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Sense of Space
By Riki Altman-Yee | Photo: Fallingwater Corsini photo courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy | Fallingwater interiors photo by Christopher Little, courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy | April 12, 2017
Though it has been 150 years this June since Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, his organic architecture and its effect on the U.S. is appreciated now more than ever.
The modern open floor plan, especially when complemented by floor-to-ceiling windows and breathtaking landscape views, tops the wish lists of many American homebuyers. They likely don’t realize legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright is largely to thank. Asserting that a lack of walls not only allowed more natural light to flow in, but also provided inhabitants a whole new level of interactivity, Wright advocated for communal rooms sans barriers in the early 1900s with his Prairie-style homes. Still, today, they are widely recognized as the first truly American architecture. Celebrating the architect’s 150th birthday this June will serve as a reminder of his game-changing contributions while bringing to light how his legacy endures.
Even as the modernists came to dominate architectural thought in the 1920s and 1930s—rallying behind Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s statement that the “house is a machine for living”—Wright continued to defy convention. “He starts breaking that Victorian box pretty early in his career,” explains Margo Stipe, curator and registrar of collections at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the author of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Rooms: Interiors and Decorative Arts ($75, Rizzoli). “Wright wanted people to experience the spaces they lived and worked in, to be aware of where they are at the present moment, to feel comfortable, to occupy a peaceful space that also encouraged creative activity—whether it was work or play.”
What was of utmost importance, however, was a connection to nature (which, Stipe says, Wright spelled with a capital N). “[That] was critical to people’s well-being. Having the interior and the exterior seamlessly connected and part of the daily living experience is one of the most powerful characteristics of his work.” Fred Prozzillo, the director of preservation at Taliesin West (Wright’s winter home in Scottsdale) and a graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, explains, “Wright’s organic architecture was organic as a whole. What you experience inside ties with the outside.” Historians say Wright drew on the Japanese technique shakkei, otherwise known as “borrowed landscape,” meaning he sited houses to take advantage of distant views, when available. Fallingwater in Pennsylvania is one notable representation. Indoors, Wright also designed and placed interior furnishings to coerce eyes toward a particular perspective. One of the greatest remaining examples, perhaps, can be found inside Taliesin West, where Wright’s Garden Room is outfitted in origami-inspired chairs and built-in banquettes facing the mountains. “As soon as you sit, it reveals the landscape,” Prozzillo explains. In some works, Wright also provided light fixtures, stained glass windows and even carpets of his own design. “Beauty was never optional. It was mandatory,” Stipe says. “Functional alone was not good enough. Lives could not be nourished without being surrounded by beautiful things.”
Though his structures have become globally appreciated treasures, arguably Wright’s greatest gift was something he acknowledged during a 1957 television interview with Mike Wallace. “The letters we receive from our clients tell us how those buildings we built for them have changed the character of their whole lives and their whole existence,” the architect said. “And it’s different now than it was before. Well, I’d like to do that for the country.”