The story goes that Frank Lloyd Wright was once summoned to testify in a lawsuit. When he took the witness stand, a lawyer asked what his occupation was. He answered, “I am the world’s greatest architect.” Afterwards, his embarrassed wife told him he should be more modest. “You forget,” he replied. “I was under oath.”1

The remark was characteristic of Wright’s sly sense of humor, but he wasn’t really joking. He knew that in a career lasting some seventy years, he had transformed the practice of architecture. But he did something else, too: He established an aesthetic style so distinctively American that he may be not just the country’s greatest architect but its greatest visual artist of all time. Like the paintings of George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Moran, or Norman Rockwell, the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright are not just strikingly successful artworks but successful in a specifically American way. They resonate because they ineffably express a sense of life steeped in the country’s most characteristic values: individuality, privacy, ambition, and tranquility.

Part of that resonance is attributable to Wright’s personality, which had both positive and negative elements. He blended the spiritual individualism of Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson with the showbiz phoniness of a Mark Twain con man.2 If Wright’s virtues reflected his nation’s culture, so did his vices.

In fact, Whitman, Emerson, and Twain were all living when Wright was born in 1867. The America of his childhood was a hustling, youthful country in the process of metamorphosing from a slave-based, agricultural, frontier society into an industrial, manufacturing, capitalist dynamo. That transition accompanied a change in the national character: Whereas an earlier generation had envisioned the ideal citizen as a stalwart Jeffersonian farmer, post-Civil War Americans began celebrating the self-made, go-getting entrepreneur, the industrial titan who didn’t take no for an answer. The first installment of Horatio Alger’s novel Ragged Dick appeared in the year of Wright’s birth, and radical technological innovations—including improvements in trains, steamships, and harvesting and mining equipment—began propelling America toward unprecedented bounties.

Wright was two when the transcontinental railroad was completed, three when the first passenger elevator was installed in an office building, and eighteen when the first skyscraper was completed. In his youth, factories in Boston, New York, and Chicago became automated and unleashed a stream of steel and rubber, consumer goods and foodstuffs, in numbers never seen before. Floods of immigrants made American cities into megalopolises and brought a sense of hope and abundance no previous generation had ever experienced.

The Machine versus Humanity?

At the time, however, some feared that the technological revolution might threaten humanity as much as it helped. If “The Machine” was taking over so many tasks and transforming society so drastically, would human beings eventually become machines, too? Five years before Wright’s birth, Henry Adams predicted that technology would someday “have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race [will] commit suicide by blowing up the world.”3 Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court climaxed in a nightmare vision of technology making warfare into a devouring holocaust.

Some thought the solution was to abolish technology: In 1890, the English writer William Morris published a novel called News from Nowhere, which envisioned an agricultural utopia with no machines or factories, in which craftsmen built everything by hand. Morris’s ideas would eventually flower into the arts and crafts movement. But other people welcomed the idea that machinery might revolutionize human nature. They embraced technology, not just because it relieved human drudgery but because they envisioned a future in which people would throw off such “bourgeois” concerns as individuality, beauty, or pleasure and merge into a collective governed by scientific experts empowered to organize society in the service of progress.

More than any other artist, Frank Lloyd Wright would find a way to reconcile humanity with the machine—a way that would preserve and cherish the individual rather than obliterating him. In the more than five hundred buildings he constructed during a career spanning more than seven decades, he would offer a distinctive vision of modernity built, as he put it, to “human scale”—a vision that sought the romance and drama in “bourgeois” values and expressed them in an idiom rooted in American cultural tenets of simplicity, hard work, and personal independence.4

Appreciating Wright’s artistic accomplishment can be difficult, in part because although he expressed himself ingeniously in stone and wood, his writing is not so clear: His books and essays are an elusive mix of pseudo-poetry and provocative aphorisms that, like a magician’s abracadabra, often conceal more than they expose. Putting aside the factually misleading passages of his Autobiography, his philosophical ruminations are a maddening chimera of vivid individualism and mushy, Emersonian theology.5 To pick a passage at random from one of his books:

