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Original Creators: Frank Lloyd Wright

Original Creators: Frank Lloyd Wright

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator” — an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Frank Lloyd Wright.

Widely considered one of the most esteemed American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed over 1,000 projects over the course of his prolific career, yielding over 500 completed works, including personal homes, offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, and museums. He was also one of the first architects to incorporate his design aesthetic into every detail of his buildings, conceiving complementary interiors, built-in furniture, light fixtures and stained glass—employing himself as an architect of space, not just of structure. It is believed that playing with Froebel Gifts (geometric blocks that could be arranged in various 3D compositions) as a young child greatly influenced his work, as his designs are known for their geometric clarity and structure.

Wright never received formal architecture schooling, and and even turned down an offer to study for free at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris because he thought the classical education he would receive would conflict with his vision for modern architecture. He was a pioneering student in the fields of Organic, Usonian, and the Prairie schools of architecture designing for a servant-less, domesticated American culture that incorporated more open floor plans and “workspaces” into his homes and buildings. Some consider his “open” design technique to be a metaphor for the openness of American political and social life.

Despite multiple marriages and a semi-tumultuous personal life, Wright was very successful in his professional career, honored with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1955, and recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time,” among other numerous awards and achievements. In addition to influencing modern designers like Mies van der Rohe and post-modernists like Frank Gehry, Wright was a writer, educator, and an active dealer of Japanese art. Here we look at five of his most significant architectural designs.

Frederick C. Robie House (1908): Chicago, Illinois

The Frederick C. Robie house, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is known as the greatest example of Wright’s Prairie styled homes, a type of architecture that is considered most uniquely American, and is recognizable by long horizontal lines thought to invoke the prairie landscape. The home features cantilevered roof eves, the usage of Roman bricks, four fireplaces, 174 art glass windows and door panels in 29 different designs. In 1956, The Architectural Record selected the Robie House as “one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America.”

Ennis House (1924): Los Angeles, California

The Ennis House was originally designed as a residential home, modeled after the designs of ancient Roman temples, and constructed out of pre-cast concrete blocks. It’s most impressive qualities are the engraved details on the exterior blocks, making it a popular location for numerous movies, fashion shoots, music videos, and TV shows including Blade Runner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Karate Kid, Part III, and Mulholland Drive.

Fallingwater (1935): Mill Run, Pennsylvania

Fallingwater is perhaps Wright’s most famous residential home, partly built over a waterfall, and originally designed for the Kaufmann family before becoming a museum in 1964. The home was designed as a nature retreat for the Kaufmann’s, invoked design elements of Japanese architecture, and utilized a nearby quarry’s rocks for the exterior walls. The building is surrounded by broad balconies that open up to the outside, and notable features include a staircase that leads down from the living room to the stream that is accessed by movable glass panes. Fallingwater is listed among Smithsonian magazine’s 28 Places To Visit Before You Die, and for good reason.

Johnson Wax Building (1936): Racine, Wisconsin

The Johnson Wax Building, the world headquarters of S.C. Johnson & Son, is one of Wright’s most notable commercial works, featuring over 200 different types of curved red bricks seen on the interior and exterior. Wright utilized Pyrex glass tubing in the interior to let in soft light, and the overall building structure is an example of streamlined design.

The free-flowing “Great Room” in the interior of the building features innovative columns that Wright coined as “lily pads.” After demonstrating that a single column could support 60 tons of weight, Wright was given his building permit.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959): New York, New York

The Guggenheim art museum, located on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, NY is home to collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary artwork. The pristine white structure is considered one of Wright’s last major works, and the interior mimics the inside of a seashell. Wright originally designed the structure with the idea that patrons would take the elevator to the top and then view the artwork as they descended the spiral ramp, though currently the museum displays the artwork directing patrons to ascend the ramp instead of starting at the top.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes and buildings can still be seen strewn across America, concentrated most heavily around Buffalo, NY; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; and Scottsdale, AZ. Most of them continue to be preserved as U.S. National Landmarks, and certain places are open to the general public. Wright’s designs completely changed the way American homes are built and structured, and he was the first architect to focus on how the interior space reflected the exterior skeleton of his buildings. Wright believed in designing something as a unit, whether it be the marriage of the interior and exterior layouts, or the geometric patterns and building blocks that made up his designs, which is echoed in the practice of many generative architects today.

Instead of copying European architecture, he chose to be inspired by existing elements of nature, invoking Japanese influences as seen in Fallingwater, as well as building architecture that flowed with the structures’ natural surroundings, most notably in his Prairie style residences throughout rural America. He introduced floor plans that were more open and flowing, and were focused around the hearth, which he believed the “heart” of the home. His designs were also some of the first to utilize an abundance of natural light, evident in his frequent rows of windows, and through the intricate skylights featured in his more commercial work.

His designs of Fallingwater and the Guggenheim have become so ingrained in popular culture that they’ve recently been made into Lego sets, introducing his style and innovations to the younger generations, as well as inspiring the builder in all of us. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work can be viewed currently in the Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, through May 15, 2011.

Slideshow images from left to right: Wright drafting blueprints; Wright’s Home and Studio (1898); Taliesin East; Taliesin West