Analysis of the Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright was born in June 8, 1867 and known to be the greatest American architect of all times. In 1932, ten buildings by Wright has been selected to participate in an exhibition of The International Style at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). This has been seen as a discussion of the approach of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture; whether an International Style or a regional architecture. (Wodehouse, 1991)

‘… There is, first, a new conception of architecture as volume rather than mass’ (Russell and Johnson, 1932). Based on the first principle, the International style states that walls are merely shells surrounding a building, and does not play a role in the support. Contrary to the walls of traditional masonry, the role of the support is played by the skeleton construction.

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This principle would allow the building to be free of internal supports and thus increasing the volume of the space it encloses. ‘Volume is felt as immaterial and weightless, a geometrically bounded space’. (Russell and Johnson, 1932: 59)

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Figure 3 Frederick C. Robie House Floor Plan (1907)

Wright is known for his “open plan” houses where the dining, living and other common rooms were merged into a single entitiy. In this case, the prairie style had seemed to have been intentionally designed to accommodate this concept. The entire first floor of the Robie House is made into a large single space, separating activities by screens and subdivisions rather than walls and doors. (Twombly, 1979) This creates a sense of unity throughout the house and a space with a large volume.

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Figure 3: Goetsch-Winckler House (1940) Floor Plan

In the case of the Goetsch-Winckler House, the walls acts as independent screens but they do not define a fixed volume. These ‘screens’ creates a subordinate volume of spaces within the total volume of the house. The building as whole is designed as an open plan and free of internal supports. The volume of the space is defined by the continuous flat roof and not by the exterior walls.

In relation to the walls being ‘screens’, windows are now an integral part of the enclosing screen rather than a hole in the wall. (Russell and Johnson, 1932). Thus, the frames of the window panes must be light enough to be distinguished from true supports.

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Frank Lloyd Wright clearly shows the adaptation of this principle in his designs. An example would be the window panes in Wright’s Fallingwater. The window frames clearly show the distinct difference from the supports and is an integral part of the wall. The windows frames are light and does not bear the weight of the roof while the stone walls shows the support.

Another principle set out by the International Style is regularity rather than axial symmetry. ‘Regularity is modified by the equal necessity, understood in all aesthetic organization, of achieving a proper degree of interest.’ (Russell and Johnson, 1932) The principle of regularity involves the natural expression of the various functions in a building. The International style aims to divide the provision for irregular functions to regular structure and express it in a clear and consistent design.

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Figure 5: Fallingwater, Pennsylvania First Floor Plan

Wright’s Fallingwater, Pennsylvania shows the principle of regularity. The plan clearly shows that each individual space in the building is carefully designed to accommodate the various functions. The plan is asymmetrical and with the second floor plan and the third floor plan differing from one another. At the same time, regularity is achieved through a pattern of window frames of the same size or similar units of the underlying structure.

This provides regularity in the design which is both ordered and expressive. Henry Russell and Philip Johnson (1932) also states that the principles of regularity tends to increase the effect of general horizontality. Frank Lloyd Wright has been known to design horizontally to harmonize with the

C:\Users\User\Desktop\robie-house.jpgground. As once Wright said, “The horizontal line is the line of domesticity” allowing his homes to “lie serene beneath a wonderful sweep of sky”. (Wright, 1932) Other than that, most functions of a space requires development in the horizontal plane rather vertically.

The third principle of the International Style is the rejection of arbitrary applied decoration. Prior to the Prairie Style, Wright has designed the James Charnley (1892) and William Winslow (1894) houses, notable for its clean brick façade. Wright has already chose to abandon the use of ornamentation. (Twombly, 1979)

Architecture has never been without other forms of decoration. On the other hand, fine architecture details have been used to feature the building as a whole. Window details have now played an important feature of a building. Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings are also known for their window details. For instance, the delicate windows of Wright’s Studio in Oak Park, Illinois give a distinct feature to the building.

C:\Users\User\Desktop\img_5925.jpgFurthermore, the principle also prefers use of the colours of natural surfacing materials. It is seen that the use of colours on different walls strongly emphasizes the effect of the surface, but breaks up the unity of volume. (Russell and Johnson, 1932) Such in the case of Wright’s Fallingwater, the use of stone walls and natural metal colours gives the building a natural look.

In place of applied decoration, roof projections beyond the terraces or walls can be seen as an architecture feature. It exists like the ceiling of the interior and acts as a bounding surface of a volume. (Russell and Johnson, 1932)

C:\Users\User\Desktop\Robie_House_HABS1.jpgOne of many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings which shows this feature is the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago. The roofs are cantilevered beyond its walls and the uninterrupted flat under layer of the roof confines the space beyond. With the added extended fenestration running the length of the second story, it gives the house horizontality and conforms to the site.

On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright is also known to reject the idea of being grouped alongside Mies van de Rohe and Le Corbusier. He referred the contemporaries of the International Style as ‘inferior’ and names his architecture an “organic architecture”.

In reference to the three principles above, Wright’s most notable works such as the Fallingwater has indeed applied International Style principles. His works before 1932 such as the Alice Millard House at Pasadena, California has a close affinity to the International Syle. During the development of the Prairie Style, Wright terms his style an “organic architecture” which bears a relation to the site, simply put, a regional architecture.

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Figure 9: Front view of the Ho-o-den (1893)

During the Chicago Fair of 1893, Wright stumbled upon the Ho-o-den, the official exhibit of the Imperial Japanese Government: a half-scale replica of a wooden temple in Japan. “… Japanese art, I found, really did have organic character, was nearer to the earth and a more indigenous product of native conditions of life and work..” (Wright, 1932). This can be seen as an influence of Japanese architecture to Wright’s development of a regional architecture, the Prairie Style.

According to Rexford Newcomb, ‘regionalism’ is the understanding of the site’s geographic, geologic, and climate conditions. (Merrill, 1965) Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie architecture movement is a result of the regional architecture of Midwestern America.

At the same time, Wright’s Taliesin North is an example of regionalism. Taliesin North is an extension of topographical and geological forms of the prairie in the area. It is also designed horizontally to the prairie to achieve a harmony with the site. Like many of Wright’s buildings, the construction materials for Taliesin North are made up of local stones and Midwestern wood frame. The Prairie architecture movement, as its name implies, to be designed for the Midwestern prairie landscape.

C:\Users\User\Desktop\Taliesin-Building.jpgAnother example of regionalism is the Taliesin West, located in the deserts of Arizona. Being in a different site condition of that of Taliesin North, Wright uses a different approach to the design. Another aspect of regionalism is the traditions and culture of the site. Home to the Native Americans, Wright’s stepped terraces, low, heavy walls and flat roofs recalls an image of Pueblo construction. The building follows the contours of the desert and is chosen to be designed horizontally as the desert.

In 1987, Kenneth Frampton has laid out a few key aspects to critical regionalism. In his work, he mentioned critical regionalism and vernacular forms. ‘Critical regionalism should, in my view, lie beyond style.’ (Frampton, 1987: 20-27) In the early works of Frank Lloyd Wright, he developed the Usonian house and the Prairie movement.

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Figure 11: Jacob’s House, Wisconsin Figure 12: Frederick C. Robie House

Both of those architectural styles were the results of critical analysis of the site and bear no reference to other styles. The styles were a response to the individual climatic and topographical conditions.

In the approach of his architecture on the F. B. Henderson House (1901) in Illinois, Wright (1932) mentioned about its relation to the site. The broad roof-projection provides protection from the extreme violent climatic conditions on the site. Other than that, the unbroken sweeps of horizontal trim in contrasting colours, low-pitched roofs, free standing terrace walls, and open porches under broad eaves thrust the building beyond its central massing. All of these elements are informed by the site conditions to become natural to the prairie site.

Another aspect laid out by Kenneth Frampton, is the typography or topology of the site. In his later years, Wright designed the Fallingwater in 1935. (Frampton, 1987) The site location includes a waterfall and is surrounded by nature. The placement of the house above the waterfall is responsive to the site. Wright has come out with a design different from any other designs of his previous works, although it has principles of the International Style.

Frank Lloyd Wright also designed the Johnson Wax Building in 193 and later on, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Both building has its own purpose and have different site conditions. Thus, each project is approached with a different design and use of materials. Although those two buildings are different in forms to the Prairie and Usonian houses, it contains the same principles of open space and the intimacy of a “family space”.

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Figure 13: Johnson Wax Headquarters Figure 14: Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem

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Figure 15: International Style Exhibition

Ten of Wright’s buildings were selected for the International Style exhibition in 1932. It is clear that those some of his buildings did indeed possess elements of the International Style. In his early works, Wright has been influenced by Louis Sullivan and later on developed the Prairie Style. During its development, Wright’s architecture has been informed by the conditions of the site and has outweighed the influence of the International Style. Wright also claimed that each of his buildings were designed based on a particular site and could not be replicated elsewhere. It also means that the site informs the design of the building. Wright also tends to use natural materials in his buildings to shape machine made products close to nature and more intimate to the surroundings. (Twombly, 1979)

In conclusion, some of Wright’s buildings do indeed have certain International Style elements and principles within them. It has to be understood that primarily, those architecture are informed by critical analysis and designed with the site in mind. Thus, it would be accurate to say that Frank Lloyd Wright’s works are a regional architecture.

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