Eight Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings are nominated for UNESCO’s World Heritage List which recognizes some of the most significant cultural and natural sites on the planet.
Two of those buildings are in the Chicago area: the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago and Unity Temple in Oak Park. In Illinois, the only site currently listed on the World Heritage List is the Cahokia Mounds site.
Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois joins the Morning Shift to talk about the history and significance of the buildings.
What does it take to get on the World Heritage List?
Bonnie McDonald: The World Heritage List is the premier list of preservation in the entire world. In order to be listed you have to meet one of 10 criteria, which are far ranging. But in particular for Frank Lloyd Wright
buildings, it’s because of their significance to architecture around the world. So this list is, as I said, very hard to get on. As you may know, and as the listeners might have heard, this prompt for the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings has been put forward twice. So for our most important American architect, it wasn’t a no-brainer.
On Frank Lloyd Wright’s lasting influence
McDonald: He is America’s architect. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects classified him as the greatest architect of all time. And that is because he was a visionary, he was an innovator. He never stopped trying to change his work and to be futuristic. And he was a consummate promoter, he knew how to get his ideas out as well.
Jenn White: How did his work impact architecture in this region?
McDonald: He really signified his initial style here in Illinois. He was born in Wisconsin in 1867 but came to Illinois right after the Great Chicago Fire or not soon after, about 1887… and he worked with early and prominent architects like George Silsby as well as Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. What he learned from them was about how to use organic form, and that was very important to his architecture. What we know him for, of course, is the origination of the prairie style which was his signifying design for the United States.
Wright’s Unity Temple was the first modern building in the U.S.
McDonald: If you Google Unity Ttemple and look at that, you may think that building is from 1970 — that it is a brutalist building because it’s all concrete. But it actually dates to 1908. It is exceedingly futuristic and is credited as being the first modern building in the United States — and some would say, the first modern building in the world. Because it unifies the design in concrete and has a very restrictive element of design, there’s not much about it. So it has clean lines and you go inside and its resplendant with the geometry in the art class as well.
The Fredrick C. Robie House epitomizes Wright’s prairie school design
McDonald: The Robie House is just two years after Unity Temple and they’re vastly — well I shouldn’t say vastly different because they have some of the same Prairie-style horizontality. But essentially at the Robie House, which is 1910, it’s located in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago campus. This is where he essentially has the epitome of his prairie school design. This is not the first of his prairie school homes, but it is the best.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO at Landmarks Illinois
LEARN MORE: Oak Park may get a new tallest tower. Will it mar the beauty of Wright’s Unity Temple? (Chicago Tribune 12/1/19)
The Criteria for Selection (UNESCO)