Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Douchebag Genius

Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago, Illinois
If you've watched the Steve Jobs movie, then you know that brilliant people can be total assholes. The obsessive drive that leads to innovation doesn't always come with great social skills. Frank Lloyd Wright, architect extraordinaire was one of those douchebag geniuses.

At the end of October, Steve and I drove down to Naperville, just outside of Chicago, to visit my brother and his family. While there, we took a day trip into Chicago to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's first home and studio.

Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect/artist who launched what became known as the Prairie School of architecture. The buildings he designed are landmarks and well worth a visit if you find yourself near one.

Chicago has a number of his designs available to tour, but I thought it made sense to start with his first efforts, and I'm glad we did.

We arrived at the tour location a little early, so we walked around the Oak Park neighbourhood to pass the time.

While walking, I learned something about Gingko trees, common in this area.

"Unpleasant," in this case means "fecal."
The houses he designed are distinctive, especially for their time.

One of his earlier houses. You can tell by all the vertical lines and the shallow eaves.
One key feature was the porches and balconies incorporated into the main house architecture, rather than as wooden add-ons.

Here we see the deeper eaves popular in his work.
Another was the emphasis on horizontal lines and elemental shapes: circles, half-circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles. You won't find sinuous organic lines of art nouveau in his designs.

His philosophy was that the architecture should match the landscape which, in this case, was flat prairies. This was a dramatic contrast to the contemporary Victorian or art nouveau style of the period.

The Victorian house next to Wright's home.
The emphasis on ornamentation, vertical development and colour were a stark contrast to Wright's style.

Frank Lloyd Wrights first studio (at left, hidden behind the tree) and home:
again, we see the building-block style of stacked shapes.
This structure was a good place to start to understand Wright. As our guide explained, it was where he carried out his design experiments. (I paid a little extra for a "photography" pass, but because we were such a crowd in such a small space, it was sometimes difficult to get a decent photo.)

With limited funds, Wright was limited to a relatively small footprint for his home, so he made maximum use by including a lot of built-in furniture, including these uncomfortable-looking couches. (I'm pretty sure they would have to be generously heaped with throw pillows in order to be comfortable.)

He also filled the rooms with as much light as possible, using windows.

Dining Room
The dining room was our first glimpse of Wright's obsessive and controlling nature. Those windows were originally much larger, down to waist height, but he had them almost completely blocked up when the neighbours built a Victorian mansion (the one shown above, actually) which he found to be an eyesore.

While seated, one could not see out the windows.
He also designed these bizarre-looking chairs. The concept was that the backs are so high that the diner could not turn around to be distracted by goings-on away from the table. The focus was to be on the meal, on the people dining with you.

The walls were covered in bland linen cloth to minimize any distraction.

Apparently, this level of detail was incorporated into all of his designs: the windows, the wallcovering, the dishes, the furniture, the linens. Every single detail mattered to him.

The fashions of the time were as ornate as the Victorian house next door, and he decided that they distracted from his perfect vision of clean design, so he compelled his wife (mother of their ten children) to dress in drab colours of his own design. He would not permit his patrons to have their houses photographed for publication unless the women were wearing clothes he designed as well.

Are you beginning to understand the asshole impression?

But there is no doubt that his artistry was epic.

Children's bedroom, with built-in wardrobes, an innovation for that time.
The use of line, lofted ceilings, monochromatic colours, and large windows made even the small rooms feel open, not claustrophobic. The large room on the second floor at the front of the house was originally a single bedroom, but as his family grew, he built a wall to divide it. However, he didn't bring the wall all the way to the lofted ceiling, which gave it a more spacious feeling.

The master bedroom was a little more elaborate, of course.

Fresco on the interior gable in the master bedroom, commissioned by Wright to evoke the spirit of the Prairies.
One of the other concepts he liked to incorporate into his designs was the idea of "compression and release."

The hall to the children's playroom.
The halls were purposely narrow and dimly lit before opening into a larger, lofty space which triggers a sense of openness and release.

The playroom was probably my favourite room in the house. The window seats were designed quite low to the ground, so the youngsters could easily climb into them.

In the playroom, as in the rest of his house and studio, you see the basic shapes of the Froebel Kindergarten blocks he grew up with. You see these fundamental forms everywhere in his designs.

Yup. Even in the light fixtures.

Moving from the house to his studio, we admired the ornamented pillars on his office porch.

He designed the motif, but, if I recall correctly, couldn't afford to have them
cast in bronze, so they are painted plaster.
Continuing his idiosyncratic pleasure in manipulating people, the actual entrance to his studio/office required the visitor to make a sharp left or right turn upon passing through the colonnade.

He designed the tilt-top architect desk -- an innovation.
I took more pictures in his studio and office, but they didn't turn out -- too crowded, not really enough light, unfortunately, and many areas (the balcony in the architects' studio) were blocked off. We did learn that, after Wright ran off to Europe with a client's wife, abandoning his own wife and 10 children, Mrs. Wright and the children moved into the cramped studio space and turned the house itself into a rooming house, in order to provide an income, as Wright himself sent no alimony or support. Yup: douchebag.

All in all, lots of interesting stuff to learn, and beautiful work to admire; it is worth a visit if you are in the area and have time.

To close out our afternoon in Chicago, we went to Millennium Park and saw "The Bean" as it's known.

This captivating sculpture is a magnet for tourists and photographers, especially on a sunny day.

This girl chose it as her photo spot for her QuinceaƱera (15th birthday celebration). I thought it was a bridal party until we noticed the colour and age. Holy smokes!

The reflective, curving surface makes for some fun pictures.

That's me in the red jacket, Stephen in the blue and grey,
and my sister-in-law Mary Ann in the black car-coat and red gloves further back to the right.
We also saw some really cool sculptures that don't make sense unless they're viewed from a particular angle.

I'm always fascinated by artists who can play with this kind of distortion.

We did a little more walking around, then stopped for a yummy treat before heading home to Naperville. More about Naperville another time.


  1. Is it weird that I like both the Victorian design AND the Wright? That's so very contradictory, but I find things that appeal to me in both designs. Perhaps it is that neither of them are remotely similar to the cookie cutter look of my own neighborhood. I like that they are unique.

    1. I do, too, as well as art nouveau. And I live in a 1965 house that has almost no character.


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