Having recently rediscovered notes from a visit to San Francisco, during which my wife and I enjoyed a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Hanna House on the campus of Stanford University, my thoughts keep returning to the insights Wright spent a lifetime teaching.
Like his mentor, Louis Sullivan, Wright took seriously the idea that America and its citizens deserved buildings truly suited to a democratic way of life. In his view, democracy implied responsibility; not just to vote, but to live in such a way as to encourage and nurture the freedom and growth of each individual.
Wright’s houses were embodiments of this vision. He insisted that, since Americans were blessed with an enormous and largely unspoiled land, they should not crowd themselves together in freedom-killing proximity to one another. At a minimum, said Wright, a family should have one acre for each of its members. Some of that space might be owned in common with one’s neighbors and thus shared; the important thing was that room be available for a variety of outdoor undertakings.
Further, the land that each family controlled should be understood to constitute a trust. Mere legal title to the land, said Wright, gave no one the ethical right to abuse that land. Since each person’s stewardship of his property affected the well-being of the entire community, it was imperative that the sensitivity and common sense of all citizens be raised to the highest possible level.
In order to achieve this, Wright sought to build examples of what he called “organic” architecture: buildings so conceived and executed as to become living enhancements of nature, true compliments to and complements of the ground on which they sat.
Wright’s buildings were (and are) incredibly beautiful. They achieved their beauty and their usefulness not through spending large sums of money for rare or imported materials, but rather by using materials that naturally occurred close to the building site. By using these indigenous materials, Wright’s buildings seemed to belong wherever they were.
Whenever possible, he made his buildings focus their occupants’ attention on natural gifts such as trees, stones, hills, streams, etc. But he was equally careful to orient his buildings to the sun, so as to receive comfort and cheer from its rays. He was resolute in his insistence that nature, if respected, calmed and restored us and reminded us of our rightful position in the universe.
Wright sought, and in each of his buildings achieved, the creation of a sense of shelter. But he deplored the kind of architecture that shut its occupants up in what he called “a box within a box.” Maybe, he said, it was necessary in medieval times to build walls around oneself for protection. But in a democracy, the idea was to liberate people’s potential, and the way to do that was to start right in the home, by eliminating all unnecessary partitions.
The result was the open plan, a free flow of space that made even small homes feel roomy and luxurious, and which had the added advantage of being easier to heat.
By further eliminating the “punctured” fenestration plan (a window here, a window there, each one a mere hole in the wall) and instead grouping his openings into generous “window-walls,” he welcomed the outdoors into the house and in turn created a sense of the indoors moving out. So well did he master that that in some of his houses it’s nearly impossible to tell where the outside stops and the inside begins.
Though he died some 60 years ago, Wright’s ideas are as fresh and pertinent today as ever. His goal remains a noble one: to create structures that enhance their occupants, uplift the community, and celebrate the beauty and the bounty of America.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.
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