Biography of Frank Lloyd Wright

America's Most Famous Architect (1867-1959)

Portrait in black and white of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1942
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen, Wisconsin, in 1942. Photo by Joe Munroe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped)

Frank Lloyd Wright (born June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin) has been called America's most famous architect. Wright is celebrated for developing a new type of American home, the Prairie house, elements of which continue to be copied. Streamlined and efficient, Wright's Prairie house designs paved the way for the iconic Ranch Style that became wildly popular in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

During his 70-year career, Wright designed over a thousand buildings (see index), including homes, offices, churches, schools, libraries, bridges, and museums. Nearly 500 of these designs were completed, and more than 400 still stand. Many of Wright's designs in his portfolio are now tourist attractions, including his most famous home known as Fallingwater (1935). Built on a stream in the Pennsylvania woods, the Kaufmann Residence is Wright's most impressive example of organic architecture. Wright's writings and designs have influenced 20th century modernist architects and continue to shape the ideas of  generations of architects around the world.

Early Years:

Frank Lloyd Wright never attended architecture school, but his mother encouraged his building creativity with simple objects after the Froebel Kindergarten philosophies. Wright's 1932 autobiography talks of his toys—the "structural figures to be made with peas and small straight sticks," the "smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build...form becoming feeling." Colored strips and squares of paper and cardboard combined with Froebel blocks (now called Anchor Blocks) whetted his appetite for building.

As a child, Wright worked on his uncle's farm in Wisconsin, and he later described himself as an American primitive—an innocent but clever country boy whose education on the farm made him more perceptive and more down-to-earth. "From sunrise to sunset there can be nothing so surpassingly beautiful in any cultivated garden as in the wild Wisconsin pastures," Wright wrote in An Autobiography.

"And the trees stood in it all like various, beautiful buildings, of more different kinds than all the architectures of the world. Some day this boy was to learn that the secret of all styles in architecture was the same secret that gave character to the trees."

Education and Apprenticeships:

When he was 15, Frank Lloyd Wright entered the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a special student. The school had no course in architecture, so Wright studied civil engineering. But "his heart was never in this education," as Wright described himself.

Leaving school before graduating, Frank Lloyd Wright apprenticed with two architecture firms in Chicago, his first employer being a family friend, architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee. But in 1887 the ambitious, young Wright had the opportunity to draft interior designs and ornamentation for the more famous architecture firm of Adler and Sullivan. Wright called architect Louis Sullivan "the "Master" and "Lieber Meister," for it was Sullivan's ideas that influenced Wright his entire life.

The Oak Park Years:

Between 1889 and 1909 Wright was married to Catherine "Kitty" Tobin, had 6 children, split from Adler and Sullivan, established his Oak Park studio, invented the Prairie house, wrote the influential article "in the Cause of Architecture" (1908), and changed the world of architecture.

While his young wife kept the household and taught kindergarten with the architect's childhood tools of colored paper shapes and Froebel blocks, Wright took on side-jobs, often called Wright's "bootleg" homes, as he continued at Adler and Sullivan.

Wright's home in the Oak Park suburbs was built with financial assistance from Sullivan. As the Chicago office became more importantly a designer of the new form of architecture, the skyscraper, Wright was given the residential commissions. This was a time of Wright experimenting with design—with the help and input of Louis Sullivan. For example, in 1890 the two left Chicago to work on a vacation cottage in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  Although damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Charnley-Norwood House has been restored and is reopened to tourism as an early example of what would become the Prairie home.

Many of Wright's side-jobs for the extra money were remodelings, often with the Queen Anne details of the day. After working with Adler and Sullivan for several years, Sullivan was angered to discover that Wright was working outside the office. The young Wright split from Sullivan and opened his own Oak Park practice in 1893.

Wright's most notable structures during this period include the Winslow House (1893), Frank Lloyd Wright's first Prairie house; the Larkin Administration Building (1904),  "a great fireproof vault" in Buffalo, New York; remodeling of the Rookery Lobby (1905) in Chicago; the great, concrete Unity Temple (1908) in Oak Park; and the Prairie house that made him a star, the Robie House (1910) in Chicago, Illinois.

Success, Fame, and Scandal:

After 20 stable years in Oak Park, Wright made life decisions that to this day are the stuff of dramatic fiction and film. In his autobiography, Wright describes how he was feeling around 1909: "Weary, I was losing grip on my work and even my interest in it....What I wanted I did not know....to gain freedom I asked for a divorce. It was, advisedly, refused." Nevertheless, without a divorce he moved to Europe in 1909 and took with him Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of Edwin Cheney, an Oak Park electrical engineer and Wright's client. Frank Lloyd Wright left his wife and 6 children, Mamah (pronounced MAY-muh) left her husband and 2 children, and  they both left Oak Park forever. Nancy Horan's 2007 fictional account of their relationship, Loving Frank, remains a top pick in Wright gift shops across America.

