To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Lloyd Wright, a tour through the State of Wisconsin links together the life and the great works of this paradigm of American architecture.
In all aspects of his work, Frank Lloyd Wright understood that the landscape was just as important as the building; indeed, landscape should be its origin. A tour of his surviving works in his native Wisconsin is therefore also a journey through the natural surroundings and scenery of this part of America.
Born in Richland Center, a small town in the middle of the State, he grew up on a farm where, from an early age, he dreamed of being a designer. Today, the buildings he bequeathed boldly cross the frontiers between landscape, history and technology in the search for answers to questions that strike at the very heart of an entire continent’s identity.
The route begins in Kenosha county and passes through Milwaukee before immersing itself in the heart of the State and ending in the area where he was born. What makes this tour so magnificent is that not only can his works be seen; it is also possible to understand the context that inspired Wright, the environment where he conceived his ideas. It goes without saying that the route is perfectly signposted, which means that it can be followed without a guide.
The first stops are at two of Wright’s best-known designs: the SC Johnson Research Tower and the Administration Building, in Racine. Dating from 1936, the open spaces in the Administration Building’s offices illustrate how Wright did away with walls and limits in order to create one large room where the columns, stylized as concrete nenuphars, not only dominate but also provide refuge for the workers. It is a complete organic metaphor, a tribute to the shelter that a forest can create.
Wright was obsessed with landscape from the very early days of his life as an architect, because of its extraordinary simplicity. The direct inspiration he got from the prairies of Wisconsin can be seen in his early works. “On the prairie”, he said, “even the tiniest rock is enormous”. At Wingspread (the home he designed for the owner of the SC Johnson company, which is the third stop on the tour), and also at the small house in Burnham he designed for Arthur L. Richards, which offers academic tours at weekends, he reconciled the building with the landscape: elongated windows that frame horizons, roofs that are almost flat, and the use of warm materials like wood and brick. Wright believed that the office extols the worker, whereas the house is to shelter him.
On Interstate 94, 120 kilometers east of Milwaukee is Madison, where two stops serve to broaden the panorama of Wright’s creativity. The Convention Center and Monona Terrace, on the shores of Lake Monona, were completed in 1997 as the result of an initiative to rescue a design that had been rejected in 1930. Today they are a popular venue for events, community gatherings and even weddings.
Not far from there is the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, a shrine of intricate glass angles, almost science fiction-like, that was created in the final years of his life. Both these buildings clearly illustrate a bold evolution in design by an architect who was already starting to dream of tomorrow’s United States. Seeing how hard his country was hit by the Great Depression led him to appreciate the simplicity, economy and purity of materials like glass. This is why he used it here, because it respects the landscape, marking a boundary between the natural world and buildings. For Wright, the architect of the future would have to work with light, and glass would be his secret weapon.
By this point, the route has left behind lakes Michigan and Monona and begun to follow the course of the Wisconsin River as it passes peaceful areas like Blue Mound State Park or the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Before reaching the next stop, in Sauk County, a diversion can be made to visit the nearby Devil’s Lake State Park, an hour’s drive from Madison. This is one of the natural settings that had a marked effect on Wright’s career. Here, water, forest and rugged rocky outcrops combine to form a trio of disparate natural elements that nevertheless together form a harmonious environment. Taliesin Visitor Center (the name means ‘shining cap’, a passing reference to his Welsh grandparents) dates back to 1911, a time when Wright was totally obsessed with the prairie: it is a stone building, like the stones of Devil’s Park itself, that stands on the banks of a river in the middle of a forest. Not far from here is the eighth stop on the tour, Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center. Wright designed this school, and donated it in honor of his mother.
It is ironical that the last stop should be in Richland Center, where Frank Lloyd Wright was born. The A.D. German Warehouse was designed at the time for the storage of candy and tobacco, although today it is in use as a small cinema and a store. Since it was one of his first works, ornamentation, his New World ideal, was allowed to run riot, his reference being indigenous symbols inspired by what Owen Jones was doing with Celtic symbols in Europe. He wanted to find a new language, one that would define a whole generation, a whole country, a whole continent, what his master Louis Sullivan called “the embryo of the seed”.
It was later, forced to a great extent by the 1928 crisis, that he took this ornamentation to a higher level and transformed it into the building itself, creating places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York or his famous Fallingwater house.
Within his disruptive architecture, Wright managed to speak of his origin, his country, and he even succeeded in dreaming of its future. In the landscapes of Wisconsin he wanted to find the answer he had asked his master for. 150 years later, it is clear that he did so.
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