Frank Lloyd Wright is a name synonymous with any architecture and engineering enthusiasts. This is a man who achieved technological feats way ahead of his time. He embraced the use of new technology an engineering solution in his architectural works.
Born on June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin; Wright was the eldest child of William Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. His mother’s dream was fulfilled when her child became an architect. His father was a teacher and also a Baptist minister who led churches in Iowa, Rhode Island and Massachusetts during Frank’s early life. At the age of 18 Wright was enrolled to study engineering at the Wisconsin University, but he dropped out to pursue his ambition to study architecture. In 1885, his family had to return to Madison in Wisconsin and Wright had no choice but to spend the school year and his summers on their farm just in Madison.
In 1887 Frank Lloyd moved to Chicago and obtained a job as a tracer for Joseph Lyman Silsbee who was an architect associated with the Jones family. While in Chicago Wright worked for Silsbee for one year before leaving for a better paying drafting job together with Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, who at that time worked on the design of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. Wright referred to Sullivan as his Lieber Meister (beloved master) and was the only architect that Wright acknowledged to admire and respect. The principle behind Wright’s work was conceived from the idea and philosophy of Sullivan’s that “form follows function”. He stayed with Adler and Sullivan until 1893 when a dispute arose and forced Sullivan to fire him.
Wright’s led a troubled and scandalous marriage life that no doubt impacted negatively on his career and his social life. In 1889 Wright had his first marriage to Catherine Lee Clark Tobin. He then borrowed a huge sum of money from his employer who was Louis Sullivan at the time, to purchase a lot in Oak Park, Illinois and build his first house there. Frank and Catherine raised six children together in the home that he used as an architectural laboratory, a building that truly saw many modifications and alterations as he passionately developed his Prairie style of architecture.
After leaving his employer; Sullivan, Wright opened his own office in the Schiller building in downtown Chicago where he happened to share space with Cecil Corwin. By 1894 he had moved his office to the 11th floor of the Steinway Piano Company building where he joined Robert Spencer and Dwight Perkins among others who would become the founders of the Prairie School of Architecture. As Wrights’ skills and talents matured he opened a studio in his Oak Park home. The studio became the new abode for his work and was also the birthplace of some of the best Prairie School architects, including the likes of Marion Mahony, John Van Bergen, Francis Barry Byrne, and William Drummond. Wright continued to nature new players in the architectural field and also do his work up to the time this studio was closed.
In 1909 Wright left for Germany with Margaret (Mamah) Cheney who was the wife of a neighbor and client to allegedly work on the Wasmuth Portfolio. The Wasmuth was a to be a book dedicated to his work. They two stayed in Germany for approximately two years before returning to the United States. After returning home he closed his Oak Park studio and opened a new office in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Concurrently frank started building a house for himself and newly acquired love Mamah Cheney on 200 acres of family land that his mother had inherited from her kin located near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He gave the home the name Taliesin, which means “shining brow” in his ancestral language. The house was located just below the top of the hill so that the house was called “of the hill”. Wright divided his time loyally between Chicago where he worked and was home on the weekends at Spring Green.
Frank’s life went on as usual and routinely till on a fateful 14th of August in 1914, when a recently hired personal chef named Julian Carleton locked all but one door and set his house on fire. The chef axed Mamah her two children and two others brutally as they tried to flee through the unlocked door of the house. This devastated Wright and made him resort to excessive working so as to drown his pains. It is however during this sorrowful period that he completed the famous drawings for the Midway Garden commission in Chicago and then proceeded to rebuild Taliesin.
While rebuilding the Taliesin and due to the publicity it generated Wright received many condolence letters from friends and strangers who were all very sorry for him. A very notable condolence was from a lady named Miriam Noel who was a sculptor. Noel claimed to have so much empathy for Wright that she understood what he was going through. The two eventually met and Wright asked her to move into Taliesin with him. All through Wright was still married to Catherine but she refused to grant him a divorce allegedly with the hope that they would get back together with her husband.
During this time Frank was having financial difficulties this was due to mounting bills coming in from the costs of rebuilding the Taliesin together with the costs of maintaining an upscale apartment in Chicago. In 1914 he got an offer to design and build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan which he had no choice but to accept so as to try an solve his financial problems. He left for Japan in 1916 to oversee the design and construction of the hotel. Wright was devoted to the building of the Imperial Hotel for the next six years where worked tirelessly and industriously till its completion.