Although Mamah's husband released her from marriage, Wright's wife would not agree to a divorce until 1922, well after the murder of Mamah Cheney. In 1911, the couple had moved back to US and began to build Taliesin (1911-1925) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. "Now I wanted a natural house to live in myself," he wrote in his autobiography. "There must be a natural house...native in spirit and the making....I began to build Taliesin to get my back against the wall and fight for what I saw I had to fight."

For a time in 1914, Mamah was in Taliesin while Wright worked in Chicago on the Midway Gardens. While Wright was gone, a fire destroyed the Taliesin residence and tragically took the lives of Cheney and six others. As Wright recalls, a trusted servant had "turned madman, taken the lives of seven and set the house in flames. In thirty minutes the house and all in it had burned to the stone work or to the ground. The living half of Taliesin was violently swept down and away in a madman's nightmare of flame and murder."

By 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright had achieved enough public status that his personal life became the fodder for juicy newspaper articles. As a diversion to his heartbreaking tragedy at Taliesin, Wright left the country yet again to work on the Imperial Hotel (1915-1923) in Tokyo, Japan. Wright kept busy building the Imperial Hotel (which was demolished in 1968) while at the same time building Hollyhock House (1919-1921) for the art-loving Louise Barnsdall in Los Angeles, California.

Not to be outdone by his architecture, Wright commenced yet another personal relationship, this time with the artist Maude Miriam Noel. Still not divorced from Catherine, Wright took Miriam on his trips to Tokyo, which caused more ink to flow in the newspapers. Upon his divorce from his first wife in 1922, Wright married Miriam, which almost instantly dissolved their romance.

Wright and Miriam were legally married from 1923 until 1927, but the relationship was over in Wright's eyes. So, in 1925 Wright had a child with Olga Ivanovna "Olgivanna" Lazovich, a dancer from Montenegro.  Iovanna Lloyd "Pussy" Wright was their only child together, but this relationship created even more grist for the tabloids. In 1926 Wright was arrested for what the Chicago Tribune called his "marital troubles." He spent two days in the local jail and was ultimately charged with violating the Mann Act, a 1910 law that criminalized bringing a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

Eventually Wright and Olgivanna married in 1928 and stayed married until Wright's death on April 9, 1959 at age 91. "Just to be with her uplifts my heart and strengthens my spirits when the going gets hard or when the going is good," he wrote in An Autobiography.

Wright's architecture from the Olgivanna period is some of his most outstanding.  In addition to Fallingwater in 1935, Wright established a residential school in Arizona called Taliesin West (1937); created an entire campus for Florida Southern College (1938-1950s) in Lakeland, Florida; expanded his organic architectural designs with residences such as Wingspread (1939) in Racine, Wisconsin; built the iconic spiraling Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1943-1959) in New York City; and completed his only synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, Beth Sholom Synagogue (1959).

Some people know Frank Lloyd Wright only for his personal escapades—he was married three times and had seven children—but his contributions to architecture are profound. His work was controversial and his private life was often the subject of gossip. Although his work was praised in Europe as early as 1910, it was not until 1949 that he received an award from American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Why Is Wright Important?

Frank Lloyd Wright was an iconoclast, breaking the norms, rules, and traditions of architecture and design that would affect building processes for generations. "Any good architect is by nature a physicist as a matter of fact," he wrote in his autobiography, "but as a matter of reality, as things are, he must be a philosopher and a physician." And so he was.

Wright pioneered a long, low residential architecture known as the Prairie house, which was ultimately transformed into the modest Ranch style home of mid-century American architecture. He experimented with obtuse angles and circles built with new materials, creating unusually shaped structures such as spiral forms from concrete. He developed a series of low-cost homes that he called Usonian for the middle class. And, maybe most importantly, Frank Lloyd Wright changed the way we think of interior space.

From An Autobiography (1932), here is Frank Lloyd Wright in his own words talking about the concepts that made him famous:

Prairie Homes:

Wright didn't call his residential designs "Prairie" at first. They were to be new houses of the prairie. In fact, the first prairie home, the Winslow House, was built in the Chicago suburbs. The philosophy that Wright developed was to blur interior and exterior space, where the interior decor and furnishings would complement the lines of the exterior, which in turn complemented the land on which the house stood.

"First thing in building the new house, get rid of the attic, therefore, the dormer. Get rid of the useless false heights below it. Next, get rid of the unwholesome basement, yes absolutely—in any house built on the prairie....I could see necessity for one chimney only. A broad generous one,  or at most two. These kept low-down on gently sloping roofs or perhaps flat roofs....Taking a human being for my scale, I brought the whole house down in height to fit a normal one—ergo, 5' 8 1/2" tall, say. This is my own height....It has been said that were I three inches taller...all my houses would have been quite different in proportion. Probably."

