A Dialogue with the Man

I was recently at a Design Thinking conference at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and took the opportunity to see some well-known domestic architecture around the Chicago area: the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in Plano Illinois; the Ford Residence by Bruce Goff in Aurora, Illinois; the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Chicago; and finally the Samara House by Frank Lloyd Wright, adjacent to the Purdue University Campus.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river.  The house was constructed on steel stilts to save the building from flooding.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river. The house was designed in 1945, built in 1951 and was constructed on stilts to protect the building from flooding.

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House, by Bruce Goff.  The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House (1951), by Bruce Goff. The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

It was a fascinating road trip; not only to see how the houses presented themselves, but also to see how they were narrated by guides, residents, and ‘interpreters’. For lasting influence, the effrontery and discipline of the Farnsworth House was surely the winner, but probably the most interesting was the Samara House, where one of the original owner (age 97) still lives and where the stories of the architect-client relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright have the authentic ring of living memory to back them up.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for John and Katherine Christian in 1955.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Catherine and John Christian in 1954.

The house was commissioned John E. and Catherine Christian, who both worked at Purdue University, Catherine was the Social Director of the institution while John was a Professor of medicinal chemistry (a pioneer of the use of radioactive isotopes to trace the path of drugs through the human body). In 1948, soon after they married they came across one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘American system’ houses in Milwaukee and liked them so much (the story goes) they decided to contact FLW, then aged 81, to see if he would design them a new home. Much to everyone’s amazement FLW said that he would and so began a design process that has only in recent years come to final fruition. The house was completed in 1954 but the Christians were unable to afford much of the furniture, fittings and interiors that FLW designed at the time (and there isn’t much that FLW didn’t design in a FLW house!) so undertook to fulfill his plans and vision for the house over the course of the years and when sufficient money became available. The result today is an entirely realised FLW environment – lights, shelves, audio and television systems, rugs, furniture, curtains, stools, plates, cups, and cutlery; all FLW. If he could have got his hands on the oven and fridge he probably would have designed them too. The man was a design machine.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

The Christians embraced the design machine, happy to trust in the overall vision and have their lives structured and ordered by FLW, who would have expected nothing less. As the interpreter pointed out, the living space, partly created for seminars and discussion with students and colleagues, had seen a few Nobel prizewinners passing through.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings.  The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW's design, and features the 'winged seed' (Samara) inspiration for the house.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings. The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW’s design, and features the ‘winged seed’ (Samara) inspiration for the house.

Famously FLW was the model for Howard Roark, the no-compromise architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Rand had also been one of FLW’s clients, though the house he designed for her was never built. Of the water-colour sketch Wright produced in response to her brief she gushed:

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

“The house you designed for me is magnificent.  I gasped when I saw it.  It is the particular kind of sculpture in space which I love and which nobody but you has ever been able to achieve.  I was not very coherent when I told you what kind of house I wanted—and I had the impression that you did not approve of what I said.  Yet you designed exactly the house I hoped to have.  The next time somebody accuses you of cruelty and inconsideration toward clients, refer them to me.”

FLW’s ‘cruelty and inconsideration’ towards clients was legendary; how dare anyone question the genius? But nevertheless the genius was questioned and FLW had a variety of responses to those questions. The Interpreter at the Samara House had a story: one wife of a client who reputedly complained that the bathroom Wright designed lacked suitable storage found that the answer to her question was a deliberately mis-designed cupboard, almost impossible to open without doors banging. Wright’s dialogue was with the architects around him who had acquired sufficient knowledge for him to meaningfully engage with. Not for him the petty concerns about volume of storage, or kitchens that were too small, or the wrong shape, or not required at all. FLW was interested in the overall composition, and that derived from a system, with an underlying logic, coupled with a creative inspiration. In the case of the Samara House the system was a 4ft grid and the inspiration was a winged seed Wright had found on the building plot (Samara: noun, a dry one-seeded fruit, with a winglike appendage that facilitates distribution on air currents). Take it or leave it, FLW might have said, but don’t mess about with it. At one point in the design process of the Samara house Dr Christian, looking at his vanishing bank balance, wrote to Wright to ask if he could make the living room smaller:

The wire that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

The telegram that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

“Wish to shorten living room length from 32 feet to 28 feet by removal of section G-2-H. Advise. Wire or call collect whether satisfactory from an architectural point of view. If not recommend way of reducing size of living room.”

