America's greatest architect came West, reinvented himself, and left his stamp on buildings up and down the region.
Never one to mince words, Frank Lloyd Wright was only too happy to pass judgment on California and the West. Los Angeles was a "desert of shallow effects," he wrote in his autobiography; as for its counterpart farther north, "Only a city as beautiful as San Francisco could survive what you people are doing to it," he declared in the 1950s.
But if the self-proclaimed "world's greatest architect" could dismiss entire cities with quips, the designer behind the bombast found the West to be something else: a fertile and lasting source of inspiration.
Wright's Western phase spanned more than half a century, beginning in 1909 with a Montecito, Calif., house and ending at his death in 1959. In between came some of Wright's most memorable structures—buildings that marked not just refinements of his craft, but turning points in his career. There are buildings with a futuristic sheen and buildings inspired by Maya temples, and a stone-walled desert retreat that looks as though it has been pulled whole from the earth.
The Montecito house aside, Wright's relationship with the West was forged in 1917. By then he was 50, an architect living near Chicago whose family-centered, free-flowing prairie style homes had revolutionized domestic architecture. He was also known for his scandalous and tragic personal life—scandalous when Wright and client Mamah Cheney left their families and made no secret of their affair, tragic when Cheney and two of her children were among seven people killed in 1914 by a deranged employee who also burned much of Wright's Taliesin retreat in Wisconsin.
Wright lived in Los Angeles off and on through the mid-1920s, working with his son Lloyd on homes that bore little resemblance to the prairie style that had won him fame. "California was the place that allowed him to experiment with different forces in a way he hadn't done before," says Thomas Hines, a professor of history and architecture at UCLA. "It allowed him to relax." There's nothing relaxed, though, about his handful of early '20s masterpieces with their rugged concrete exteriors that evoke the terrain.
The West that truly entered Wright's blood lay several hundred miles inland in Arizona, where a 1928 commission to consult on a hotel design opened Wright's eyes to the harsh splendor of the arid landscape. He eventually created a winter home and compound in Scottsdale, Ariz., at Taliesin West, which still houses a school for architecture very much rooted in Wright's principles of architecture tied to the land. "It's Arizona that resonated with him," says William Allin Storrer, author of The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog.
Taliesin West can be visited by anyone, and that's one of the glories of Wright's Western work: So much of it is accessible to the public. Architecture lovers can visit shops, former homes, and Wright's lone government complex, the Marin County Civic Center. The seven buildings presented here give a vivid sense of the idiosyncratic vision that made Wright the most restlessly creative architect the United States has ever produced—and as befits his storied life, many have fascinating tales all their own.
Nothing if not ambitious, Wright set out in 1917, in his first Los Angeles commission, to create a new architectural language: Romanza, "native to the region of California as the house in the Middle West had been native Middle West." Instead he produced something more complex. This endeavor was among his first commissions after the killings at Taliesin and there's a defensiveness in the top-heavy form and the low walkway that leads to a concrete front door. Even the cast concrete abstractions of the hollyhocks that client Aline Barnsdall loved seem forbidding.
Room after room spills into courtyards and terraces on what then was a remote knoll, while the symbolic anchor is the immense fireplace, its concrete hearth inlaid with gold traces. In front of the fireplace—and empty since Barnsdall donated the home to the city in 1927—is a small space designed as a moat. Romantic indeed. barnsdall.org/hollyhock-house.
Here's something you don't expect: a cross between a Maya temple and a men's club, with all of Los Angeles stretched out below.
This 1923 house is one of the four in Southern California that Wright crafted from concrete blocks cast on-site from patterned molds. A double layer of the blocks forms the structure. To quote Wright, "The ‘shell' as human habitation. Why not?".
Simple as this sounds, the rugged house with its terraced setbacks looks as though it were chiseled from the peak of the mountain it crowns. And the interior is a revelation, with the concrete softened by lavish teak floors and ceilings, along with huge versions of the art-glass windows that in earlier years were Wright's trademark. www.ennishouse.com.
