|Paul Kruty is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois. He is the co-author of Walter Burley Griffin in America and Two American Architects in India: Walter B. Griffin and Marion M. Griffin 1935 - 1937. He is also the author of Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens. Kruty teaches American Architectural History at Illinois.|
QUESTION: When did Griffin's interest in architecture begin?
PAUL KRUTY: We know that by the time Griffin was in high school his interest in landscape gardening had made it's appearance. The family had moved to a new house in Elmhurst and Griffin was involved in landscaping the backyard. His parents let him do what he wanted and before long his brother and sisters were calling it "The Jungle" because he was experimenting with so many different forms of plants. One growing into another, was the way he preferred it. This interest led him to want to go to a school and study landscape architecture formally. In order to do that, he went to one of the foremost landscape gardeners of the time in the Chicago area, O.C. Simonds. Simonds told him it wasn't a good idea as there was no money in landscape architecture. In any event, there were no degrees in landscape architecture. What he needed was to study architecture. Then presumably during his life he could come back to the subject if he wanted to.
QUESTION: Did Griffin follow his advice?
PAUL KRUTY: Yes, and he decided to study architecture at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. This was a state school that his parents could send him too. But also this was one of the two first land grant universities to give degrees in architecture; the other being MIT which would have been another choice. By the time he entered school in 1885, there were several other architecture schools but MIT and University of Illinois were certainly the most long-standing and the two that would be the logical choice. So in the fall of 1895, Griffin entered the program under the strict guidance of Nathan Clifford Ricker.
QUESTION: Who was Ricker?
PAUL KRUTY: Ricker was schooled in Germany and was very much interested in the technical aspect of architecture as opposed to simply the design aspect. MIT much more followed the Beau Arts system, the French Beau Arts system of design in which planning and design of a building were the foremost concern of the students and the technical aspects were less important. Ricker stressed this, which was highly unusual at the time. And this gave Griffin a very strong foundation in materials, and the practical aspects of architecture because this is what Ricker had the students do. But it was not considered the primary aspects of the school.
QUESTION: Can you give an example of the practical aspects?
PAUL KRUTY: As an example of the practical aspects of the University of Illinois, Griffin's senior thesis was a comparison of costs of architectural construction of the same building in brick, in stone, in wood. And he went around to different parts of the state examining buildings under construction finding out the cost of materials. However, he did a second thesis, or a second project we are not sure of it, it's lost. But he exhibited it the following year after his graduation. And it was called "A Capitol." It exhibited perspective and plans of a capitol. Presumably this was a state capitol which was a standard design for senior students. But considering the fact that he designed not only the capital of Australia, which was an entire city, but he also put as the most prominent building in that design a building he termed the capitol. And later when that project was not constructed, he designed an enormous cinema in Melbourne, Australia that he also called the capitol. This is clearly an important project and one of the unfortunate losses in the story of Griffin.
QUESTION: What happened after he graduated?
PAUL KRUTY: When Griffin finished his education at the University of Illinois and came back to live at home, as most 21 year old do, he went and looked for a job and found in the Steinway Hall Building. A space on the 11th floor with a connection up to the 12th floor where four of the most progressive architects in Chicago happened to be. Whether this was something that Griffin knew of and went there on his own, or whether he heard there was a job there. Or course, there is no record of that. But this put him suddenly in with the most progressive architects living in America.
QUESTION: Who were these progressive architects?
PAUL KRUTY: These were people who were directly influenced by the figure of Louis Sullivan who had been preaching for modern American architecture since the 1880's, who's offices in the tower of the auditorium building looked right down on the loft space of Steinway Hall on Van Buren. And Griffin, his life was changed forever by this fact of being with these people. And they were a fairly communal group: Dwight Perkins, Myron Hunt, Robert Spencer, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who had just left the space to open his studio in Oak Park in 1898, next to his house, before Griffin arrived.
QUESTION: Whom did Griffin work for?
PAUL KRUTY: Griffin worked for each of the other three, one after another as a draftsman, not as a practicing architect. But simply to learn the principles of architecture in an office to get office experience. And we know almost as if he had a plan in his mind after two years of doing this, he sat for the license exam of the state of Illinois, the first state to have an architect-licensing exam. He passed the exam with very high grades, some of the highest of the time. And he went to work for Frank Lloyd Wright out in the Oak Park studio. When he arrived at Frank Lloyd Wright's studio he had not only a University degree but also two years of drafting experience and a license to practice architecture. He could have gone into business for himself in 1901, but instead he joined Wright's studio.
