged shelves of rock, making the house seem like an imaginative extension of the landscape.
There are three levels and each has its own cantilevered terrace. The lines of the building are rounded and gentle in contrast to the angular finish of Wright’s Prairie houses. This shows the influence of 1930s streamline design.
Wright formulated the concept of organic architecture, in which buildings exist in harmony with nature. Fallingwater is the apotheosis of organic architecture; it achieves harmony between humanity and the environment through design. The site and the building become one. The design was mainly composed of reinforced concrete, but the stone work has a rough surface as if just hewn from the cliff face. Inside, the fireplace was carved from boulders on the site.
In some ways, Frank Lloyd Wright was the American equivalent of the European Modernists, but his houses were very luxurious and comfortable. They expressed a deep sense of shelter and personal freedom. Wright tried to infuse his buildings with a sense of American identity and used a pan-American range of imagery, drawing on the ancient cultures of South America and Native American art.
For futher discussion of the Arts and Crafts movement, please see: