Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright through 5 Key Works
Frank Lloyd Wright believed that there was a right way to design in the world, a natural architecture that served both beauty and functionality without sacrificing anything. He saw in houses, temples, and offices the potential not just for art, but for artistry—the ability to build dignified structures with an awareness and respect for their environments.
Arguably the most well-known and revered American architect of the 20th century, Wright conceived of more than 1,000 designs and executed around half of them over his nearly 70-year career. He had a sweeping vision, spanning places of worship; private homes and hotels; and museums, schools, and office spaces. In 1936, he began designing “Usonian” homes as an affordable-housing solution in the United States, a number of which still stand today. This year, eight of his buildings earned UNESCO status for their pivotal role in the development of modern architectural design.
Underpinning Wright’s designs was his belief that Nature—with a capital “N”—was sacred. His design philosophy of “organic architecture” proposed that built environments should accommodate the natural world in service of a greater whole. Wright drew inspiration from Japanese art and architecture—particularly its emphasis on harmony, spirituality, and geometric simplicity—praising the Japanese understanding of structure as “miraculous.” This influence is evident in varying degrees across his oeuvre. In 1957, he described the goal of an architect in almost missionary terms: “to help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one for living in, and to give reason, rhyme, and meaning to life”—in other words, a perfect unity of philosophy, materiality, and the natural world. Below, we share five key works from the celebrated architect.
The Prairie style defined Wright’s early years as an architect—or, rather, Wright’s early years defined the Prairie style. Around the turn of the 20th century, not long after starting his own architecture practice, Wright began crafting residences to fit the wide-open expanse of the Midwest.
A collection of these homes reside in the greater Chicago area. The Winslow House(1893) in River Forest is cited as one of Wright’s first explorations into the Prairie style, followed by the Arthur Heurtley House (1902) in Oak Park and Frederick C. Robie House (1910) in the city itself.
Winslow, William H. House and Stable. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Prairie School movement came to exemplify a particularly American ethos, drawing inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement and the philosophy of the Transcendentalists. Wright pioneered the trend towards open floor-plans, or “the destruction of the box.” The architect once said: “Now why not let walls, ceilings, floors become seen as component parts of each other, their surfaces flowing into each other.”
Wright’s sprawling, low-slung Prairie houses featured overhanging eaves, spacious interiors, long window panels, and simple, repetitive geometric flourishes. An affinity for horizontal lines and unfinished materials rank among their most striking characteristics. Revolutionary at the time, Wright helped forge many of the architectural elements we take for granted today—leaving a lasting mark on aesthetic of the era.
Exterior view of Taliesin West, 2019. Photo by Jill Richard. Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
In the mythology of Wright, Taliesin West looms large. Nestled into the arid landscape of Scottsdale, Arizona, this expansive complex that housed his living quarters, studio, and workshop was designed as a sister Taliesin home, a getaway from the brutal Wisconsin winters where the first Taliesin stood. Though officially built in 1937, Taliesin West never really stopped evolving; Wright established it instead as a place to tinker and experiment, teaching apprentices his methods and styles. He is said to have used the property as a design incubator, changing plans as he went and making rough sketches on butcher paper.
There is something satisfying about the way Taliesin West sits on the land, woven into the surrounding landscape. In a 1957 interview, Wright said: “I’d like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing.” He accomplished this through both design and engineering, including using warm earth tones and natural materials.
In 2018, the grounds drew more than 100,000 tourists, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Remote visitors can access the space through 3D and virtual-reality tours. In a report last year for Quartzy on the new virtual options, Anne Quito emphasized just how important Taliesin West was to Wright’s practice. She wrote that “experiments done at Wright’s winter home resulted in his best-known projects, including New York’s Guggenheim Museum and Usonian houses across the US.”
Tokyo Imperial Hotel
Illustration of the original Tokyo Imperial Hotel, 1930s–40s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Not long after Wright’s Imperial Hotel officially opened in Tokyo, the city was hit by one of the most severe earthquakes of the century. The Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 wreaked havoc on the area, yet somehow the hotel remained, sustaining only minor damage. Built with flexibility and stability in mind, the hotel’s low center of gravity and so-called “floating base” kept the structure steady atop the turbulent earth.
Wright drew inspiration from both Japanese and pre-Columbian architecture for the two structures he built on the 40-acre complex. The hotel entrance wrapped around a reflecting pool and leveraged a mix of traditional and industrial materials, including concrete and slabs of Oya stone—a soft local lava rock that was easy to carve. According to Ken Oshima of the Museum of Modern Art, Wright imagined this design as a blending of East and West, and therefore, it doesn’t fit neatly into either lineage. As with all of his organic architecture, Wright saw the lines between context and construction as porous. The resulting design was decorative, a hybrid creation. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Force of Nature (1996), Eric Peter Nash described the hotel as a “funhouse of unusual vantage points, idiosyncratic spaces, massive ornamentation, and picturesque views.”
In 1968, as high-rises proliferated in Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel was “razed” to make way for what Sarah Boxer in the New York Times called a “corporate monstrosity.” The original lobby and reflecting pool was restored and relocated to the open-air architectural park Meiji Village.
Fallingwater. Photo by Duane Wessels, via Flickr.
Perched over a waterfall, nestled amongst the trees, and partly obscured by leaves, Fallingwater (1936–39) embodies Wright’s famous proclamation that “no house should ever be on a hill,” but rather “it should be of the hill. Belonging to it.” Integrated into the natural landscape of Bear Run, Pennsylvania, Fallingwater takes that mandate seriously.
Designed as the country house for department-store owner Edgar Kaufmann Sr., Fallingwater stands today as one of Wright’s most beloved works. The landmark has proven difficult to preserve, however, including a $11.5 million renovation in 2003.
The layered design of the dwelling creates a visceral effect. Its tall stone chimney is intersected by the horizontal terraces, extending out perpendicularly and hovering, cantilevered, over the river below. The rushing water is audible from within the house, and the terraces emerge like rock forms, constructed with native sandstone and juxtaposed against the surrounding trees.
Wright did not camouflage the home within the landscape, but rather complemented it. The internal design also works to direct the attention outward, with low ceilings and small bedrooms directing visitors’ attention to the expansive windows and the scenes beyond them.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photo by David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
Wright hated cities—at least how they were designed. The architect once described the New York City skyline as a “medieval atrocity.” In 1957, he said that the city is a “great monument…to the power of money and greed trying to substitute money for ideas.” Yet he built a museum that has come to stand as one of the great symbols of the city itself. He began work on the Guggenheim Museum in 1943, but it didn’t open until 1959, six months after his death.
As a structure, the Guggenheim is sturdy, cylindrical, and imposing, spanning Fifth Avenue from East 88th to 89th Streets. Unlike many of Wright’s other works, the museum does not meld into its urban backdrop. The interior’s fascinating and unusual layout features a central spiral that unfurls for visitors, who can experience the art from above or below, not only squarely in front of it.
It can be hard to leave a Guggenheim exhibit without discussing the building itself, like appreciating the binding of a book or an artful plate for food. It seems to circle back to Wright’s greater ambition: realigning our attention to an active appreciation for our environment—both natural and built—and its immense impact on our experiences and the quality of our lives.