Wright and the Middle Class – The Usonian Dream

For an architect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stature and ego, to pursue affordable architecture for the average person seems out of character.  But that was the goal of his Usonian dream.  Based on the Populist and Progressive ideas of elevating the common man, Usonian (a term pulled from United States of North America) architecture sought to democratize building.  Wright’s Usonian homes were simple, one-story homes, of modest square footage, without a garage, a basement, or much storage.  They were also modest in exterior adornment.  Like the earlier Prairie School houses, the Usonian homes usually featured low roofs with large overhangs and open living areas.  Bernard Pyron wrote that for Wright, “Nature, Democracy, Spirituality, Culture and Art all became talismans that he used to promote the ideas spawned from this worldview.”  As a result, Wright came to believe that members of the middle and lower classes might be cultivated to appreciate great art and to develop as individuals in a free, democratic culture. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s mind, to accomplish this meant developing a uniquely American architecture that was affordable for all.  All these beliefs led to the development of his Usonian architecture.

Wright’s Usonian homes aimed at using as much local material as possible, a sustainable idea that Wright had long supported, and one he used in the construction of his own home, Taliesin.  Wright also wanted these homes to be compatible with their natural surroundings; to flow from them and blend naturally with the landscape.  He wanted organic structures with lots of natural materials and lots of windows that made use of natural light, and that allowed the inhabitants to experience the land around them.

My wife and I happened to stumble on an open house at one of Wright’s Usonian homes while on a motorcycle ride in southern Wisconsin this past weekend.  I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to walk around the grounds and to take pictures of the exterior of the home.  I am not going to reveal the location of this property as it is still occupied by family members of the original owner, and their privacy needs to be respected.  For that reason, I am going to be purposefully vague on certain details.

The story behind this house is a great one, and is certainly true to Wright’s goal for a democratic architectural style.  The house was built in the early 1950s by a young professional who wanted to construct a house for his family for a maximum of $15,000.  In order to accomplish this, he would act as his own general contractor, doing some of the work himself.   Two things led to Wright’s involvement with the project.  First, the owner had attended the University of Wisconsin where a professor had fostered his interest in Wright’s designs.  Second, his wife had worked for and developed a relationship with Wright’s sister, Jane.  These two bits of fate put him in touch with the architect, and Wright accepted the challenge of designing a home for under $15,000.  After all, wasn’t this perfectly aligned with his goal of affordable architecture for the masses?  (Like many of his projects, the final costs were well above the initial $15,000, but were still modest in comparison to projects done by world-renowned architects like Wright.)

The house was designed around a core structure of limestone that juts above the main roofline.  This central structure contained the kitchen, laundry and a small bath.  To the east of this core was the master bedroom and a carport.  (The carport was later turned into more living space using a design by a Wright apprentice.  The addition blends seamlessly with Wright’s original design.)  Projecting out to the north from the core limestone tower is a hexagonal living space adorned with lots of of windows.  There is also a patio area with a partial low rock wall adjoining this portion of the house.   The bedroom wing stretches south from the hexagonal living area, and is also heavily adorned with windows on its west side.   A flower garden flows alongside the bedroom wing culminating in a man-made rock glen patio at the south end.

The stonework in the walls of the home is beautiful and intricate.  Although Usonian homes were supposed to be lacking external adornment, the walls of this house feature individual pieces of limestone that jut out creating interesting patterns and shadows, as well as lending a sense of organic construction.  Much of this limestone was actually quarried by the owner and then hauled to the building site early each day before he went to his office.

The home is a treasure, and I feel fortunate to have spent some time with it.  It blends naturally with the surroundings, and is easily missed from the street.  When first built, it had an open view overlooking a valley to the north-northwest.  Sixty years later, Nature has reclaimed much of the hilltop, but you can still see the valley through a small opening.  Wright said, “I would like to have a free architecture.  Architecture that belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”  I think he and the owner succeeded here!

*The slideshow below was organized as a counter-clockwise walk around the property, beginning in the paved parking area at the front entry.  The walk goes towards the east, around the original master bedroom area, then around the family-main living area, along the bedroom wing then through the flower garden and back to the paved area in front of the house.

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Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture – Sustainable or Not?

A 21st Century building project will probably not get off the ground if it isn’t tied to sustainable design, and most of us would agree, “That’s a good thing!”  But building and architecture during the late 19th and most of the 20th Century were not driven by any national push to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.  So did Frank Lloyd Wright, one of that time period’s most influential architects, build sustainability into his buildings?  It really depends on how you interpret his designs.

Wright was a major proponent of organic architecture.  This school of thought believes that architecture should reflect nature, and that organic design should put humans, and the buildings they inhabit, into a harmonious coexistence with nature.  Wright’s love for nature came, at least in part, from growing up in rural Wisconsin.  His designs sought to incorporate nearby, natural materials when possible, and to use them in a way that allowed their natural beauty to show through.  Wood wasn’t covered with paint; stone shouldn’t be plastered over; let buildings appear to be emerging from the land where they are situated.  Many of his projects, including his own home, Taliesin, used local material.  Taliesin, located on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River, features locally quarried limestone and plaster made with sand from the banks of that river.  By using natural material obtained nearby, transportation costs and fuel use were greatly reduced.  By limiting what was painted, fewer chemicals entered the living space. both of these are sustainable practices.

Another sustainable idea Wright incorporated into many of his buildings was thermal mass walls.  This practice aims at reducing heating and cooling costs because a large volume of masonry material has the capacity to store thermal energy for extended periods of time.  Wright also used a lot of glass for natural lighting.  He combined this use of glass with a large overhang on the roof.  This large overhang did two things that align with sustainability.  First, they shaded the windows so that the building would stay cooler in the summer, and they moved moisture (in the form of rain) out and away from the windows and walls so that there was less external moisture penetration of the building envelope.

Not everything Wright designed turned out to be a study in sustainable perfection.  Often the windows designed to let in and utilize natural light, also let in the wind, cold and rain.  This happened because the union between the wall and the window was not taken into account by Wright’s design nor by his instruction and supervision; it just wasn’t that important to him.  Projects like his Freeman House, where concrete block was manufactured on site, often turned into disasters of cost overruns and product failures; good sustainable design, but poor sustainability from a supervision and implementation standpoint.  Even his architectural gem, Fallingwater, literally fell apart because of poor material and bad engineering of the cantilevered decks.

So what can we conclude about sustainability from a study of Frank Lloyd Wright?  In my opinion, he was a true architectural genius, and many of his ideas were and are good, environmentally sound, sustainable practices.  Where he failed in the realm of sustainability was in his lack of supervision and follow-through.  I get the impression that at a certain point his mind became bored with the mundane world of follow-through and follow-up.  His genius was racing on toward the next great design.  We can all take away something from this that too often rears its ugly head, even today.  All parties involved in a building project need to be involved at all stages of a project.  Everyone’s input is necessary and important, and we can’t walk away from the building process just because we are done with the design.  Does the design translate from the conceptual to the practical?  Are we on the project looking to see that our design works and is it being followed correctly?  Is the supervision on the jobsite ever-present and effective?  Are the materials we’ve specified working together properly and doing what they were marketed to do; and if not, are we making the necessary changes?  These nuts-and-bolt, mundane issues are as important to sustainability as the design itself.

Resources:

Frank Lloyd Wright:  His Philosophy of Architecture

Building Envelope Design Guide – Masonry Wall Systems

Wrights Taliesin Showcases “Organic” Architecture

USA Home and Garden:  Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright overhang above many windows.