Frank Lloyd Wright: America's Architect

From the carport to the L-shaped workstation, Wright pioneered enduring conventions in a career that followed few traditions

By Mike Brewster

When 69-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright set out to design the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wis., in 1936, he was already one of the most revered and controversial architects in the world. Best known as the creator of the "prairie" house, with its horizontal lines and long, low-perched roofs, Wright had also spent a lifetime authoring an astounding variety of residential and workplace breakthroughs.

From the atrium to the carport to the picture window to fabric roofs, Wright continually reimagined how people could best use the space they worked and lived in. And from criticizing university architectural training to writing off entire American towns as "blights" to marrying a woman 30 years his junior, he also managed to alienate entire swaths of the American public throughout his career.

But Wright's reputation in any and all of these arenas likely meant little to the building engineers working with him on the initial stages of the Johnson Wax Building. Surprisingly enough, Wright didn't often obtain major nonresidential commissions, as most municipalities and big corporations weren't necessarily interested in constructing a "work of art."


  The Johnson family, however, long devoted to high culture, had hired the still-productive Wright to conceive the company's signature headquarters building. Wright delighted the Johnson family by delivering a design highlighted by a sky-lighted forest of tapered, concrete columns supporting the "great workroom" of the building.

The construction engineers and building inspectors, however, were convinced that the slender, concrete columns -- with their narrow bases and hollow insides -- didn't stand a chance of holding up the roof of the building. When the day came to stage a test of the columns' strength, the experts watched in disbelief as they withstood six times the weight that the building would impose on them.

The construction went forward, and the Johnson Wax Building ultimately popularized a range of industrial-design advances, from the open workspace to the L-shaped workstation to the oval conference area. "Today, a lot of architecture is done by sophisticated machines," says Bob Hillier, founder and president of Hillier Architecture, a global architectural firm based in Princeton, N.J. "What he possessed more than anything was an amazing sophistication with basic crafts and fundamental design. With the Johnson Wax Building, he literally defied what the engineers were saying."


  Wright, in fact, kept his own counsel from the very beginning of his career and even before. Born on June 8, 1867, in Richland Center, Wis., he spent just a few semesters in the Engineering School at the University of Wisconsin before deciding he needed real-word experience, setting off for Chicago at the age of 20 to work as J. Lyman Silsbee's apprentice. Under Silsbee's supervision, Wright designed his first work, the Hillside Home School.

While Hillside was still under construction, Wright met the man who would become his first and only real mentor, Louis Sullivan. In 1890, Wright joined Adler & Sullivan, where he incorporated Sullivan's ideas that form follows function into his own philosophy that buildings should be "organic" and harmonious with the environment surrounding them.

These concepts coalesced in a group of homes Wright designed in the well-to-do Chicago suburb of Oak Park from 1890 to 1893 (one of these houses was Wright's own, which Sullivan helped him finance). When the earth-toned houses with magically hidden walls -- featuring rooms and porches that gracefully flowed into one another -- led to Wright's acceptance of lucrative side commissions, Sullivan promptly fired him.


  Liberated to experiment and with all the clients he could handle, Wright continued to develop the prairie style house throughout the Midwest during the first two decades of the 20th century. Wright's rejection of classic Renaissance and Greek style, however, was arguably more popular abroad than in the U.S. Japan, in particular, was captivated by Wright, and he spent six years there designing the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which proved Wright's contention that it was earthquake-proof by surviving a devastating quake in 1923 that leveled most of the city.

During the Depression, with commissions waning, Wright founded the "Taliesin Fellowship," an apprenticeship school in Spring Green, Wis., devoted to teaching architecture, yes, but also those endeavors that Wright believed constituted a noble existence: farming, gardening, cooking, music, art, and dance (when giving a speech, Wright on occasion was known to ask how many in attendance had read Emerson's essay on farming, resigning himself to the fact that hardly anyone ever had).

Wright's apprentices lived, ate, and slept at Taliesin, and worked with him as crucial contributors to many of his most well-known creations. When the legendary architect opened Taliesin West in the Arizona desert, he demanded that his budding apprentices spend weeks out in the desert, building their own shelter and subsisting on the "fat" of the land.


  While often accused of pushing his apprentices to do much of his work, no one ever doubted Wright's technical abilities. Even late in life, he could draw sketches better and faster than well-known architects decades younger than him.

But perhaps as much as his genius as a stylist and designer, Wright is so well-known due to his longevity and productivity. His designs resulted in 532 completed works, including houses, offices, churches, schools, libraries, bridges, and museums (and one golf course for good measure). He authored or co-authored 20 books and countless articles, and even designed his own book jackets. "He was an incredibly talented architect, but he was also an incredible PR machine," Hillier says.

Indeed. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects, in a national survey, recognized Wright as "the greatest American architect of all time," and voted his "Fallingwater" house, built in 1939 in Pennsylvania, as "the best all-time work of American architecture." When he died during intestinal surgery on Apr. 9, 1959, at the age of 92, Wright had recently approved designs for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

At his funeral, the only invited guests were the 1,146 residents of Spring Green and his Taliesin students. It was a fitting request, as these were the people who never flinched in accepting Wright entirely on his terms, which he once put down in words this way: "Early in life I had to choose between truthful immodesty and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have never seen occasion to change."

As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation

By Mike Brewster in New York

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