In the early 20th century, the citizens of Oak Park, Illinois were terrorized by “The Yellow Devil,” a 45 horsepower Stoddard-Dayton sports car painted yellow with brown seats and brass trim. Behind the wheel was famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, clad in a linen duster and driving goggles, speeding around Oak Park at speeds up to 60 mph.
Wright was one of the 20th century’s biggest automotive obsessives, owning more than 80 vehicles in his lifetime. The Yellow Devil was just the first of many cars to enter Wright’s collection, alongside manufacturers like Bentley, Mercedes, Jaguar and Cadillac. Wright was enthralled with both speed and — more importantly — the design of the automobile. In his autobiography he said of his 1929 Cord L-29, “It looked becoming to my houses,” and Wright’s obsession for the car and its design would serve as inspiration for some of his greatest works.
Around the same time Wright was terrorizing Oak Park in his Stoddard-Dayton, he was working on one of his most important early works: the Robie House. Engineer Fredrick C. Robie, assistant manager at the Excelsior Supply Company, a bicycle company delving into the growing world of automobile manufacturing, contacted Wright to work on his home. The two immediately clicked on a personal level, no doubt a result of their shared interest in automobiles. Robie said of Wright, “When I talked in mechanical terms, he talked and thought in architectural terms. I thought, ‘he was in my world.'”
Due to Robie’s automotive enthusiasm, Wright incorporated a three-car garage into the design of the house itself, comprising a majority of the ground floor. The garage itself featured an area for washing cars as well as a pit for working on engines (later, Wright added an enclosed garage space with fuel pumps to his own Oak Park domicile). In 1909, the year the house was completed, most cars were kept separate from the homes of their owners (sometimes in existing horse barns or stables). The Robie House became one of the first American homes to incorporate a garage into the design.
Wright dubbed the “carport,” a minimalist automotive shelter that would become more utilized not just in Wright’s designs, but in other home designs later in the 20th century.
In the mid-’30s, when the proliferation of the automobile meant that more Americans could own their own car, Wright incorporated car culture into his Usonian homes, small one-story houses aimed at middle-income families. Since an incorporated garage proved to be too expensive for the Usonian homes, Wright turned to a more minimalist structure. When building the first Usonia house, the Jacobs House, he said to his client, “A car is not a horse, and it doesn’t need a barn. Cars are built well enough now so that they do not require elaborate shelter.” The result was what Wright dubbed the “carport,” a minimalist automotive shelter that would become more utilized not just in Wright’s designs, but in other home designs later in the 20th century.
As Wright’s designs evolved, so did his use of the carport. On one of his most famous works, Fallingwater, there is a four-car carport adjacent to the guest house. Edgar Kaufmann, the original owner of Fallingwater, wanted an enclosed garage, but Wright protested — saying an enclosed space would only inspire clutter. Later, when Wright designed the SC Johnson headquarters in the late 30s, he adapted the carport concept into multiple “dendriform columns” for employee cars. He then took that idea and implemented it into a later Usonia house, the Sol Friedman House, which used a single dendriform column as a carport.
In Wright’s public and commercial works — those both realized and proposed — another automotive structure was incredibly predominant: the spiral ramp. One of his earliest and most prominent integrations of this design element was in the proposed plans for the Gordon Strong Automobile Collective on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, designed in 1924. Proposed by Chicago businessman Gordon Strong, it was to be a scenic destination for motorists that would provide visitors with attractions like planetariums and dance halls, in addition to views of the surrounding areas. When Wright and Strong partnered on the project, they both agreed that the space needed to maximize access by vehicle.
Wright’s solution: designing the building with an outer spiral as the main structure. This would allow motorists to ascend and descend the building without leaving their car. In Wright’s words, “the very quality of its movement, rising and adapting itself to the uninterrupted movement of people sitting comfortably in their own cars in a novel circumstance with the whole landscape revolving about them.” Unfortunately, Strong’s reaction to the design was not positive, and the design was sidelined. Wright also failed to find realization in a second spiral ramp design with the Park Point Civic Center: a complex of theaters, a sports arena, a convention center and an opera house, all encompassed by a massive, spiraling roadway.
“The spiral is so natural and organic a form for whatever would ascend that I did not see why it should not be played upon.”
But Wright’s spiral ramps managed to make it to realized projects in the final years of his career. When Wright designed a home for his son and daughter-in-law in 1952, he used the spiral as the overall shape. The beginning part of the spiral is a smooth walkway to the entrance of the house that then progresses into the interior. The ramp also doubled as a carport, by then a staple of Wright residential houses. In 1954, the curved ramp was also used in Wright’s design for the interior of the Hoffman Showroom in Midtown Manhattan, for legendary auto importer Maximilian Hoffman.
Yet the most important implementation of the spiral ramp saw fruition in Wright’s final design: the Guggenheim Museum. From the outside, the Guggenheim looks almost like an inverted form of the Gordon Strong Automotive Objective, and considering the museum was designed around the same time Wright was working on the Point Park Civic Center and Hoffman Showroom, it is hard to think the car was not a source of inspiration in the design process. The spiral ramp slopes at a gradient between three and five percent — the preferred gradient for garage ramps and a figure Wright supposedly learned from Albert Kahn, who designed garages and displays for Henry Ford in the ’20s and ’30s.
Wright once wrote to Gordon Strong, “the spiral is so natural and organic a form for whatever would ascend that I did not see why it should not be played upon.” Though Strong’s project never came to fruition, the sense of movement the ramp provides and the unique form of Wright’s iconic spiral lives on in what is arguably the man’s greatest work. And though in the case of the Guggenheim the car is not a direct inspiration, when considering Wright’s love of the car and his willingness to incorporate it into his work it isn’t hard to see how the automobile remained, throughout his career, an indirect muse to America’s most recognizable architect.