Frank Lloyd Wright helped define modern architecture in the United States. Now, after eight of his most famous buildings have just been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites, he’ll help define architecture for the world.
Wright’s work was honored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, on Sunday, becoming some of the only examples of 20th-century architecture to gain such recognition. Prior to the ongoing meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan, there were 1,092 UNESCO Heritage Sites around the globe, just 23 of which are located in the United States.
“These sites are the best of the best, and who wouldn’t want to part of that club?” says Lynda Waggoner, former director Fallingwater, who spearheaded the collaboration between Wright supporters and scholars to submit the buildings for review. “They hold what is called by UNESCO ‘outstanding universal value’—value that transcends national borders and is important to all of humanity.”
The slate of eight Wright buildings joins a rare class of modern architecture thus honored, which also includes select works by Le Corbusier. No other modern American architecture holds this distinction.
Hollyhock House in Los Angeles. Originally meant to be a large complex for owner Aline Barnsdall, the main home has become a Wright masterpiece, one that’s been called a forerunner to California modernism.
Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. A radical church done in reinforced concrete and considered by many to be one of the first modern buildings in the world, the Unity Temple boldly challenged and redefined ideas about religious architecture.
The selected works include: Unity Temple (constructed 1906-1909, Oak Park, Illinois), Frederick C. Robie House (constructed 1910, Chicago, Illinois), Taliesin (begun 1911, Spring Green, Wisconsin), Hollyhock House (constructed 1918-1921, Los Angeles, California), Fallingwater (constructed 1936-1939, Mill Run, Pennsylvania), the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House (constructed 1936-1937, Madison, Wisconsin), Taliesin West (begun 1938, Scottsdale, Arizona) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (constructed 1956-1959, New York, New York).
Officially described as the 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, this slate of buildings represents a cross-section of his career, from his Chicagoland origins and Prairie Style roots to more experimental modernist creations, encompassing a variety of forms from residential commissions to grand public museums.
“It is an immense honor to have Frank Lloyd Wright’s work recognized on the world stage among the most vital and important cultural sites on Earth like Taj Mahal in India, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and the Statue of Liberty in New York,” said Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, in a statement. “To have this unique American legacy placed alongside these precious few sites around the globe is meaningful because it recognizes the profound influence of this American architect and his impact on the whole world.”
Wright’s body of work—a fusion of nature-inspired, organic design and material and technical advances which has made him the most famous American architect in history—was just the focus of worldwide attention two years ago, in honor of what would have been his 150th birthday.
The Robie House in Chicago. The home’s main living space, an open-plan living-dining room with a central chimney, is considered one of Wright’s greatest expressions of his early Prairie style, lined with artful leaded windows and his custom light fixtures and furniture.
Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Arguably the most famous private home of the 20th century, this residence and its striking silhouette—set atop a waterfall—created a sensation that propelled Wright through the final decades of his career.
Considered the highest honor a cultural landmark or natural site can receive, the UNESCO World Heritage program started in 1972, and has become one of the globe’s most popular cultural heritage program. The Trump Administration formally withdrew the United States from UNESCO earlier this year, citing what it calls “anti-Israeli” bias after the organization recognized the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian heritage site. The U.S., which had stopped funding the organization in 2011, still participates as a observer state, but wasn’t eligible to vote for the approval of the Wright nomination.
The inclusion of Wright’s work helps provide some more geographic balance to the World Heritage list, which has been criticized for being very heavy with European sites. The organization has also pushed sustainable travel in recognition of the dangers of overtourism, which can be exacerbated by a UNESCO seal of approval, which adds traffic to already crowded sites.
Owing to the nature of the honor as well as the difficulty in submitting multiple buildings, the selection process for these Frank Lloyd Wright buildings has been lengthy. Under development for the last 15 years, the nomination has been a joint effort between the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, each of the nominated sites, independent scholars, the National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs, and volunteers.
In 2015, the U.S. nominated 10 Wright-designed sites to the World Heritage List, which the World Heritage Committee evaluated at its July 2016 session in Istanbul, Turkey, and decided to “refer” for revisions. That included dropping two sites, Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma; and Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, and completely rewriting portions of the final submission, says Waggoner.
Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For just shy of 60 years, this Prairie style complex near where he spent much of his early life was his main residence and workspace, despite a number of tragedies and setbacks.
Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin. Considered the first of Wright’s Usonian designs, his attempt to build affordable, well-designed homes for the masses, this L-shaped Madison residence for a local newspaper owner features a simple, open-plan layout and plywood walls.
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. Established in 1927 as his winter home, studio, and eventually the center of the school that bears his name, this seasonal retreat near the McDowell Mountains showcased his vision of Arizona architecture.
Waggoner expects the honor to help increase tourist traffic for all Wright sites, not just those highlighted in the nomination.
“I think it will help all Wright properties just as Ken Burns’s film on Wright did, even though it focused on a relatively few of his buildings,” she says. ”Increasingly people travel using World Heritage designation as a guide because they are confident that these properties are worth visiting.”
And how would the architect, if he was alive to see his buildings so honored, react?