Little Tour in the Prairie Style – Frank Lloyd Wright and Lutyens in the US

19-27 October, 2013

By David Averill

Compression and release; no, not the latest workout craze but rather a phrase we became familiar with as we travelled around the works of Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania on our architectural road trip. Wright believed that one should enter modestly via a low entrance — understood as compression — and then find spiritual and physical liberation as one progressed to a higher space — release. The soul should be allowed a little breathing space. Of course, as with all things Wright it was a very Frank-centred view of the world. Wright’s idea of compression happened to correspond to his own height which, at 5’ 8”, was not all that tall. The effect therefore could be head-scrapingly close but
the release was certainly worth it. Wright and Lutyens were near-contemporaries but stylistically an ocean apart. Wright rejected the old-world notions of classical architecture, trying instead to find a truly American style.

Firstly he experimented with the horizontal planes of the ‘Prairie style’, where the wide-open spaces of his native Wisconsin permeated the sense of openness he tried to create with long intersecting horizontals and interconnecting volumes. He later progressed to his ‘US’ or ‘Usonian style’ whose ideas were more democratic and affordable. One of the most delightful of these houses and one of the first was Jacobs I. We visited and enjoyed the warmth of its small interior where wood and brick combine with tall glazed walls to create a shelter from the cold winters. He loved the autumn colours of Wisconsin in autumn and these repeatedly crop up in his buildings. The architects among our group could not help a small smile of admiration at Wright’s robust ego which allowed him to get away with the odd outrageous comment. At Wingspan, the house built for HF Johnson, Jr of the company SC Johnson & Son (of Johnson Wax fame), we heard how at his first important dinner party, the rain began to fall and the roof leaked spots of water on Johnson’s head. Just about containing his chagrin, he managed to get through to Wright to explain that the water was dripping right where he sat. A pregnant pause ensued after which Wright suggested, without apparent irony, that he move his chair. Of course, Wright was an innovator with design and materials and, like Lutyens, his houses rarely ran to budget. Every project we visited seemed to have exceeded the original estimate, yet at least the client had something to show for it.

Mention at this point should be made of our driver Marion. With skill and good humour she delivered us safely each day, and facilitated the detours we sometimes made to find that extra Wright house around the next corner. She patiently negotiated the bumper-to-bumper traffic as we drove north out of Chicago. We wondered, “Does everyone here drive against the traffic?”

Our long drive north from Chicago was worth it as it brought us to one of the highlights of our tour — Taliesin. After the retail sprawl hugging the freeway, it was a joy to see the landscape unfettered by commercial development. The Lloyd-Jones family had settled in this Wisconsin valley in the 19th century, having arrived from Wales. This was Wright’s maternal heritage and it was here that he founded his estate. Dotted across the valley are several significant structures still used to this day as an architecture school. Taliesin became famous for the wrong reasons when a mass murder occurred in 1914 while Wright was away in Chicago. Seven were killed by a deranged servant including Wright’s new partner Mamah Cheney. The servant then set fire to the house causing severe damage. Taliesin was to burn down again in 1924. Each time Wright rebuilt it, extending and exploring new ideas. Taliesin is one of the great collective expressions of Wright’s work, now gladly conserved by the Taliesin Foundation. It still suffers from the sometimes impulsive nature of Wright’s inventiveness as many of the buildings are built on poor foundations and without sound attention to detail. That notwithstanding, every corner reveals a new and fresh delight. The final drama of Wright’s life post-dated even his febrile creativity. After he died he was interred in the family churchyard in the middle of the valley. His third wife Olgivanna had never cared for Taliesin, preferring the desert climate of Taliesin West. Some 26 years after his death she arranged for his remains to be exhumed and cremated, with the ashes sent west to Arizona.

There were many other highlights along the way. The Johnson Wax complex in Racine, Wisconsin is still used today, its cool elegant interior a model of a civilised working environment. The buildings are complemented by Norman Foster’s graceful new exhibition building where a replica of the small plane which was flown to Brazil to source the wax is displayed. An unplanned stop in Milwaukee allowed the party to see Santiago Calatrava’s extraordinary art museum whose bird-like centerpiece opens its wings daily to bring light into the interior. We visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, an iconic glass box nestling beside a river in Illinois. Curiously, we were not allowed to take photos inside though exterior shots were permitted. However, photographing the interior of a glass box from outside was a rather simple way of circumventing this prohibition! Predictably perhaps, for many, the greatest Wright design we saw was Fallingwater, the weekend retreat he designed for the Kaufmann family. Viewed on a cool crisp day, the light set off this house to its best advantage. Combining aspects of both the Prairie and Usonian houses, Fallingwater is truly one of those ‘see it before you die’ milestones. It feels as though the Kaufmanns will arrive from the city at any moment with their guests ready to enjoy the forest glade with the water cascading below and the beautiful interiors full of art and colour. After a visit to Peter Palumbo’s Wright-designed Kentuck Knob house a few miles away, we bade farewell to the works of FLW and prepared for the long drive to Washington and a reacquaintance with the work of ELL.

On a bright morning we walked or were driven up Massachusetts Avenue to the gates of Lutyens’s British Embassy. Here, Lutyens’s reinterpretation of the Federal style is first manifest in the Chancery buildings which mask the residence behind their tall, twinned wings. For many it was a joyous reacquaintance to be reunited with the work of Lutyens. Certainly the contrast between him and Wright was clear as we entered the geometrically complex and uplifting space of the grand staircase leading to the ceremonial corridor off which the reception spaces open. The house creates an impressive stage for diplomacy and entertainment with the garden acting to extend the theatre outwards. Standing as it does now as the crowning glory of Massachusetts Avenue, it is difficult to believe that the construction of the house was fraught with difficulties due to budgets and political interference.

If we’re to compare Lutyens and Wright, the former explored the high game of Classicism filtered through local traditions and materials, whereas the latter created a genuinely innovative style by expanding on local traditions and drawing from the landscape while always being guided by a strong sense of order and proportion. Both approaches succeeded in their own terms and both left behind an extraordinary legacy. We thank the owners and managers of the properties who welcomed us with warmth and generosity. Enormous gratitude is due to Paul Waite for his extensive research and preparation of this complex itinerary. Then, as Paul was unable to attend, Gavin Chappell stepped in to lead the tour on the ground with endless good humour and enthusiasm, aided all along by many other members who helped with navigation, exploration and explanation.

All in all a great communal effort which came together to provide a hugely enjoyable Wright banquet with a delightful dessert of Lutyens.