Frank Lloyd Wright, America's most prolific architect, designed more than fifty projects in California. Twenty-four of those projects were realized, mostly concentrated in South California. Though he lived in Los Angeles for only a handful of years, Frank Lloyd Wright's California Architecture spans more than half a century and features a variety of innovative expressions and mediums.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867, and spent the majority of his youth in the Prairie lands of Southern Wisconsin. After dropping out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1887, Wright packed his bags and set off to Chicago to become an architect. Chicago at the time was a boomtown for architecture, having just recovered from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Architects from across the nation flocked to Chicago which had become a playground for architects and the birthplace of modern architecture with the development of the metal framed skyscraper.
Wright worked for two architects before beginning his own firm in 1893: for Joseph Silsbee less than a year, and then for Adler & Sullivan, one of the most prominent architectural firms associated with the Chicago School of Architecture. Under Louis Sullivan, Wright learned the philosophical foundation of the Prairie School that enabled him to develop the first purely American form of domestic architecture and a form schism with historicism.
The open planned Prairie Houses with long, horizontal lines and broad, overhanging eaves complimented the natural landscape of the midwest. These modern homes were a triumph over neoclassicism, and took into consideration the needs of the American family.
The first decade of the Twentieth Century was prosperous for Wright at his Oak Park Home & Studio as he gained national exposure. But as Wright's career was on the rise, so were marital tensions at home with his wife Kitty who tended to their six children. Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with the wife of a client, Mamah Cheney, and the affair culminated in 1909 with both spouses leaving their families behind in Oak Park, Illinois and moving to Europe for a year. It was during this time that Frank Lloyd Wright publishedAusgefuhrte Bauten Entwurfe Frank Lloyd Wright, also known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, which embodied his entire collection of work up until that time, and Europeans were finally exposed to the modern work of Wright.
The affair was a public scandal, akin to something one might read in the Enquirer today. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney returned to Oak Park in 1910. Mamah Cheney divorced her husband Edwin. Kitty denied Wright a divorce, so the architect converted his Oak Park Studio into living quarters for Kitty and the children, and converted their Oak Park home into two rentable apartments to subsidize their living cost. Wright and Mamah then began living together on a plot of land given to Wright by his mother near Spring Green, Wisconsin where he built his second home and studio, Taliesin.
Wright would maintain Taliesin for the rest of his life, though it was rebuilt twice after serious fires. The first and more dramatic fire occurred in 1914, while Wright was in Chicago finishing up his Midway Gardens project. A deranged, and apparently resentful servant lit the house on fire after being fired by Mamah. Julian Carlton, the servant, then proceeded to brutally kill Mamah, her two children from her first marriage who were visiting Taliesin for the summer, and four other household workers, with a shingling axe. It was the single most devastating moment in Wright's life.
Wright immediately rebuilt Taliesin, and then spent the remainder of the 1910's in Tokyo, Japan where he received his largest commission to date: the Imperial Hotel. One of only a few realized projects outside of the United States, the Imperial Hotel brought Wright great recognition in 1923 when it survived the Great Kanto Earthquake -the most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history until the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
Wright moved back to the States in 1922 after more than half a decade in Tokyo and decided to stay in Los Angeles where his son Lloyd Wright had taken up permanent residency. Los Angeles seemed to Wright to be a ripe opportunity to develop an organic architecture for California; an architecture complimentary to the landscape. Wright also recognized and appreciated the sprawling layout of Los Angeles, which he saw as having the potential to realize his vision of the Broadacre City through the use of the automobile.
Wright met one of his earliest California clients, Aline Barnsdall while visiting Chicago in the late 1910's. The wealthy oil heiress and patroness of the arts commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a theater in Chicago, but later decided on Los Angeles after purchasing a plot of land in Hollywood that she dubbed Olive Hill. Barnsdall envisioned an artist colony atop Olive Hill that would include a home for Barnsdall and her daughter Sugar Top, a director's residence, artist's residence, a kindergarten, shops, and a cinema.
Frank Lloyd Wright and Aline Barnsdall rarely saw each other during the design and construction process as Wright was still heavily involved with the Imperial Hotel commission in Japan and Barnsdall was busy galavanting the globe. Frank Lloyd Wright's son Lloyd Wright, and Rudolph Schindler handled most of the onsite affairs, and much of the plan remained unrealized save for Barnsdall's House -named the Hollyhock House, Residence "A", Residence "B", and a pergola.
Wright was living in Los Angeles when he received word of the Tokyo Earthquake, and the Examinercalled the architect to ask for his comment on the destruction of the Imperial Hotel. Wright was quick to point out that there were many buildings in Tokyo that began with “Imperial” and that if the Examiner printed the article they should be prepared to retract their statements. Days later Wright received a telegram at Residence B, which he built and then rented from Aline Barnsdall for his California studio.
The telegram read:
HOTEL STANDS UNDAMAGED AS MONUMENT OF YOUR GENIUS HUNDREDS OF HOMELESS PROVIDED BY PERFECTLY MAINTAINED SERVICE CONGRATULATIONS
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Los Angeles Architecture is primarily associated with the material of concrete. Wright first used poured in place concrete in his 1905 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Concrete played a prominent role in his Midway Gardens of Chicago and Imperial Hotel of Tokyo. The Hollyhock House uses stucco surfaced to look like concrete, in addition to actual concrete for detailing. However, Wright’s most innovative use of concrete was yet to come.
Wright first met Mrs. Alice Millard around 1906 when she and her husband commissioned Wright to design a home for them in Highland Park, Illinois, only blocks away from the Ward Willits House, considered to be Wright’s first Great Prairie House. In 1923, the widowed Mrs. Millard commissioned Wright to design a modest home to house not only herself, but also her collection of rare books in Pasadena.
The result was the first of Wright’s concrete textile block houses. These concrete monoliths were made of hollow concrete blocks, stylized, and stacked upon each other vertically and horizontally. The hollow blocks were then laced with reinforcing beams of steel before being filled in with concrete. The overall effect is that of weaving a building together, with an entirely concrete surface, punctuated only by the seams of the blocks and the geometric patterns of the stylized blocks. Wright was bold in his selection of concrete as the material, still considered an ugly and low class material. Wright transformed the material into a powerfully expressive medium for his concept of an organic architecture in the context of California.
After the completion of Mrs. Millard’s Pasadena home, dubbed La Miniatura by Wright, the architect completed three other concrete block homes in the Los Angeles area: the John Storer House, Charles Ennis House, and Samuel Freeman House.
Wright’s concrete textile block houses remain today powerfully posed with their sites. Most of the open land surrounding these houses when they were first erected has been filled in with houses, though they still stand out as unique monuments amid an eclectic Los Angeles Architecture.
Wright stayed for only a short time in Los Angeles. It became clear that the handful of buildings he designed in the area would be the extent of his California career for the time being and returned to Taliesin.
Wright later built a single project in each of the following three and final decades of his life in the Los Angeles area: The George Sturges House in Brentwood, 1939; The Arch Oboler Gatehouse and Studio-Retreat in Malibu, 1940/1941; and the Anderton Court Shops in Beverly Hills, 1952.