Authors Aaron Betsky and Gideon Fink Shapiro begin their book 50 Lessons to Learn from Frank Lloyd Wright, published by Rizzoli, with a chapter titled “Break the box.” They wrote, “Our buildings are boxes that contain and sometimes even imprison us…Frank Lloyd Wright believed that we need to break those boxes. He suggested that the rooms and buildings that fit us into our daily routines not only constrain us physically, but also limit our dreams and aspirations. To change the world, he thought, we should start at home.” The beautiful image they use to illustrate how he followed his own advice (above) is of one of the architect’s most famous projects, Fallingwater.
Frank Lloyd Wright Revisited
They quote an address Frank Lloyd Wright gave to the Junior Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in New York City in 1952: “I think I first consciously began to try to beat the box in the Larkin Building—1904. I found a natural opening to the liberation I sought when (after a great struggle) I finally pushed the staircase towers out from the corners of the main building, made them into free-standing, individual features…Unity Temple is where I thought I had it, this idea that the reality of a building no longer consisted in the walls and roof.” The authors reveal some of the design tools Wright used to create exceptional architecture, interiors, and landscapes; and how today’s architects may glean insight from an American master. They also planned the volume to help non-professionals find inspiration for the thoughtful design of their own homes.
The authors are highly qualified to do so. Aaron Betsky is a critic, curator, educator, lecturer, and author of more than a dozen books. He is director of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. Previously, he was dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and president of the School of Architecture at Taliesin. Gideon Fink Shapiro is an architecture and design writer based in New York. He is co-author of The New Residential Colleges at Yale: A Conversation Across Time. The book is illustrated by powerful images by Andrew Pielage, an internationally published architectural and travel photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. His work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic Traveler and Vanity Fair.
Other lessons or “learning points” beyond “Break the box,” include “Let nature inspire you,” “screen, don’t close,” “Embroider rooms with textiles,” “Design for resilience,” and “Balance the whole.” One of our favorite lessons is number 41: Form a room with furniture. “Like many architects, Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to design everything in and around his buildings, down to the furniture and furnishings,” the authors explained. “To him, the chairs, tables, and chests with which he filled his designs represented the same principles as the larger structures, but they also had their own rules and aims. The most striking of his furniture designs, and the object to which he most frequently turned his attention, were dining room chairs.”
The authors quote Wright in “Two Lectures on Architecture” in 1931 as saying, “So far as possible all furniture was to be designed in place as part of the architecture. Hangings, rugs, carpets—all came into the same category.” One of the images illustrating the lesson “Direct the human body” is the one of the Emma and Peter Beachy House in Oak Park, Illinois, shown below. This is an example of how dining room chairs were of particular interest to Wright.
“With the exception of a few projects, such as the Laurent House, which he designed for a disabled veteran, his architecture was one of discipline and transformation, not of acceptance and accommodation,” the authors wrote. “That does not mean he ignored the human body. Like many architects, he just had an idea of what it should be rather than accepting what it was. He thought of himself as the measure of all things, and he was 5’6” tall (although he claimed to be taller and wore platform shoes).”
Before Modernism magazine folded, our founder Saxon Henry wrote an article on Frank Lloyd Wright’s 12 buildings at Florida Southern College in which a number of people were interviewed, including the restoration architect on the project Jeffrey Baker. He commented on this habit Wright had for using his height as a judgement for scale. The colonnades that connected a number of the buildings were so low, the basketball players couldn’t walk under them so they were often arriving in class soaked from a Florida rainstorm!
The lesson “Take care of the luxuries in life” calls the architect out for his penchant for lavishing attention on the parts of a building that were specific to site and function, or, as the authors wrote, “where your body, your hand, or your eye would rest.” They added, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings often combine bare-bones materials with luxurious appointments.” In this chapter, they quote Wright’s An Autobiography, 1932, as saying, “So long as we had the luxuries the necessities could pretty well take care of themselves so far as we were concerned. We were seldom without our season tickets to the Symphony.”
This quote, from “Architect, Architecture, and the Client,” also illustrating this lesson, is one of the most fascinating in the book: “Remember that we can own only what we can assimilate and appreciate, no more. Many wealthy people are little more than the janitors of their possessions for the benefit of those who more truly own them.” The sentiment, from 1896, illustrates what a strong personality he had. We thoroughly enjoyed delving into Wright’s world as seen from such a far remove through his designs and his opinions.
All quotes from the book © 50 Lessons to Learn from Frank Lloyd Wright by Aaron Betsky and Gideon Fink Shapiro, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Photography © Andrew Pielage. The book is available through Bookshop.org, Amazon, and Rizzoli. We highly recommend it.