Unity Temple holds a unique place in the development of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. It is simultaneously an accomplished representative of architectural conventions and a triumphant overture to a new architecture. The equal-armed cross imbedded in a square plan, the elevation organized as base/wall/capital, and the solidity of the construction have a long lineage going back to Classical temples. The interior is the surprise and the stunning departure from that tradition. One could not predict the interior from the exterior – dark and solid contrasts with bright, folded planes.
Wright categorized his architecture as “organic,” a notoriously elusive term. Five years after Unity Temple he designed his Wisconsin home/studio Taliesin. They represent two distinct versions of organic: Unity Temple is an organic of resolution, Taliesin is organic of evolution – one is constant, the other adapts to change. But Unity Temple is only partially resolved because of its simultaneous backward and forward perspectives. The interior, which underwent significant changes during design and even while being built, opens a new way to think of architecture not as traditional post and beam construction but as structure made of folded planes. This departure is represented by the wood stripping. Paint and ornament announce the new vision as structural elements are tied together by patterns bending over the continuous concrete surface.
Unity Temple is amazing as an experience, but it is more significant as the announcement of a bright, new future for architecture.
by Sidney Robinson
photo by James Caulfield