A free America, democratic in the sense that our forefathers intended it to be, means just this: individual freedom for all, rich or poor, or else this system of government we call ‘democracy’ is only an expedient to enslave man to the machine and make him like it.
–The Future of Architecture (1953), p. 174
The heart of the American Midwest is flat. The sky stretches across prairie unbroken except by clumps of trees and brush, or reflected in placid lakes or the slow oxbows of river water. Little by little the land became less wild. Men who cared not for what was there worked hard to change it into what was wanted.
The small settlements became towns. Men in their infinite inventiveness created steam powered trains to transfer people and things to even more remote settlements. Soon, cities appeared. Often overnight. Sprawling. Filthy. Under-built and dangerously prone to fire…Chicago itself burned to the ground in an orgy of orange and red flames.
Through the horror of destruction, the citizens of this particular city decided to rebuild a more permanent, safe, sanitary, and architecturally vibrant Chicago. Among the early pioneers of this herculean effort were William Le Baron Jenny (first steel skeleton high-rise), Daniel Burnham, John Root, Dankmar Adler and the master of the Chicago School Louis Sullivan.
Adler and Sullivan created a new language for design that promoted function over form. Instead of using the ancient patterns of Greek and Roman styles, the two strove to create a form of expression keyed to the time and place of its existence, not to historic-ism For example, during the Colombian World’s Exposition of 1893, the Chicago architects created a White City of classically inspired buildings. Among all of the pediments and domes, Adler and Sullivan introduced their Transportation Building.
The Transportation Building was a confection of gold, poly-chromatic angels, recessed arches, and a wide open interior perfect for the exhibition of steam engines and assorted sundries. The world which descended upon Chicago found the White City irresistible, seeing in it what they would want for their own home towns back off in parts far away from cosmopolitan. They did not however, want what Sullivan and company were selling.
As this time of rebuilding, Chicago’s population soared and villages sprung up all across the wide open land surrounding the city. In these villages homes were being built by the thousands, creating work for anyone who practiced architecture…including a young acolyte of Sullivan’s, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was an employee of Adler and Sullivan; one who became their lead drafter and a dedicated disciple of Sullivan’s approach to design. He learned his craft so well that he began making “bootleg” commissions without his company’s knowledge-causing his dismissal from the office.
Wright, a man of enormous self confidence, immediately set to building a deeply modern practice-one where clients came to him for the most advanced and unique structures in the world. Wright’s philosophy was one of building “Organically.” Organic in the sense of a structure designed to not only serve the needs of its occupants, but to become an enriching element of the surrounding environment. He came to call these homes the Prairie style.
Wright’s evolution as an architect led him to find unusual solutions to what he considered problems with site, for example using recessed entrances that turned away from the street and the noise that it entailed. He would create large stone and brick fireplaces set up in formations called “inglenooks” which allowed for intimate family scenes. For most of his commissions he designed everything from the flooring patterns to the plates on the tables. For Wright design was not just about the building, but for everything that existed within it.
When Wright found the perfect client, i.e. ‘anyone willing to spend a fortune,’ he would pull out all the stops and put the full force of his creativity to work. For one such client, Frederick C. Robie of Chicago, he created the masterpiece of the Prairie style. In this red brick building we see Wright putting years of theory into practice, arranging an elegant and visually dynamic residence of forward thinking, progressive architecture.
The Robie house contains some of Wright’s best stained glass work, as well as one of his easiest to navigate interior floor plans-allowing for residents and guests alike to flow from room to room without any of the small parlor, chamber, or sitting room concepts that so weighed down Victorian architecture.
The Robie house truly expressed Wright’s belief in the power of a democratic architecture, suited to people and their needs, not to preconceived notions about what should and shouldn’t be in a domestic structure. As a matter of fact, Wright torn asunder his own domestic structure in order to be confident in who he was as a man and an artist.
Wright was a staunch believer in the concept of the natural genius. Natural geniuses are men and women who have proven that they contribute more to humanity than the “average person.” Wright knew, as he was fond of saying, that he was the greatest architect who has ever lived! No false modesty, no lack of acknowledgment of the generous dose of his gifted abilities, Wright flaunted his creativity as proof that he did not have to conform to preexisting standards of behavior.
When Wright left his wife and children in 1909, he did so with the internal commitment that one would expect of a possessed man. He felt that his needs surpassed those of his family and therefore took precedence over the emotions or desires of others. Wright was not a megalomaniac, but he was a deeply committed narcissist. When he left the United States to travel to Europe for the publication of his collected drawings, he took his mistress and worked to create a more perfect union within their own lives.
By 1914 most of the controversy surrounding Wright began to dissipate, and Wright secured a commission to design a large beer garden, Midway Gardens in Chicago, giving him his best chance to share his architectural theory with the common man and those outside of his Oak Park neighborhood. He designed, like always, all of the interiors, furniture, sculptures, even tableware. He ensured that the public would get a full dose of Wrightian exuberance whether they would like it or not.
During this time period Wright built his own estate in the Wisconsin hills, ‘ Taliesin.’ Wright used the house to fuse together all of his ideas about organic architecture-building into the hill so that house was a part of the environment, not on it. Taliesin became a symbol for Wright’s persistence and force of will, building the house despite lack of funds and the torture of gossip journals. During the completion of Midway Gardens a member of Wright’s help staff set fire to Taliesin and murdered Wright’s mistress, her two children and four employees of Wright’s. Devastated, he came home to a charred ruin and buried his life in the family cemetery.
Wight did not stop building his home though; he never stopped doing anything once he started it. After Midway Gardens, Wright received the biggest commission of his career up to that point, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Wright, who had a deep love for Japanese culture and art, found that he was going to be spending several years off and on working in Tokyo, amassing more of his beloved Hirosige woodblock prints, and gaining acolytes around him. From his surroundings, Wright was able to synthesize a unique combination of Western and Eastern architecture…allowing for a structure both modern and in many ways, traditional.
This brings Wright’s own sense of traditional and modern to the forefront. He believed that the individual was the only one who could make decisions about how to live their lives. Religion, precepts of others, the limits of laws; none of which he believed should impact the choices they made about who they were or where they were going.