A Down Day and Understanding Wright’s Architecture

Published: May 18th 2018
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Dunewood Campground, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

We’ve been in this part of the world almost two weeks now - it was our longest stop on the trip. I wanted to make sure that we saw enough of the Lakeshore to really understand it, and Joan had lots of things to do in Chicago, a city she had never been to before. (My experience is four decades old, so I don’t exactly remember it well either!).

The trip to Oak Park on Wednesday was our last Chicago trip and we both concluded that between the Art Museum, Millennium Park, Downtown Chicago, the Culinary Tour of the Northside of the River with Deep Dish Pizza, a Chicago-Style Hotdog, and Italian Beef, the Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s south side, and the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park - yeah all of that - we had done Chicago well - it was a good sampling. We both remembered a post I wrote on last year’s trip about viewing traveling as a sampling problem. I had learned in statistics and research methodology, that you needed a minimum of thirty data points to accurately reach a conclusion about a correlation. (Of course the data points are supposed to be randomly selected and traveling, as it occurs at a particular time of the year, can’t be entirely random. But we joke anyway about making sure that we get our thirty data points on any particular location. We both agreed that we had done that in Chicago.

On the Lakeshore, well we had also seen quite a bit. We hiked a couple different places, seen Mt. Baldy, the Bailly Homestead, and the Chelberg Farm, the lake and a hazy Chicago from Lake View, and the wildflowers at Heron Rookery. So we were doing OK there too. We had planned a four mile hike at Cowles Bog, down in the western part of the park for yesterday, but we woke up with depleted energy levels. And since our plan has us leaving here today, we decided to take a down-day yesterday and spend it getting ready for departure.

We went to the grocery store and stocked up on supplies. We had exhausted a bottle of propane (the second one on this trip so far), and so I refilled that too. Then we loaded up the bicycles on top of the car and cleaned up some of the outdoor equipment so we could quickly pack it up this morning. Departure time at this campground is supposed to be 9:00 AM, but that is extremely early and I suspect we will miss it by an hour. (What will they do - sue us?).

Instead of a hike, then, we did some chores, sat outside in the sun and read a bit, and then grilled up the last two steaks we had brought from home. We had some fresh green beans from a while back, and we bought some prepared baked potatoes to warm up. Since we are dry-camping, the microwave doesn’t work, but the oven does. So we can still heat things, it just takes longer. Before dinner, we had a forbidden cocktail - I had found a recipe for a drink called the Hoosier Heritage that uses a locally produced Rye whiskey, maple syrup, rosemary, lemon juice, and apple cider. That sounded pretty good, and it tasted even better - definitely recommend it.

After a terrific dinner, we took a nap, woke up, played another game of cards (Joan won again, but she cheats so it doesn’t count), ate some brownies for dessert, and retired as the darkness rolled in.

So that was the day and there isn’t a whole lot more to talk about. Except that I finished the book I bought about Frank Lloyd Wright and wanted to pass on some interesting tidbits. The book, Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture by Donald Hoffmann is a short book - just 100 pages - and is packed with pictures, but it does a great job of explaining what makes Wright’s architecture so unique. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to pass on some of the great points.

All architecture, Hoffmann writes, is to solve one of humanities simple major problems - shelter from the elements. Ever since we got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, we’ve been forced to protect ourselves from the changing weather - temperature fluctuations, sunlight, wind, and water. Clothing is another part of solving that problem, but locating and/or building structures is also part of that problem. From an architectural point of view, and probably limiting our scope to ‘western’ architecture, we have historically solve that problem with just three basic ways of putting a roof over our head - the lintel, the arch, and the gable.

Post-and-lintel construction is perhaps the oldest style and dates back to the Stone Age. If you aren’t sure what that is, just think Stonehenge. Posts are vertical objects made of some durable material, and the lintel is the horizontal object that lays across two posts. The Greeks dressed up the lintel, adding some fancy elements, and calling it an ‘entablature’, but it is still a horizontal strip of stone set upon vertical columns. When you strip away all the adornment, it is still a rectangular, or square, box.

The Romans gave us the arch and that got explored in so many different ways over time, including our wonderful cathedrals of the Middle Ages. But, again, however much it got dressed up, it is still a basic fundamental concept yielding a curved appearance. Arches are based on the circle or sphere in geometry.

Finally, the goths of Northern Europe gave us the gable which is fundamentally a triangle hanging over the space to be occupied. Expressions of the gabled triangle will take on many different forms down through history.

So, in the simplest forms, all architecture is based on one, or a combination, of the box, the circle, and the triangle - everything else is derivative.

Wright did a little bit with the circle and the triangle, and the homes we saw in Oak Park illustrate that with playful arches over doorways and, in one of his later homes, an evocation of the Swiss Chalet with lots of gables clustered into the roof line.

But what the ‘Prairie Style’ of architecture really tries to emphasize is the box. Wright, and his followers, were playing with various ways of expressing the lintel and their architecture is all about stretching the box concept as far as it can go without really breaking it.

His first contribution to exploring the box was the cantilever. Wright took the horizontal lintel - the roof line - and extended it out well beyond the vertical posts creating massive eaves. This cantilevering is the basis for integrating with nature and makes his houses melt into the surrounding, predominantly horizontal, prairie environment. Walls and doorways become hidden and the emphasis is on the horizontal lines.

But that was just the beginning- next he attacked the wall itself creating spaces in the walls, which Hoffman calls ‘rifts’. Once you identify the concept, it is easy to see it everywhere in Wright’s work. In most of his mature works, the wall disappears completely near the roof line. Instead of a solid surface, he often fills it in with glass.

Finally, he destroys the wall altogether in a concept Hoffman calls, the ‘diversification of the wall’. To do this, Wright does things like creating corners where two glass panels come together - no wall there. The notion of ‘rift’ or missing pieces, asserts itself in the decorative elements he supplies including piers, that look like posts, but which support nothing - except maybe a flower pot. In essence, he seeks to destroy the wall. (He can do this, of course, because of the strength of steel and concrete which allow him to hide the elements that support the roof.). The ‘wall’, defined as that object that supports the roof, becomes hidden in various elements that aren’t clearly obvious - engineers understand them, but the observer is indeed mystified by all the space. Just what is holding up this massive horizontal roof?

Anyway, I found that fascinating and a really good way of making sense out of Wright’s work.

So, I’m running out of power here (keeping our devices charged is a bit of a challenge), and so want to get this posted here quickly. Then we are hitching up and moving south


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