Why Frank Lloyd Wright’s playful architecture fuels creativity

Visiting the U.S.? Craft classes, sleepovers in historic houses, and other ways families can experience the legendary U.S. architect’s dazzling properties.

By Vicky Hallett
Published 7 Mar 2022, 13:32 GMT
Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home and school, is located in the Sonoran Desert outside ...
Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home and school, is located in the Sonoran Desert outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s open to visitors, and, like many of the influential architect’s properties, hosts innovative hands-on activities for children.
Photograph by Taylor Glenn, Redux

Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture spirals like a snail shell at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum and flows into a stream at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. In Arizona, his Taliesin West home and school bends at the same angles as the mountain peaks behind it. The early 20th century legend’s designs blend geometry and nature in such influential, dazzling ways that eight of his buildings were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2019.

It may surprise travellers to learn that the inspiration for some of his sublime structures was pure child’s play: a set of toys called the “Froebel Gifts,” which Wright owned as a boy. “The smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day,” Wright wrote. (Read: A short history of toys.)

The whimsy and inventiveness that helped Wright’s work stand out a century ago continues to intrigue new generations of architecture fans, even very young ones. “Fallingwater is a complex structure. And kids are quick to notice you could climb on it,” says curator of education Ashley Andrykovitch. She discourages anyone from treating the masterpiece like a jungle gym, but loves using the house as a jumping off point for teaching children about architecture. “My hope is that a visit to Fallingwater piques curiosity and makes them look at the built environment differently,” she says. “It’s a gateway museum, and they want to learn more.” 

In this 1957 photo, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is shown working on designs at his Taliesin West studio in Arizona.
Photograph by Tony Vaccaro, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A 1963 photograph shows the living room at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio in Arizona. The architect used innovative angled windows framed in red cedar to let the Southwestern sunshine in.
Photograph by by Hedrich Blessing Collection, Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many children already have experience tinkering with LEGO sets or Lincoln Logs (invented in 1916 by Wright’s son, John Lloyd Wright). Travel that takes in Wright’s works, from modest homes to grand public landmarks, builds on that foundation. Here’s why visiting Wright sites can spark your kids’ creativity and passion for travel. 

Architecture for kids

Although “architecture” is a big word for little people, it’s a subject kids have regularly encountered, explains Jacquelyn Sawyer, head of education for the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “Their house is architecture, and so is their school,” she says. “When you’re in a badly designed building, you know.”

Architecture’s tactile nature means it can be easier for younger children to grasp and engage with than, say, medieval iconography. Sawyer calls her museum “an expanse of wonder,” with its interactive summertime installations (featuring diversions like mazes and mini golf) and permanent Play, Work, Build kid’s exhibit with oversized blue foam building blocks. It all helps families dive into STEAM fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics while having fun.

Wright’s meticulously preserved, often-fragile properties haven’t always been welcoming to families. But hands-on programs are now the norm—particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced tourist attractions to rethink their offerings.

Last autumn, Taliesin West launched drop-in classes where kids construct mini windmills to learn about green energy or build toy boats to see water displacement in action. Scottsdale, Arizona, resident Betty Boiron has been bringing her children, 5 and 7, twice a month. She appreciates how these educational projects incorporate calculations and mindfulness (by encouraging kids to slow down and use their senses) and provide ideas for activities to do at home, including building Wright-inspired designs with marshmallows and toothpicks. “Before, they didn’t know who he was, and now they’re obsessed,” she says.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House, in Florence, Alabama, is a prime example of the architect’s ”Usonian” designs, modest homes with horizontal lines and a connection to the outdoors. Rosenbaum House is open for tours.
Photograph by James Lange, Camera Press/Redux
Replicas of blueprints cover a drafting table at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright lived here with his family and designed special spaces for his children, including a playroom with a vaulted ceiling and dormitory-like bedrooms.

Crafting surrounded by Wright’s built and natural environments adds to kids’ experiences. “There’s something special about standing in a historic place and seeing it with your own eyes,” says Abbie Wilson, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation education manager. And, she notes, it helps them tap into their creativity.

At Fallingwater, Wright’s most famous residence, kids and parents can partake in new family field trips. The outdoor tours include sketching stops and conversational prompts geared to the participant’s ages and interests. 