By 1922 Wright had completed work on the Imperial Hotel project and he left Japan for home. When he returned to Chicago he learned that Catherine was willing to give him the divorce that he had always wanted. Even though he was free to marry once again, he stayed till November of 1923 before marrying again. However Wright had no luck with women and by April of 1924, Miriam opted to leave their troubled marriage. It was not until August of 1927, after numerous trials by both their attorneys that divorce settlements that both parties could agree to were reached.
Wright had earlier met Olga Milanoff Hinzenberg, (Olgivanna) at a ballet in Chicago in 1924. She was a native Yugoslavian 33 years younger than he was. Olgivanna was a student of a Soviet occult teacher named Georgi Gurdjieff who practiced at the Institute of the Harmonious Development of Man in Paris, France. Frank is said in many books to have been fond of married women and Olgivanna was the wife of a Russian architect called Vlademar Hinzenberg. The two were involved and had one daughter who they named Svetlana. Olgivanna and Svetlana eventually moved into Taliesin with him and two months later Olgivanna obtained a divorce from her husband Hinzenberg. Later on the same year their daughter was born. Almost three years later on they were married on the August 25, of 1928.
At the time of the Great Depression when his earnings were low, Wright started lecturing and writing in learning institutions. He authored many books and became a contributor to architectural magazines where he wrote and exchanged his knowledge with his readers. In October of 1932 he established the famous Taliesin Fellowship, his own architectural school in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The school started with 30 students with each paying a tuition fee of $1,100 however not all students could be admitted and he had to put and 27 on the waiting list. Wright made his students finish repairs that he had given to local contractors and carry out various remodeling tasks on the Taliesin as part of their course work. Frank had adapted these doctrines from Olgivanna who had trained at the Gurdjieff occultist Institute where it was believed that formal training is not important and that physical labor was a source that brought knowledge and inner peace.
In 1934 Wright designed a house for an apprentice’s father. It is here that Wright designed the ‘fall in water’ that is still a masterpiece to this day. Later he learnt that low priced homes could make him some money and he started working in middle to lower class homes. By 1938 Wright moved once again to the Arizona desert near where he had worked before on the unexecuted “San Marcos in the Desert” and the Phoenix Biltmore projects to have his student apprentices build his winter home named Taliesin West on a 800 acre ranch that he had newly acquired.
In a period of 19 years starting from 1940 Wright was at his peak and it is within this period of time that he designed almost over 400 projects many of which are world famous. It is also during this time that he did half of his lifetime’s work. Wright accepted a commission in 1943 from Solomon R. Guggenheim to serve as the architect for a museum in New York. It is here that frank faced numerous setbacks such as the narrow shape of the Manhattan plot that required the design to be rather vertical than horizontal. Initially he had envisaged a continuous ramp circling around the centre of the interior. It however took great perseverance and maneuvering to see the building designs he wanted accepted and constructed. Wright managed to convince Guggenheim to go with his plan but his unexpected death gave Wright more problems as he had to convince the difficult board of trustees that his plans would work. However many any other changes were later made as the board approved the acquisition of more land and seven complete sets of drawings were made before historic construction began in August 1956.
This project faced many delays as Guggenheim’s death, numerous discussions and the world war caused the slow operation and approval of activities. The project went for just over two years and the museum finally unveiled in October of 1959. Guggenheim’s and Wright’s works complemented each other and helped produce a master piece that is the Museum building. The Molded concrete work reinforced by steel pillars and columns created the smooth and eccentric curves. The renown “ box” with its use of posts and beam construction was completely overturned at the Guggenheim where one floor flows gently into another. The walls of the building add some eccentricity especially due to their sloping back that gives the effect of a painting on an easel.
Tragically on April 9 of 1959 Wright passed away after a failed surgery to unblock his intestine. Earlier after his operation he seemed to be recovering as expected but he suddenly succumbed to the illness. His body was returned to his Spring Green home to be laid to rest in the family burial ground at Taliesin. This is where he lies to rest till this day next to his mother and his beloved Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
At his death he left a thriving practice despite the calm and venturous career that he had led. Unlike many architects who perhaps are remembered for a distinct decade of work, Wright was able to adapt as his architecture evolved with the changing requirements of a fast- moving century. He embraced the use of new technologies and engineering solution in his architectural works. His oneness with nature and sense of place were a guiding force to him. His work was greatly influenced by emotional qualities and varied according to his mood and the things he was going through in life. Wrights sentimental attachment to architecture and his surroundings are what make his work remain relevant today up to this day.
The great have set their footprints as marks of a new age in any discipline, with their work being a standard and a path to be followed in the exploration of new and better solution. What stands out in the life of Wright is that he implored his total person in his work by seeking his inspiration from nature and his feelings towards contentment.