Monday, August 4, 2008
Frederick C. Robie House
When it was completed in June 1910, one neighbor described the Frederick C. Robie House as a “battleship”; another said it was a “disgrace.” But in 1957 its architect Frank Lloyd Wright, never known for his modesty, accurately claimed it to be the “cornerstone of modern architecture.” Many critics agree, and the building has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of Wright’s major architectural contributions to the United States. In 1963 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and a Chicago Landmark in 1971. The Robie House is the fullest expression of the dwellings known as Prairie houses. It is no exaggeration to say that, as a decisive, even shocking, contrast to traditional contemporary houses, it revolutionized domestic architecture throughout the world.
Wright and others developed the Prairie style—named for Wright’s “Home in a Prairie Town” published in the Ladies Home Journal in February 1901—mainly in the Chicago area, as “a modern architecture for a democratic American society.” The Prairie house was designed to blend in with the flat, expansive midwestern landscape. What characterized it? Wright’s “organic architecture” philosophy is difficult to define in few words, but simply, it was this: the house was a single living space, and everything about it grew from a plan that expressed the owner’s individuality; that is, the house fits the family, not vice versa. The openness was achieved by exploiting technology: central heating defied the harsh prairie winters. Through sensitive use of materials, the spaces became a whole whose external masses, expressing what was within, existed in harmony with each other and the earth itself—the building grew out of the site, so to speak.
In 1908 Frederick Carlton Robie, a bicycle and motorcycle manufacturer, decided to build a house for himself and his wife, Lora. He purchased a city lot at the corner of East 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Chicago’s Hyde Park because Lora wanted to live near her alma mater. Robie knew exactly what he wanted: a house with large eaves, broad vistas, and “all the light [he] could get”; avoiding “curvatures and doodads,” it would be a house whose rooms were “without interruption.” A number of architects advised him to consult Wright, who then had a mostly domestic practice in the suburb of Oak Park. Because of the affinity between client and architect, the design was soon resolved, and construction started in March 1909. The Robies moved in just fifteen months later.
Wright designed the building as two abutting elongated cuboids, separating the living areas from the service areas. The smaller was at the back, and its lower level contained a three-car garage and the main (first-floor) entrance; above it were the servants’ quarters, a kitchen, and a guest room. The front part, with stairs ascending through it, had a broad central chimney. A semibasement housed a billiard room and children’s playroom, opening to a long, narrow courtyard. Wright “eliminat[ed] the room as a box” by making the living and dining areas into a single space partially divided by the chimney; the living room gave on to a terrace, defined by low walls.
The bedrooms were above, in the center of the house. In a 1918 critique, the Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud praised the functional planning; the plan-generated, three-dimensional form; and the way in which Wright exploited modern materials and technology in the spirit of the age. He pronounced the design a “source of esthetic pleasure for the practised critic.”
The Robie House’s low-pitched overhanging roof—-at the ends it extended 20 feet (6 meters) beyond the walls, supported by steel cantilevers—and the long wall of flat Roman bricks with flush finished joints combined with balconies lined with planter boxes and continuous limestone copings to emphasize horizontality, what Wright called the line of domesticity, the line of repose. The overhang also created a micro-climate, in summer shading the glass-walled southern exposure of the house and in winter protecting the windows from rain and snow. Besides that, it provided a sense of shelter and privacy for those within.
Almost 180 patterned lead-light glass windows, screens, and doors add to the fluidity of the inner spaces and serve to coalesce the interior of the house and its surroundings. Wright designed more than a house—he created an environment. He designed rich interiors, glowing with natural oak finishes, patterned glass, furnishing textiles, loose and built-in furniture (also of oak), and carpets. He also carefully integrated the mechanical and electrical services with the over-all design.
Sadly, the Robies were soon obliged to sell their wonderful house because of financial difficulties. It remained a residence until 1926, when the Chicago Theological Seminary bought it and used it for a dormitory. When it was slated for demolition in 1957, Wright himself (then ninety years old) led the campaign, to save it. The development firm of Webb and Knapp purchased it and six years later donated it to the University of Chicago. Neglect and vandalism (including alterations) took their toll. In 1992 the university began negotiations with the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation (now renamed the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust) about jointly undertaking a restoration program. In January 1997 the two institutions entered an agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation under which the foundation became responsible for the house. Currently, it is planned to spend more than $7 million on a ten-year conservation project. The house has been nominated for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.