Frank Lloyd Wright: A Tree Inspired A Tower

Associate Editor

PRAIRIE SKYSCRAPER: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, is on view until January 15. For more information, call (918) 336-4949, or visit

Fallingwater. The Guggenheim Museum. Taliesin. These are just a few of the 532 homes, museums and office buildings built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his lifetime (1867-1959). Four hundred still stand, and Oklahoma lays claim to three of them: the Richard Lloyd Jones home built in 1929, the Harold C. Price Jr. house and the Price Tower. These architectural masterpieces stand as monuments to the vision and genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. Literally towering above all of them is the Price Tower in Bartlesville. Although Wright designed a number of skyscrapers, the Price Tower with its green copper fins evoking the image of a tree, is the only one that was realized. Coined by Wright as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” the tower exemplifies Wright’s fundamental philosophy of integrating the natural environment with architectural design.

According to the ‘Frank Lloyd Wright: Biography’ website, “Nature provided Wright with inspiration and vision. Because Wright disliked the urban environment, his buildings also developed a style quite different from other architects of the time.”

Wright utilized natural materials, skylights and walls of windows to embrace the natural environment. He proclaimed that shapes found in the environment should be not only integrated, but should become the basis of American architecture. In his words, we should, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” It was Wright’s study of nature that guided his genius.

From the inside and out Price Tower reflects this belief. It was constructed using a taproot design. An innovative and daring engineering concept in its day, it was inspired by the natural design of a tree. As described on, “In the Price Tower’s design, Wright combined cantilevered with the taproot design. Borrowing from nature, Wright understood that a building’s floors and outer walls could be held aloft in the same way that a tree raises it branches and leaves – with a trunk-anchored in place by a deep, central foundation, or “taproot.”

The tower’s trunk consists of an inner concrete and steel core – actually four of them – that also serve as the elevator shafts. Cantilevered out from this central core are the tower’s 19 floors. Wright’s breakthrough design also helped establish in high-rise design another early innovation: the “curtain wall.” Rather than the building being held up by its walls, it is held up by its inner “trunk,” and the lightweight outer walls could be suspended from the floors, essentially hanging on the building’s branch-like leaves. Lightweight walls on cantilevered floors presented a way to build higher using less material, lowering construction cost and opening vast new possibilities for the designer’s imagination. Wright’s taproot foundation technique, combined with the idea of a central supporting core, like a tree trunk, and curtain wall, makes lightweight exterior construction possible. Price Tower represents the realization of these ingenious engineering concepts in the 1950s; long after Wright had first proposed them in the 1920s. After 30 years of seeing his ideas adopted by other architects, Wright finally got to build the structure he had been the first to conceive.”

The Price Tower was innovative in its architectural design and made a bold corporate statement as well. Monica Ramirez-Montagut, curator of collections and public programs, Price Tower Arts Center, points out, “By the 1950s, the financial power of the oil and gas industry had shaped Bartlesville’s landscape and the prominent corporate monuments of Phillips Petroleum Company dominated the city’s small skyline. The Price Tower successfully communicated the identity of Harold Price’s oil and pipeline company through the traditional role of a tower as a sign of success.”

According to Richard Townsend, the Price Arts Tower executive director and CEO, “The Price Tower is the materialization of an ideal. The best that Wright could imagine for urbanism and architecture are materialized in this building.”

He adds, “Wright thought globally. Each project operates within its own rationale. This is what separates him from other architects. He created singular worlds within his buildings.”

A tour of Price Tower reflects his “singular world” philosophy. Triangles are the basis for the tower’s design. The angles of the walls, the stairs, the lighting fixtures, everything contained in the building is designed around this concept. Including the furniture. Due to the unique design, standard furniture could not be moved into the building. Wright, therefore, designed all of the furniture for the interior, as well as the fixtures, even the textiles which had parallelograms (the joining of two triangles) woven in.

Walking into a room in the Price Tower, one experiences what Wright referred to as “compression and release,” typical of a room designed by him. The doorframes in the rooms are small, the elevators cramped by today’s standards. When passing through a door, or standing in an elevator, one feels somewhat cramped or “compressed.” Upon entering the room, or exiting an elevator however, the room opens up as a vast space giving a sense of “release.” This concept applies within the rooms of the building, as well as upon exiting the building. There is the feeling of “release” into the great vastness of, what years ago, was the open prairie.

Wright’s work has established him as a true pioneer in the world of architecture. He was an innovator, a visionary and held true to his ideals throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as an architect as much more than “building buildings.” In his words, “The architect must be a prophet… a prophet in the true sense of the term… if he can’t see at least ten years ahead don’t call him an architect.” His buildings are a testament to the fact that he saw decades ahead of his time. Price Tower is a unique example of this philosophy, a true reflection of his architectural genius, and the inspiration provided to him by nature.

Updated 11-22-2005

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