Tuesday, February 20, 2018

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, CHICAGO, AND THE SOLITARY PATH OF GENIUS

Postcard view of the Palace of Fina Arts, Chicago
(Architect: Charles B. Atwood, 1893)
If you ever wanted to create a Disneyland for architects, you’d only have to put a fence around Chicago. The place is so chock full of architectural masterpieces, it’s like a living history book.  

Umpteen heroes of American architecture are represented here: Louis Sullivan (you know—“form follows function”) contributed the monumental Auditorium Building in partnership with Dankmar Adler, and ten years later gave Chicago the lyrically ornamented Carson, Pirie & Scott store—the swan song of his brilliant but tragic career.  


Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago.
(Mies van der Rohe, 1949)
Charles B. Atwood, among the reigning Beaux Arts architects of his time, conjured up the ethereal Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and helped set off a nationwide mania for classical architecture. And the expatriate German architect Mies van der Rohe (“a house is a machine for living in”) got his licks in too, most notably with his Lake Shore Apartments of 1951, still considered a high-water mark of Modernist design. 

More than anything else, though, Chicago is a showcase for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The brilliant, defiant and egocentric Wright is considered the greatest architect the United States has produced, a status that’s only grown more secure in the years since his death in 1959 at 92.  

At the close of the nineteenth century, it was largely Wright who broke the Victorian stranglehold of artifice and eclecticism in architecture, and who pioneered so many of our modern residential ideals: open planning; honest use of materials; and integration of the building to its site.


Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Chicago (Oak Park):
The beginning of an architectural revolution.
Wright’s prodigious ego also helped him weather the storms of controversy that surrounded his so-called “Prairie Houses”. As his increasingly-radical designs appeared in new Chicago suburbs such as Oak Park in the early years of this century, dismayed neighbors frequently declared them to be monstrosities or worse. It’s easy to see why: compared to the dunce-capped towers, filigreed porches, and superficial gewgaws of contemporary Victorian houses, Wright’s uncompromisingly clean-lined, ground-hugging homes must have seemed like something from another planet.   


In Oak Park, in Wright’s day a quiet suburb, one can literally walk from one Wright masterpiece to the next, witnessing an architectural revolution one house at a time. It’s here that we first see Wright begin to tamper with Victorian architectural conventions, and finally discard them altogether. Among the earliest examples is Wright’s own home, begun in 1889 with $5000 loaned to him by his “lieber Meister”, Louis Sullivan. Subsequent Oak Park commissions show his style slowly mature into the now-familiar Wright hallmarks: the low, broad-eaved roofs; the banded casement windows with their dazzling leaded glass panes; the massive central chimneys which anchor the homes to their sites.  
Wright's Oak Park home for bicycle magnate Frederick C. Robie (1909),
considered the apogee of Wright's "Prairie Style" phase.
(Image: Garret Karp View for Open House Chicago)

In Hyde Park stands the culmination of Wright’s Prairie House phase, the residence he built for bicycle manufacturer Frederick C. Robie in 1909.  It’s a design so extraordinarily “modern” as to make one wonder if any real progress has been made in architecture since.

Although Wright’s subsequent commissions took him to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Baghdad, Chicago affords the most fascinating glimpse of Wright’s career:  the shaping of an extraordinary vision, and the solitary path of genius.

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