The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once wryly observed that “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” Following his death in 1959, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) designated 17 of his buildings for special merit and preservation. Almost 50 years later they commissioned a public poll to list the Top 150 Favorite Works of Architecture with Wright placing seven. In 2015, the FLW Conservancy nominated 10 of his buildings to be added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites. This kind of recognition shows the enduring relevance and popularity of the man who the AIA called, “one of the greatest architects of all time.” He never was or will be nominated for Miss Congeniality but he was a great innovator and pioneer, a passionate American nationalist, disparaging about American fashion for Things European. He was the master of “organic architecture” which preached the harmonization of building with environment. Wright expressed its First Commandment like this:” No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Without further adieu, we present the 17 greatest works of Frank Lloyd Wright:
17. Hanna Honeycomb House (1936) -Stanford, California
Imagine a house with no right angles, not even its furniture. Wright’s design used only hexagonal shapes and the six-sided pattern so resembled a honeycomb it was nicknamed as such. It was actually called Hanna House after the Stanford Professor Paul Janna and wife Jean. It also contained several signature Wright characteristics, including being built with local materials; San Jose brick and redwood. As the National Park Service describes it, “The house clings to and completes the hillside on which it was built” as his ‘organic’ architecture believed. It was also a template for his dream of creating affordable housing for the middle class down to ensuring the wood assembly could be done by a carpenter, not requiring high-priced experts. Of course, he ran over budget and this middle class template ended up costing the Hannas the equivalent of over $600,000 dollars today. Such was the Wright bravado, he built it right over the San Andreas Fault. He didn’t live to see it badly damaged in the earthquake of 1989.
16. Frank Lloyd Wright Residence (1889) -Oak Park, Illinois
The oldest remaining of Wright’s buildings was built with $5000 which the rising architect borrowed from his boss. It was here that he began leaving his indelible mark on the architecture of the twentieth century. The Chicago suburb remains the largest enclave of his work with 25 various structures designed and built from 1889-1913. It established his first big innovation, in the Prairie School of Architecture, glorifying and refining the ground hugging structures of early settlers in the American west, a tribute in Wright’s view to the fundamental American values of hard work and perseverance. The materials and design are far beyond what any settler could have dreamed of. The Children’s Playroom is one of the most notable rooms in any of his creations, famous for the prisms of light that come through the specially designed windows and skylight.
15. William H. Winslow House (1893) -River Forest, Illinois
Bargain hunter alert! Check this real estate listing: “A most exceptional/livable home, great for entertaining with generous rooms sizes. 4 bedroom/3.5 bathroom Coach House with live-in apt. Original details remain intact: art glass windows, bronze/iron, furniture and built-ins, hardwood floors, 4 fireplaces. Meticulously maintained” And a price tag of just $1.55 million, a full million off the original asking price. One of Wright’s few properties with rooms one can actually imagine mere mortals living in. But then comes the achingly beautiful detailed woodwork, the ridiculously gorgeous dining room and you quickly realize that this residence is anything but ordinary. Winslow House is considered historically important in that it was Wright’s first independent commission after leaving his mentors at the architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan.
14. Ward W. Willits House (1901) -Highland Park, Illinois
This outwardly sedate-looking suburban home was a political statement and the true beginning of an architectural revolution. It was an emphatic rejection of the designs featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair which projected the rebirth of the city with towering ornate works of Greek and Roman grandeur. Midwest architects, Wright among them, objected to the old European influence insisting on and creating a new truly American style. This became known as the Prairie School, with which Wright first experimented in Oak Park as a precocious 22 year old. Its horizontal orientation reflected the American experience of the wide open prairie as opposed to the urbanized vertical clutter of the Old World. The AIA calls Willits House “the first house to embody all the classic elements of the Prairie style,” which included the absence of doors to mimic the ‘wide-open space’ of the prairie long before the concepts of local sourcing and sustainability were on trend, Wright was using locally sourced material. Here his ‘organic’ style took hold, the idea that buildings should look like they grew out of the landscape. In return, a hundred leaded windows, the use of which Wright pioneered, firmly integrated the interior living space into its natural surroundings.
13. Unity Temple (1904) -Oak Park, Illinois
When Oak Park’s Unitarian Church burned down in 1905 Wright sought the commission to replace it. What he came up with according to the church website “broke nearly every existing rule and convention for American and European religious architecture.” There were few things Wright liked more than breaking rules in his work and life. It looks fortress-like from the outside but inside the space soars with geometric patterns and stained glass in earth tones to denote again the connection to nature. It was there Wright said that he realized that a building’s space was more important than its walls. It has been a national Historic Site since 1971. It was also, as the AIA declares, the “first significant American architectural statement in poured concrete.” The Church’s trustees thanked the architect by resolving that “We believe the building will long endure as a monument to his artistic genius and that, so long as it endures, it will stand forth as a masterpiece of art and architecture.”