Would you be modern? Then it is the nature of the thing, which you now must intelligently approach and to which you must reverently appeal. Out of communion with nature, no less now than ever, you will perceive the order that is new and learn to understand that it is old because it was new in the old. Again, I say, be sure as sure may be that a clearer perception of principle has to be “on straight” in your mind today before any architectural ways or any technical means can accomplish anything for you at all.6

What this means is almost anybody’s guess. But the fact that Wright’s ideas were a mixture of good and bad does not detract from the scale of his artistic accomplishment, particularly his success at fashioning an individualistic modern architecture. Perhaps the closest he ever got to clearly explaining the essence of his art was a 1931 lecture in which he declared that

mankind is only now waking to visions of the machine as the true emancipator of the individual . . . Therefore we may yet see the Machine Age as the age of a true democracy, wherein human life is based squarely on and in the beauty and fruitfulness of the ground: life lived in the full enjoyment of the earthline of human life—the line of freedom for man, whereby man’s horizon may be immeasurably extended by the machine, the creature of his brain in service of his heart and mind.7

The word “earthline” alluded to his belief that buildings should be oriented horizontally to express an ennobling unity with nature as well as a democratic principle of equality. Wright thought homes, offices, and even gas stations should combine beauty and technology to propel the human spirit forward with the same grace manifested in the processes that drive trees to rise and flourish. He summed up this life-affirming quality in his art with its name: “Organic Architecture.”

The Lessons of ‘Lieber Meister’

Biographers think Wright began experimenting with buildings as a teenager, on his family’s farm in Wisconsin, but it was in 1886 that he entered the state’s university in Madison to study the subject formally. He never graduated, though; in fact, he lasted only about a year, never earning a degree or obtaining an architecture license. In 1887, he moved to Chicago to work for architect Joseph Silsbee, a family friend. But months later, he acquired the most important treasure an ambitious young genius can have: a mentor. In about 1888, he left Silsbee’s firm to become a draftsman for Adler and Sullivan, Chicago’s most important builders. . . .

It would be hard to name an artist whose influence has been as ubiquitous as Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Yet he achieved his status not by lowering his standards but through a devoted pursuit of his ideals.
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1. Neil Levine, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), xiv.

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and his admirer, the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), are typically identified with the religious movement known as Transcendentalism—a vaguely defined theological school rooted in an uneasy combination of mysticism and individualism. It is difficult to characterize Transcendentalism, given the vagueness of its doctrines, but it rejected church hierarchies and theological dogmas and emphasized the virtues of personal independence, self-assertion, and worldly experience—particularly the individual’s embrace of nature—as opposed to the self-effacement and obedience preached by many other 19th-century churches. Precisely defining Transcendentalism is made more difficult by the fact that its practitioners often differed from one another—Whitman’s buoyant poems, for example, celebrated the dynamism and diversity of capitalistic cities, whereas another prominent Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), scorned capitalism and argued that spiritual insight could only be gained by retreating from the world—and by the fact that during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was largely absorbed by the Unitarian Church. Frank Lloyd Wright, whose father was a Unitarian preacher, was himself a lifelong Unitarian, and Wright even built the First Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, which he considered his own congregation. Throughout his life, he expressed admiration for the ideas of Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalist and Unitarian thinkers, and often painted their words on the walls of his buildings. One notable indication of their influence on him is found in the marginalia Wright scribbled in his personal copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Where Whitman had written, “Give me the pay I have served for! / Give me to speak beautiful words! take all the rest; I have loved the earth, sun, animals—I have despised riches,” Wright added in the margin, “Build beautiful buildings.” “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Personal Notes on Leaves of Grass,” Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, February 2017, For more on the Transcendentalist and Unitarian influence on Wright, see Naomi Tanabe Uechi, “For You O Democracy: How American Transcendentalism Helped Define Organic Architecture,” Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, January 2017, For more on Transcendentalism and its influence, see Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

3. Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1989), 61.

4. Frank Lloyd Wright, “A Testament,” in Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, ed., Frank Lloyd Wright, 1867–1959: Building for Democracy (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2004), 427.

