American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
Wright, influence, and the world at large

Anthony Alofsin

Frank Lloyd Wright and his work are icons of modern American architecture. Few Americans have not heard of the Guggenheim Museum or Fallingwater. Wright’s portrait has appeared on a US postage stamp; his personal life reads like a novel and has been made into an opera. But despite his fame and his status as America’s most celebrated architect, we are only beginning to understand how his ideas were dispersed and the impact his architecture made throughout an active practice that spanned from 1896 to 1959.

Although the culturally adept may know of the revolution in domestic architecture associated with Wright’s early work around Chicago and Oak Park in his Prairie period, they often overlook the use of Wright’s design ideas in the housing boom and the expansion of the American suburb after World War II, to cite just one example of our incomplete grasp of his impact. During the most productive period of his architectural practice, beginning in the mid-1940s, Wright’s organic architecture infiltrated the ranch style house; his idiom informed the split-level houses of the 1950s and 1960s; and his ideas intertwined with those of other American architects who tried to define modern life through architecture.

The popular press contributed to the powerful impact of Wright’s architecture in the 1950s. Articles on Wright in Time and Life magazines and in the mass-market home design magazines, such as House Beautiful and House and Garden, disseminated Wright’s ideas to the very heart of the American public, far beyond the limits of the architectural press that had often featured his work.1 As a child in the 1950s I saw my parents studying Wright’s latest work in House Beautiful, and I remember their search in our hometown of Memphis for the architects most sympathetic to Wright’s ideas. His work seemed to me as natural and appropriate as the Eames furniture in our house seemed normal; the pioneering roles of these masters of modern design escaped me until my college years. After Wright’s death in 1959 his reputation took one of its cyclical dips, but by the mid1980s, as postmodernism in architecture waned, Wright became a subject of interest again, as evident not only in the scholarly reconsideration of his life and work but also in the virtual industry of picture books and artifacts ranging from key rings to calendars. His furniture, art glass windows, and some four hundred buildings that remain have steadily increased in commercial value despite market fluctuations.2 This revival returns us to the problematic question of Wright’s impact on American culture. Does the legacy of his work represent a new source of merchandizing or a call back to the basic issues of architecture and democracy? If he was such a towering genius, why did he not make an even greater mark on American architecture?

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