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Prairie Architecture

A building is not a place ot be; it is a way to be.“ Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most prolific of American architects, created a unique architecture for the flowing prairies of the Midwest. From the horizontal expanse of the prairie came a fluidity of space and celebration of beautiful relationships between the built and the natural. Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie style” derived its imagery and intention from the Midwestern horizon. Wright designed the location and orientation of each house to be situated uniquely. He organized the site, house, interiors, windows, lighting, furniture, textiles and murals to establish a horizontal line of repose and shelter while allowing it to open to great prospect or view. In contrast to the Victorian decorated houses of the time, Wright designed low horizontal homes with overhanging eaves covering open terraces. His buildings were anchored on the prairie by a central hearth while the interior spaces stepped down and out to meet the expanse of the wide open horizon. Ribbon windows, windows set side by side in threes, fives, sevens, etc., opened interior rooms to long reaching views of sky and gardens and landscape. The Robie House, in south Chicago, expresses all of Wright’s Prairie House ideals. The ideas embedded in this house influenced architects and artisans over the course of 25 years who worked and shared similar ideas and desires in developing homes unique to America.

Activity 1 Architecture Rooted in the prairie

“Whether people are fully conscious of this or not, they actually derive countenance and sustenance from the 'atmosphere' of the things they live in or with. They are rooted in them just as a plant is in the soil in which it is planted.” FLW

Wright spoke of the influence of nature on his work and attributed his love of nature to early years in the rural Wisconsin countryside. As a young person he learned to look at patterns and rhythms found in nature. The stacking of rocks, building up and slipping away of sand bars in flowing rivers, cantilevered branches of trees and the inherent beauty of the flora and fauna of the prairie informed his early work as an architect. Prairie Architecture utilizes the beauty of native materials and ‘grows’ buildings naturally from their surroundings. Freeing daily life from separate rooms for separate functions, Prairie Architecture ‘opens’ rooms to connect and flow into each other much like the opening of views from a forest out onto horizontal grasslands.

Find and draw a typical Victorian House Plan (19th c.) and then find and draw a Prairie 1900-1909 plan. Study the ‘roots’ that effect daily living in the plans of homes. The very popular Victorian plan presents a series of individual rooms. The prairie plan allows space to flow from room to room. In a Victorian, one enters on axis looking at elevations. In the prairie, one enters at a corner and looks diagonally across the volume of the space. On your plans mark arrows of the view entering the house and looking into rooms and spaces.

Activity 2 Prairie Patterns

Wright believed in “studying nature, loving nature, and staying close to nature.” He used nature patterns to celebrate the beauty of geometry and organic forms found in nature in textiles, stained glass windows, tapestries and carpets.

Select three different designs, (i.e. a carpet pattern, a dinner plate, a book design…) by Wright and draw them. Use one of the set of patterns to design your own stained glass. Measure a window to infill the area with a stained glass pattern. If you do not have access to colored glass and stained glass leading, you can easily use colored tissue paper, or simply draw out your design with color markers.

Activity 3 People & Nature

Research 2 Prairie home plans from 1900-1909. Color code the areas that are private on the plan, public (where one entertains guests) and then dot in the natural areas that seem to flow in and out of the interiors. See how people socialized with nature in groups or individually. Draw a path from the front sidewalk through all the turns until you are in front of the fireplace – the soul of the floor plan.

Activity 4 Prairie Architecture Principles

Find images of the Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Draw its plan and locate and label these seven points of Prairie Architecture.

  1. Hearth at the center
  2. Overhanging eaves
  3. Banded Windows
  4. Cascading levels
  5. Transition Spaces from Inside to Outside
  6. Hidden Entry
  7. Flow of interior volume

Activity 5 Prairie Interiors: Prospect & Refuge

Prairie interiors were to offer a ‘place of refuge or shelter’ as well as a ‘place of prospect or view’. Find images for the Martin House in Buffalo, NY, or the Ward Willits House. Find an interior that feels like a place of inward looking or protective being. Draw a one-point perspective of the space. Then find a space that looks out onto the horizon of nature. Draw these two different aspects of interior space.

Experience Refuge! Enjoy prospect!

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