Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
As the Victorian era came to a close, Americans wanted new architecture for their homes that would echo the modern sentiments and trends of the coming century. Yet they didn't want to completely abandon their beloved Victorian architecture, full of complex, artistic details. Americans needed something that blended attention to detail with the themes of the burgeoning century: progress and ingenuity with a nod to our humble origins.
Some attempts were made to address this need. Revival architecture brought back the Georgian and Federal forms of America's founding fathers as well as nods to the Old World in Tudor-style homes. Yet these revivals seemed too rooted in the past to speak to America's rapid progress and optimism for the future.
Enter Frank Lloyd Wright. His attention to the freestanding suburban house resulted in a personal philosophy that significantly influenced at least three architectural styles. These styles would permeate the American built environment in the mid-to-late twentieth century, forever changing our notions of what a home could be.
Wright's contributions were a direct result of his philosophy on organic architecture. It was developed while Wright worked under architect Louis Sullivan, whose motto was "form follows function." Wright eventually came to see form and function as interconnected, but he took Sullivan's motto a step further.
His chief metaphor for form and function came completely from nature. Working in organic architecture, Wright's designs (and those of others) attempted to mirror natural forms. Again, Wright took this a step further: to him, organic architecture wasn't just about mirroring forms; it was about the inherent properties of nature and thus, of the materials used in construction.
Wright believed that architecture should respect the properties of the materials he used. He couldn't just twist steel to become a flower - it wasn't quite meant for that. Wright sought to respect the relationship between what he designed (form) and what is was designed for (function).
He hated that banks looked like Greek temples - what was the point? Were bankers trying to deify themselves? The Greek temple form didn't serve the function of banks.
Wright also sought ways to make sure that form and function worked together. A building should be a coherent whole: a marriage between the site it was built upon, the structure and materials it was designed as, and the functions it served.
Thus, Wright's designs came to reflect buildings as a product of their environments, in the context of both time and space. He never imposed a singular style of his works, though his work would come to create a style of American architecture that would secure his philosophy's place as a pillar of the twentieth century
In 1901, Wright published his philosophy in the Ladies Home Journal article, "A Home in Prairie Town." From this title was derived a name for Wright's new style: Prairie homes.
Designed for Midwestern suburbs, the Prairie style echoed the horizontal lines of the prairies themselves, lifting from the ground in terraces that made the transition from the interior spaces to the exterior seem to be one flowing movement rather than a stark contrast. His designs flowed with the land, making the house part of the iconic Midwestern landscape rather than a structure built upon it.
Prairie style also emphasized Wright's philosophy in its use of simple building materials, such as stucco, wood, and brick. These materials were indigenous to the Midwest region, giving Prairie homes a further connection to the landscape. Unlike previous styles, Wright didn't alter his materials with elaborate designs, woodwork, or paint -- further reflecting the natural aspect of his architecture.
Prairie Style, as embodied by the Frederick C. Robie House built in 1910 (pictured below), would dwindle slightly through the wars year. In the 1950s, it was revived as a preferred form for suburban housing, and its philosophy of blending into the landscape continued as an architectural preference throughout the twentieth century.
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House on the Mesa
Prairie style had an additional effect on American architecture because it became the forerunner of the modernistic and modern styles.
Though Wright himself detested modern architecture, his participation in a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on the International Style led to his association with, and the borrowing from his Prairie style by, International and Modern architects.
His model at the 1932 exhibition was entitled, "House on the Mesa." It was another suburban home, though modeled after a different feature in America: the mesas of the Southwest. As a metaphor for the vast openness of the Southwestern deserts, the House on the Mesa was a sprawling structure, strongly emphasized by horizontal lines in wings that extended towards outdoor features such as a garden and pool. Yet this design borrowed heavily from modern commercial architecture in its use of the concrete-block shell system (another Wright design) and reinforced-concrete roofs.
You can see concept drawings from Wright's House on the Mesa in the images below.
Though later interpreted as having only a "superficial" relationship with the International style, Wright's methods were utilized in International and Modernistic architecture as builders chose concrete and slab roofs as their primary building materials. The traditional wood, brick, and stone of previous architectural styles was relegated to faux exteriors and accents.
Shortly after the MoMA exhibition, Wright took on a similar project - one that would become an iconic landmark of American architecture. He built "Fallingwater" during 1935-37 for Edgar J. Kaufmann of Pennsylvania.
Fallingwater retained Wright's organic architecture philosophy in becoming part of the rock ledge and waterfall upon which it was built. Yet it also used modern construction methods, such as cantilevered concrete balconies and thin steel sash windows. Thus his philosophy, as embodied here and in House on the Mesa, affected American architecture by providing the inspiration for using new building materials - concrete and steel - in domestic architecture. It also helped to inspire the International and Modernistic forms, most notably through Wright's "superficial" relationship with the style.
Perhaps unknowingly, Wright had become the precursor to postwar suburban housing. His concepts would influence housing that utilized less decoration and more emphasis on efficiency, featuring organic flow, open layouts, and modern building materials to reflect the changes in American lifestyles while harkening to its humble, and natural, origins.
The Usonian House
Finally, Wright's philosophy and use of new building methods indirectly resulted in the development of the Contemporary architectural style. This style was most influenced by Wright's 1936 project, the Herbert Jacobs house in Madison, Wisconsin. Also known as a "Usonian" house, it eliminated unnecessary elements by using modern technologies.
Because of smaller, cleaner furnaces and the decreasing need for automobiles to be sheltered from the elements, Wright was able to eliminate the basement and garage. Free from technological constrictions, the Usonian house was able to take the shape of an L, enclosing a rear yard and utilizing a carport rather than a garage. This shape also allowed Wright to separate the private family bedrooms from the public living room and kitchen.
Additionally, the Usonian home continued Wright's use of modern building techniques. The home's foundation was a concrete slab with pipes providing radiant heat throughout the home. The walls featured full-length glass doors and panels of plywood with pre-finished inside surfaces, eliminating the costly and time-consuming wet plaster of the past.
Contemporary is Born.
These features would become staples of Contemporary housing, which arrived during the postwar housing boom of the 1950s to early 1970s. Borrowing from Wright's Prairie styles and International influences, Contemporary homes would feature flat roofs, a lack of decorative detail, overhanging eaves, exposed beams, and combinations of organic materials that have become familiar to the American public -- all while retaining Wright's organic philosophy by becoming part of their landscapes.
Thus, Contemporary architecture became the synthesis of all of Wright's contributions to architecture: organic building materials such as wood, brick, or stone wall cladding that became part of the landscape, yet subtly hid the underlying modern construction techniques of concrete and steel borrowed from the world of commercial building.
Echoing Wright's earlier contributions of organic philosophy, the Prairie style, and his subtle (almost superficial) relationship to the International style, Contemporary homes became the epitome of Frank Lloyd Wright's contributions to American architecture. Thus, whether we realize it in our everyday life or not -- and whether we love or hate Wright -- he exhibited a profound influence on American architecture that echoes in the walls still sheltering suburban families today.
Guneet Singh on April 13, 2020:
Very well written article. It explains almost everything about FL Wright and his works.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 19, 2016:
Very interesting hub, informative and well-written. My wife and I have visited many of Wright's buildings in Iowa and Wisconsin (including his home at Spring Green). I have to admit, however, that the more I learned about him and his creations, the less impressed I became. He was dictatorial, dismissing clients' wishes and his buildings seem to be very high maintenance, deteriorating before their time as if his ego was larger than the laws of nature. I, however, am no architect, so what do I know? Just my opinion.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 18, 2016:
Great hub. Learned a lot. Shared.