Brief Biography of
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

"...having a good start, not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but fully intend to be the greatest architect who will ever live. Yes, I intend to be the greatest architect of all time." - Frank Lloyd Wright
Considered the most influential architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright designed about 1,000 structures, some 400 of which were built. He described his "organic architecture" as one that "proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man and his circumstances as they both change." As a pioneer whose ideas were well ahead of his time, Wright had to fight for acceptance of every new design. The famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was the son of William C. Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones in the United States in the small rural community of Richland Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867.

His early influences were his clergyman father's playing of Bach and Beethoven and his mother's gift of geometric blocks. He entered the University of Wisconsin at 15 as a special student, studying engineering because the school had no course in architecture. Wright left Madison in 1887 to work as a draftsman in Chicago.

In order to study architecture and learn the traditional, classical language, Wright, the country boy, had to go Chicago. Wright worked for several architectural offices until he finally found a job with the most cultured architect of the Mid-West, Louis Sullivan, soon becoming Sullivan's chief assistant. That same year, in 1887, Wright carried out his first design, in a wooden version of the eclectic, Queen Anne Style, the Hillside Home School. His Charnley House of 1891 is a perfect amalgamation of these sources into his own version of Free Style Classicism.

While working on key buildings for Sullivan and Adler, to pay his many debts, in 1892 Wright also started an illicit practice of architecture at night, bootlegging houses away from the office and sharpening his own eclectic mixture of Sillsbee, Queen Anne and Sullivan classicism. Sullivan disapproved, and Wright set up his own office.

The Oak Park Years  
Just before his twenty-second birthday, in 1889, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and together with Sullivan and his other contacts she gave him the cultural background he lacked; she gave him social polish as well. They settled in the exclusive, Protestant neighbourhood of Oak Park, west of the seedy part of Chigago.
In their sensitive eclecticism, Frank and Catherine fitted perfectly the comfortable assumptions of middle class life. For twenty years he brought up a thriving family of six children upstairs, and ran a thriving architectural practice of twelve or so draughtsmen downstairs. He was very much the father of both families, giving each one their central hearth.
Frank Lloyd Wright's own house and studio, the Frank Lloyd Wright Residence, built 1889 - 1895 and later, became the laboratory for many of his experiments in domestic architecture. Here, in an idyllic American suburb, with giant oaks, sprawling lawns and no fences, Wright built some sixty rambling homes by the year 1900 (when he forged the "Prairie Style"). The Nathan Moore House, 1895, (rebuilt 1923 after a fire) is one of the best of this period - although Wright was later to think it one of his worst.

As an independent architect, Wright became the leader of a style known as the Prairie school. Houses with low-pitched roofs and extended lines that blend into the landscape typify his style of "organic architecture". In 1904 he designed the strong, functional Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y., and in 1906 the Unity Temple in Oak Park.

After 1900 and his local success, Wright became immensely more ambitious and decided to take on the European avant-garde, whose work he must have known well through magazines. He fashioned a new form of horizontal streamlining - a word he claimes to have invented, and then helped form a group of architects, the "Chicago Eighteen," which soon evolved into the "New School of the Middle West." The Prairie House, such as the William E. Martin Residence, was the result of both efforts. Wright applied the same general principles of space and streamlining, used in his Prairie Houses, to public buildings. Even the "New Prairie Style" was conceived for domestic scale.

By the age of forty-one, in 1908, Wright had achieved extraordinary social and professional success. Yet a confusing doubt was beginning to grow, a malaise which had opposite causes not unconnected with the relation of modernism to Western traditonal architecture. During this time he was struggling with the idea that was becoming uppermost in his mind, the "Cause of American Architecture." The idea is formulated almost as Baptist sermon by his father:

Personally, again, I have met little more than the superficial snap-judgment-insult of the artistically informed. I am quite used to it, glad to owe it nothing in any final outcome. But, meanwhile, the "Cause" suffers delay!
By 1907 with the "Cause" failing as he was formulating it, his despair with America began to grow. He started to shock the Mid-Western moral majority by flaunting married women in his grand, open car. Like a Secessionist "artiste," he let his grow over the collar. He wore expensive clothes, flowing neckties, riding breeches and Norfolk jacket - not the attire for the Oak Park commuter. He had reached the height of his Prairie School Style.