Paul Hanna was a new faculty member at Stanford University in 1935 when he and wife, Jean, wrote asking that Wright design them a home. Wright gave them one of the finest homes he ever created.
Hanna House snuggles against a hillside, tucked behind a low brick wall hiding a terrace and cloaked by mature oaks that Wright took pains to leave in place. What makes it significant is the way Wright laid out rooms shaped by hexagons rather than right angles, allowing spaces to flow together. With the glassy outer wall's horizontal panes held in place by thin redwood frames, it's as though the house and landscape are one.
By the time the house was finished, it cost more than twice the original $15,000 budget. The Hannas thanked Wright for "the loveliest shelter we have ever seen." They weren't far off. lbre.stanford.edu/architect/hanna_house.
V.C. Morris Gift Shop
The building that may best capture the arc of Wright's wide-ranging career is this midblock boutique near San Francisco's Union Square, from 1948.
The exterior on Maiden Lane is as intricate as those first prairie style homes, with thin bricks stacked in windowless lines. The result would be tedious if not for such deft accents as the horizontal row of lighted glass blocks along the sidewalk and the hollowed-out drama of an arched entryway that invites us into a hidden world.
Surprise! That world is soft and curvaceous late-era Wright, complete with circular display windows and a spiral ramp to the second floor that's like a scale model of his Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened 11 years later.
Most of Wright's surviving buildings are isolated objects surrounded by landscaping. On Maiden Lane we see that the master could derive inspiration from an urban context as well.
140 Maiden Ln., now ISAIA Napoli, San Francisco.
Did he or didn't he? And if so, how much?
What we do know is this: In 1927 architect Albert Chase McArthur invited Wright to visit and assist in creating a lavish resort his family was planning in Phoenix. McArthur was interested in Wright's concrete block system; Wright, plagued by too much debt and too few jobs, was happy to leave Wisconsin's winter for sunny Arizona.
From there things get cloudy. McArthur forever insisted that Wright's role was limited to that of a consultant—but it's hard to imagine anyone else sculpting the forms of the main hotel, such as a central tower jutting up like some craggy gray butte and the finely etched concrete blocks that give the hotel cottages a drama similar to that of the Ennis House in Los Angeles. The hotel's official position? The "dramatic Wright style . . . is imbedded throughout the design." You be the judge. www.arizonabiltmore.com.
Marin Civic Center
In 1957, after the board of supervisors in Marin County, Calif., selected the 90-year-old Wright by a 4-1 vote to design a home for its county government, one local newspaper bridled at a design "that suggests two fried eggs Buck Rogers was planning to have for breakfast." And when the super-visor who voted against Wright was joined in 1961 by two allies, the board halted construction—only to backtrack a week later after picketing Marinites demanded that work resume.
Those outraged citizens have allowed us to savor one of Wright's last major buildings, a sweet finale to his long career. Two streamlined wings of arches slide across hillsides and meet underneath a domed blue rotunda accompanied by a futuristic spire jabbing 172 feet into the sky. Be sure to go inside: The long walkways under a bubbled skylight are memorable, and the second-floor café has a hidden patio with a tiny pond. www.marincounty.org/depts/cu/history.
Wright's most personal triumph is this world forged by sheer force of will. Determined to sink roots in Arizona's dry soil, he purchased 160 acres in then remote Scottsdale, declared it the winter home of his Taliesin Fellowship, and in 1938 set out to create "an esthetic, even ascetic, idealization of space, of breadth and height and of strange firm forms."
Design was by impulse, construction by improvisation; for instance, the master had his young followers make walls out of boulders found on the site. But where the walls are solid as earth, the original ceilings were light as air—canvas that let in light.
Since Wright's death there have been changes, such as the addition of an acrylic shell over the canvas, but the near-mystical power remains. It is hard to tell where buildings start and the desert ends. www.franklloydwright.org.
Photography by Catherine Karnow
This article was first published in September 2005 and updated in March 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.