Chicago Architecture: Summer Classics – Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio

Chicago Architecture: Summer Classics – Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. The home viewed from Forest Ave, Oak Park IL.

I’ve been spending my summer with the classics: wonderful books on the history of Chicago, bios of FLO – Frederick Law Olmstead and FLW – Frank Lloyd Wright, visits to sites, random intersections, etc.

Summer is winding down. I can tell, not only because it’s cool today, but because I’m back from my summer vacation when many are just starting theirs. The Starbucks next door to the office was crowded on Friday with tourists poring over maps and guidebooks, a certain desperation in the air as though they are wondering how they’ll possibly cram it all in.

Yesterday I joined with the tourists at the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park. Yes, one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for-ever, and finally did. The FLW Trust volunteers do a good job. Tours start every 20 minutes. 16 people each, and you rarely bump in to one another, nor mostly are even aware there are others in the house with you.

Renewed respect for the Master.

There’s an impetus to talk about his messy personal life – but the guide steers away from that, aided perhaps by the fact that the messes came after this home and studio were built. Here you can focus on the early years, where the trajectory was just that, a brilliant and rapid start, coalescing, and then springing off from this place to others.

I have a personal affinity for FLW. Our family roots are planted in the same valleys in Iowa County Wisconsin. My aunts and uncles are among those creditors he famously stiffed. Studying art and architecture at the UW, I was schooled on his greatness; the myth of the boundless and impermeable (male) genius, punctured, yet resilient.

Why is that? The resilience? Is FLW really that great, meriting the efforts made by those in my tour group who’d come – literally – from far and wide? Europe, Japan, Pennsylvania.

There’s a certain acceptance, when you’ve heard since forever that this person “changed the way we build buildings”, “altered the field of architecture forever”, etc. It’s easy to lose sight of why.

After the tour, I turned to Ada Louise Huxtable’s brief, 2004 Wright bio. It’s a breezy, brilliant little book, and she acknowledges that her audience is “meant to include those who are neither professionals nor specialists”. This is her audience, and her insights are solid.

In her intro, Huxtable says she was drawn to Wright while researching “a new and radical kind of architecture based on the use of the computer as a design and production tool”. She was drawn backward in time by her intrigue with the future.

I became aware of amazing parallels between Wright’s work and the most advanced computer-generated design of today’s tech-savvy young architects. Both invented new solutions based on a radical vision and a fascination bordering on obsession with the generating capabilities of geometry. Both pushed inventive fantasy to its limits within the possibilities open to them … the same adventurous mind-set, intent on redefining what architecture can do and how it should look  … Wright’s most important tools were the power of his imagination and his aesthetic sensibilities. Seen in the context of what is happening in architecture in the twenty-first century, his work takes on new significance and meaning.

Huxtable draws parallels between these contexts. She brings us to the social milieu in which Wright’s innovations were made. She places his personal foibles, the messiness, even the myth of solitary genius, devised, burnished, and promoted by Wright. Puncturing the myth, she says, allows a better understanding of the brilliance in Wright’s perfectly planned, and life-changing buildings.

And so, with Ada Louise providing the context, I can say that yes, on yesterday’s precious and beautiful summer day, not quite yet overshadowed by the looming sense of school and other responsibilities, all those tourists, myself among them, were spending our time wisely.

 

Hearth = Home. An essential in Wright's home designs. The hearth is central to the building.

Hearth = Home. An essential in Wright’s home designs. The hearth is central to the building.

Froebel's "gifts" displayed in the Children's play room. Wright's mother found them at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania and they were formative to his education and his design.

Froebel’s “gifts” displayed in the Children’s play room. Wright’s mother found them at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania and they were formative to his education and his design.

Organic forms in class paned windows.

Organic forms in stained glass windows.

The distinctive 'Children's Play Room' where Wright - public relations expert - also entertained adults. He believed that children deserved to spend their time surrounded by beauty. He designed the mural, and placed this room on the second floor among the canopy of surrounding trees.

The distinctive ‘Children’s Play Room’ where Wright – public relations expert – also entertained adults. He believed that children deserved to spend their time surrounded by beauty. He designed the mural, with its references to far-off mythic lands, and placed this room on the second floor among the canopy of surrounding trees.

Houses across the street from the Wright Home and Studio, typical designs of the times, Wright called them "pretty pictures".

Houses across the street from the Wright Home and Studio, typical of designs of the times, which Wright called “pretty pictures”.

The drafting studio.

The drafting studio. The lamps could be unplugged and moved around as needed.

Entrance to the studio, duck your head as you squeeze between columns circled with storks and books of wisdom to enter for a conference with genius.

Entrance to the studio, duck your head as you squeeze between columns encircled by storks and books of wisdom to enter for a conference with genius.

Entrance to the home. In later works, Wright moved this off to the side and less prominent. Entering his structures was an adventure.

Front door of the home. In later works, Wright set entrances off to the side and less prominent. Moving into and through his structures was an adventure.

One of Wright's "bootleg" houses down the street on Chicago Avenue. His work on these violated his contract with Adler and Sullivan leading to a rancorous rift.

One of Wright’s “bootleg” houses down the street on Chicago Avenue. His work on these violated his contract with Adler and Sullivan leading to a rancorous rift.

Tour and gift shop entrance Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park, IL.

Awards displayed outside the tour and gift shop entrance at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park, IL.

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