Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
On his 145th birthday, a look back at Wright's legacy.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born on this day in 1867. 145 years later, he is still central to American architecture.
Working for Adler & Sullivan (a Chicago-based firm that paved the way for early American modernism) in his early 20s, Wright saw an America searching for its own visual identity, still dependent on classical Greek and French ideas of democracy through architecture. He also saw the typical American city as a dirty and overcrowded space, a space that was neither culturally or socially enriching. That theory was hard to contest at the time, and the relentless interest in decentralization ended up as one his core beliefs.
Wright's prairie homes were his ultimate expressions of what he saw as 'organic' and 'democratic' architecture. He built just one skyscraper in his career, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (current population: 36,071).
In a television appearance on Omnibus, Wright made his thoughts on urban density quite clear.
On skyscrapers in cities:
Skyscrapers in cities create congestion. They were devised originally to hold concentration where it is and they proved to be the death of the city-or will, eventually, if they keep building them in cities.
On New York City:
Does anyone approve of New York? ...isn't New York just a great, grown village, created by success? ...it was the only way a landlord could control concentration and rents. But in doing it, he has really overshot the mark and now, the whole city is in agony. This traffic problem is insoluble and in never can be solved. You see everything going out. Decentralization is inevitable, taking place everywhere. The gas station was the first evidence of it. Now the department stores will go out there, even in New York, they're all going out. Factories are going out...and aren't the best people going out?
While LeCorbusier wanted to wipe out and then rebuild cities to his liking, Wright embraced decentralization, focusing on architectural forms that made little sense in urban areas, but fit in with his idealized and undeveloped surroundings. That is expressed in his 1932 book, The Disappearing City:
Imagine spacious landscaped highways …giant roads, themselves great architecture, pass public service stations, no longer eyesores, expanded to include all kinds of service and comfort. They unite and separate — separate and unite the series of diversified units, the farm units, the factory units, the roadside markets, the garden schools, the dwelling places (each on its acre of individually adorned and cultivated ground), the places for pleasure and leisure. All of these units so arranged and so integrated that each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of a hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or plane. This integral whole composes the great city that I see embracing all of this country—the Broadacre City of tomorrow.
His intellectual beliefs took on the mold of an Ayn Rand hero (no coincidence they developed a personal relationship). Wright believed in the power of the individual and admired Thomas Jefferson's oft-quoted belief in the virtues of small government.
Wright's embrace of individualism and urban escapism still ring true for many Americans, and is, perhaps, why he remains so popular into the 21st century. Eleven different projects, originally designed by Wright, have been built since his death.
Four posthumous works have been completed in the Phoenix area, where his Foundation is based. Two (three, once this gas station prototype is completed) are in Buffalo. His connections to the area link the city to its prosperous past; local admiration for the architect is almost obsessive. Wright was responsible for an office building (demolished in 1950) and four houses in the Buffalo area during his lifetime. His most ambitious one, partly demolished, is nearing a multi-million dollar, full restoration. A section of the region's tourism website is even called "wrightnowinbuffalo.com."
With a nearly unmatched ego, it's doubtful Wright would have been surprised to see his works still built in a new century. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, he was asked if he believed in his own immortality. Replying, he said:
Yes, insofar as I am immortal, I will be immortal. To me, young has no meaning- something you can do nothing about, nothing at all. But youth is a quality and if you have it, you never lose it. And when they put you into the box, that's your immortality.
Unsatisfied with neo-classical ideas of democratic architecture (he referred to the Lincoln Memorial as "related to the toga and the civilization that wore it.") Frank Lloyd Wright spent his life in pursuit of a true, American vernacular. The fact that so many Americans still admire him suggests he might have found it.