Frank Lloyd Wright in 5 buildings

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and author. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

CNN  — 

Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be the greatest American architect of all time, was born 150 years ago today. The mastermind behind more than 500 projects realized around the world over seven decades, he’s remembered for elegantly blending nature with the built environment.

Here’s what his five most memorable buildings tell us about his life and work.

1910: Robie House (Chicago, Illinois)

In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright left his wife and six children. In Europe, he met his lover, Martha “Mama” Cheney, who had left her American husband to join him.

In Germany, Wright arranged publication of the Wasmuth Portfolio, 100 lithographs of his work to date. This was a revelation to the first generation of European modern architects. Work is said to have stopped for a day in the Berlin office of Peter Behrens, where the architect’s young assistants, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, pored over a first edition.

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With their open plan floors, low roofs, ribbon windows and long horizontal lines, Wright’s Prairie Houses were distinctive and modern. Before Wright and Mama returned to the States, the most impressive of these was completed by Marion Mahony, Wright’s first assistant, and interior designer George Mann Niedecken for Frederick C. Robie, a 28-year old Chicago businessman.

With its steel frame and brick skin, the construction of the house was considered highly advanced. Named a US National Historic Landmark in 1963, it has been under threat of demolition twice: in 1941 and again in 1957, both times by the Chicago Theological Seminary, its owner since 1926.

“It all goes to show,” said Wright, “the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.”

Currently being returned to its original condition, the Robie House epitomizes the spirit of what was an original and wholly American architecture independent of European influence.

1923: Imperial Hotel (Tokyo, Japan)

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The scandal over his flight to Europe ensured Wright was without new commissions for several years. Worse still, in 1914 a male servant set fire to Taliesin, the Wisconsin house he had built for Mama, and murdered her, her children and several members of staff with an axe as they fled.

The commission to design the new Imperial Hotel in Tokyo came as the architect’s salvation. A lifelong collector of Japanese prints, Wright visited the city multiple times, creating a temple-like courtyard building fusing Eastern and Western themes, the latter expressed through his growing fascination with Mayan design.

Completed in 1923 by his Tokyo assistant Arata Endo, this quixotic hotel was, according to Wright, “a system of gardens and sunken gardens and terraced gardens, of balconies that are gardens and loggias that are also gardens and roofs that are gardens.”

Kameki and Nobuko Tsuchiura, two young Japanese architects who had worked on the project, joined Wright’s team in Wisconsin. Nobuko was the first Japanese woman architect.

Although alluring in many ways, the Imperial floated on a mud plain. In May 1945 it had been partly destroyed by USAAF incendiary bombs, and it was occupied by American forces from 1945 to 1952. By the 1960s it had sunk deeper into the ground and in 1968 it was demolished.

If it existed today, this would surely be one of the world’s cult hotels.

1939: Fallingwater (Fayette County, Pennsylvania)

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With the effects of the Great Depression and the growing influence of a younger generation of Bauhaus-influenced Modern architects, Wright’s career stalled.

In 1934, Edgar J. Kaufmann, a wealthy Pittsburgh department store proprietor, commissioned the 67-year-old architect to design a weekend mountain retreat overlooking the waterfall at Bear Run in the Laurel Highlands 65 miles southeast of the city.

Wright wrote Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane: “I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it.”

The result was a highly original and beautiful house set directly over falling water that, while overtly modern, belonged to the landscape. A daring structure, its cantilevered riverfront sagged the moment the concrete formwork was removed, while damp seeping up from the waterfall – accessible by stair from the living room— caused mold as roof-lights leaked.

It was hard, though not to fall in love with Fallingwater, its very name barely concealing that of “FLW”. Together with its caped architect (Wright was always a showman), it made the cover of Time. The influential magazine described the exquisite house as the architect’s “most beautiful job.”

Wright’s star was in the reascendant. A museum since 1964 and in danger of collapse by the end of the century, Fallingwater has been beautifully restored to enchant and inspire future generations.

A rhyme in a café on nearby Route 381 said “Frank Lloyd Wright built a house over falling water/which he really shouldn’t have oughta.” Most of us are glad he did.

1959: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York)

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Dreamed up in the mid-1940s, Wright’s designs for the Guggenheim – his only museum – were very much against the grain of the rectilinear modern European architecture that dominated New York and cities worldwide from the end of the Second World War.

A spiraling organic structure, rather like a Nautilus shell, the completed Guggenheim was a highly personal architectural statement rather than some rational analysis of function expressed in a grid of 90-degree angles.

From its opening six months after Wright’s death at the age of 91 (he had never stopped working), the Guggenheim was loved and loathed. Those who loved it reveled in its sense of freedom and daring, its radical architectural breaking from that of conventional museums and galleries. Those who loathed it took against its contrary design.

How could curators be expected to hang paintings, or visitors to contemplate them, along the walls of a continuously ascending, or descending, spiral? When curators questioned the low ceilings, Wright told them to “cut the paintings in half.”

However controversial, the Guggenheim endeared Wright to New York’s media. In June 1956, he even appeared on the popular TV quiz show “What’s My Line?”

The following September, he was the subject not once but twice, of “The Mike Wallace Interview,” sponsored by Philip Morris and conducted in clouds of cigarette smoke, covering subjects from religion and sex to fame and architecture. Wright had become an American legend. He remained, though, a fierce individualist, refusing to ever join the American Institute of Architects.

1956: The Illinois (unrealized)