Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most well-known architects in United States history. The buildings he created have a distinctive flow, both inside and out, which either draws or distracts the viewer. His most famous project is probably Fallingwater, a house he built for Edgar Kaufman and his wife just outside of Pittsburgh. This home is built with an incorporated waterfall that was supposed to bring the occupants closer to nature, and showed off an element of design that was a hallmark of Wright's work. This essay looks at two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and the design concept that made him the country's most famous architect.
It is important to understand, briefly, who Frank Lloyd Wright was and how he developed his distinctive style. He was born in Wisconsin in a small town to unassuming parents. At 15, he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to become an engineer because "they had no school of architecture" (Hurder, 2001). When he left the university at 20, he apprenticed to several small architectural firms in Chicago as a drafter before he landed a job with Louis Sullivan, who at the time was the most prominent architect in the Midwest. Quickly, he became Sullivan's chief assistant, but he was too much of a free spirit to remain very long the lackey of someone else, so he left and started his own firm (Hurder, 2011).
His style was developing as he passed through his architectural growing pains, but he was forging a style that would become world famous. Wright lived in a suburb of Chicago with his wife and rapidly expanding family and his growing architectural firm housed in the same building. From 1889, when he started his firm, until 1900 he designed more than 60 homes in and around Chicago that were taking on the shapes that would become known as the Prairie style (Hurder, 2011). "Houses with low-pitched roofs and extended lines that blend into the landscape typify his style of "organic architecture" (Hurder, 2011), were to be his life's work. He wanted to build houses that became a part of the landscape they inhabited.
It is, from very first glance, easy to see the design scheme of Wright worked in this piece. It is a piece of art that not only does not detract from the surrounding area, but seems to add to it. "Perhaps the most striking single feature of Fallingwater is the cantilevered reinforced concrete balconies that extend out over the falls" (Aikens, 2009). The cantilever is a means of allowing the concrete slabs to extend further out than they normally would have been able to. The reason he used the feature is obvious. He was trying to match the line of the stone and make the building blend, in abstract form, to its surroundings. The indie of the structure has received almost as much study as the out for Wright's attempt to bring the outside in. Peponis and Bellal (2010) in an article describing the tenets of how space is designed into a project said
"the flexible, open plain [of the main living room] is loosely organized around a central atrium-like space, illuminated from above by a large, nearly square, recessed ceiling panel, which is supported at its four corners by stone piers & #8230; The various functions are zoned into pockets of space that pinwheel around its open core, sometimes overlapping and sometimes projecting from it."
The entire structure, both inside and out, has been studied by engineers, architectural students, and lay people with a love for interesting architecture since it was completed in 1939.
The problems with the design began even before it was completed. Engineers at the time were not fully versed in the structural properties of concrete, and neither was Mr. Wright. The fact that significant portions of two different balconies projected over Bear Run falls in the design, show the boldness with which Wright attacked projects even if it was not clear how they were to be finished in reality. Using present materials and methods of construction, the design would have posed few problems. But, at the time, concrete was a relatively new material, and all of its properties were not fully understood. According to an article in AI Architect,
"As the use of concrete has become more widespread over the years, more has been learned, and today there are many tools to employ, such as higher strength concrete, high-tensile reinforcing steel, and more advanced curing techniques to apply after the concrete has been placed in the formwork. Reshoring, or temporary bracing placed under a suspended concrete structure for a period of time after the formwork has been removed, usually requires its own engineering design" (Aikens, 2009).
This article explained the difficulty Kaufman had with Wright's design, from a structural standpoint, and changes he was prepared to make. Frank Lloyd Wright was, to say the least, confident in his abilities. He was a student of structural design, being an architect, and he knew that this structure could be built as designed. Thus, he bristled when Kaufman suggested that he change certain aspects. It is understandable from Kaufman's point-of-view; he wanted to ensure the safety of his family and his investment after the work was completed, but it is also praiseworthy that he eventually accepted the design as Wright conceived it for posterity's sake.
The brilliance of any Prairie School design by Wright, or the architects who would attend to his type of design, was the abstract attention to the sight lines of the landscape, and the blending of elements which made the structure seem more of a natural outcropping that grew into a house. Wright may have been the first to describe the style as organic (Peponis & Bellal, 2010). By this he meant that it gave the illusion of belonging to its natural background. Even the city buildings he designed were unobtrusive (to a degree) in that the eye was not offended by their presence (Aikens, 2009). Fallingwater, being in an extremely verdant setting, needed to somehow mimic the rocky ledges, stream and woods that surrounded it. Wright did this by using concrete and natural stone to form cliffs that would overlook the stream.
The main issue with Fallingwater was not the design, but the construction. Experts have enjoyed the design of the building from an aesthetic viewpoint, but have spent many hours and a great deal of money to make sure that the structure is preserved. Wright was overzealous in his design when the construction shortcomings of the day were realized. Although Fallingwater was completed, it would have long ago fallen into Bear Run if not for the efforts of modern engineers.
This is another of Wright's designs that some call the "mature organic" phase of Wrights projects (Kroll, 2011). This building was constructed as both a winter house (it was built in Scottsdale, AZ), and an architectural school. Taliesin East was Wright's home in Wisconsin, and the winters could be harsh in that region of the country. It is therefore not a surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife would want a place to escape the cold as they aged. The location was also perfect for year around construction and design efforts from the students that sought out tutelage under Wright.
The structure itself is grouped together with Fallingwater in that, though it had the same Prairie School design as many of his other buildings, it was more of an abstract, linear structure that strikingly, in an abstract way, blended with its natural surroundings. Wright did not have the waterfall to make this design stand out like Fallingwater, but he did have the constant blue sky, and the rock-covered mountains of the McDowell range and Paradise Valley. In constructing Taliesin West, Wright said
"Arizona needs its own architecture… Arizona's long, low, sweeping lines, uptilting planes. Surface patterned after such abstraction in line and color as find "realism" in the patterns of the rattlesnake, the Gila monster, the chameleon, and the saguaro, cholla or staghorn -- or is it the other way around -- are inspiration enough" (Kroll, 2011).
The plain was flat and the mountains seem to be unnatural projections that rise for no reason out of the desert. Wright tried to capture the unique features of the arid landscape by using native stone, and by "employing low level, horizontal planes that keep the house and studio low to the ground to insure effective natural ventilation and protection and shade from the intense desert sun" (Kroll, 2011). He was as practical about his design as he was innovative. He realized that the exhausting heat of Arizona would have to be combatted by as much natural ventilation as possible. He employed the low roof lines, extended eaves and small windows just under the eaves to accomplish this purpose.
It is interesting to note that all of Wright's designs did not just include the structure itself and leave it at…