QUESTION: Did Griffin ever talk about this experience?
PAUL KRUTY: Griffin himself never said anything about why he went to work for Frank Lloyd Wright. He never said very much about Wright at all. As opposed to Marion Mahony Griffin who was very verbose in her comments about Wright and what she thought he had done to Griffin, But Griffin himself was silent on the subject. What we do know is the kind of architecture that he practiced with Wright and then after he left Wright was a direct result of his inspiration, not from Wright but from Louis Sullivan. And Griffin did tell us that in a famous lecture in 1900 called "The Young Man in Architecture", because we several times recorded that Griffin said this dozens of times, that "this lecture completely changed my life."
QUESTION: Which lecture was that?
PAUL KRUTY: This was a lecture in which Sullivan called for young architects to create a modern democratic architecture, to pull away the shackles of the past which he perceived historic styles to be, and to create a modern architecture. Which is what Frank Lloyd Wright was doing and what Griffin himself then did. But it is very important that Walter Burley Griffin is a follower of Louis Sullivan and not Frank Lloyd Wright. His is a partner with Wright at least in his own mind if not legal fact.
QUESTION: What was Griffin's architectural goal?
PAUL KRUTY: Griffin's goal in trying to find a modern style of architecture perhaps is easiest arrived at in a negative way. It was not that there were particularly things that architects should do, instead that each project should begin anew, that the contemporary way of designing was wrong. And for most architects, a design on the boards at the moment was given validity by its relationship to a past form of architecture. They honestly thought that the significance of buildings was greatly enhanced by relationship to a past building, or style of architecture. This is a perfectly legitimate method of design, but it was something Griffin inherited or learned from Sullivan to be morally wrong, that there should be no precondition in the design of a building. So he was not imitating some other style. His way of seeing architecture, the materials, the use of a building, the particular needs of a client, these all should generate a building that answered these needs and that a style would devise from this. Now, of course, we all know what a Frank Lloyd Wright building looks like. And we can learn to know what a Walter Burley Griffin building looks like. So eventually the architect found his or her own personal style. And Sullivan had predicted that they would. And Sullivan had thought further that all these styles would lead to an American style someday. So Griffin's main interest at the beginning of his career was simply to try to break away from what he saw as the straight jackets of the historic styles.
QUESTION: What was the atmosphere at Wright's Oak Park studio?
PAUL KRUTY: Frank Lloyd Wright set up his studio in Oak Park because presumably the majority of his clients lived in the suburbs. His practice in the first decade of the 20th century was primarily for suburban residences. The clients could see how Wright lived and he set up his studio with the drafting room. The clients could see the octagonal library where he could show them previous designs and sort of wow them. Presumably, this set a very relaxed attitude for draftsmen like Griffin who would come in from one suburb, Elmhurst to Oak Park, and no longer part of the formal aspect perhaps of an office in Chicago's loop. The studio was anywhere from eight to ten people. It varied from time to time. And there were often artists coming in to do renderings and three to four sculptors that come and went. We have some accounts of this period due to a remarkable group of letters the date from 1904 to 1906 by the draftsmen at the time, who was writing back to an old friend and sending them back out east. And from that we can see that the atmosphere was very relaxed. There was quite a bit of give and take. It was clear that Wright would bring ideas in the form of sketches, and some of the employees, most prominently Griffin, would respond to it. They would argue about things and Wright would go on and work on the design anew. Wright was also very generous in allowing these people to design buildings after hours. And this was very unusual in the context of the time. Wright himself was dismissed for designing buildings after hours by Louis Sullivan when Wright worked for Louis Sullivan.
QUESTION: Did Griffin take advantage of this?
PAUL KRUTY: Griffin himself designed several buildings after hours including a large house in Elmhurst and a stable in Elmhurst through family connections. But several others including Marion Mahony designed a church while she was working for Wright, and William Drummond also designed a church. All of these were known to Wright and he was happy to share, to let the employees work as long as the work didn't interfere with the office work. In Griffin's case, this designing after hours also included a second career as a landscape architect, because during 1900 to 1905 he did several projects on his own. Most notably the Eastern Illinois State Normal School, a campus plan.
QUESTION: What was Griffin's role in Wright's studio?
