Art + Botany: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House

Art + Botany: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House

May 26, 2011
Photo by: Elly, flickr; sftrajan, flickr

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are not uncommon in Southern California. The tall, elegant stalks punctuate gardens like so many exclamation points that blossom in pink, purple, and white. They love sun, don't require much water, and the large seeds easily germinate, all of which makes the perennial a popular ornamental plant in the dry, warm landscape. Hollyhocks are incredible in any garden, but perhaps their most remarkable display lies between Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles. Olive Hill is the site of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1921 Hollyhock House, where 11 acres of the eponymous plant overlook the city—and not just the flowers themselves. The hollyhock is represented in stained glass, concrete planters, and architectural motifs that are both ornamental and structural. A modernist designer who used site-appropriate materials, Wright developed a signature vocabulary to integrate the built environment with its natural landscapes. A monument to Wright's organic style, Hollyhock House was also his first Los Angeles commission, designed for an oil heiress and arts patron whose favorite flower was, of course, the hollyhock. 

Wright's stylized hollyhock design is found throughout the interior and exterior spaces; the geometric motif sits atop wall columns, fills a frieze along the prominent parapet, and is sculpted into flower planters. The effect is a beautiful symmetry of architecture and nature, with a surprising unity of character: somehow, the concrete hollyhocks look no less elegant than the living flowers reflected beneath them. 

Wright classified the building as his California Romanza (referencing a musical term, meaning "the freedom to make one's own form), a style that he would apply to other designs that were inspired by Southern California's natural landscape, but none as wonderfully literal, and botanically-inspired, as his Hollyhock House. 

Tours are offered through Barnsdall Art Park.

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.