12. S.C. Johnson Administration Building (1936) -Racine, Wisconsin
Thirty years after his Unity Church triumphant exercise in design and space, Wright ventured to his home state of Wisconsin to create what has been called one of Wright’s most “astonishing” spaces, the S.C. Johnson Administration Building. Yes as in Johnson’s Wax. The family owned company’s ambitious leader S.C Johnson sought out Wright in the midst of the Great Depression because, he explained, “I wanted to build the best office building in the world, and the only way to do that was to get the greatest architect in the world.” Wright had an uncanny knack to design places that look like sets from Star Date 2317.9 on Star Trek. The Great Workroom features 43 miles of Pyrex glass tubing, so-called birdcage elevators. The “lily pad” columns are 18 ½ feet wide at the top and just 9 inched at the bottom but still incredibly durable. Wright also designed dozens of pieces of furniture.
11. S.C. Johnson Research Tower (1944) -Racine, Wisconsin
In the same vein a few years later, another Johnson wanted a research facility that looked as cutting edge outside, as the research was inside. It was here that iconic consumer brands like Raid, Glade, Off! and Pledge were developed. The result was a structure about as far from the Prairie School as could be imagined. In his book on the project author Mark Hertzberg called it one of the most significant landmarks in modern architecture. “The fifteen-story skyscraper is the only existing example of Wright’s ambitious taproot design. Like limbs from a tree trunk, alternating square floors and round mezzanines branch out from the weight-bearing central core—a truly revolutionary idea at the time and an engineering marvel today.” No longer in use, it is open to the public, the labs inside restored as they would have appeared when it opened in 1950.Wright did build a Prairie style home for the Johnsons called Wingspread which was said to be the “epitome of organic architecture” which is now a conference center.
10. Unitarian Meeting House (1947) -Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin
The Church of Tomorrow was at first a country church, though now in a Madison suburb. This was a rare labor of love for Wright. His father was one of the group’s founders and he himself was an off and on member. When money ran short, he charged a modest fee and organized fund raising events. Parishioners hauled tons of stone from a nearby quarry. He accepted the commission at the age of 78 and would turn 84 by its completion. Again, the compact exterior hid the space inside and Wright returned to the relationship in his mind of the geometric and the spiritual. According to the AIA Wright believed that light and a “geometric type of space” allowed a structure “to achieve the sacred quality particular to worship.” And like the Unity Church in Oak Park, traditional religious form, spires and bells, were absent. At its dedication Wright declared that “This building is itself a form of prayer.”
9. Price Company Tower (1952) -Bartlesville, Oklahoma
With the exception of the Johnson Research Tower, Wright’s reputation rested on intricate, innovative low rise structures. By the mid twentieth century, with the country’s increasing urbanization, the action had moved to the art of the high-rise and Wright’s ego compelled him to follow the trend. Fortunately he found an equally ambitious and wealthy oil magnate with a bank account to match his ego named H.C. Price. The original commission was for office space in New York in the 1930’s after the sensational debuts of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. The Great Depression forced a long delay, but Wright finally took up the challenge late in life. Though a 19 story building could hardly be called a skyscraper in New York City, it certainly was in Bartlesville in 1956. The AIA praised the concept as having the “organic ideal of the tree. A tap-root foundation solidly anchors the building to its site, and cantilevered floors hang like branches from the structural core.” It can still be seen for miles on the Oklahoma prairie and is open to the public.
8. Beth Sholom Synagogue (1954) -Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
A late tour de force by an architect who was 86 when he accepted the commission struck by the Rabbi’s request to build “a new thing—the American spirit wedded to the ancient spirit of Israel.” Wright responded with a design laden with symbolism, a tent like structure in glass walls whose interior as the AIA says “allows the sanctuary to soar to a height of 100 feet without internal supports.” The peaked front represents Mount Sinai, the beige carpets are the sands the chosen people had to cross. It is almost more spectacular by night as interior light seems to make the glass walls glow with an otherworldly energy source. He wrote he wanted to make the “kind of building in which people, on entering it, will feel as if they were resting in the hands of God.” The formal opening and dedication of Beth Sholom (House of Peace) was held in the fall of 1959, five months after Wright died.
7. Frederick C. Robie House (1906) -Chicago, Illinois
The final seven structures on our list are the ones that also made the AIA’s Top 150 favorite pieces of architecture according to the public poll “America’s Favorite Architecture” conducted by The AIA and Harris Interactive. At #138 on their list is The Robie House, considered Wright’s masterpiece of the Prairie Style. The Institute notes how “Concealed steel beams create long, uninterrupted spaces that extend through windows onto porches and balconies, making walls disappear,” echoing his belief that spaces are more important than walls, and that more than a century before the locally sourced philosophy became a mantra of the creative class, Wright had invoked it as his. Even the wood he used was left in a natural state, unvarnished, unpainted. Its open space inside astonishes after viewing the squat and sturdy horizontal. The attention to detail in furniture, art, glass and windows is mind-boggling but manages to seem truly artistic rather than lavish.