5. A healthy corrective to Wright’s self-mythology is Brendan Gill’s book Many Masks (New York: Putnam, 1987). Gill’s skepticism toward Wright is sometimes excessive, however—for example, in his suggestion that the famous telegram congratulating Wright on the survival of the Imperial Hotel was manufactured. In fact, it was genuine. See Robert McCarter, Frank Lloyd Wright (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 211, n. 7. In short, Gill’s book is an important contribution to Wright scholarship but should be read with at least as much skepticism as Wright’s own.

6. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, in Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, ed., The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical Writings on Architecture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 227.

7. Wright, Future of Architecture, 224–25.

8. Louis H. Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” (1896), in Robert Twombly, ed., Louis Sullivan: The Public Papers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 108.

9. Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Dover, 1956), 273.

10. Sullivan, Autobiography of an Idea, 318.

11. Sullivan, Autobiography of an Idea, 325.

12. Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats (New York: Dover, 1979), 124.

13. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 124.

14. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 124.

15. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York: Horizon, rev. ed. 1977), 114.

16. Wright, An Autobiography, 181.

17. Wright, An Autobiography, 173.

18. Sullivan disliked the cantilever, considering it artistically “primitive.” Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 124–25.

19. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 160.

20. Jonathan Adams, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Architecture of Defiance (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2023), 103. At times, however, Wright did still employ Sullivan’s poetry metaphor. “True architecture,” he declared in 1939, “is poetry. A good building is the greatest of poems when it is organic architecture.” Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture (New York: Bramhall House, 1953), 242.

21. Wright, An Autobiography, 249.

22. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 161.

23. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, rev. ed., 1975), 8.

24. In their book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2000), Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi argue that architecture is not properly classified as art, because it does not “re-create” or “represent” anything. This led to a heated debate between the authors and some critics in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 2, no. 2 (Spring 2001) and 5, no. 1, (2003), 105–51. What seems to have been overlooked in the whole exchange is the fact that Torres and Kamhi’s own theory about how music re-creates reality should have resolved their doubts about whether architecture re-creates reality. They contend that architecture “does not concretize values through the representation of reality . . . [or] through the imitation of the expressive qualities of the human voice and movement” and consequently is not art. Yet in their discussion of music, they admit that music does not re-create reality in a narrative or facsimile sense, either. They nevertheless hold music to be art on the grounds that the composer “presents auditory concretes—particular combinations of sounds—that have emotive and existential significance” (80). This significance, they contend, arises from a subconscious association of music with the body’s physical motions. Thus, they conclude that the reality that music selectively re-creates is the “vocal expression and the sonic effects of emotionally charged movement. . . . [It represents] the ‘dynamic properties’ of feeling [which we hear] . . . because we naturally perceive pitched sounds in terms of vocal expression and we are innately attuned to its varieties of meaning in our human context” (89). This enables music to almost “re-creat[e] the personally felt experience of life” (87). But if Wright’s analogy of architecture to music holds, then the argument they find persuasive with respect to music should also resolve their doubts respecting architecture. A building’s form evokes the same kind of emotionally charged movement that, in the case of music, establishes the aesthetic link between the act and the listener’s experience. Thus, both arts are re-creative—and consequently, artistic—in the same way. This seems to have been precisely Wright’s point in analogizing architecture to music.

25. Sullivan, Autobiography of an Idea, 325.

26. Louis H. Sullivan, “Reality in the Architectural Art” (1900), in Twombly, Sullivan Public Papers, 147.

27. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 132.

28. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 248.

29. Meryle Secrest, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1992), 129. Ironically, the arts and crafts movement was itself an import from Europe, particularly England.

30. Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” in Pfeiffer, Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, 23.

31. Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, vol. 1 (New York: Century, 1908), 189–90.

32. Donald Hoffman, Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture (New York: Dover, 1995), 35. Hoffman’s book is the best short introduction to Wright’s artistry.

33. Frank Lloyd Wright, “In the Cause of Architecture,” in Robert Twombly, ed., Frank Lloyd Wright: The Essential Texts (New York: Norton, 2009), 86.

34. Wright, “A Testament,” 438.

35. Ellen Key and Mamah Bouton Borthwick, The Woman Movement (New York: Putnam, 1912), 210, 214.

36. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York: Horizon, rev. ed., 1977), 135.

37. Mark Borthwick, A Brave and Lovely Woman: Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2023). This remarkable book—written by a distant relative of Mamah—is the first serious effort by any scholar to delve into her life.

38. Gill, Many Masks, 205.

39. It appears that Carlton had been planning some kind of crime for days; the acid he swallowed—which he bought more than a week earlier—may have been originally intended as poison for someone on the site. Three days before the murders, he and a Wright employee named Emile Brodelle got into an argument during which Brodelle called Carlton a racial epithet. Brodelle was among those killed, but it remains unclear if this was really the cause of Carlton’s act. Borthwick, Brave and Lovely Woman, 254–66.

40. The hotel was largely demolished in 1967, but its entrance hall and courtyard were saved and moved to the Meiji-Mura Museum in Nagoya.

41. Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Japanese Print: An Interpretation,” in Pfeiffer, Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, 67.

42. Aristotle, Poetics 1450b, Richard McKeon, ed., Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), 1462.

43. Louis H. Sullivan, “Concerning the Imperial Hotel,” in Twombly, Sullivan Public Papers, 244.

44. Julie Wolfson, “Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan,” Cool Hunting, October 16, 2017,

45. Gill, Many Masks, 219. Wright’s financial shenanigans became so complicated that an entire book was recently published trying to decipher how he paid his bills. Peter C. Alexander, Insufficient Funds: The Financial Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (Pittsburgh: Dorrance, 2021).

46. The name is derived from the ocotillo plant native to the Arizona desert.

47. It is not exactly clear why Wright chose not to be identified as the project’s architect. Biographer Meryle Secrest believes it was meant to avoid legal trouble arising from his use of his “textile block” building technique, which involved connecting molded concrete blocks on a wire framework. Secrest, A Biography, 354.

48. Louis Sullivan, “The Chicago Tribune Competition,” in Twombly, Sullivan Public Papers, 228–29.

49. Frank Lloyd Wright, “To Arizona,” in Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, ed., Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings 1939–1949, vol. 4 (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 36.

50. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (New York: Dover, 1986), 95.

51. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (New York: Knopf, 1981), 165.

52. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 238 (emphasis added).

53. Quoted in J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern (London: J. Murray, 1987), 241.

54. Quoted in Russell Lynes, The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), 247–48.

55. Adolph Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture, trans. Michael Bullock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 19.

56. Quoted in Frank Whitford, ed., The Bauhaus: Masters and Students by Themselves (London: Conran Octopus, 1992), 202.

57. Hugh Howard, Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 142–47. Johnson was in Poland when Germany attacked the country in September 1939, and he volunteered as a reporter for the American fascist newsletter Social Justice, where he rejoiced at the beauty of Nazi uniforms and the “stirring spectacle” of Warsaw being bombed.

58. Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Logic of Contemporary Architecture as an Expression of This Age,” in Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, ed., Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, vol. 1 (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 340.

59. Henry Russell Hitchcock, “Modern Architecture II: The New Pioneers,” Architectural Record 63, no. 5 (May 1928): 453–60. Hitchcock’s article distinguished between what he called the “New Traditionalists,” which included Wright; and the “New Pioneers,” which included the Internationalists, and which he characterized as essentially religious Puritans. The latter, Hitchcock wrote, were “Olympian, rather than democratic”; they viewed the “spiritual problem” of architecture as “so high and so pure a matter, . . . that they are unwilling to obscure the matter by trifling and incidental pandering to the bourgeois taste for representational prettiness, and for reminiscent trophies of culture”—as, presumably, Wright was.

60. Wright, “A Testament,” 429.

61. Wright, “Logic of Contemporary Architecture,” 341.

62. Wright, “Modern Architecture,” in Pfeiffer, Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, 192.

63. Wright, “Modern Architecture,” 191.

64. Donald Leslie Johnson, “Frank Lloyd Wright in Moscow: June 1937,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 46, no. 1 (March 1987): 65–79.

65. Wright, Autobiography, 584; Mike Wallace Interview, “Last Message to 21st Century—Frank Lloyd Wright (1957)” (accessed November 16, 2023).

