Frank Lloyd Wright – Shedding the Decoration

Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Frank Lloyd Wright made his mark as the father of a uniquely American architecture that was the antithesis of the architecture of his era. In the early years of Wright’s life, architectural styles in the United States evolved into Gothic Revival from the earlier Neoclassic. Architects borrowed elements from European architecture with antipodes of Neoclassicism and Baroque. Villas along the Hudson drew inspiration from Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill or from European cathedrals, complete with stained glass and buttresses. Nothing was uniquely American about design.

As the American stick-style (wood trusses as opposed to stone and brick) of construction became more popular, domestic architecture turned its attention to elaborate styles often placed under the umbrella of Victorian – so named for the rule of Queen Victoria.  Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, and Shingle Style all became the style du jour. Queen Anne is what is most often thought of as quintessentially Victorian. It was characterized by anything and everything from asymmetrical façades; gables; overhanging eaves; round, square, or polygonal towers; a porch covering part or all of the front facade; second-story porch or balconies; pediments; and various wall textures. Today we affectionately call the most elaborate of the Victorian “gingerbread houses” or “Victorian ladies.” Regardless of being built in the Unites States with the stick-style, these buildings still held onto European style.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s formative years as a designer were placed squarely in this age of decadence of design and detail. As an architect, he made the bold move to push back against the excess of the Victorian Era. He believed that architecture was the progenitor of the arts and as such, American architecture should be – uniquely American. His first moves were to pull back from the decoration. One of FLW’s contemporaries, John Ruskin, was an architectural theorist who was against “stuck on” decoration or materials that proclaimed “fake” wealth. Frank Lloyd Wright held similar beliefs and applied them to his designs.

While contemporary buildings were situated’ on’ the sites, Wright’s designs were grounded ‘into’ the sites, literally. He used the site as inspiration for the material palette and used existing topography upon which to place planes from which grew spaces. He was thoroughly invested in the notion of ‘place-making,’ long before it became a buzzword in architecture schools.

Beyond place-making – the situating of a building within, not on its site, came notions of how the overall design would become cohesive. Wright believed that one individual, the architect, should be the person to form the concept of the entire design, right down to the sizes of the glass panes in the windows. He felt that the like an artist, all the work should come from one mind and one central concept. While Victorian era architecture often lacked a connection between the exterior and interior, and there was no relationship between window sizes and views, or materiality and site. When the concept is derived from one master Frank Lloyd Wright believed – the architect, the building becomes a cohesive piece of art. By designing the furniture, stained glass, and textiles, each part becomes integral to the whole. Thus the whole design takes on a fluidity. “As for the future, the work shall grow more truly simple; more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic.1

Contemporary architects have often taken on Wright’s challenge to create the whole and in doing so have taken design to a level where oftentimes the thresholds between inside and outside are blurred. Planes wrap corners, the interior floor plane moves to the outside, a window becomes a wall plane, and the landscape becomes the wallpaper. As architecture firms pledge to move towards Net Zero buildings (those whose energy consumption is equal to or less than renewable energy created onsite) there is a whole new meaning being imbued into Wright’s ideas of “fluent, coherent, organic” architecture with not only the building and its materiality and details being cohesive but also the energy of the building itself. Frank Lloyd Wright was not a luddite; he embraced the new technologies of his era and the current move towards living buildings would have surely been at the forefront of his design aesthetic were he still among us.

1 Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical Writings on Architecture, 51