PAUL KRUTY: Griffin's role in Wright's office was a complicated role. As we've talked about, he was the partner in some sense. He certainly was very helpful to Wright in finding some solutions. But he also served as project manager on quite a few of the more famous projects including the Larkin Building. He was also involved in some form in the commissions that happened in Buffalo, NY, including the Darwin Martin House. Griffin then designed the landscape plan, not simple overseeing the construction but had a very important creative role in the landscaping of this large estate. In fact anytime at this period that a client wanted a landscape plan, Griffin provided that plan.
QUESTION: Why was that?
PAUL KRUTY: Frank Lloyd Wright was simply not interested in landscape architecture from 1900 to 1910. Particularly he didn't have the knowledge to produce such a plan whereas Griffin through his studies when he was a high school kid all the way up to the two classes in horticulture that he took at University of Illinois. We have at least some of the books he owned that he took with him to Australia. We know that he was very serious about landscape gardening, and landscape architecture. He would prepare the plant list and also the placement of the plants. The client would presumably order the plants themselves and arrange for the construction of the landscaping.
QUESTION: What about Marion?
PAUL KRUTY: Marion Mahony was the other college-educated draftsman in the office. She had a degree in Architecture and the following year went to work for Wright for whom she worked on and off all the way until 1909. Some 14 years she was an Associate of his. She was in the office for almost 6 years before Griffin ever arrived. At one point she was practically the only office help. So she had a very strong personal relationship with Wright. She not only helped with the drafting, but somewhere in there, in the first part of the decade, she created the drafting presentation style that we know her work through. That is the perspective drawings that combined plans with perspectives that look so much like Japanese prints. We think of that as Frank Lloyd Wright's trademark drawing style but it was all created by Marion Mahony. She was a fabulous drafter. The creative role in the relationship between Marion and Wright's work has not been entirely worked out. The idea that she created merely ornamentally details for his buildings can not be entirely true because her training a MIT was fully as an architect, much as Griffin's was at the University of Illinois. We also know that the buildings that she designed for the most part, that survived, were done, part of their purpose was to look like a Wright building. This was because in 1909 Wright went to Europe and entrusted his office to another architect. That architect immediately hired Marion to finish the buildings that were not so much under construction, but he hadn't actually designed yet. And yet the clients wanted a Frank Lloyd Wright house. And they had hired Wright to design the buildings. So Marion designed these buildings. As we can see, aspects of them are not Wright's. And presumably Marion Mahony houses are supposed to look like Wright houses. Hence, the houses in Decatur which are so very Wrightian, at the same time we know she designed them.
QUESTION: Which houses specifically?
PAUL KRUTY: The Irving house was the first one. This was the one in which Wright had left sketches for in Decatur and Marion re-designed it and oversaw the construction of it. The other two houses, there were no sketches left by Wright. And the Robert Mueller house is entirely her work. And the Adolph Mueller is the last of the three. And by this time, she is already working with Griffin who was landscaping the three houses. And there are some suggestions that the two of them worked together on that house, although it is basically her house as well. It's interesting, in the Irving House, we have several different versions in Mahony's hand. One of which has earlier dates and looks very much like the Robert Mueller house. It has great overhanging hipped roofs, primarily. You know, it was built to be a gabled house. It has gables on all ends in very typical Griffin manner. And we have a sketch that has later dates that show this, in her handwriting. The suggestion seems to be that Griffin looked at her first sketch and said, "Maybe you should try gabled roofs on this." That does not make it a Griffin design. Still its plan, its change of levels, the particular glass motifs, all of it is Marion Mahony.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about the Emery House?
PAUL KRUTY: The Emery House designed by Griffin and built in Elmhurst in the very first years that he worked for Wright is really a remarkable design. You already see some of the elements that Griffin is going to develop in the next two years. Most primarily, what distinguished the work from a Wright building is the vertical interpretation of space. Wright is famous for having broken down the barrier of the wall between spaces. And in dining rooms he had fully done this by 1902. But he was never as interested in combining vertical spaces. Whereas Griffin's first independent work on anything, the Emery House, shows this interest of his. For example, the dining room is a half step lower than the living room and above the living room is a den that looks down onto the living room. This is what we would think of as a bi-level construction, houses of the 1950s. There was nothing in Wright's work that was like this. So this is very much a Griffin idea. And it was an idea that developed in the Ralph Griffin House that he built for his brother, a few years later.