66. Wright, Autobiography, 589.

67. Wright, Autobiography, 614.

68. Norris Kelly Smith, “The Domestic Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” in H. Allen Brooks, ed., Writings on Wright (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 191–92.

69. “Frank Lloyd Wright on Record, Side 2,” YouTube, (accessed November 16, 2023).

70. Howard, Architecture’s Odd Couple, 79.

71. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer and Robert Wojtowicz, eds., Frank Lloyd Wright & Louis Mumford: Thirty Years of Correspondence (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 102.

72. Harvey Wiley Corbett, “New Heights in American Architecture,” in Kendall B. Taft, John Francis McDermott, Dana O. Jensen eds., Contemporary Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929), 450 (emphasis added).

73. Hitchcock, “Modern Architecture II,” 456.

74. Henry Russell Hitchcock and Paul Johnson, The International Style (New York: Norton, 1995), 29.

75. Hitchcock and Johnson, International Style, 30–31.

76. Hitchcock and Johnson, International Style, 43.

77. Kathryn Smith, Wright on Exhibit: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architectural Exhibitions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 79–80.

78. Lynes, The Tastemakers, 245. International Style would come to dominate American public architecture in the 1950s and 1960s because it was cheaper, not because Americans liked it, and few chose it for their homes. The most insightful critique of the style is still Tom Wolfe’s combative pamphlet From Bauhaus to Our House (New York: Pocket Books, 1981).

79. The most famous such incident came in 1934, when residents of Mt. Kisko, New York, were so repulsed by Edward Durrell Stone’s International style Ulrich Kowalski House (1934) that the city leaders passed a zoning law banning modern architecture. Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta, eds., Re-creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 15.

80. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. G. P. Lawrence, trans. J. P. Mayer (New York: Harper Perennial, 1966), 57.

81. The Johnson Wax Building was completed in 1936. Today, however, its most striking feature is the gleaming fifteen-story Research Tower, which Wright added in 1950. He designed the tower as a series of cantilevers, with the weight of each floor supported entirely by the building’s central shaft, which also contains the elevators, plumbing, and air ducts.

82. Hitchcock, “Modern Architecture II,” 456.

83. Hoffman, Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture, 88.

84. Wright, in fact, embraced the term “romantic.” “Architecture is truly romantic,” he wrote. “There should lie in the very science and poetry of structure the inspired love of Nature. This is what we should and we do now call Romantic.” Wright, “A Testament,” 410.

85. Franklin Toker, Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House (New York: Knopf, 2005), 267.

86. Toker, Fallingwater, 268.

87. Toker, Fallingwater, 283.

88. Secrest, Biography, 372.

89. Quoted in Ken Burns, Frank Lloyd Wright (Florentine Films, 1998).

90. Marjorie Leighey, “A Testament to Beauty,” in H. Allen Brooks, ed., Writings on Wright: Selected Comment on Frank Lloyd Wright (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press:1983), 65–68.

91. After Wright’s death, the Fellowship evolved into Taliesin Associated Architects, which operated until 2003, and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, which recently moved from Taliesin to two Arizona campuses called Cosanti and Arcosanti (the facilities were created by architect Paoli Soleri, himself a Wright apprentice).

92. Secrest, Biography, 413.

93. Exterior structure, that is. Wright also designed a house for cats, but it was intended for indoor use. “Vintage Cat House Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Finds New Home at Feline History Museum in Alliance, Ohio,” Hauspanther, August 1, 2014,

94. Mike Wallace interview.

95. Martin Filler, “Writing on Wright,” Art in America, October 1979, 77.

96. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Living City (New York: New American Library, 1963), 233.

97. Patrick Sisson, “What It’s Like to Live in a Frank Lloyd Wright Home,” Curbed, November 24, 2015,

98. Kristine Hansen, “How Staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright House Taught Me the Art of Doing Nothing,” Vogue, March 22, 2023,

99. Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Architect and the Machine,” in Pfeiffer, Collected Writings, vol. 1, 23.

100. Mark Athitakis, “Organicism, Inside-Out,” Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly 33, no. 4 (Winter 2022): 19–25.

101. Wright, “Logic of Contemporary Architecture,” 340.

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