Pride Of The Prairie

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Wright’s philosophy of architecture has so influenced the built environment of the twentieth century that it is now virtually impossible to disentangle the “Wrightian” from the “non-Wrightian.” At the center of Wright’s thesis was his almost mystical reverence for space, for him the basic element in building. As Wright described it, a good building must allow a continuous flow, with a minimum of barriers separating individuals from one another and nature.

 
 
 

Walls and roofs, the elements of the mere container, seem to disappear in a Wright-built home. In the Dana House, for example, the roof seems to float above its masonry foundation, lifted by a large fascia or ornamental frieze. Because of his de-emphasis of vertical partitions, Wright’s buildings are striking for their horizontal massing, emphasized by overhanging roofs and, especially in his later works, by highly theatrical cantilevers.

The harmony between man and nature that Wright claimed to seek was not always rational in its execution. His buildings also were meant to manipulate the dweller’s senses and emotions. Visitors often entered through virtually hidden doorways into small, dark spaces and from there moved into increasingly open, well-lit areas. At the center of a Wright building a massive chimney stack would pierce the horizontal volume, and at the meeting of vertical mass and horizontal void a hearth would generate the energy for the domestic circle.

In “breaking the box,” as Wright described it, he was creating an organic architecture, true to its natural site, true to natural materials, and conforming to rules of nature rather than formal structure. Wright imagined that by building according to these higher laws, he was making something specifically American, and he saw himself as an “architect of Democracy.” In his office buildings he insisted that the free flow of space contributed to an egalitarian exchange of ideas. His communal work spaces would allow freer access to the boss.

Not surprisingly Wright isn’t known for the design of tall buildings; their height almost inevitably implies a hierarchy. While the farthest-reaching architectural advances of his day were being made in the design and construction of metal-and-glass skyscrapers, his own architectural philosophy was ideally suited to the low building. As other architects were raising the modern city toward the sky, Wright was busy creating a refuge from it.

 
 
 

So overwhelming is his influence in architecture that the most natural comparison may be not with his contemporaries but with the nation’s first great architect, Thomas Jefferson. The Prairie Architect and the Piedmont Architect both projected a vision rooted in the soil and in a reaction to what they saw as the malign influences of the city.

In Wright’s Utopian village of Broadacre, just as in Jefferson’s Virginia, every family would have a plot of land to till. Both Wright and Jefferson imagined a basically horizontal architecture relating harmoniously to its site, and both experimented with the latest technological innovations, which they placed within buildings noted for their spatial complexity. Both believed that their architecture represented a radical break with the authority of the past, and both designed structures that combined simplicity with elaborate detail; perhaps incidentally both men faced financial difficulties as a result of their building projects.

The strongest link between Wright and Jefferson may be the way their modern admirers have recast their work. No longer is it seen as part of a questing process; now it has taken on the finality of an irrefutable answer. We have turned Wright, no less than Jefferson, into an icon, into a symbol of the American spirit, and we have given his buildings a finality he may never have intended.