Born in 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright is recognized today as the greatest American architect of the 20th century.
His idealistic mother, Anna Lloyd Jones Wright, and her relations who were committed Unitarians had the greatest influence on his early life and, in their honor, he changed his middle name to theirs.
After two years at the University of Wisconsin where he studied engineering, Wright went to Chicago in 1887 to pursue a career in architecture. He found work there with the firm of Sullivan and Adler. Louis Sullivan was working at that time on the innovative Auditorium Building, an early multistory office building, and the firm was particularly well-known for commercial buildings. Wright would always express praise for Sullivan whom he called his Lieber Meister.
Wright established his own practice in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, where he specialized in domestic architecture. Wright became known for a simplicity of design that broke with the more ornamental styles of the Victorian age. His distinctive houses often had a long horizontal profile that espoused the flat land upon which they were built, a characteristic that gave rise to the popular name "prairie style" to describe them. Leaded glass windows were used in these houses as patterned "light screens" to link interior and exterior space. Throughout his career, Wright conceived of buildings as integrated ensembles, and whenever possible he designed all of the furnishings.
In 1909 Wright broke with his wife and family and sailed to Europe with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client. The trip allowed Wright to see first-hand the work of avant-garde architects, particularly the Secessionists in Vienna. In 1910 and 1911, the German publisher Wasmuth produced a lavish edition of lithographic plates devoted to Wright's work, as well as a volume of photographs.
Back in America, Wright produced work which showed the influence of what he had observed abroad. In 1912, he was asked to design a room for children, the famous Avery Coonley Playhouse. Wright created his best-loved ensemble of windows for the Playhouse, filling the numerous clerestory and three tall windows with elementary geometric shapes in primary colors. The circles, small squares, and American flags, set apparently at random into the clear glass, give the impression of a passing parade with bright balloons and confetti. Other important commissions including Midway Gardens, a large restaurant complex in Chicago, and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo gave him the scope to explore a new stylistic language influenced by forms of non-western and primitive art from which many modernists were now seeking inspiration. The "Dancing Glass" patterns created for Midway Gardens and the similar, unexecuted glass designs for the hotel in Japan exhibited a new dynamism.
In the early 1920s, Wright undertook several projects in California. The first of these was the large Hollyhock House complex for Aline Barnsdall. The forms and proportions of these structures recall Mayan architecture found in Mexico. The purples and blues used in the windows there were a new palette of colors, but these would be among Wright's last leaded glass windows. In the following years, he would, however, continue to accord great importance to the fenestration of his buildings. During the 1920s Wright made plans for ambitious resorts and summer colonies in dramatic landscape settings. These included the Downey Ranch in Beverly Hills, a summer resort at Lake Tahoe, a desert camp in Chandler, Arizona, and a house planned for Death Valley, California. He also designed a project for an office tower using a pinwheel-like torsion of the floors around a central axis.
In 1932, Wright and his third wife Olgivanna founded the Taliesin Fellowship, a school based on a program of apprenticeship that was located in Spring Green Wisconsin. In 1937, he began work on Taliesin West. Every year thereafter the whole school packed up and traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona where they spent the winter months. Taliesin was intended as a seminal laboratory and model for the larger community. Wright and his apprentices constructed the model of Broadacre City to demonstrate how the congested cities of the past could be replaced by a decentralized, rural form of life that would integrate homes with small farms and factories. The Utopian model was presented at Rockefeller Center in New York in 1935. Taliesin continues to function today as its founder intended.
Among Wright's projects from the 1930s, the S C Johnson Administration building was one of the most impressive. New forms included slender columns with broad flat capitals above which the light-suffused ceiling appeared to float. Fallingwater, the house Edgar J. Kaufmann was magically suspended above a rushing brook. These iconic structures brought Wright to the forefront of public attention. However, with the ascendancy of the international modern style in the 1950s, Wright's architecture began to seem quirky and quixotic. Late projects such as the Marin County Civic Center and the fantastic buildings designed (but never executed ) for Baghdad were considered an embarrassment by the Modernist establishment, until the winds of fashion shifted again, and Post-Modernists recognized their brilliance. The Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York was one of Wright's last and boldest works. The circular building, an inverted cone, enlarges as it spirals upward. An interior ramp surrounds a central atrium lit by a skylight dome. Begun in the late 1940s, the museum has remained as a monument to its creator. It also inaugurated the now lengthy series of museums built by modem architects as personal manifestos, all of which refer to it, however obliquely. Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, having achieved the pinnacle of fame in his lifetime.