3D View of Frank Lloyd Wright Residence
‘I’ll remember Frank Lloyd Wright. All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn.’
−Simon & Garfunkel, So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright (1970)
We celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Lloyd Wright this year (1867−1959) in many ways, so inspiring is his song.
He affirmed a truly American architecture, reflecting the unique topographies of our national landscape, from the early Prairie Style, exemplified by the masterpiece Robie House (1907) in Chicago, Illinois, through the later work in the Southwest such as Taliesin West (1937), a National Historic Landmark in Scottsdale.
We praise his innovativeness, too, such as audaciously building Fallingwater (1935) in western Pennsylvania for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family on a waterfall of Bear Run –– a river rock becomes hearthstone –– or designing the Guggenheim Museum (1959) in Manhattan as a spiral of galleries rather than in an angular array –– a brush stroke, not a T-square.
He continues to ask us, too, to see our buildings as part of the land, not apart from it, and to build our cities as people-centric organisms, not networks for cars. His legacy is one of innovation such as using new materials represented here in Arizona by his signature textile blocks at the Biltmore Hotel (1927) in Phoenix, for which he was a consultant to student Albert Chase MacArthur.
We honor him as well for his practical Usonian Homes, conceived for those who didn’t, like the Robies, the Kaufmanns or the Prices, who wintered here in Paradise Valley, have the finances to contract with a world-famous architect for their homes. In the Valley, the Raymond Carlson Home (1950), built for the first editor of Arizona Highways, represents a Wright custom on a budget.
America’s greatest architect can also be lauded for pioneering ideas that helped promote today’s sustainable thinking, even though, he, of course, would not have thought himself an environmentalist intent on world-saving.
“As far as I am aware, sustainability was not part of the lexicon of Wright’s day and age, nor a conscious element of his practice, at least not as we would describe or define it today,” says Ron Jones, sustainability advocate and co-founder and president of Green Builder Media, Lake City, Colo.
“He was able to see the inextricable relationship between the natural world, often in minute detail, and the built environment through a fresh lens that provided an ongoing interpretation of not only the aesthetic beauty of nature’s elements but also the subtle structural nuances they offered to only the keen observer.”
His “organic architecture,” prescribing these natural/synthetic connections, has offered today’s designers and builders “a raised platform of awareness that evolved into what we now describe as ‘sustainable.’ In a sense, his most important and lasting contribution to sustainability is expressed in the abstract,” adds Jones, who spent time at Taliesin in Wisconsin with one of Wright’s apprentices, the late Charles Montooth, as well as with John Rattenbury at Taliesin West.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was deeply influenced by nature in everything he did. He called Nature his church, and frequently spelled it with a capital ‘N’,” says Jeff Goodman, director of Marketing and Communication for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Architecture should respect and enhance the natural environment. “He did everything with intention and was extremely thoughtful about how his work would affect the site on which it would be built. During his lifetime, Wright carefully selected materials and was always acutely aware of the impact his work had on the land he considered sacred,” he adds. “I guess you could say this made him a pioneer in sustainable practices.”
A century and a half after his birth on a farm in Richland Center, June 8, 1867, Wright asks us to continue to rethink the relationship between the human-built and the natural worlds.
“He was from a family of farmers, so he was born with that sense of Midwestern resourcefulness that made buildings work well because they had to,” says Victor Sidy, AIA LEED AP, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, 2005−2015, at Taliesin West, Scottsdale, and now principal of Victor Sidy Architect, Phoenix. He is now coordinating the effort to renovate the David Wright Home (1952) in Arcadia, designed for the architect’s fourth son and precursor of the Guggenheim.
“The family lived close to, and from the land, the living spaces of the homes are oriented toward the warmth of the southern exposure, with clear light coming in from the north. And, they often carry the horizontal roof lines that echo the vast undulating lines of the prairies,” he adds.
Structures should be indigenous to place, interacting with the site and, if possible, using materials nearby for the construction. Hence, at Taliesin West, onsite sandstone forms the walls instead of bricks or blocks trucked in from miles away. Today, of course, the LEED certification for construction rewards credits for building with as many local materials as possible.
More forgiving than the harsh Midwest, the desert allowed him to celebrate shade and other passive cooling methods that are today highly promoted because they save energy and reduce pollution.
“Especially in his later work, architecture had moved beyond sticks, brick and mortar; it had become a rhetorical device investigating how to live closer to the environment and in harmony with the natural world through the artifice of our creations,” Sidy says. “His projects are vibrant testaments to those ideas, and his Arizona architecture, in particular, exemplified the relationship between the built environment and natural landmarks signature to the desert.”
At Taliesin West, for example, the breezeway provides cool afternoon breezes, rising up from the Valley, to pass through the building, without energy costs. And at the Price House (1955), probably the finest of the handful of homes Wright designed in Arizona, he created an atrium with decorative flaps built by his associates, Eugene Masselink, which can be opened for natural breezes from the Phoenix Mountains or shut on hot or cold days and nights. “This was Wright’s response to natural ventilation,” Sidy explains, “and is certainly one of our great desert spaces.”
“The essence of Wright’s lifetime body of work . . . was his ability to have a project result in an undeniable ‘sense of place,’” Jones says. “Even today, when one experiences a Wright building it is with that intuitive sense that it belongs exactly where it is and nowhere else, as if it grew from the landscape, that it had always been there and just needed to be released from the landform.”
Sustainability isn’t just sticks and bricks themselves but about relationships, essential to today’s environmentalism: “His buildings make us want to preserve them, to protect them, to keep them safe as enduring examples of the highest expressions of the relationship between shelter and art,” Jones says, “revealing the harmony that is possible between the natural environment and the built environment.”
For Wright, it was not so much saving the planet, nothing so monumental, Sidy says. “It was doing with as much as you can with as little as you have. It is the affirmation of the beauty of simple things.”
And that’s a sustainable notion, for sure.
This article was supported by Frank Aazami, The Private Client Group, Russ Lyons | Scottsdale. David Brown is a Valley-based writer.