Frank Lloyd Wright was a fascinating architect. He was prolific — designing 1,000 structures and building 532 of them. He was considered to be the most influential architect of his time. He was named by the AIA as the Best Architect in America. The 25 extant buildings in Oak Park and River Forest reveals the proof-in-the-pudding — that this architect was extraordinary.
Wright built his Home & Studio in Oak Park between 1889 and 1895 as an experiential test of his ideas. This home is not his best as it was built over six years while developing the principles that would result in an architectural language. What the modest residence lacked in unity was more than made up in its unique history. The house museum is an incredible resource, displaying the most direct examples of his “organic architecture.”
Wikipedia defines organic architecture as “a philosophy of architecture which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches so sympathetic and well integrated with a site that buildings, furnishings, and surroundings become part of a unified, interrelated composition.”
Wright sought inspiration in nature for modern architecture and abstract forms appropriate to the times. On each site, a planning grid or module was selected as a way of organizing the site from property line to property line. From simplest to the most complex, the modules were square, rectangular, triangular, parallelogram and round. The appropriate module allowed the entire site, down to its furnishings, to be designed in relative scale. The grid could be tilted vertically, guiding all the 3D designs to be consistent with the organic plan module.
When site planning, Wright was always interested in how to take advantage of the views and natural assets. He saw his structures as emerging from the landscape, not situated to take advantage of the view but be a part of the view. At the Home & Studio, the house was nestled into the flat lot with layers of garden walls and landscape to obscure the way the foundation merges with the site.
At Taliesin, the siting was thought of as a “Marrying the building with the hill.” The building was placed on the side of the hill, not on top, to take advantage of the view yet be part of the out-look. Typical of organic architecture are houses with low, hipped, pitched roofs with exaggerated overhangs and extended lines that blend into the landscape. The extensions shelter the generous windows and walls below while creating a deep shadow line on the facades. The shadows dramatically mimic the horizontal prairie.
Domestic entrances were obscured from the street to strengthen privacy. To enter a Prairie-style home, one had to work at it; turning, climbing, and twisting before finding the front door. This sequence forced one to be aware of the architecture and created a heightened sense of anticipation.
Wright loved the dramatic. Window pattern designs reflected a stylized and consistent botanical theme. The glass achieved a level of obscurity that eliminated the need for drapes. Furniture designed to fit the house and complete the look must have been obvious for Wright. The high-back chairs he designed for his Home & Studio dining room formed a space within a space, ensuring intimacy. These chairs were not about comfort but became an element of the architectural language.
Electric lighting was in its infancy, yet in the playroom Wright designed wall sconces with oak frames and art glass shades that beautifully integrated with the room.
The language of the Prairie School is based on a balance of function and aesthetics.
Garret Eakin is an architect, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute.