A Thinker Who Redefined US Architecture Receives International Honor

19 August, 2019

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of America's best-known architects.

He designed private houses, religious buildings, museums and other public structures throughout America during the 1900s.

His buildings were created to be a part of their natural surroundings, what he called "organic architecture." Years later, his work still appears strikingly modern.

Recently, "The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO says the list contains places that are considered to have ‘outstanding universal value to humanity." However, it is unusual for the work of a single architect to be placed on the list.

"I think Wright's work was unique because he was unique," said architectural historian William Richards.

Eight buildings designed by Wright are some of the only 20th century pieces of architecture in the world to receive the UNESCO honor. They include The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, a church and a few private homes.

Frank Lloyd Wright wrote,
Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, "[Taliesin] was set so sun came through the openings into every room sometime during the day. Walls opened everywhere to views as windows swung out above the tree-tops..." (Courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Andrew Pielage)

"They're all fairly modest," Richards said, "but they had an absolute outsized influence on generations of architects who thought about how we live in our homes, how we worship..."

UNESCO points to the "organic architecture" developed by Wright. His buildings are open structures that seemed to invite nature inside, while using industrial materials such as steel and concrete. There were few traditional walls and large windows; both design ideas that have become popular more recently.

While many of his designs are nearly 100 years old, they still look modern. One of the structures listed by UNESCO is the Robie House in Chicago. The house was constructed in 1910. Its design places great importance on horizontal lines and is said to be influenced by the flat American plains of the area. All of the buildings on the UNESCO list were built between 1906 and 1969.

"I'm always struck when I see the Robie House in Chicago," architect Susan Piedmont-Palladino said. She is the director of Virginia Tech's Washington Alexandria Architectural Center. "When you go visit, it looks more modern than many of the buildings around it and it's 110 years old...It wouldn't look odd with a Tesla in front of it."

Then there is the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, an architectural icon. It was completed in 1959, and still amazes visitors with its circular design. It is considered by many to be Wright's masterpiece.

In addition to the Guggenheim, UNESCO has listed the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago; Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, California; Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania; the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin; and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Richards said Wright changed the direction of architecture in America. "What he gave American architecture, I think, is a series of designs that are very clearly borne out of deep thinking, a concern for the landscape...something that could be defined as ‘American,'" Richards said.

"I think that's probably his biggest statement about architecture, which is that American architecture can't possibly (be about) ...some other country's heritage. It's got to be expressly its own," he added.

In 70 years of working, Wright designed 1,114 architectural works, 532 of which were built by the time he died in 1959. The American Institute of Architects considers Wright the "greatest American architect of all time."

"Not because he gave architects something that they could repeat over and over again," Richards said. "He gave them a kind of an invitation to be themselves."

The other U.S. architectural works on the list of World Heritage Sites are Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I'm Susan Shand.

VOA's Dora Mekouar reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

architect – n. a person who designs buildings

unique – adj. unlike anything or anyone

modest – adj. not very large in size or showing costly decoration

worship – v. to show honor and respect for God, religious services

horizontal –adj. positioned from side to side rather than up and down

icon – n. a person who is very successful and admired

landscape – n. land that has a particular quality or appearance

heritage – n. traditions, and beliefs that are part of the history of a group or nation