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Frank Lloyd Wright: Biography, Architecture & Style

Instructor: Lauren Francis

Lauren has a master's degree in art history and has taught many college art courses.

Who was Frank Lloyd Wright? This lesson takes you through a biography of the architect, provides examples of his work, and defines the attributes of his style. Finish with a quiz to see what you learned.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Odds are, if you ask any American on the street to list an architect, they'll say one name: Frank Lloyd Wright. If asked to describe him, they'd probably use words like: Genius. Iconoclast. Individual.

For almost seven decades, Wright designed nearly one thousand structures, almost half of which were built. From houses to hotels, museums to municipal spaces, Wright made his mark on American architecture by favoring natural and organic forms in a modern vocabulary.

Almost as famous as his buildings was the architect's notoriously difficult attitude. Nearly as numerous as Wright's buildings were the tales of his temper and tantrums. Cantankerous personality aside, Wright was widely praised for his passionate vision and innovative approach to building, which focused on merging his structures with their natural surroundings.

Photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright
FL Wright Copy

Early Life

Frank Lloyd Wright, born Frank Lincoln Wright in 1867, was raised in Wisconsin. His family moved often during his early life, but Wright found a constant home in the outdoors. As his father worked to be a preacher and musician, his mother taught school. By the end of his high school studies, his parents had divorced, and his father ceased involvement with the family.

Wright attended the University of Wisconsin and worked in the engineering department to help support his family. Before he earned his degree, Wright abandoned his college studies to pursue a career as an architect.

Work in Chicago

By 1888, Wright started an apprenticeship in Chicago with the firm Adler and Sullivan. At the time, Louis Sullivan was known for his pioneering approach to skyscrapers and for his many contributions to American cityscapes. Sullivan adhered to the principle of 'form follows function,' abandoning excess ornamentation in favor of buildings demonstrating their exact practical purpose.

The next year Wright wed his first of three wives, Catherine Tobin, and they began designing their own home in Chicago. During this early phase of his career, Wright and Catherine also raised six children. In 1893, Wright opened his own architectural firm. His work soon revealed his preference for long, horizontal spaces and recalled the simple forms and craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts Style. This artistic movement began in the 1880s in England and favored an architecture marrying exterior buildings with interior designs and made the handmade aspect of a structure paramount.

In 1893, Wright visited the World's Fair in Chicago and saw a display featuring a Japanese teahouse. This chance moment greatly shaped the architect's style, adding an Eastern influence to his American structures. Wright especially appreciated the way Japanese interiors could be repurposed as necessary. Like the Japanese architects of the day, Wright also preferred natural building materials, spaces that fused outside and inside, and earth toned color palettes. Japanese architecture directly inspired much of Wright's so-called organic architecture.

Personal Tragedies

In 1909, Wright, like his very own father, abandoned his wife and children and moved to Germany. With a newfound female companion, Wright attempted to make a greater international name for himself. However, within a few years, Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, returned to the United States.

The two moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright's mother had lived. Called 'Taliesen,' from the Welsh word for 'shining brow,' the house they built in Spring Green was quickly marked by catastrophe. In 1917, a servant at the home set fire to the house, killing not only Wright's love, Cheney, but also six other victims.

Legacy

In April of 1959, Wright died following surgery. His lifetime spanned a period of immense change from the end of the Civil War until the start of the Cold War. A witness to remarkable political, social and technological shifts, Wright held true to his aesthetic goals while adapting to the world around him. Like his life, his death was marked with family turmoil and disputes over his final wishes. Fortunately, his many architectural masterworks live on to share his unique and passionate vision with us today.

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