Today those who live on the American coasts think of the Midwest as “Flyover Country,” but it was here in the very middle of the map in a suburb just outside of Chicago that an architect, early in his career, revolutionized domestic architecture. The name of the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and the site where homes went from being vertical to horizontal was Oak Park, Illinois. A child of the Midwest, Wright was born in Wisconsin and his middle name was “Lincoln” until he took his mother’s name after his parents’ divorce. Wright could have drifted through his life as a minor local architect but he had the good fortune to be mentored by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the visionary designer of skyscrapers soaring from the flat plains of Chicago. The late nineteenth century was a schizophrenic period when technological innovations—the ability to erect all buildings—and revival styles, retrieved from history, existed side by side. During the end of the century when architecture was vacillating, Louis Sullivan built modern skyscrapers but he covered the surfaces with naturalistic ornamentation.
Sullivan left the discipline of the arts with an important credo: “Form follows Function.” The exact quote from an essay he wrote in 1896, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” was “..form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change.” It would be the next generation that would be able to fully realize Sullivan’s insights. Wright, like many of the pioneer innovators in architecture experimented and learned on domestic projects. In fact, he did so many homes on his own, that he was in violation of his contract with Sullivan, and he was sent on his way. After years of responding to his client’s desire to relive the past, Wright reconsidered the modern home, the home without servants, the home where the middle class “housewife” had to labor on her own, aided by a growing number of appliances.
In designing a practical house for a servant-less existence, Wright conceived of what we call today the “open plan.” In stressing the revolutionary nature of this open-ness, it should be noted that the home without dividing walls could be found among the lower classes, who lived in one open room with no or few walls. The upper classes, in contrast, considered it a necessity to partition the building into separated and specialized rooms. Such separation was the privilege of the upper classes, whose social life required that they “receive” visitors in the public rooms, such as the parlor, and entertain them in a large dining room. The owners of so much architectural space could afford private spaces, bedrooms, playrooms, dressing rooms, on the upper level. Such divisions were integral to the rank of the inhabitants and the privileges of their class. Victorian homes very carefully separated the servant class from the home owners by placing the kitchen at a fair distance, even on a different floor, from the dining room. The idea of socializing with guests while cooking—a common practice today—would have been unthinkable for respectable people.
Perhaps the open plan could have been invented only in America, where class didn’t count, especially in the new lands of the Midwest. In middle America, servants were reserved for the few and the wealthy. Most home owners–Wright’s potential clients–would have been upper middle class without pretensions. Another of his practical and modern decisions, an innovation that saved time and energy, was to limit the entire home to only one floor or to two floors at most, to minimize the walking and climbing for the residents. In the past, the vertical home served to divide the classes placing the labor in the basement and the servants in the attic.
Wright’s ideas fit in very well with the wider cultural understanding that society had changed and he responded to a project sponsored by The Ladies Home Journal to envision the new modern home. The long low houses that Wright eventually designed and built in the Prairie Style, were based on this1901 project, called “A Home in a Prairie Town.” Later in the year in July, Wright submitted “A Small Home with Lots of Room in It,” another set of open plans for a middle-class home. These homes were never built but the readers, spread over the entire country, demanded these new open plans for their new homes. In 1908, Wright was forming his architectural philosophy in terms of stripped down observations and axioms. Seeking “simplicity and repose,” Wright proposed in “In the Cause of Architecture” what would later be termed a open plan with reduced the number of rooms, stating that “A building should contain as few rooms as will meet the conditions which give it rise and under which we live and which the architect should strive continually to simplify; then the ensemble of the rooms should be carefully considered that comfort and utility may go hand in hand with beauty.” He spoke out against “An excessive love of detail, Appliances or fixtures” which he considered undesirable. “Pictures deface walls..” he stated and admonished “Bring out the nature of the materials..” In stressing the need for architecture to fit its environment, he wrote, “We of the Middle West are living on the prairie. The prairie has a beauty of its own, and we should recognize and accentuate this natural beauty, its quiet level. Hence, gently sloping roofs, low pro portions, quiet skylines, suppressed heavyset chimneys and sheltering overhangs* low terraces and out- reaching walls sequestering private gardens.”
If he had stayed in this local framework and confined himself to writing advice to magazine readers, Wright could have remained a relatively minor figure or a local American architect, but his ambitions were larger than being a builder in the Midwest. Inspired by Louis Sullivan and the concept of totality in architectural design, Wright named his approach “Organic Architecture.” “Organic” implied a design that flowed freely, moving from space to space along long axes, and referred to Wright’s insistence of integrating interior and exterior spaces and views, coordinating the elements of interior design, all of which he created. But most importantly, organic architecture was one of necessity, a response to the site itself, to the owner’s purpose, and to the nature of the materials used. In other words, the home grew “organically” out of its situation and the conditions of the site and the needs of the residents. In his essay in 1910, Wright explained, “In Organic Architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another. The Spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing. All are to be studiously foreseen and provided for in the nature of the structure. All these should become mere details of the character and completeness of the structure..” Although he did not the German term, Gesamtkunstwerk, the architect thought of his buildings, inside and out, as total works of art. He continued, To thus make of a human dwelling-place a complete work of art, in itself expressive and beautiful, intimately related to modern life and fit to live in, lending itself more freely and suitably to the individual needs of the dwellers as itself an harmonious entity, fitting in color, pattern and nature the utilities and be really an expression of them in character, – this is the tall modern American opportunity in Architecture. True basis of a true Culture. An exalted view to take of the ‘property instinct’ of our times? But once founded and on view I believe this Ideal will become a new Tradition: a vast step in advance of the prescribed fashion in a day when a dwelling was a composite of cells arranged as separate rooms: chambers to contain however good aggregations of furniture, utility comforts not present: a property interest chiefly. An organic-entity, this modern building as contrasted with that former insensate aggregation of parts. Surely we have here the higher ideal of unity as a more intimate working out of the expression of one’s life in one’s environment. One great thing instead of a quarreling collection of so many little things.”
Although the Prairie houses seemed to have a style, the end result emerged out of the activity of planning and building and living in these environments. Like Adolf Loos, Wright experimented with his architectural innovations with private owners of private homes, a partnership that characterized the work of the Bauhaus architects until late in their careers. In 1910 Wright closed his Oak Park studio, leaving behind a group of remarkable homes. But Wright lacked corporate commissions and significant clients eluded him, and it was clear to him that the work on the Prairie houses had reached a dead end. However, the idea of totality and of the organic continued to be part of Wright’s thinking for the rest of his career. The architect always considered “human scale” in his buildings, regardless of his later use of modern steel and glass. His founding ideas were reiterated two years before his death in 1957 in an essay, “The New Architecture: Principles,” in which he summed up his philosophy. Wright asked a question: “What now is organic “design”? Design appropriate to modern tools, the machine, and this new human scale. Thus, design was opportune, and well within the architect’s creative hand if his mind was receptive to these relatively new values: moving perception at this rime with reverential spirit toward the understanding of the “nature of nature.” The nature of the machine, studied by experiment and basically used in structural design, was still to be limited to a tool, and proved to be a powerful new medium of expression. Buildings before long were evidencing beautiful simplicity, a fresh exuberance of countenance. Originality.”