Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wright Stuff

Today's post is in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright, who died 50 years ago today. Frink and I are mad about Frank. If this were a perfect world, the object accompanying this post would be our very own Frank Lloyd Wright house (especially this one); but, sadly our budget only extends far enough to cover a shelf full of books about the architect and a few reproduction presentation drawings, lamps, vases, and tchotskies.

One of my favorite pieces is this lamp, a knock-off of a lamp that appears in various Wright structures, including his own home, Taliesen. I love the mini-cantilevers and the warmth of the wood.

Our Frank obsession began over a decade ago, before we were even a couple. We were office mates in grad school, and one year we both had plans to visit friends in D.C. We decided to carpool. As we were passing through Pennsylvania, I glanced at the map and saw a little red label marked “Fallingwater.”

“Isn’t that the house built over a waterfall?” I asked.“I didn’t know that was around here.”

Frink and I had both seen pictures of Fallingwater so we took a detour to see it. It was a life-changing exper
ience. All the pictures in the world cannot do justice to the beauty of this building (although these paintings, by Spanish artist FĂ©lix de la Concha come close). At first, you’re struck by the sheer audacity of the design. Who but Frank would stand looking at this hilly, rocky, site on a creek and think, to heck with the view -- My house will be the view! Mere mortals would situate the house so that it looks at the waterfall. But I? I shall make the house part of the waterfall!

As you study the house, other features start to come into focus--the way the cantilever floats above the cascade, the way the line between inside and outside is erased by mitered windows and the stairs that lead from the living room into the water. That visit started our education in all things Wright. We began touring other major homes, especially the Dana-Thomas home in Springfield, Illinois, which we visited half a dozen times before it was shamefully closed by the disgraced. disgraceful ex-governor Blagojevitch.

I especially love the "Usonians" designed for teachers, artists, professors and other regular working folk. These small homes show that it is possible to design houses that have a small footprint and yet are beautiful, serene, and inspiring. Most of the Usonians have red concrete floors, expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the outside in, and ingenious (if sometimes uncomfortable) built-in furniture that makes use of every inch of space with warm wood that doubles as art.

Several Usonians are available as overnight rentals. When we stay in them, we rarely leave the house (except to take photos from the outside.) We move from room to room, looking at the angles -- every perspective offers a new surprise -- and watching the play of light and shadows as the sunlight streaming through the clerstory windows changes through the course of the day. As Frink says, being in a Frank Lloyd Wright home makes you want to live a better life. Certainly, it would make you live a more pared down one. Except for the houses built for wealthy clients, Wright's homes don't have room for a lot of junk.

Our obsession with Frank has educated our eyes and as taught us to see buildings in a new way. As the years have passed, we've become huge fans of mid-century modern buildings and we've discovered the work of other architects. Two favorites are Santiago Calatrava and E.Fay Jones. How can you not love a museum that looks like it's going to fly away on its (movable!) wings? (This photo is from Wikipedia Commons; ours didn't do it justice.)

And how about a chapel in the forest that looks like it was designed by elves? We just toured this E. Fay Jones building, the Mildred B. Cooper chapel. It's not far from another Jones chapel, Thorncrown, which is on the list of the 100 best buildings in America, but I like this one better. We had horrible light during our visit, which was in winter. We plan to go back when the trees have leafed out.

Wright homes you can stay in:

Penfield House

Muirhead House

Bernard Schwartz House

Haynes House

The Seth Peterson Cottage (we haven't stayed here yet; they book about a year in advance.)

Update: Here's an interesting brief tribute to FLW.


  1. Hi Frankie,

    I discovered your blog in Feb this year, while on a bloghopping spree. I've been a regular since then. Delurking today to thank you for opening the door to the works of this amazing architect, who otherwise would've been unknown to many like me. Thanks for sharing this.

    I love your accounts of Great Aunt Fern & Uncle Edmond, and The Party Grandma. Also, hats off to you for coming out of a difficult situation in life and for your perseverance. Way to go!

    - Bijita

  2. What a fascinating chapel that is... thanks for the post.

  3. Dear Bijita, Thanks so much for your comment! It really made my morning.

    Hi AlpHa and Linda, good to hear from you. I'm writing a new post about these two chapels...they really are quite lovely.