Probably the reason he left Catherine and went off to Europe, was not my simply to gain "freedom" from domestic banality, but also freedom from American provinciality. Of equal importance was the new woman in his life, who symbolised positive freedom - Mamah Borthwick Cheney - the wife of his then current client, Edwin H. Cheney.

Running of to Europe with Mamah Cheney, leaving behind his six children by Catherine and the two Cheney children, and their respective spouses, called on his deepest conviction - a rather exaggerated "Truth Against the World"? His Free Style Classicism coincided with Free Style ethics. This crisis produced a change in style, a change in philosophy. He started moving continously, sometimes hiding from the law, and building only thirty-four commissions in the next twenty-one years. The first thing he did was to retreat to his family homestead and build fortress for Mrs. Cheney and himself, (Taliesin - Welsh for "shining brow") a defensive bastion in the wilderness from which they could fight off the onslaught of big-city morality. The "marrying" of the building and hill became the first principal of organic architecture, a principal he was later to contradict.
Tragedy Upon Tragedy
Unfortunately Wright also had another principal of architecture - one door for all purposes - that was abet the most tragic act that can befall anyone. A Barbados servant who, they said, was underpaid and driven mad by the unconventional lovers, had executed a revenge. He started a fire during lunch and stood by the only escape door, and then murdered, one by one, seven people, among them Mrs. Cheney and two of her children.
Wright himself was so overwhelmed that it took him ten years to recover his confidence and return to more stable existence. He remarried in 1922 to Mariam Noel, whos was his second wife.

He paid tribute to Mrs. Cheney, his greatest love, the one for whom he had thrown away a normal career, by building her the simplest grave. Wright built Taliesin Two on the ashes of Taliesin One and developed even further his defensive style. Tragedy followed tragedy. Taliesin Two was burned, and during the fire neighbours not only helped douse the flames, but helped themselves to some of Wright's oriental art as well.

After Miriam Noel walked out on Wright, he met, quite by change, the woman who was to rescue him from further self-destruction: Olgivanna Milanoff, an Eastern European aristocrat and something of a romantic herself. They met in Chigago in 1924, at a performance of the Petrograd Ballet. Wright and Olgivanna were married in 1928, his third marriage.

Out of all Wright's various troubles, several important things emerged from his chronicle of disasters: first in Olgivanna, he found the romantic attachment that could help, not destroy him.

New Beginnings
Wright entered a long period of introspection, resulting in his mammoth work, "An Autobiography", which was to result in his new self-assesment as the struggling and sometimes persecuted architect. Out of this grew a new style expressed in several western houses, a new romantic manner evolved from California. Fallingwater Architectural Essay/Tour was built in this period of time. While Wright was designing extravagant metaphors for millionaires trying to escape from the city, he was also trying to build inexpensive houses for the poor, in such a way as they might escape the city too.

During the Depression, he changed his style and image yet again, leaving "Wright the outcast romantic" for his new role as "Wright the grand, social visionary." In the late twenties he became as respectable as he had been at the turn of the century. He gave countless lectures at major universities started his Taliesin Fellowship - a visionary social workshop in itself - and in his mid-sixties adopted the persona of the quick-witted social sage. He wished to supply an impoverished America (an impoverished self for that matter) with an answer to Marxist revolution. This he called by the metaphor "Broadacre City." Although Wright believed in capitalism, he thought that the land, the means of production as social credit - capital itself - should be distributed, not concentrated into monopolies.

On January 17th 1938 Wright appeared on the cover of Time magazine; later it would be a two cent stamp. After his early experience with the yellow press, and then his success as the respectable architect, in the thirties, he started to realise the emergent rules of a commercial society. From this date to his death in 1959 he spent as much time given interviews, and being a celebrity, as in designing buildings. In the age of media stars - radio, film, soon TV - Wright mastered them all, and instinctively helped create the system with which we are still settled: the "star system of architectural heroes." By 1950 Wright's sure instinct for promotion had paid off professionally. But the media attention, the time, energy and personal involvement it demanded, executed their revenge. Most of the buildings produced in these years betray an excessive vulgarity, or overruling ambition, which the young Wright would have called 'grandomania', and most people today call kitsch.

Frank Lloyd Wright died on April 9, 1959, in Phoenix, Arizona.

For more on Wright, explore the many web links to his life, works and influence.

There are many excellent books on Wright's Life and Works, available from the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust Book Catalog. --
Copyright © 1996-2001 Steven Hurder, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED