By Voice of the River Valley
Frank Lloyd Wright’s schoolteacher mother, upon her boy’s birth in Richland Center 152 years ago this summer, hung etchings of cathedrals beside his cradle to inspire his path toward architecture. Early last month, in recognition of the significance of Wright’s contribution to modern architecture, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee officially inscribed “The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright,” which includes eight major works spanning 50 years of Wright’s career, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The list includes Taliesin, Wright’s monumental Spring Green home and studio overlooking a meander of the Wisconsin River in a Driftless Area valley named for his Welsh immigrant grandparents.
During summers as a boy, Wright was immersed in the landscapes and lifeways of his Lloyd Jones family farms in Iowa County’s Wyoming Township. He was inspired by nature, which he spelled “Nature,” through their Unitarian teachings and his own creative imagination. This rural Wisconsin experience led Wright to transform American architecture by using bold engineering principles inspired by nature such as the cantilever, new 20th-century materials like concrete and plywood handled with the care of traditional craftsmanship, a geometric approach to integrating structural and beauty features, and attention to inherent geospatial needs for human happiness to achieve more free floor plans for modern life. He attributed his “Organic Architecture” to American ideals of individuality and Wisconsin ideas of a democratic society — and repeatedly reinvented his expression of these ideals for the times, purposes and settings across a remarkable career spanning the Civil War and the Space Race.
In 1911, at age 44, Wright began building Taliesin on his favorite boyhood hill when he moved back to Wisconsin from his first home and studio in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. He left a thriving practice there, acclaimed for his residential Prairie Architecture, to reside at Taliesin for the rest of his life. He had been designing for his family in the valley since he was 18 years old, and came to later acquire those family lands and the buildings he designed from nearly every decade from the 1880s to the 1950s. Here at Taliesin, and eventually with winter visits to his home’s desert companion Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, Wright honed his ideal of organic architecture and produced many of the most important architectural works of the 20th century until his death in 1959. The School of Architecture at Taliesin that Wright founded continues to train architects today, migrating seasonally between Taliesin campuses.
Wright spent nearly 40 years of his career at Taliesin, creating some of his most influential masterpieces. It is at his home, studio, school and now nearly 800-acre agricultural estate where he first explored new concepts before applying them in his designs. At the Taliesin estate, you’ll find the Hillside Assembly Hall where Wright achieved “the destruction of the box,” the waterfall and soaring cantilevered terraces that inspired Fallingwater, the clerestory windows that inspired the skylight at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, and the bridge-like river terrace structure of the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center that bears a similarity to the Marin County Civic Center. Taliesin’s pop-out stone masonry inspired generations of similar designs striving to articulate the horizontality of native bedrock. Taliesin is one of the most significant architectural anthologies in the world — one that many describe as Wright’s autobiography in wood and stone.
According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which led the coordination of the UNESCO nomination, the eight sites in the group inscription span Wright’s influential career. Presented chronologically by construction date, they include Unity Temple (1906-09, Oak Park, Illinois), the Frederick C. Robie House (1910, Chicago, Illinois), Taliesin (begun 1911, Spring Green, Wisconsin), Hollyhock House (1918-21, Los Angeles, California), Fallingwater (1936-39, Mill Run, Pennsylvania), the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House (1936-37, Madison, Wisconsin), Taliesin West (begun 1938, Scottsdale, Arizona) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1956-59, New York, New York).
There are more than 1,000 World Heritage sites around the world, and the group of Wright sites is now among only 24 sites in the United States. The collection represents the first modern architecture designation in the country on the list.
“This recognition by UNESCO is a significant way for us to reconfirm how important Frank Lloyd Wright was to the development of modern architecture around the world,” said Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, according to a Conservancy press release. “There are nearly 400 remaining structures designed by Wright. Our hope is that the inscription of these eight major works also brings awareness to the importance of preserving all of his buildings as a vital part of our artistic, cultural and architectural heritage. All communities where a Wright building stands should appreciate what they have and share in the responsibility to protect their local — and world — heritage.”
The eight inscribed sites have played a prominent role in the development and evolution of modern architecture during the first half of the 20th century and continuing to the present. UNESCO considers the international importance of a potential World Heritage Site based on its “Outstanding Universal Value,” which in the Wright series is manifested in three attributes. First, it is an architecture responsive to functional and emotional needs, achieved through geometric abstraction and spatial manipulation. Second, the design of the buildings in this series is fundamentally rooted in nature’s forms and principles. Third, the series represents an architecture conceived to be responsive to the evolving American experience, but which is universal in its appeal.
In the introduction to the justification for inscription of these Wright sites, Richard Longstreth, professor emeritus of American Studies at George Washington University and a fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians, said Taliesin “is a consummate example of the transcendental longing for architecture to engage the pastoral landscape; to partake in a respectful dialogue with the site; to reaffirm human roots in nature.”
The nomination also notes that “other ancillary structures on the estate, well-removed from the main house complex” — namely the Hillside Home School (1901-1903, and later alterations) with its drafting studio, galleries and theater; Midway Barn (ca. 1938 and later), including shed, silos, and housing units; “Tan-y-deri,” the residence for Wright’s sister (1907); and the related “Romeo and Juliet” windmill (1896-1897, reconstructed 1992) — “fulfilled primarily functional roles in the estate and do not exhibit to any notable degree the ‘organic’ qualities … that comprise the outstanding values of the main Taliesin house.”
The Wright nomination has been in development for more than 15 years, a coordinated effort between the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, each of the nominated sites and independent scholars, with a substantial financial commitment realized through subsidies and donations, countless hours donated by staff and volunteers, and the guidance and assistance of the National Park Service.
In 2015, the U.S. nominated a series of 10 Wright-designed sites to the World Heritage List. At its meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 2016, the World Heritage Committee decided to “refer” the nomination for revisions. Over the past two years, the Conservancy worked with the council of sites and leading scholars to revise the nomination and rework the justification for inscription.
The National Park Service submitted the Wright nomination to the World Heritage Centre in Paris on Nov. 20, 2018, and it was reviewed and inscribed at the 2019 session of the World Heritage Committee on July 7 in Baku, Azerbaijan.