For architecture enthusiasts, Wisconsin is arguably the best place to understand the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright

I stifle a curse as I bang my head against the low ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s bedroom. So much for appreciating Asian art, picture windows, or the bucolic greenery of Wisconsin’s hilly Driftless Area beyond.

It’s not the moment of enlightenment I seek on my group tour of Taliesin, the 800-acre estate that was once home to America’s most famous architect. But I should have seen it coming when I decided to visit this National Historic Landmark, with buildings from nearly every decade of Wright’s career. At six-foot-three, I also bumped my head 14 years ago while visiting Taliesin West, the sister residence where Wright (1867-1959) used to winter in Scottsdale.

The Wisconsin-born Welsh heritage legend – an inveterate self-mythologist – introduced himself as five-foot-eight but was closer to five-foot-six. The low ceiling reflects his “squeeze and release” principle, creating cramped areas that open up to larger spaces.

Whimsy aside, I’ve always admired the timeless modernity of Wright’s designs. And Madison, Wisconsin is home to 10 remaining Wright buildings. Although neighboring Chicago attracts more attention as Wright’s mecca, Madison is arguably the best place in the world to explore its rich heritage of organic architecture, which combines form and function and reflects place and construction time.

Wright lived here from 11 to 20 years. Obsessed with nature, he originally built Taliesin – his “living laboratory” for architectural experimentation – in 1911 in Spring Green, near where his Welsh ancestors settled in the 1860s and 45 minutes from Madison .

It is always relevant and fascinating. In 2017, Wisconsin launched its Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, a self-guided tour of nine iconic Wright structures. In 2019, UNESCO inscribed “Frank Lloyd Wright’s 20th Century Architecture” on its World Heritage List, recognizing eight buildings, including Taliesin and the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House.

I drive to see the Jacobs house built in 1937. The two-bedroom ranch-style home is pure L-shaped simplicity. Low eaves, clerestory windows and pine walls create an aura soothing middle-class inscrutable intimacy. It is considered the first Usonian house, embodying a distinctive Wright style that harmonizes with the North American landscape. The corner location in a residential neighborhood evokes nostalgically the grassy, ​​tree-lined boulevards of my hometown of Victoria, BC.

I came to Madison in part to rediscover the spirit of American innovation that places Wright alongside Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Lunching roasted vegetables and cheese curds at Craftsman Table & Tap on Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue, I wonder why the award-winning icon who graced the cover of Time magazine in 1938 isn’t more revered in Madison.

I get some pointers on a tour of the First Unitarian Society’s meeting house. “This building changed church architecture for the 20th century,” says March Schweitzer, handing me a copy of the booklet she authored, “This is Wright: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Madison Legacy.” . The eye-catching triangular structure of the church evokes praying hands or an ice boat gliding on a frozen lake.

However, Schweitzer reveals that Wright – a Unitary himself – let his initial cost estimate of $60,000 soar to nearly $214,000. In a letter, a church member dubbed Wright “arrogant, contrived, cheeky.” To save money, other members had to haul tons of dolomite for the stone walls. Local vendors reluctantly settled for 70 cents on the dollar. Wright’s roofs tend to leak, and the church’s third replacement copper roof in 2020 cost $1.6 million.

Taliesin’s guide, Andy Cole, describes Wright as “part genius, part villain.” Often the genius is obvious. The locally quarried sandstone walls of his Hillside Home School – an incubator for his Taliesin Fellowship apprentice craftsmen from 1932 – blend seamlessly with the surrounding pines and oaks. The adjoining drawing studio continues this theme with V-shaped support columns like tree trunks and roof trusses like branches.

Yet the contrast between this elegant architecture and Wright’s personal history is sometimes shocking. Before our group heads to the Taliesin residence, Cole recounts how Wright’s mistress Mamah Borthwick, her two children and four others were murdered here in 1914 by axe-wielding cook Julian Carlton, who also set fire to the original house. It’s surreal to sit on the garden terrace, enjoying cookies and lemonade, after hearing about the creepy past of this site.

Driving through the lush countryside, I try to make sense of my feelings. After visiting Taliesin in person, I wonder if Wright’s hope was to create a harmony in his architectural work that his own life lacked. I wander from the monolithic Mayan-influenced AD German Warehouse (1921) in Wright’s birthplace, Richland Center, to the secluded, hexagonal Wyoming Valley School (1957). The different designs add to my sense of his restless spirit, which is also quintessentially American.

Back in Madison, I chat with Eliot Butler, the New York owner of the Great Dane Pub & Brewing, while sipping a German Pilsner. Butler has lived in the John C. Pew House – another Wright Usonian masterpiece – on Lake Mendota since 2010. His renovation philosophy is simple: “You don’t change a Wright house – a Wright house changes you. .”

Next, I visit the sunny rooftop garden of Monona Terrace, Wright’s most visible contribution to downtown. The $67 million lakefront convention center, partially based on Wright’s designs, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Wide walkways, modern sculptures, and a flying saucer-shaped fountain give it a futuristic vibe. To the northwest is the domed Wisconsin State Capitol, its Beaux-Arts architecture, which Wright despised, creating a striking visual counterpoint.

Taliesin means “bright forehead”. Still, this visit to Madison left my brow furrowed in contemplation. Like many iconic historical figures, Wright was even more complex than the works he left behind. We cannot fully grasp the genius behind the architecture without understanding the foundations of its life, best glimpsed at its founding years.

Writer Lucas Aykroyd traveled as a guest of Destination Madisonwho neither reviewed nor approved this article.

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