Wright replies in a scrawl:

“Sorry you feel living room too large. Have never yet seen one too large. Yours is already too small.”

The answer to Christain’s “satisfactory from an architectural point of view” question is no, because if Christian understood the architecture and composition, he wouldn’t be asking the question. Wright understood that to enter into dialogue with the client at this level, to explain in feet and inches, would be to compromise the (or his) ‘architecture’. His response allows no counter-response other than to carry on, or not carry on. But the dialogue is there; Wright is communicating his idea of architecture as efficiently as it is possible to do so. The exchange brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s readable critique of modern architecture in his book From Bauhuas to Our House [1]. Modernism as design idea, social programme, and new aesthetic was so forceful in Architecture it was like a tidal wave. And how, Wolfe writes, do you negotiate with a tidal wave? The tour of the Farnsworth House revealed one of the architects surfing that Modernist tidal wave. Mies van der Rohe, the former head of the Bauhaus, was the Farnsworth architect whose minimalist spaces projected a future that somehow still remains the future. But he shared with FLW the problem of having to deliver a building for a client who focused more on how they could live in the building than understanding the architectural space created. Alice Friedman nicely describes the conflict that Edith Farnsworth had with MvdR in attempting to make her weekend retreat in rural Illinois more of a home. Somewhere to hang the clothes perhaps? or maybe an easy chair to relax in comfort? MvdR compromised on a formal wardrobe, but was unhappy about it. Friedman perceptively describes the key difference between the architect and the client as:

“being the profound understanding of the fact that while the architect of a house can remain fully clothed at all times, the client must ultimately strip naked if the house is to become a home.” [2]

In a glass box next to the Fox river in Plano, Illinois, stripping naked as a single women must have been an intimidating thing. But the architect of the building wants to be the architect of your interior life; in return for space he wants your psyche. Where Farnsworth rebelled by rejecting MvdR’s formal layout and bringing in her own domestic furniture, the Christians assented by, erm, bringing in their own furniture but undertaking to realise FLW’s vision. Because how do you negotiate with a tidal wave? When MvdR visited the site for the Farnsworth House he thought about the river and how high it might get in full flood. According to the tour guide he asked the local fisherman what the maximum height the river had ever reached was and designed the steel stilts for the house to keep it just above that height. Architect 1, Nature 0 you might say. What he didn’t account for was how building development upstream, channeling run-off water through concrete culverts, might alter the behavior of the river which now floods on a regular basis and reaches heights midway up the building. Architect 1, Nature 1. And he also didn’t factor in a changing climate, with rainfall more focused, intense and liable to cause flash flooding. Architect 1, Nature 2. In fact negotiating with a tidal wave turns out to be more like slowly turning a tap on; a tap that will eventually flood by sheer persistence; a water level imperceptibly rising until its presence can’t be denied. How did the water get in? The architect, preparing for the tidal wave, might say. What a small little nuisance, they might think. But they’d have to do something about it.

[1] Wolfe, T. (1981) From Bauhaus to Our House, Picador.

[2] Friedman, A.T. (2007) Women and the Making of the Modern House, Yale University Press.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing so much knowledge in the post. During many years in school, people kept telling me that famous architects of Modernism always focused on the use of the space which meant the client’s needs or the ordinary human needs. Until I read through this article I find out these people have never ever understand those “tidal-wave” architects. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful article. I always knew even at school that this or that doesn’t look practical but for Wright or Mies these were sculptures in space with a nuisance of having residents.

  3. Great post – I loved Wrights respond to Christian. Typically somewhat arrogant yet to the point. I wonder what Fritz Schumacher may have retorted to FLLW. I have always been amazed with Wright’s buildings, and it’s sad his Usonian vision didn’t become more of the model for American homes.

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