Bold Thinker Who Redefined US Architecture Receives Honor for the Ages

He is arguably America’s best known architect — in part because he was a shameless self-promoter — but Frank Lloyd Wright also possessed the talent and success to back up his boasts. And now eight of his designs are being recognized on a global scale. “The 20th century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright” was recently added to the list of  UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The designation is given to places that are deemed to have “outstanding universal value to humanity.” It’s rare for an architect to be designated by name on the list. Frank Lloyd Wright designed Taliesen, his home and studio in Wisconsin, to allow the sun to shine into every room sometime during the day. (Courtesy Taliesin Preservation)“I think Wright’s work was unique because he was unique,” says architectural historian William Richards. “Wright was calculating about his persona and he was an iconoclast who, I think, wore his uniqueness as a badge of honor.”The eight Wright structures, which include private homes, a church and a world-famous museum, are some of the only 20th-century pieces of architecture in the world to receive the honor.
 “They’re all fairly modest in scale,” says Richards of Wright’s works,“butthey had an absolutely outsized influence on generations of architects who thought about how we live in our homes, how we worship in our sanctuaries, how we use public space, and even how we engage artworks.”The American Institute of Architects calls Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania, which is partly built over a waterfall, the “best all-time work of American architecture.”UNESCO says the buildings reflect the “organic architecture” developed by Wright,  including an open plan, a blurring of the boundaries between the inside and outside of the house, and the unprecedented use of materials such as steel and concrete.  Wright didn’t pioneer the open floor plan coveted by today’s homeowners but his embrace of the concept helped popularize the design element.  Although Wright’s designs are up to a century old, they retain an air of modernity. One of the structures designated by UNESCO is the The Frederick C. Robie House, seen here in 1908, in Chicago, Ilinois.The Guggenheim Museum, New York City.Another Wright building on the list is the The Jacobs House in Wisconsin, was built in what Frank Lloyd Wright called the Usonian style, his vision of uniquely American affordable housing.“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, and acknowledgement of the landscape, a design philosophy … something that could be defined as ‘American,’” Richards says. “I think that’s probably his biggest statement about architecture, which is that American architecture can’t possibly reference somebody else’s era, some other country’s heritage. It’s got to be expressly its own.” In his 70-year career, Wright designed 1,114 architectural works, 532 of which were actually built by the time he died in 1959. The American Institute of Architects considers Wright the “greatest American architect of all time.” To save costs, Frank Lloyd Wright used concrete to rebuild Unity Temple in Illinois, the only remaining Wright Prairie-style building that is open to the public. (Courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)Wright also changed the course of American architecture. “Not because he gave architects something that they could repeat over and over again,” Richards says. “He gave them the OK really to pursue individuality whenever possible … he didn’t give them a formula to replicate his work, but he gave him kind of an invitation to be themselves.”The only other U.S. works of architecture on the list of World Heritage Sites list are Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

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