Organic Architecture:

Wright "liked the sense of shelter in the look of the building, yet he "loved the prairie by instinct as a great simplicity—the trees, flowers, sky itself, thrilling by contrast." How does man shelter himself simply and become part of the environment?

"I had an idea that the horizontal planes in buildings, those planes parallel to earth, identify themselves with the ground—make the building belong to the ground. I began putting this idea to work."
"I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other."

New Building Materials:

"The greatest of the materials, steel, glass, ferro- or armoured concrete were new," wrote Wright. Concrete is an ancient building material used even by the Greeks and Romans, but ferro-concrete reinforced with steel (rebar) was a new technique of building. Wright adopted these commercial methods of construction for residential construction, most famously promoting plans for a fireproof house in a 1907 issue of Ladies Home Journal. Wright rarely discussed the process of architecture and design without commenting on building materials.

"So I began to study the nature of materials, learning to see them. I now learned to see brick as brick, to see wood as wood, and to see concrete or glass or metal. See each for itself and all as themselves....Each material demanded different handling and had possibilities of use peculiar to its own nature. Appropriate designs for one material would not be appropriate at all for another material....Of course, as I could now see, there could be no organic architecture where the nature of materials was ignored or misunderstood. How could there be?"

Usonian Homes:

Wright's idea was to distill his philosophy of organic architecture into a simple structure that could be constructed by the homeowner or local builder. Usonian homes do not all look alike. For example, the Curtis Meyer House is a curved "hemicycle" design, with a tree growing through the roof. Yet, it is built with a concrete block system reinforced with steel bars—just like other Usonian houses.

"All we would have to do would be to educate the concrete blocks, refine them and knit all together with steel in the joints and so construct the joints that they could be poured full of concrete by any boy after they were set up by common labour and a steel-strand laid in the interior joints. The walls would thus become thin but solid reinforced slabs, impressionable to any desire for pattern imaginable. Yes, common labour could do it all. We would make the walls double, of course, one wall facing inside and the other wall facing outside, thus getting continuous hollow spaces between, so the house would be cool in summer, warm in winter and dry always."

Cantilever Construction:

The Johnson Wax Research Tower (1950) in Racine, Wisconsin may be Wright's most developed use of cantilever construction—the inner core supports each of the 14 cantilevered floors and the entire tall building is sheathed in glass. Wright's most famous use of cantilever construction would be at Fallingwater, but this was not the first.

"As used in the Imperial Hotel at Tokio it was the most important of the features of construction that insured the life of that building in the terrific temblor of 1922. So, not only a new aesthetic but proving the aesthetic as scientifically sound, a great new economic 'stability' derived from steel in tension was able now to enter into building construction."

Plasticity:

This concept influenced modern architecture and architects, including the deStijl movement in Europe. For Wright, plasticity was not about the material we know as "plastic," but about any material that can be molded and shaped as an "element of continuity." Louis Sullivan used the word in relation to ornamentation, but Wright took the idea further, "in the structure of the building itself." Wright asked. "Now why not let walls, ceilings, floors become seen as component parts of each other, their surfaces flowing into each other."

"Concrete is a plastic material—susceptible to the impress of imagination."

Natural Light and Natural Ventilation:

Wright is well-known for his use of clerestory windows and casement windows, about which Wright wrote "If it had not existed I should have invented it." He did invent a corner window of mitered glass, telling his construction contractor that if wood can be mitered, why not glass?

"The windows would sometimes be wrapped around the building corners as inside emphasis of plasticity and to increase the sense of interior space."

Urban Design & Utopia:

As 20th century America grew in population, architects were troubled with the lack of planning by developers. Wright learned urban design and planning not only from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, but also from Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), Chicago's urban designer. Wright set down his own design ideas and architectural philosophies in The Disappearing City (1932) and its revision The Living City (1958). Here is some of what he wrote in 1932 about his utopian vision for Broadacre City:

"So the various features of the Broadacre City...are primarily and essentially architecture. From the roads that are its veins and arteries to the buildings that are its cellular tissue, to the parks and gardens that are its 'epidermis' and 'hirsute adornment,' the new city will be architecture....So, in the Broadacre City the entire American scene becomes an organic architectural expression of the nature of man himself and of his life here upon the earth."
"We are going to call this city for the individual Broadacre City because it is based upon a minimum of an acre to the family....It is because every man will own his acre of home ground, that architecture will be in the service of the man himself, creating appropriate new buildings in harmony not only with the ground but harmonious with the pattern of the personal life of the individual. No two homes, no two gardens, none of the three to ten acre farm units, no two factory buildings need be alike. There need be no special 'styles,' but style everywhere."

Learn More:

Frank Lloyd Wright is immensely popular. His quotations appear on posters, coffee mugs, and many Web pages (see more FLW quotations). Many, many books have been written by and about Frank Lloyd Wright. Here are the few that have been referenced in this article:

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright

The Disappearing City by Frank Lloyd Wright (PDF)

The Living City by Frank Lloyd Wright