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Frank Lloyd Wright: An Eco Visionary Before Green Became The Rage

An exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum tries to bill Wright's "organic architecture" as a predecessor to the environmentally minded design of today.

  • <p>Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up this extraordinary--if perhaps too far-fetched--proposal for the Arizona state capitol building in 1957. It was never built.</p>
  • <p>Night view</p>
  • <p>Another unbuilt project, FLW’s 1955 plan for the San Carlos, California, plant of Lenkurt, a microwave and telecom company, included some thoughtful features that are pretty common in corporate architecture nowadays (but weren’t then), such as a vaulting atrium and parking tucked under the building.</p>
  • <p>A 1950 sketch of a home in Arizona that Wright designed for his son.</p>
  • <p>The spiral-shaped house is built from organic materials like masonry, wood, and metal.</p>
  • <p>Wright’s masterpiece. Read more Co.Design coverage of Fallingwater here.</p>
  • <p>Opened in 1939, the administration building was the rare corporate office whose interior emphasized access to natural light. Sunlight filters into the space through glass pyrex tubes and a glass band between the structure’s wall and roof.</p>
  • <p>The exterior</p>
  • <p>Oak Park, Illinois’s 1908 Unity Temple represented a radical shift in the way architects used building materials: It was one of the world’s first monumental structures built entirely out of poured-in-place exposed concrete.</p>
  • <p>Not everything about Wright’s work jibes with the sustainable ethos architects espouse today. Take his controversial vision for a planned city--presented in his 1932 book The Disappearing City--which actually looked more like a suburb: Each American family would be given its own acre of land and would have to hop in a car to reach schools, shops, and other services (that was supposed to be a selling point).</p>
  • 01 /12
    | Arizona State Capitol, “Oasis"

    Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up this extraordinary--if perhaps too far-fetched--proposal for the Arizona state capitol building in 1957. It was never built.

  • 02 /12
    | Arizona State Capitol, “Oasis"

    Night view

  • 03 /12
    | Lenkurt Electric Company

    Another unbuilt project, FLW’s 1955 plan for the San Carlos, California, plant of Lenkurt, a microwave and telecom company, included some thoughtful features that are pretty common in corporate architecture nowadays (but weren’t then), such as a vaulting atrium and parking tucked under the building.

  • 04 /12
    | David Wright house

    A 1950 sketch of a home in Arizona that Wright designed for his son.

  • 05 /12
    | David Wright house

    The spiral-shaped house is built from organic materials like masonry, wood, and metal.

  • 06 /12
    | Fallingwater

    Wright’s masterpiece. Read more Co.Design coverage of Fallingwater here.

  • 07 /12
    | S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. Administration Building

    Opened in 1939, the administration building was the rare corporate office whose interior emphasized access to natural light. Sunlight filters into the space through glass pyrex tubes and a glass band between the structure’s wall and roof.

  • 08 /12
    | S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. Administration Building

    The exterior

  • 09 /12
    | Unity Temple

    Oak Park, Illinois’s 1908 Unity Temple represented a radical shift in the way architects used building materials: It was one of the world’s first monumental structures built entirely out of poured-in-place exposed concrete.

  • 10 /12
    | Broadacre City Model

    Not everything about Wright’s work jibes with the sustainable ethos architects espouse today. Take his controversial vision for a planned city--presented in his 1932 book The Disappearing City--which actually looked more like a suburb: Each American family would be given its own acre of land and would have to hop in a car to reach schools, shops, and other services (that was supposed to be a selling point).

  • 11 /12
    | Frank Lloyd Wright
  • 12 /12
    | Frank Lloyd Wright

One imagines that Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, would’ve laughed mightily at the suggestion that he is linked to the environmentally minded architects who litter the profession nowadays. They’re just so earnest the way they like to talk about their green roofs and their fancy solar panels and their taste for group work and collaboration. Whereas FLW liked to… well, he liked to do other things.

Yet, as a new exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum tries to show, Wright’s signature "organic architecture" was a powerful predecessor to today’s sustainable-design movement. You see it in everything from Fallingwater in Pennsylvania to Taliesin West in Arizona and many of the lesser-known projects in between: "Wright’s concerns with materials, efficient use of space, sustainable manufacturing, attention to local environment and use of natural light mirror those of contemporary architects worldwide," James Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, says. "This exhibition provides an exciting forum for which Wright’s work can be re-examined and applied to concerns of the day."

That seems to ring particularly true in Arizona, where Wright designed more than a dozen buildings. But looking out over the state’s mind-numbing landscape of highways and tract houses, you wish architects drew on his ideas a little more.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century runs through April 29. More info here.

[Images courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum]