Monday, April 23, 2018


At Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a cramped,
low-ceilinged entry leads directly up to...
“Ooh, I don’t like this!  It’s so cramped!”

So said a fellow tourist as we stepped through the front door of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Frederick C. Robie house in Chicago. She was objecting to the entry ceiling, which was at most seven feet high—perhaps even less. Wright, who was as Napoleonic in stature as he was in demeanor, didn’t mind a low ceiling; in fact he may have enjoyed making taller people feel uncomfortable. But there was more to Wright’s trick than plain spite, as my tourist friend soon found out. After ducking through the dark entry and then climbing a narrow, twisting staircase, she suddenly found herself in an explosively airy living space stretching the whole length of house.

“Ahhhhh!” she declared, along with everyone else on the tour.

...this vast, light-filled living room. The contrast
in volumes is just about explosive.
(Photograph by James Caulfield)
What made this reaction so pronounced? Among other things, Wright was a master at manipulating interior volumes—one of the simplest yet most effective ways to wring more drama out of architecture. Architects have endless fun playing with interior volume to produce fresh and often startling sensory effects. If you’re thinking about remodeling, you can too. Here are a few starting points:

•  Vary interior volumes in a deliberate and effective sequence. Make some rooms spacious, but just as importantly, make some a bit tighter. Reserve the bigger volumes for spaces that can actually use it. Think twice about using the old tract-house formula that dictates a vast and ostentatious entry—it’s a lot of expense for a room that doesn't really do anything, and worse, it just sets up the rest of the house for disappointment.

The simple trick of varying floor heights—in this case,
the four steps between the living room and dining room—
completely transforms the character of the space.
•  Vary ceiling heights. As the Robie house demonstrates, you can get a lot of impact simply by playing a low ceilinged room against one with a high ceiling. Changes in ceiling height can also radically change the feeling of space within the same room: for example, a low-ceilinged alcove can provide a cozy retreat inside a voluminous family room.

•  Vary floor levels. Changes in floor level from room to room are another good way to add interest to interior volume;  however, for structural reasons, changing floor levels is much more expensive than varying ceiling heights. The resulting steps can also create unnecessary impediments to circulation, so be careful where you use floor level changes. The should be avoided altogether between a kitchen and dining room, for example, or else Aunt Flo may do a double-axel while serving the Easter dinner.

This set of beautifully-proportioned
niches transforms a potentially
boring wall into a focal point.
•  Provide unexpected openings in walls. Architects call this inexpensive technique “punching holes in the wall”—a term that admirably conveys some of the surprise a person feels when he comes upon an unexpected. People like to be surprised; they don’t want every surface in a room to be predictable. A quirky opening (which may have no functional purpose at all) can be a delightful antidote to an overdose of blank wall. This trick is all the more effective if there’s something interesting to see on the other side. 

•  Remember that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Too many designers are obsessed with creating gigantic volumes; they lose sight of the fact that small, intimate spaces are often much more comfortable to occupy. Moreover, a relentless series of vast rooms will fail to capitalize on the effect of huge volume, because they won’t have small spaces to play against.  They’ll just be a bigger bore.

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