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That House is a Lie!

To mark Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, American Experience spoke with Professor Dale Gyure of the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Tech about horizontal lines, dishonest buildings, and why the legendary architect thought sprawl was a good thing.

By Cori Brosnahan. Animations by Elias Mallette, Natalia Evdokimova.

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The Robie House in Chicago is one of the best-known example of Wright’s Prairie style. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frank Lloyd Wright began his career in the 1880s. What was American architecture like at the time?

Back then, the architecture that dominated the western world, including the United States, featured copies of historical styles: Gothic Revival, buildings that looked like Greek temples — basically anything that had been done in the past. Architects were judged by their ability to work within the parameters of the existing styles, while adding their own twists. Today, we have a different mindset: one of the best things a creative artist can do is make something different and not repeat themselves or anybody else. But it was different in that age.

Early in his career, Wright decides to concentrate on the modern American home — specifically middle- and upper-middle-class homes. Why is that significant?

At the time, if you think of a hierarchy of building types in terms of what’s important in the architecture world, government buildings, churches, and wealthy people’s mansions would be at the top. Middle-class houses were down towards the bottom. There wasn’t a lot of real effort put into re-thinking them or trying to make them better, and there was a lot of copying going on. You had what we would call the Victorian house now; there were odd angles and corner nooks and turrets and spiky parts sticking out all over the place — all that was for show on the outside. Inside, nothing had really changed in a while; the house was just a big box, a container, stuffed with little boxes for rooms.

So Wright decides to take this on as his path to glory. He recognizes that no one else is working on middle-class houses as something important in themselves. He feels like he has ideas that will bring him success, and also make people’s lives better.

In his autobiography, Wright wrote, “What was the matter with the kind of house I found on the prairie? Just for a beginning, let’s say that house lied about everything. It had no sense of Unity.” What did he mean by that? How does a house lie?

On the one hand, he’s talking about the overemphasis on the way the house looks as opposed to how it works, how it’s laid out inside. He’s also more specifically talking about the use of the old styles. So when he would say a house is lying, or a bank building was a lie, he means that because it’s borrowing the architectural expression of a past age, it’s not being truthful, it’s not being of it’s own time; it’s trying to get you to think that it’s coming from some kind of background in France in 1200 or England in 1400. In his mind, using old styles in the present day was a lie in and of itself.

Is that a groundbreaking idea, or are there other people saying the same thing?

It’s pretty groundbreaking, but Wright isn’t entirely alone. There are other people here and there, just voices in the wilderness at this point, the late 1800s, who are saying that architecture should be adjusted to its time.

The most prominent proponent is Louis Sullivan, who Wright ended up working for and was really the pivotal mentor figure in his life in terms of architectural theory. Sullivan’s unique twist was that not only should architecture be of its time, it should represent the people who made it. His argument was that America hasn’t done that yet. And Wright ends up adopting that attitude as well. He becomes a particular kind of modernist that starts to appear more frequently after 1900 in the United States: the person who argues for an American art.

Wright’s first attempt to design a modern American home results in the Prairie style, for which he became famous. How were the Prairie homes different from their peers?

First of all, he obviously rejects all the historical styles. Instead, he begins to utilize these design elements that urge people to think about nature, and to make a connection between the building and nature in some way. So he does things like use natural materials whenever possible. Now that’s not unique to him — it was the heyday of the arts and crafts movement. But he goes beyond that. He designs houses that have these overwhelming horizontal lines — rows of windows, trim, just the form of the building, all horizontal, very little vertical. And he does this because he says, this is a way we can connect the house to the area where it’s built; these horizontal lines are supposed to echo the ground the building is on.

Wright also embarks on this project to “break the box,” to destroy the barriers between rooms on the inside, as well as between the inside and the outside. This leads to the “open plan,” which is probably Wright’s greatest contribution to architectural history.

Why did he place such an emphasis on open plans?

I think functionality is a big part — he’s concerned about flow between rooms, which people didn’t talk about back then. He’s concerned about our perceptions of space at a time when the word “space” is just starting to enter the architectural language. He’s interested in psychology and the experience of space. If you look at the plan of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, you’ll notice that almost every room is entered from a corner. He rarely puts the entry in the middle of a wall because if you enter from the corner, the room expands out from you in a different way than if you enter in the middle of it. That was intentional.

Who did his Prairie homes appeal to? Who were his clients?

In the Prairie years, so about 1915 or so, he was mainly appealing to upper-middle-class people. They tended to be slightly progressive in their political and social attitudes. These weren’t old money people. A lot of them were self-made — people who lifted themselves up, started a business, and ended up being very successful.

You have to figure that culturally, these people weren’t averse to taking risks. Wright’s Prairie houses don’t look like anything else on the street. So people who commissioned them knew that they were going to be looked at differently. Wright liked to promote the idea that it was him against the world, that his ideas were so radical that everybody was against him at first and he had to convince them. That’s part of his self-narrative, but it’s not true. He found acceptance early on. He designed around 100 prairie houses and a lot of them were built. And they didn’t seem to cause the disruption in the neighborhood that you might expect. People seem to have gotten used to them pretty quickly.

Wright described his work as “organic architecture.” What did he mean by that?

“Organic” for him was an architecture that exists in harmony with nature and that utilizes nature as the resource. He famously said, “never put a building on top of a hill.” Because then it looks like a man-made object sitting on a hill. You always put it on the slope, so it seems to be emerging from the hill — like part of the hill.

It also means modeling nature in some cases. When most architects designed a skyscraper, they built a steel frame and wrapped the walls around it. When Wright built one, he modeled it on the tree. He argued for a central concrete core that’s dug deep into the ground, with the floors cantilevered off that core.

The philosophy behind organic architecture seems closely aligned with the thinking of 19th-century transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. Was Wright influenced by their writings?

He was intimately familiar with those people. Emerson was one of his heroes. Whitman was a hero, not so much for his poetry, but for his advocacy of America and democracy as being something unique and special.

Wright’s family was also Unitarian. And I think that’s where a lot of it came from. When you start to look at Unitarianism, especially the 19th-century brand of it, it’s full of nature. It’s the idea that every leaf is a microcosm of the universe, everything is connected, unified in some way. That’s another reason why Wright is interested in creating this kind of architecture. He tried to unify buildings with nature because more harmony makes for a better society.

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The Lowell and Agnes Walter House, completed in 1950 in Quasqueton, Iowa, was one of Wright’s most complete “Usonian” homes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the 1930s, Wright starts to design the “Usonian” houses. What inspired this new concept?

By the time Wright gets to the Usonians, a number of things have happened. The Depression has begun, and it’s changing family circumstances. There’s less money around for everybody, so things have to be designed more inexpensively. The ‘30s also saw a lot more mass production. So Wright is looking at everything going on, thinking about how the work he’s already done can fit into this, and he ends up creating these Usonian houses. The Prairie houses were more middle to upper middle class. The Usonian houses were intended for everybody. They’re adaptable; you can scale them down as small as you want or blow them up as big as you want as a way to fit the circumstances and the financial needs of the family. And whether it’s a small one or a really big one, a Usonian house is still going to use the same principles.

What are those principles?

With the Usonians, Wright is essentially attempting to tweak the Prairie house. You’ve still got a lot of the same ideas going on — the breaking down of the box, the horizontality of nature, using natural materials — but he does things like get rid of basements; he says they’re unnecessary and they cost too much. Instead, he says, we can heat the concrete slab [of the foundation], and because heat rises, we can heat the whole house that way. That way, you don’t have to have the same kind of furnace, and you don’t have to put ducts in the walls, which means you can make the walls thinner, which means that you use less material and it’s cheaper. He also gets rid of garages; he says we don’t need them, they fill up with clutter — all we need is a carport. On top of that, he says the Usonians can be mass-produced in large part off-site. These kind of cost-cutting things are what allow you to tailor your house to the circumstances.

In his writings, Wright frequently references the idea of American democracy. What did democracy mean to him?

For Wright, democracy is all about freedom. Architecturally, that’s easy to see in a lot of his work. It means open planning and the freedom to move around inside your house, as well as between the inside and the outside.

But freedom also means the ability to be an individual, to do the things you want, and to think and say the things you want. Architecture is a great way to demonstrate that. He wanted to develop a system where you could have a house designed for you that looked like nobody else’s in the world. It’s an expression of you. And even if you put it in the pool of Wright houses — Prairie style, Usonian, whatever era it falls in — it still isn’t going to be exactly like all the other ones. There will be similarities, but your house will allow you to have the individuality and flexibility that demonstrates what’s so great about America. So it’s all circling back to that idea that the buildings should reflect the people that make and use them.

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A blueprint for Florida Southern College, Wright’s largest collection of buildings. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What was Broadacre City?

People hear “Broadacre City” and they think it’s one place, but it’s not; Broadacre City is America, basically. It’s Wright’s very autobiographical attempt to redefine the American landscape. It’s his proposal — recorded in drawings, models, articles and book — for how to deal with the problem of the modern city.

In the early 20th century, people all over the world started to realize that with the introduction of automobiles, mass transportation, and growing populations, our old cities weren’t working so well. So there’s a huge debate that goes on, and various sides and affiliations have their own ideas about how to fix it. The most common one you heard from the European modernists was that you should go for high density; that the way to solve the problem with cities is to stack people up so that you use less area on the ground, so that can be turned over into parks and whatnot. And that you pay attention to circulation, and you start designing for automobiles and that kind of thing.

Wright’s vision was exactly the opposite. In contrast to the high density model, he favored what we now call sprawl. His argument was, we have more than enough land, so let’s take advantage of it. A lot of what’s driving this is his own personal history. He grew up loving nature, spent a lot of time on his family’s farms; that was always his touchstone. And he essentially wanted everybody to be able to recreate that experience. So instead of stacking people up and creating higher densities in cities, he wants to drain them out and create low density across the entire landscape, so that everybody gets at least an acre of land and can afford their own house.

It fits in with the American dream; in America, everybody wants their own house and a yard. He’s playing into that, but he wants everyone to have at least an acre because then you can start growing your own food, keep some animals — live sort of a semi-rural existence.

It’s interesting, Wright was so ahead of his time in a lot of ways, but not on this point. In fact, it seems like we’ve gone in the other direction. These days “sprawl” is a bad word.

I think that’s one reason why people haven’t heard a lot about Broadacre City. By and large, the consensus is that it may look like we have enough room for everybody, but a lot of that land is unusable and we want to protect it from development. When it gets down to it, we maybe don’t have as much room as he thought.

But one does wonder about the future. Now that we have the internet, people can do their jobs remotely. And new transportation technologies could theoretically connect diffuse communities.

And in fact, Frank Lloyd Wright was thinking about modern technology when he designed Broadacre City. He says over and over again, we don’t have to live right next to each other anymore; we have cars and trains and other forms of transportation. We can talk to each other via telephone, telegraph, long-distance communications. Let’s spread out.

It’s a tough call in America considering our refusal to invest in things like high speed trains, but assuming a future where that might be more popular, it could lead at least conceptually to less of a need to congregate in large groups.

So he could still get his way.

He could.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dale Gyure is a professor in the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University. His first book, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College (University of Florida Press), remains the only comprehensive history of the largest and longest-lasting project of America’s most famous architect. He also serves on the board of director at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

Originally published on June 8, 2017.

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