6. Hollyhock House (1917) -Los Angeles, California
Number 131 on the Favorites List, built from 1919 to 1921, interior rooms connect to gardens with rooftop terraces affording spectacular views of the Hollywood Hills and Pacific Ocean. It was Wright’s first west coast project and he developed a style specific to the region that he called California Romanza, though from some angles it resembles a Mayan temple. The eclectic Wright admired the Mayan ‘mighty, primitive abstractions of man’s nature.” It was commissioned by oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, a pioneer in the realm of Avant garde theater, a fervent feminist and radical activist for social justice who knew Emma Goldman and was watched by the FBI for decades. Barnsdall and Wright bickered constantly so the full project was never finished. Barnsdall donated the house (said to be named for her favorite flower) to the city. The house was nearly turned into a sports center and fell into such disrepair it was nearly razed. Eventually it was become the artistic center that Barnsdall always wanted and is now open to the public.
5. V.C. Morris Gift Shop (1948) -San Francisco, California
Perhaps the smallest gem in the Wright firmament. The formidable looking exterior seems hardly appropriate for a retail space, yet something about its precision and detail beckons, especially the futuristic look of the lighting grilles beside the arch. The effect is created by losing every second brick and filling the space with back lighting. The dazzling interior features the stark contrast of black walnut furniture and the white reinforced concrete of the spiral ramp. It’s known for being the precursor to the grand design of the Guggenheim Museum of 1956. When the owner questioned the absence of storefront windows, Wright, imperiously replied, “We are not going to dump your beautiful merchandise on the street, but create an arch-tunnel of glass, into which the passers-by may look and be enticed. As they penetrate further into the entrance, seeing the shop inside with its spiral ramp and tables set with fine china and crystal, they will suddenly push open the door, and you’ve got them!”
4. Taliesin West (1937) -Scottsdale, Arizona
Ranked as 123rd on the Most Popular list, Taliesin West was Wright’s winter home and is now home to a school of architecture and the FLW Foundation. It is a national historic monument and is perhaps his greatest achievement in his beloved organic architecture as it seems to be not so much built onto the desert mountain landscape but rather to emerge from as part of it. The AIA praises it as “most dramatic assimilation of a building into a natural environment.” It’s named after his Wisconsin home (ta-LEE-son), the name of renowned 6th century Welsh Poet and translates as “Shining Brow.” Wright and his apprentices personally built and maintained this much beloved home, which Wright called “the top of the world.” It personifies the Wright creed that everything from the grandest design to the smallest detail were equally important parts of the organic whole. “It is quite impossible”, he said,” to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,” he concluded. “The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.”
3. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1956) -New York, New York
Not only at 74th on the Popular List, the iconic Guggenheim Museum is also one of nine Wright creations nominated for status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for “creating a new paradigm for the museum…the imagination, daring form, new construction techniques, and resonant symbolic shape.” A staggering masterpiece full of staggering masterpieces, and perhaps Wright’s best know work. The whirling dervish exterior is actually derived from the “ziggurat” motif of ancient Babylonian temple design from the 6th century BCE. The stubborn architect insisted on a location near central park to anchor it in nature. The Museum website calls the interior “a symphony of triangles, ovals, arcs, circles, and squares.” He even brought his cardinal rule of open space eschewing walls and compartments, his radical concept takes visitors straight to the top and then lets them wander down a spiral ramp sort of surfing the galleries on the way down to the floor of the spectacular rotunda. Once criticized for overshadowing the Guggenheims’ incredible collection of art.
2. Taliesin East (1911) -Spring Green, Wisconsin
The Wright family home after the Chicago years, and 30th most Popular. It has been described as the architect’s “autobiography in wood and stone.” It has a dour exterior but as usual the inside explodes with a celebration of space, light and integration with nature as the Wisconsin River Valley fills every window. There is a fascinating 3D HD tour of the house that is the next best thing to being there, the perfection, the astonishing look of “everything just so”, right down to the single horseshoe over one of the fireplaces. Local wood and stone somehow cohabit in harmony and balance with exotic statuary and huge Japanese prints. The thought suddenly occurs, “What is keeping this place up? The absence of walls and visible beams suggests an insight into Wright’s Byzantine thoughts, that is his tribute to the wide open spaces, the Frontier, which until the intrusion of the automobile defined the American psyche and its expression was a distinctly American style of architecture.
1. Fallingwater (1935) -Mill Run, Pennsylvania
The 39th Most Popular is audacious, outrageous genius, just like its creator. The Kaufmann’s were a wealthy Pittsburgh family whose department store was a huge success. They wanted a summer home on their patch of land 67 miles southwest of the city featuring their favorite view of the 30 ft. waterfall. They reach out to Wright who at his point was at the lowest point of his life, down and just about out. The Great Depression and Wright’s own erratic sometimes offensive behavior had left him without commissions, friends or money. Someone in his position might be expected to bend over backwards to please his life-saving client. But true to form, Wright shocked his patrons with a design that placed the home on top of the beloved falls whose view they were so looking forward to. It went the 1938 version of viral when unveiled as a magical place that appeared to be built on thin air jutting out over the falls. Wright said he wanted them to live with the falls, not just occasionally look at them. Deeply influenced by Japanese architecture while on a project in Tokyo, he was proud with the resulting harmonic coexistence of man and nature (although the risky design would lead to chronic problems requiring constant repair.) Wright seized his out of the blue chance at redemption and created his ultimate masterpiece, cementing his legacy as the greatest American architect of all time.