More Blogging about Buildings and Food

In addition to enjoying fresh trout this past weekend, I was able to indulge one of my other passions: architecture. Nearby to where we stayed, there was a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home. I realize that Wright has recently become something like the impressionist painters. Even people who know nothing about art recognize Monet, Degas and Renoir (they're on Kleenex boxes of all things). There's even a kind of neo-prairie style cropping up in a lot of suburban subdivisions. You can find low pitched roofs, extended eaves, and strips of casement windows on banks, high schools and fire stations all over town.

Even so, I find Wright's total concept of organic architecture appealingly Emersonian, and consequently recognizably American. The Walter House (pictured above) is a kind of summation of the Wright program. It was built relatively late in his career and is situated on a long narrow ridge that extends out over the Wapsipinnicon River. Like all mature Wright structures, it stands in relationship to the land. Indeed, Wright opposed the idea of a house dominating the landscape. Rather, he wanted the house and the land to work together. So the Walter house doesn't sit on the crest of the ridge, but just below it so that its long roof line seems to be another naturally descending plane below the crown of the hill. It works with the slope rather than presiding over it.

Wright also felt the roof was the essence of shelter. Most roofs cap a house; they squat on their walls like lids on a pot. He wanted his roofs to flow. In the case of his Prairie style homes that fluidity echoes the flow of open grassland (he also hid his front doors. There's no front door to a prairie). But perhaps the most identifiable feature of any Wright home is an eave that extends well beyond the walls. Long strips of casement windows--often made possible by the use of cantilevers-- are another feature. They create an openness to the environment and make it possible to do away with support columns on the corners. At Falling Water the corners can actually be opened outward to allow nature to simply flow into the house.

Contrast that with the closed nature of the traditional 19th century Victorian home or the classic American Four Square. Wright detested the traditional American house. He called it a box with tiny rat-like holes cut into it. Its interiors were carved up little rats nests. The living room pictured above is a great example of his desire to open up the space and get away from boxes within boxes. He created "rifts" in his interior spaces, openings that provide a sense of relationship not only to the land, but to the sky above and the earth below.

His ceiling is penetrated with skylights and it floats atop a small line of narrow casement windows (note how the corner of that strip of casement windows actually cuts back into the space and undermines any sense of stopping at a right angle). And the planter (seen at bottom left) opens to the ground beneath the house. The plants actually grow out of the soil and into the home. Note, too, the low slung height of the furniture. Nothing must block the relationship to the landscape or sense of openness. The low height of this furniture is a direct descendant of the low interior walls of the Robie House in Chicago.

The Walter house is long and narrow (like the ridge) and only 1800 square feet, yet Wright was able to create a sense of openness and space even in a relatively small vacation home. It was a joy to see. He may be in the process of becoming a T-shirt or a Kleenex box , but all the PBS coffee mug popularity can't dull the excitement of experiencing a Wright building in person.


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