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Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, and, to this day, he is arguably the most famous American architect. Wright designed structures to express his theory that aesthetics and function should work together. He sought to create buildings that rise naturally from the surrounding land, and so they are often low to the ground and comprised of straight lines forming geometrical patterns. As a rule, Wright’s buildings are not symmetrical.
Originally named Frank Lincoln Wright, he changed his name after his parents divorced. He entered the University of Wisconsin at age 15 as a special student, studying engineering because the school offered no architecture courses. Wright moved to Chicago in 1887 to work for an architect named Joseph Lyman Silsbee. A year later, he joined the firm of Adler and Sullivan, directly under Louis Sullivan. Wright adapted Sullivan’s philosophy of “form follows function” to his own theory of “form and function are one.” Wright never credited Louis Sullivan as being a major influence.
In 1889, just before turning 22, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and the two moved to Oak Park, where Wright built his own house and studio from 1889 to 1895. This became the laboratory for many of his experiments in architecture. By 1900, Wright had built some sixty rambling homes, many in Oak Park, when he articulated the “Prairie Style.” The Nathan Moore House (built in 1895 and rebuilt in 1923 after a fire) is considered one of the best of this period — although Wright later admitted to thinking it was one of his worst. Between 1905 and 1908, Wright also built the distinctive Unity Temple.
In 1909, after 18 years in Oak Park, Wright grew bored with convention and left for Germany, living with a woman named Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Returning to America in 1911, they moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin — where Wright’s mother had given him a portion of family land on which he built his famed estate, Taliesin — and lived there until 1914 when disaster struck.
One of Wright’s architectural tenets was having a single door for all purposes. This ended up setting the stage for a grisly scene.
A male servant, by all accounts underpaid and driven mad by Wright’s unconventional lifestyle and lovers, started a fire during lunch. He stood by the only escape door, and then murdered, one by one, seven people, among them Mrs. Cheney and two of her children. Many people thought this horrific event would be the end of Wright’s career. However, he proved them wrong with his decision to rebuild Taliesin.
Overwhelmed with grief, Wright took ten years to recover his confidence. In 1922, he married for the second time to Mariam Noel.
During the Depression, Wright changed his style and image yet again, becoming more of a grand, social visionary. In the late 1920s, he became as respectable as he had been at the turn of the century. He gave lectures at major universities and started his Taliesin Fellowship (a social and professional workshop that brought in architectural students to learn and work off their debt).
On April 9, 1959, at age 92, Wright died at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. By the time of his death, he had become internationally recognized for his innovative building style.
Some of Wright’s best-known designs include: the Robie House in Chicago; the Martin House in Buffalo, New York; the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He is also credited with the Art-Deco motif of the decorative blocks of the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.
All told, Wright created 1,141 designs, of which 532 were completed. His name is now synonymous with great design because of how seamlessly he integrated structural form and function.
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