“This building, Unity Temple, is a prediction of what my grandfather was to do later,” Eric Lloyd Wright, grandson of the famous architect and an architect himself, said last week amid the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece at Lake and Kenilworth.

“The Johnson Wax, the Guggenheim – all are later refinements of the concepts he pioneered here.”

Eric Lloyd Wright, 79, traveled to Oak Park from his home in Malibu, Calif., where he runs a firm focused on organic architecture and green building. His talk, titled Sustaining a Legacy, focused on his grandfather’s concept of an American city and how that idea evolved. His own design philosophy stems from the integration of social responsibility with beauty and ecology.

Lanky legacy: Eric Lloyd Wright, an architect himself, the grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright spoke at Unity Temple last week, recalling lessons from the Taliesin fellowship.
FRANK PINC/Staff Photographer

Wright’s lecture was the latest in Unity Temple’s Break the Box series, which commemorates the structure’s 100-year anniversary.

In telling about what shaped his grandfather’s utopian vision of a decentralized community – Broad Acre City – Wright served up lots of family history:

Frank Lloyd grew up in Wisconsin, surrounded by the Lloyd Jones clan, his mother’s Welsh-speaking family. An active part of the community, young Frank worked on the farm, took such classes as woodworking and cooking, and even helped design the town’s shingle-style chapel when he was 18.

During the heart of the Depression, when nobody could find work, Frank started the Taliesin fellowship for teaching architecture. Tuition was $500. Students came from all over the world. Eric Lloyd Wright punctuated his talk with slides of apprentices working in fields, mixing up cake batter, putting up a roof, putting on a play, dancing at a social and donning formal for a Sunday musical.

Taliesin East, in Wisconsin, was built of rocks from local quarries. The apprentices excavated, cut them to size and built structures that blended into the landscape.

“Part of the tasks for an apprentice was to build his own home,” Wright said. “Usually a single room, about 120 square feet, built on a concrete slab. Some had fireplaces. There were some really creative examples!

“It was primitive living. The dining room was a tent and the drafting room was the first room built. In 1932, we acquired a small lumber yard; we cut down trees, made logs into lumber and built a wonderful drafting room that was suggestive of the original trees and boughs.

“There were no computers. We made our own entertainment. Music was an important part of our lives. We tried to recruit apprentices who played an instrument. Slides of plays showed Fiddler on the Roof and Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Apprentices designed and made all the costumes as well as the scenery and stage curtain.”

In the understatement of the evening, Eric Lloyd Wright said, “You don’t find many architectural schools like this.”

There was a chorus, too. After a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, there was chorus practice followed by the usual jobs: drafting, construction, cooking.

Wright explained that his grandfather believed in learning by doing – and “we did everything,” he said.

There were seven cooks. All jobs were rotated. The breakfast crew had to get up at 5 to prepare the earliest meal.

After contracting pneumonia in Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright was advised to seek a warmer location. So he headed to Arizona for six months every winter. Nestled in the desert, Taliesin West is chiseled out of the mountains. Taliesin East is trees and shrubs. Lessons from the Taliesin fellowship afforded Frank Lloyd Wright a new path: “I’ve got an idea of how to build a city. Let’s start by building the model.”

Broad Acre city was a prototype. It was never built but individual items, such as the gas station, were produced.

Though not a suburb, Broad Acre City was open, with plots at 1 to 2 acres. Wright felt every one should work with the soil; even a bank clerk needs to have a garden, he would say. Twenty to 40 acres were reserved to grow vegetables to be sold at nearby farmers’ markets.

There were no trains. Forests and parks were integrated by roads. There was a variety of housing: 40-story buildings, with businesses on the lower floors. There were also 18-to 20-story apartment complexes. Single-family homes included townhouses, low-cost concrete block structures of 1,200 square feet, and even some round houses. Speaking of round houses, the building that later was built as the Price Tower in Oklahoma was born here.

The public buildings in Broad Acre City were designed for use by its citizens. There was an aquarium, zoo, greenhouse and theater, which was for local productions as in Taliesin. Nine denominational churches were planned, plus one that was interfaith. Wright opposed large corporations buying and running farms, claiming it would destroy small towns. “He had vision,” his grandson said.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s community was green decades before such concern became popular. His community used local materials and resources, as well as local labor. It was ecologically sound; residents would grow their own food. The sun was used to grow the crops, at the same time the buildings were designed to protect the people from its harsh rays. It was centered on people.

To properly design a community, an architect must learn its people live. The architect can design for music, poetry, drama, dance. Taliesin is a good example. Wright’s community has a variety of housing. It has lots of land for gardens and farms. It encourages commercial stores by placing them conveniently.

In the question period following, a visitor told how she, the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, attended a lecture by the architect. Her question to him: “How can I best maintain my beautiful house?” His answer, “Don’t screw it up!”

Jeanette Fields formerly covered architecture for Wednesday Journal. She previously lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright home in River Forest.

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