Location: 951 Chicago Ave Oak Park, IL 60302
What is architecture anyway? Is it the vast collection of the various buildings which have been built to please the varying tastes of the various lords of mankind? I think not. No, I know that architecture is life; or at least it is life itself taking form and therefore it is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today or ever will be lived…So, architecture I know to be a Great Spirit.
— Frank Lloyd Wright
In 1991, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) bestowed upon Wright the title of “the greatest American architect of all time.” Incredibly prolific and influential, Wright has designed over 1,000 projects, of which approximately 400 have been completed.
Fallingwater, that famous house built partly over a waterfall in rural southwestern Pennsylvania in 1935, is said to best exemplify his defining design concept: “organic architecture,” an ideal that seeks a harmonious relationship between the built and the unbuilt environments. Unfortunately, I’ve never made it to Fallingwater. When I was in Pittsburgh, I looked for public transportation options to take me to Wright’s masterpiece, but not surprisingly, I came up short.
To make up for it, I took the El to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Tour in Chicago’s Oak Park, which I highly recommend. Built between 1889 and 1898, Wright “used his home as an architectural laboratory, experimenting with design concepts that contain the seeds of his architectural philosophy.”
My docent, who was fantastic, was not only a great storyteller of Frank LLoyd Wright’s life–his mother planned for Wright to grow up as an architect and surrounded him in childhood with those building blocks–but she fascinated us with how detailed and deliberate Wright’s design was. Everything in the house is tailored or shifted for a specific purpose, with few, if any, extraneous elements. Doorway heights were specially tailored to his height (or his children’s heights in the playroom). Furniture was built into the walls, such as benches or the piano, so as to maximize floor space. A sense of ‘flow’ was stressed throughout his design, so elements and patterns were placed throughout the house to lead the eye and person through and up the house.
Other than his attention to detail and function, what most intrigued me was his design philosophy to integrate the built form with landscape. The land that Wright purchased for the house was formerly cultivated by an arborist; in respect to the land, Wright was careful to preserve existing trees. Even the building looks as if it grew out from the ground. Within the house, Wright chose to paint the interior subdued hues of browns, yellows and greens as a way to seamlessly bring nature within the house. And when he built the studio extension, rather than cutting down a mature tree that interfered with the connecting passageway, he cut holes into the wall to allow the tree limbs to pass through and into the interior of the house.
Frank LLoyd Wright will always remain a standout name and influential figure, however, up until this tour, I was never quite clear on how influential he was. To explicate his design genius, level of attention to detail, and dedication to function are too much for a blog post. But, suffice to say, it’s been a worthy and educational visit. And aside from Wright’s house, Oak Park is also home to a large number of Wright-designed houses.