ILMA of the Week: Frank L. Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright (born Frank Lincoln Wright, June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American Architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 structures and completed 532 works. Wright believed in designing structures which were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture. This philosophy was best exemplified by his design for Fallingwater (1935) featured in the photo above, which has been called “the best all-time work of American Architecture“. Wright was a leader of the Prairie School movement of architecture and developed the concept of the Usonian home, his unique vision for urban planning in the United States.

Wright’s portfolio includes original and innovative examples of many different building types, including offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, and museums. Wright also designed many of the interior elements of his buildings, such as the furniture and stained glass. Wright authored 20 books and many articles and was a popular lecturer in the United States and in Europe. His colorful personal life often made headlines, most notably for the 1914 fire and murders at his Taliesin studio. Already well known during his lifetime, Wright was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

Wright’s most famous private residences —Fallingwater— was built from 1934 to 1937 for Mr. and Mrs. Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr., at Mill Run, Pennsylvania, not too far from Pittsburgh. It was designed according to Wright’s desire to place the occupants close to the natural surroundings, with a stream and waterfall running under part of the building. Wright wanted the new residences to live with the waterfalls, to make them part of their everyday lives. He didn’t want them to just look at them every now and again. Constructed over a 30-foot waterfall, the house may look very big on the outside but on the inside it is quite small, which surprises some visitors. It was made with three bedrooms, a massive living room and a dining room. The house was more of a design for a family getaway not for a live-in family. The construction is a series of cantilevered balconies and terraces, using limestone for all verticals and concrete for the horizontals. The house cost $155,000, including the architect’s fee of $8,000. It was one of Wright’s most expensive pieces. Kaufmann’s own engineers argued that the design was not sound. They were overruled by Wright, but the contractor secretly added extra steel to the horizontal concrete elements. In 1994, Robert Silman and Associates examined the building and developed a plan to restore the structure. In the late 1990s, steel supports were added under the lowest cantilever until a detailed structural analysis could be done. In March 2002, post-tensioning of the lowest terrace was completed.

The iconic “Guggenheim Museum” (also featured in the photo above) is located in New York City. This project kept Wright occupied for 16 years (1943–1959) and is probably his most recognized masterpiece. The building rises as a warm beige spiral from its site on Fifth Avenue; its interior is similar to the inside of a seashell. Its unique central geometry was meant to allow visitors to easily experience Guggenheim’s collection of nonobjective geometric paintings by taking an elevator to the top level and then viewing artworks by walking down the slowly descending, central spiral ramp, the floor of which is embedded with circular shapes and triangular light fixtures to complement the geometric nature of the structure. However, when the museum was completed, a number of details of Wright’s design were ignored, such as his desire for the interior to be painted off-white. Further, the Museum currently designs exhibits to be viewed by walking up the curved walkway rather than walking down from the top level.

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Frank Cunha III
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Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by Frank Furness

Ever since I first heard about Frank Heyling Furness (1839–1912) during an Architectural history class I have been fascinated by his work.  I made several trips to Philadelphia to see his work and I am familiar with his Emlen Physick Estate in historic Cape May, New Jersey.  Although at first glance his work appears to be traditional Victorian, his body of work  trandscends any particular style.  I consider Furness the first Deconstructivist (or Pre- Post-Modernist) the way he melded different styles to create his work. Below I am featuring his most well known and preserved work, the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts located in Philadelphia, which is one of the few projects that have been preserved.

No small part of Furness’s historical significance lies in the fact that the young Louis Sullivan picked this office – then known as Furness & Hewitt – to work in for a short period after he left Ware’s School in Boston. As Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea testifies, the vitality and originality of Furness meant more to him than what he was taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.”

Following decades of neglect, during which many of Furness’s most important buildings were demolished, there was a revival of interest in his work in the mid-20th century. The critic Lewis Mumford, tracing the creative forces that had influenced Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote in The Brown Decades (1931): “Frank Furness was the designer of a bold, unabashed, ugly, and yet somehow healthily pregnant architecture.”

The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in his comprehensive survey Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (revised 1963), saw beauty in that ugliness:

“Of the highest quality, is the intensely personal work of Frank Furness (1839-1912) in Philadelphia. His building for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Broad Street was erected in 1872-76 in preparation for the Centennial Exposition. The exterior has a largeness of scale and a vigor in the detailing that would be notable anywhere, and the galleries are top-lit with exceptional efficiency. Still more original and impressive were his banks, even though they lay quite off the main line of development of commercial architecture in this period. The most extraordinary of these, and Furness’s masterpiece, was the Provident Institution in Walnut [sic Chestnut] Street, built as late as 1879. This was most unfortunately demolished in the Philadelphia urban renewal campaign several years ago, but the gigantic and forceful scale of the granite membering alone should have justified its respectful preservation.

On the occasion of its centennial in 1969, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects memorialized Furness as its great architect of the past:

For designing original and bold buildings free of the prevalent Victorian academicism and imitation, buildings of such vigor that the flood of classical traditionalism could not overwhelm them, or him, or his clients …

For shaping iron and concrete with a sensitive understanding of their particular characteristics that was unique for his time …

For his significance as innovator-architect along with his contemporaries John RootLouis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright …

For his masterworks, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Provident Trust Company, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station, and the University of Pennsylvania Library (now renamed the Furness Building) …

For his outstanding abilities as draftsman, teacher and inventor …

For being a founder of the Philadelphia Chapter and of the John Stewardson Memorial Scholarship in Architecture …

And above all, for creating architecture of imagination, decisive self-reliance, courage, and often great beauty, an architecture which to our eyes and spirits still expresses the unusual personal character, spirit and courage for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery on a Civil War battlefield.

Click here for more information on Frank Furness.