A half-century after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright is still considered the greatest architect America has produced, and all but indisputably the greatest architect of the 20th century. But how well have Wright’s ideas stood the test of time?
Wright has long been faulted for placing aesthetics above practicality. Such carping has died down over the years, since in retrospect uncomfortable furniture or a cramped kitchen seems a minor price to pay for an architectural masterpiece. But it’s also worth noting that Wright was the product of a time in which the most practical spaces in an upper-class home — kitchens, bathrooms and the like — remained the domain of servants. Nor did his almost uniformly wealthy clientele give him much cause to change this view.
There’s no doubt that Wright pushed contemporary building technologies far beyond their usual limits (hence his unenviable reputation for leaky roofs). Witness such dramatically innovative structures such as Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, whose drilled-pier foundation famously floated it through the disastrous Tokyo earthquake of 1923, or the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wis., with its internal forest of astonishingly slender lily-pad columns. Despite vast improvements in technology since Wright’s time, few architects since have been as structurally daring.
A more frequent criticism leveled at Wright these days is his penchant for romanticizing rural life. His hypothetical Broadacre City project, for example, in which every home was to occupy an entire acre of land, seems to modern eyes a delusional retreat from urban problems. But again, Wright’s America (he was born in 1867) was a very different place from our own. Despite the inroads of the industrial revolution, the nation remained overwhelmingly agricultural, and no place more so than the quiet corner of Wisconsin where he first began shaping his architectural ideals.
Far from constricting his world view, though, Wright’s rural sensibilities lie at the core of many of his most revolutionary ideas: his emphasis on horizontality, his concept of "organic architecture," and even the notion of open planning, which mirrored the unencumbered spaces of the prairie. His fervent belief in the indivisibility of man and nature also led to his rejection of the slick machine aesthetic espoused by many of his European rivals.
One overriding aspect of Wright’s philosophy — his fervent belief in the power of the individual — clearly sets him apart from the European modernists, who saw technology rather than man himself as the great democratizing force. It’s easy to fault Wright for positing individuality, given his long roster of self-made clients and the extravagant budgets they afforded him. But as Broadacre City, the various Usonian House projects and his voluminous writings make plain, architecture’s potential to improve the life of ordinary Americans was never far from his mind.
In the 50 years since his passing, Wright’s works have largely retained their power to move us, while many revered examples of International Style modernism have lost, quite literally, much of their original luster. And while both Wright and the Europeans were given to high-flying rhetoric, time has shown that the Wisconsin farm boy had, after all, the surer grasp on how architecture might ennoble the everyman.
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