Frank Lloyd Wright was arguably America’s greatest architect. He was not only a radical architect but also an immensely popular one. His career saw the highest of the highs and even the lowest of the lows. His buildings like the Guggenheim museum, Jonathan Wax Museum, and the Fallingwater that redefined what was possible. But the true genius of Wright’s life is buried under the tales of his tempestuous lifestyle and scandals.
The BBC documentary follows the host, Jonathan Adams, across Lloyd’s renowned buildings in America. The idea was to live and experience the spaces while trying to understand how these buildings were conceived, how they word, and how they feel.
With a career spanning over 70 years, he built over 500 buildings and most of them still stand relevant to current times. ‘Organic architecture’ as he called his designs, he believed that architecture belonged to where one sees it standing, that it must grace the landscape and not disgrace it. His client sings praises telling his designs have not only changed the look of their land but also changed their entire existence.
Throwing light on the history and events that shaped the man, the documentary elaborates on his lesser-known Welsh roots. Growing up in the countryside with a huge family, the family followed a radical brand of Christianity known as Unitarianism. It was the ideals of free-thinking and spiritual inheritance taught here, that became his constant source of inspiration in his adulthood. The church often focused on the magnificence of nature and placed a huge emphasis on the individual’s choice and freedom of their understanding of God and nature. This principle of liberalism is quite evidently reflected in his buildings.
Looking for better opportunities, his family sailed west and found their new Wales in the Spring Gardens of Wisconsin. This place became a lifelong spiritual touchstone for Lloyd, a place he called ‘The Valley’. Even as a child, he was an ambitious builder, and with his family’s blessing, he left home soon after his engineering graduation to seek an architectural apprenticeship. As luck would have it, the nearest city, Chicago was one of the best places to or a young and aspiring architect. Landing a job with the city’s best architect, he began his career at a rather young age of 16 years.
Here, he met Catherin “Kitty” Tobin, and within two years they were married with a child on the way. He was a young man in a hurry to achieve it all. Wright borrowed money from his boss and designed his first house. This was unlike any other house in the neighborhood. Jonathan Adams explains the contrasting difference between the dark symmetrical exterior to the bright and open interiors. The design was Wright’s reinterpretation of a classical structure- with the large gabled roof, triangular pediment, and the two bays at the bottom instead of columns. This oak Park home was his first step towards a new kind of architecture. His new home attracted the attention of people and landed him several commissions, many from the same neighborhood. Yet all these houses were very different from one another, but each one his experiment with traditional forms.
It was his unconventionally modern design of the Unity Temple that put him on the frontier of architecture. A building that looked almost impenetrable on the outside boasted an explosion of light on the inside. This, paired with his brilliant designs of furniture and light fixtures helped him excel at his solo practice. When one gave a commission to Frank Lloyd Wright, they not only got a house but also got custom-designed furniture along with a strict set of dos and don’ts. At the Robie house, Wright even designed a dress for Mrs. Robie to wear. Wright had astonishing self-belief, almost to the point of being overbearing. He would often make surprise visits to his clients and would even rearrange their furniture.
Wright was riding the highs of his career and creating a real stir. But was leading him farther away from the conventional family life. He made questionable choices when he began an affair with the wife of a client, Mamah Cheney, and fled to Europe with her, leaving his family of six behind. He built his iconic home, Taliesin at ‘the valley’ of his childhood and continued to work from there. This house became a textbook of how architecture and nature should coexist. Wright often took pride in claiming that the house wasn’t on the hill but rather, it was on the hill, that the house and the hill are improved by each other. Following a few happy years was the largest disaster in Wright’s life.
His time of deepest despair led him to a new horizon. He received new commissions in Los Angeles. The projects that he would design give his career a whole new perspective- and he delivered just that with the Ennis house. But the dark time of his life was far from over. As the 1920s drew to a close, his new affair with a 30-year junior dancer was mired in scandal, as a result, business suffered. The wall street crash of 1929 decimated American Architecture. The following three years without a single commission made him flat broke. Nearing his 60s he was seeming to fade away.
It was at this time that a remarkable idea of the Taliesin fellowship was conceived. The fellowship seemed to bring in the much-needed relief in his career. But it was his design of the Fallingwater, which is now cited as the greatest construction of the 20th century, that put him back on the charts. Along with the Fallingwater, he built several breakthrough projects like the Johnson Wax building that showed revolutionary interiors.
In his 80s, Wright was living his best life. In1959 six months before the inauguration of the iconic Guggenheim museum, Lloyd passed away. His life had seen a swathe of history, being born in the wake of the Civil war, right to a television personality in the age of technology.
150 years after his birth, Jonathan Adams insisted that Frank Lloyd Wright is now a vitally important figure who taught us to build for a better world. Wright is relevant even now because he never gave up on the timeless. reuniting the interior with the natural environment outside, new experiences, and patterns are created, the human spirit is awakened. Wright’s belief in what he called organic architecture – buildings that enhance the landscape and respond to people’s individual needs – is more relevant than ever.