“I begin by asking them to tell me about their dream home, and what kind of rooms they would want. They’ll say ‘a sweet pantry’ or ‘a ball pit,’” Andrykovitch says. She then points out how Wright inserted special details for his Fallingwater clients, the Kaufmanns, such as a staircase that leads directly into a stream. 

“Children—and adults—learn best through discovery and surprise,” she adds.

A residential renaissance in Chicago

An unprecedented building boom followed the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So there’s no better place than the Windy City to introduce kids to the marvels of modern American design, says Angela Esposito, director of education and experience for the Chicago Architecture Centre, which offers a range of walking tours, including new hour-long programs for families.

When Wright moved to Chicago as a young man, he brought his ideas for a residential renaissance, eschewing the then-popular Victorian ornamentation and embracing clean-lined construction. “Wright redesigned how we think about homes and how we live,” Esposito says.

The Edward R. Hills House (foreground) and the Nathan G. Moore House (right) in Oak Park, Illinois, are among two dozen houses in the Chicago suburb designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photograph by Kevin Miyazaki, The New York Times/Redux

Wright buildings can be found around the metropolis, but there’s no better spot to witness how he transformed Chicago than the suburb of Oak Park. It holds 25 of the architect’s buildings, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where he pioneered his distinctive “prairie style,” with its horizontal lines and nature-inspired motifs.

On guided tours, visitors (ages 8 and up) see the inventive spaces Wright designed for his own children. They include a barrel-vaulted playroom with a piano jutting out of a staircase and a “dormitory” bedroom where his sons and daughters had pillow fights over the partition wall separating their bunks. “If kids picture themselves living here, that is a great entry point,” says Kate Coogan manager for education at the Frank Lloyd Trust, which manages the property.

You can also take children on hunts for Wright buildings around Oak Park, either on the Trust’s guided bike tours or using a brochure sold at the Home and Studio bookstore. “Tell them what to look out for—natural colours, overhanging roof lines—and then see if they can find all the Wright properties,” Coogan says. Don’t miss Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church Wright imagined as a concrete cube.

At home with Frank

To help kids appreciate what makes Wright’s creations so special, consider a sleepover in a property he or one of his apprentices designed. More than a dozen Wright buildings offer overnight stays, including houses and a couple of hotels.

Middle-school math teacher Shari Kagan of Marengo, Illinois, couldn’t get her 8-year-old daughter and two teenage sons interested in architecture—until they spent a weekend last year at Emil Bach House, a restored 1915 residence on Chicago’s North Side. After check-in, her kids eagerly explored every angle and stained-glass window. “It was like Christmas morning,” she says. “We had to slow them down so they didn’t break anything.”

That evening, the Kagans gathered around the hearth in the TV-free family room to study copies of the house’s blueprints and research other Chicago Wright sites to visit. Now the kids are noticing architecture wherever they go. “They’ll say, ‘Look at the lines on that house. I wonder what inspired it,’” Kagan says.

Other Wright-designed vacation rentals include the circa-1951 Elam House in Austin, Minnesota. Owner Peter Plunkett, whose parents moved into the limestone brick home just before he was born, provides tours for guests upon check in. He points out details including three floor-to-ceiling fireplaces and a cantilevered balcony, and claims some of his most curious customers are kids. “I had one family with an 8-year-old with a lot of questions,” he says. “‘Why is this room so small? What is the purpose of this table?’”

Also bookable: The 5-bedroom, prairie-style Woodside House in Marion, Indiana, with its 177 windows and 75-foot-tall “tepee” tower. “At night, it looks like a spaceship,” says owner Matthew Harris, noting other features Wright created for the original owner’s children. “There are secret hiding places under the beds and a sunken tub.”

Kids will soak in the experience in their own way, says Kagan, who let her children take the lead in making plans. “My 8-year-old wanted to draw pictures of it,” Kagan says, and each claimed dibs on a particular area of the house.

Pay attention to how your children react to Wright, notes Andrykovitch, who frequently marvels at what kids say at Fallingwater. “One good question a child recently asked was: ‘How did Frank Lloyd Wright see into the future?’ Children will say insightful things like that,” she says. “That only enhances their learning.”

Vicky Hallett is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specialising in family, travel, and health. 

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