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Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Reflections on an Extraordinary Life and Career

All-Day Program

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, July 15, 2017 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2912
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
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Frank Lloyd Wright, 1954 (Library of Congress)

When he died in 1959 at age 92, Frank Lloyd Wright was the best-known architect in the country and one of the most famous in the world. He was the architectural equivalent of a movie or rock star: outspoken, dogmatic, and controversial, a man whose work, while often praised or derided, was never ignored and always newsworthy. 

Born 150 years ago, Wright’s long life spanned a period of tumultuous change as the United States was transformed by scientific and engineering developments and the Great Depression and two World Wars. Wright responded to these technological and cultural changes throughout his career, and was a pioneer in incorporating new materials, new approaches, and new uses for existing materials in his projects (not always with the expected or desired results).

The public Wright could be brash, overbearing, and egotistical, a genius who could design a masterpiece but also deliver a leaky roof and a skyrocketing budget. The private Wright could be open, almost-shy, and generous. Bill Keene, a popular Smithsonian study tour leader and lecturer in architecture and urban studies, examines both sides of the man whose life encompassed acclaim and triumph as well as scandal and tragedy. He discusses Wright’s work, design principles and projects, and his view of architecture as an essential element of American democracy. 

9:30–10:45 a.m.  How Wright Became Wright

When Wright’s parents divorced, he adopted part of his mother’s family name, Lloyd as his middle name. His own married life collapsed when he abandoned his family, fleeing to Europe with the wife of a client. Scandals, tragedy, and murder followed, negatively impacting his career for nearly two decades until the mid-1930s. Explore Wright’s personal history and trace the development of what he termed “organic architecture” as reflected in projects from small-scale homes to major works such as the Hanna House, Beth Sholom Synagogue, and the Guggenheim Museum.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  Wright’s Dream: Quality Housing for a Broader Audience

A consistent theme throughout Wright’s career was the desire to develop quality housing for those of modest means. His efforts encompass the early iconic Prairie Style houses and a Fireproof House for $5,000 from the first decade of the 20th century, as well as later developments including the textile-block houses of the 1920s and the Usonian houses beginning in the 1930s that became his most successful houses after World War II. He also dabbled with prefabricated units in his American System Built houses of the teens and later with the “Erdman Prefabs” following World War II. Trace his efforts to reach the expanding middle class and his influence on domestic architecture extending well beyond the homes he designed and built.

12:15–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30–2:45 p.m.  Anti-Urbanism and Urban Planning

The anti-urbanism of Wright is well-known and documented from research and from Wright’s pronouncements throughout his career. Yet, there are numerous undertakings that demonstrate a strong affinity for integrating large-scale projects into the fabric of the city. His never-built Broadacre City is typically viewed as a low-density, low-rise, utopian vision that is essentially anti-urban. Nonetheless in Wright’s unwavering drive to incorporate high-rise commercial and residential complexes, and especially his efforts to ameliorate the negative impact of the automobile and accommodate it into Broadacre City’s concept, the two opposing threads come together to complete Wright’s vision of the ideal American democratic life-style. Examples ranging from high-rise projects for Broadacre City to plans for major developments in Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, and even Bagdad are presented and discussed.

3–4:15 p.m.  Saving What’s Left

Of the more than 1,100 projects undertaken during Wright’s career of more than 60 years, some 532 were built. Fire, flood, financial problems, sprawl, developers, and speculators have over time reduced that number to about 430 surviving structures. Efforts to save, rehabilitate, and touch up have produced many remarkable results supported by private owners; massive efforts involving volunteers, corporations, and government agencies; and even the construction of new works from unbuilt projects. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright has nurtured civic pride and historic preservation, stimulated tourism, and become an educational tool. Wright is more famous now than when he died, and both he and his work now constitute big business.  Examine some of the many restorations, including those by individual owners, groups developing house museums, and such major projects as the Park Inn Hotel, Myer May House, and the $50 million restoration and rebuilding of the Martin House complex.

World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit