“ORGANIC buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.”
Born in Wisconsin in 1867, Frank Lloyd Wright’s career as an architect spanned some 70 years until 1959. Often dubbed the father of organic architecture, Wright built his home and studio at 951 Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois, at the age of 22. It was here that he lived and worked for the first 20 years of his professional career and experimented with space, form, light and material, creating a visual essay that revealed the founding principles of Wright’s Prairie style, inspired by America’s wide mid-western plains.
The house and studio, Wright’s oldest building open to the public, has been restored to its iteration from 1909, the last year that Wright lived on site. Glass visits 951 Chicago Avenue.
“My first feeling … had been a yearning for simplicity”. Characterised by dramatic horizontal lines and masses, Prairie-style architecture placed importance on solidity of material and craftsmanship, with structures that looked as though they grew out of their surrounding landscapes. Rejecting Classical European architecture in favour of low, broad structures with tempered decoration on their facades, Wright felt that the horizontal format was distinctly American, since its landscape was more open and undeveloped than its European counterpart.
Rusticated by shingle and stone, Wright’s home blended into its woody landscape and was rooted to the ground by its brick façade. Its pointed roof and clean lines are reminiscent of the German educationalist Fredrich Froebel toys that Wright cited as one of his primary influences as a child experimenting with geometric form: “The maple wood blocks … are in my fingers to this day”.
Wright’s respect for nature was such that he chose to build around a willow tree that stood in his grounds when he added his studio to the house in 1898. The tree, which was half-contained in the complex, remained undisturbed.
The ground floor of 951 Chicago Avenue consisted of a cluster of rooms (living room, studio, pantry, dining room) that would satellite the hearth. The chartreuse palette of the living room with its warm wood paneling and window seats combined simplicity with quiet opulence and overlooked the then-wooded grounds of the house, resplendent with willow and ginko trees.
Wright designed every element of his home, including the intricate stained glass windows and wooden furniture that adorned a Japanese-inspired dining room cushioned with fabric-covered walls. Much as the materials of the façade rooted the building to the ground, here terracotta tiles provide warmth and rustic simplicity to an inviting sunken dining room.
A handcrafted spiral staircase constructed from quarter-sawn oak connected the ground and first floors, leading to the sleeping quarters and a magnificent children’s playroom, whose ceiling is a great barrel vault. With a mezzanine of tiered seating on one end of the room and a fireplace on the other, Wright’s love of music was illustrated in this reception room that housed a grand piano in one corner of the room, eccentrically part-suspended over the staircase to save space.
Among the bookcases of the playroom, small wooden blocks of Froebel “gifts” are now displayed, a nod to the generations of Wrights who played with and were inspired by these toys. Indeed within the playroom, the influence of these geometric toys on Wright is evident not only in the ceiling vault and arches of the space, but also the metal grills of the skylight.
Frank Lloyd Wright extended his home with a studio in 1898 and it was here that he designed some 140 buildings, including New York’s Larkin Building (c 1906), Oak Park’s Unity Temple (c 1908) and Chicago’s iconic Robie House (c 1910). Upon entering the studio one is led through a narrow passage of corridors that open into a voluminous bi-level drafting room and octagonal library.
Wright’s belief in honesty in architecture is illustrated in the drafting room where a delicate system of bare chains suspend a balcony, thus ridding the necessity of columns in the room to achieve an open plan space that was revolutionary for its period. Sparse, small windows on the ground floor encourage Wright’s draftsmen to focus on their tasks rather than their environment.
A library that leads off from a corridor is an example of Wright’s decree that form and function should “be one, joined in a spiritual union”. Here a small but lofty and light-filled octagonal room lined with bookcases allows natural light from a large skylight and again positions its vertical windows high up, so as not to detract from one’s studies.
Often seen as a precursor to Wright’s famous Solomon R Guggenheim building in New York which spirals up to reach the sky, the library is an example of an idealised building that recalls churches of Europe, though with remarkably more abstraction and dynamism.
In contrast to the elaborate glasswork of Wright’s home, here the skylight is devoid of decoration and can be interpreted as a development of Wright’s sense of abstraction, for which he was to become revered in later years.
by Rowena Chiu
With thanks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302
Tel: 312.994.4000 Tour Hours: 10 am – 4 pm daily
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Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day.