I have had the good fortune to serve on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Board for the last three years, and this has availed me of several opportunities to tour this great architect’s work.
The living room in Robie House, Chicago, shot by my daughter Felicity.
We toured Robie House for my daughter Alex’s birthday in July, although this is one I have toured many times, and indeed saw out my dormitory window nightly during my sophomore year of college. It is the masterwork of the Prairie School, a tour de force of space, light, materiality and environment. Here is one designed less than a decade later:
This is the Yodoko Guest House in Ashiya, Japan, which was the year’s highlight and part of my good fortune to see during an Art Institute of Chicago tour of Japan I led in October. The facade visible from the roof deck is now my screen saver.
Neither of these Wright house tours were related to my service with the Building Conservancy, but thanks to that association, I saw the recently reconstructed Bachmann Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas last Spring.
This is a Usonian house, a system of design Wright employed beginning in the 1930s and while it continued several elements of his Prairie work – long, low volumes, interpenetrating interiors, overhanging eaves, ribbon windows and a simplicity in material expression, it also embraced the Machine Age fondness for industrial fabrication and reproducibility.
The Usonian houses are found all over the country, often commissioned by middle-class people whom Wright accommodated with relatively affordable designs. The image above is the Bazette-Frank House in Woodside, California, which I had actually toured back in 2014, but was included in our Bay Area conference last November. Note the integration of interior and exterior with the tall angled windows off the living room.
A conference highlight was the Hanna House at Stanford University in Palo Alto, which is a large house from 1936 that is the first to explore the hexagon as a design leitmotif, completed the same year as the first Usonian house.
Here is the hearth, a central feature in Wright’s earliest houses, which still existed in the Victorian context. Back in May I got to see – for the first time – the interior of one of Wright’s first independent commissions, the famed Winslow House in River Forest. Here his stunning modernity is barely emergent, for the house has a centered front door and seems a familiar box in form, but Wright is already playing with horizontality in the use of brick, a dark terra cotta second floor and a roofline that begins to reach for the prairie….
I have toured Unity Temple in Oak Park many, many times in my life, but 2016 featured a tour of its most comprehensive restoration to date, as the infinitely dynamic building was shrouded and restored for many millions of dollars.
Seeing the hollyhock capitals up close was a thrill – here is the first digital architecture, nature’s forms abstracted into 8-bits 75 years before Nintendo. Wright called architecture the abstraction of nature and embraced both nature and its artificial human expression because when done properly, both were equally organic.
Here is that sanctuary that I have sat in for hours, watching its volumes and trim speed in endless rectilinear loops, always discovered a new reveal, a new form where simple concrete, paint and wood are enlivened by a sublime sense of scale, composition, and light. I have often lectured on, and in, this space, and it had a profound effect on Barry Byrne, who supervised its construction in 1908 and brought its lessons to his own church designs as I describe in my book.
At the other end of Wright’s career, I finally did a proper tour of the Marin County Civic Center, designed in 1957 and completed after Wright’s death in 1959. He embraced the Space Age in these curvilinear forms that hover like spacecraft while still celebrating the integration of nature and artifice.
This last image reminds you of the Guggenheim, doesn’t it? I also toured the predecessor to that composition, the 1940 V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco, which I had again toured some years ago.
Here is the cool facade on Maiden Lane downtown
Other Bay Area Usonians I toured included the 1950 Berger House which Wright designed and owner Robert Berger built himself over seven years in San Anselmo, utilizing the stone-and-concrete walls Wright employed at Taliesin West.
Interior and exterior and vice versa
The Buehler house in Orinda was another treasure we toured, built in 1948 and featuring a large Japanese garden out back.
Another period piece was the 1950 Arthur Matthews House in Atherton, not far from where I worked in 2012-2015, but this was my first chance to see it.
I also toured a bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in June in Iowa, on another tour I led for the Art Institute of Chicago. This of course included the amazing hotel and bank in Mason City from 1910.
A return from Usonia to the Prairie period, there is no shortage of 8-bit nature here.
Not to mention those compressed spaces he loved in entrance sequences, which often challenge my headroom…
I also got to see the 1945 Walter residence in Quasqueton, very similar to the Bay Area houses in having a public face that was mostly wall and an all-window backside.
Entrance – and exit – there are two doors separated by a wall.
I love this use of glass cullets – like Bruce Goff in the same era
Mason City has one true Wright house, which was moved, the Stockman House…
A classic Prairie cube from 1908 with those marvelously trimmed corner that describe other planes in a way that should make Kandinsky jealous. The Mason City commissions passed from Wright to Walter Burley Griffin to Barry Byrne, and William Drummond also worked there, so it is well worth a visit.
I saw lots of other Wright houses last year from a distance, but did not tour them inside, so I think i will leave with images from the amazing Yodoko Guest House in Ashiya.