Monday, October 15, 2018

THE PRAIRIE SCHOOL STYLE: Getting It Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House of 1909, the best-known
and most spectacular example of what became known
as his "Prairie School" houses. Still, it took years for
builders to catch up with the style, and only superficially.
By 1909, the greatest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Houses” were already behind him. He capped this early phase of his career with a prodigal work, the Frederick C. Robie House, built in a suburb of Chicago that year. With its dynamic horizontal lines and spectacular hovering hip roofs, it made traditional homes seem impossibly dowdy. 

Yet it took almost two decades for Wright’s ideas to filter into the architectural mainstream. Only in the mid-1920s, long after Wright had moved on to newer ideas, did tract builders attempt to adapt his so-called “Prairie School” style to middle-class homes. They gamely tried to capture the spirit of the Prairie House by copying the well-known Wright trademarks: bands of casement windows; hipped or flat roofs with broad, sheltering overhangs; and cubical stucco masses contrasted with broad uninterrupted sweeps of glass.  

"The Spokane" was a Prairie School-style
plan book house that featured Wright's
use of a hipped roof with broad overhanging
eaves, and large areas of window.
But while Wright’s style seemed easy enough to summarize, capturing the spirit of the master’s work on a tract-house budget turned out to be no mean feat. The results were imitations of the most superficial sort; but fortunately for homebuyers, even a pale imitation of Wright can maintain the strengths of the genuine article.  Among them:

•  Large rooms with generous circulation.  Wright detested the old idea of a house as a series of separate, boxy rooms. Even in his earliest designs, he deleted whole swaths of dividing wall, fusing major living areas together in what has since come to be called “open planning”.  Prairie School homes follow this idea, though to a less dramatic extent. Openings between rooms are wide and circulation is generous, but the arrangements seldom qualify as true open planning. It may be just as well that Prairie School builders didn’t follow Wright’s concepts to the letter, since for the average family, open planning translates to a commensurate lack of privacy.
Built-in cabinetwork, another Wright favorite,
also found its way into Prairie School
tract homes.

•  Plentiful light. Prairie School builders immediately latched onto one easily-cribbed feature of Wright’s homes—the bands of casement windows which often ran uninterrupted from corner to corner. Hence, compared to the average Bungalow home of this period, Prairie School homes seem positively awash in sunlight. Builders also copied Wright’s rectilinear muntin designs for these windows, though usually without his lavish (and costly) use of leaded glass.

•  Built-in furnishings. Wright’s homes contained built-ins of all kinds, from bookcases to sideboards to inglenooks; in his own studio at Oak Park, he even built in a piano. While Prairie School knock-offs didn’t go to that extreme, bookcases and china cabinets—often with Wright-inspired glass doors—are common.

Wright's Prairie School influence remains to this day:
Here's a current stock house plan offered by houseplans.com
• Access to the outdoors. Wright was fond of providing whole ranks of glass doors leading onto terraces or into gardens, blurring the distinction between indoors and out. Prairie School builders often gave a nod to this feature by including at least one pairs of doors leading to the garden.  

 On the downside, Prairie School homes suffer one major shortcoming that also plagued Wright during his entire career: leaky roofs. And if a genius like Wright couldn’t get his roofs to hold water, what chance did local builder Joe Bagodonutz have? 


1 comment: