My dad had laughing blue eyes. We shared many amazing times together in his last years. One day, while asking him a question, he turned to look at me with serious “blues” and said, “we have merged, we are one, you can think for me from now on.” This Zen moment: poignant, sad, and joyful all at the same time was a monumental gift, a shift. I paused in reflection and launched into deep, slow breathing to help prepare for what was ahead….Así es La Vida
A few years down the road, on the other side of the country, we received a different kind of gift, one that came with invisible strings. A mid-century modern house, the history of two lives, two careers, an anthropologist and an architect. Their passion for each other, their pets and nature was evident throughout the home. I discovered why we were chosen to steward their legacy from a yellow legal pad on the side of my uncle’s bed. In brief, he hoped we would preserve and restore his beloved home. So many questions will remain unanswered and….once again the responsibility that is a part of a gift…breathe...C’est La Vie
In order to understand this impressive mid-century modern home, I needed to embrace this turn of events and try to be as one with this house, this land, this place. A contemporary definition of Zen: It is the state of residing in such great understanding and depth, that no matter what life throws your way, you drop the illusion and see things without the distortion of your own mind, and you are at peace with it. I remind myself of this often, five years into this project….Live and Learn
The bones of this interesting home are solid, strong, and impressive. I have photos of my uncle in the mid to late 1960’s hunkered down in his few acres of timbers (a reference to woods in Iowa speak), plotting how and where to place his home. He removed only one tree throughout the build (he certainly would not have called his woods “timber” because it implies the potential to cut). The structure hugs and leans into the curves of the land. Approaching down the long steep lane you see virtually a giant, redwood rectangle. When you enter your eyes are drawn to angles, levels (4), light, space, and glass. The dynamic art of nature, trees and sky, completing the mood. The extensive walls of glass is a Mies van der Rohe way of extending the sight lines beyond the interior (ie Farnsworth House). To me, this home embodies the complexity of thought reduced to the simplicity of lines.
Mies van der Rohe was my uncle’s mentor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, originally called the Armour Institute, then merging with the New Bauhaus started by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1937. Mies as well as Moholy-Nagy both taught at the Bauhaus in Germany before immigrating to the US.
The International style is the name of the architecture associated with the American form of Bauhaus influenced design. Some of the characteristics of this style are:
1. No applied ornamentation
2. A rectilinear shape
3. A light open space
4. Use of concrete and glass
On my quest to understand more about the design of this house, I reached out to Justine Jentes, Director of the Mies van der Rohe Society at IIT in Chicago. I asked her what she sees in the design connecting it to the International Style and/or Mies van der Rohe. This was her reply:
”I agree, the details and the craftsmanship are impressive. While Mies did not work with wood for structure (It was more often used for interior doors, panels, etc) the overall box design, strong right angles, extensive use of large glass planes and what appears to be flowing “open plan” interior are reminiscent of Mies design.”
But their is more to this house then Mies, and International design. Frank LLoyd Wright’s philosophical presence is here as well. The extensive library has several FLW books, but “The Natural House” printed in 1963, stands out. There are some pages marked and corners folded over, more pieces of this puzzle were falling into place. His last trip shortly before he passed away was to Falling Waters. An architect friend* and his wife took Pierce to the place he had long desired to visit. He was infirm, and nearly fell into the “falling waters”, fortunately Dwight grabbed him before any damage was done.
“Plainness is not necessarily simplicity”…I can feel Pierce pouring over these words in this well worn fragile book. Wright later goes on to pull this idea together by saying, “ To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity—toward ultimate freedom of expression.
So I continue to try to understand this interesting and intriguing house but I need a better understanding of FLW. I am researching, talking, asking questions. Following are some anecdotes from a handful of architects. I asked them if FLW influenced them in how they design.
Lira Luis AIA is a global American Architect specializing in organic architecture. While working on her Master of Architecture degree at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, she lived at the two Taliesins (West and in Spring Green).
“Words that come to mind about Mr. Wright’s architecture:
Appropriate to time and place
True to the nature of materials
Form and function are one
My work tends not to imitate his style but rather be inspired by his Organic Architecture Principles.” Lira Luis AIA
Harold F. “BUD” Dietrich, AIA shared a wonderful story with me of how FLW touched his family….
In the summer of 1991 I was being transferred to the Chicago office of the company I worked for. As part of that transfer we must have looked at 100’s of houses, searching for just the right one. We decided to look at the Chicago suburb of Oak Park to see what we thought of it and, while there, visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.
During our tour of the Home and Studio we arrived at the 2nd floor Playroom. This room was an addition that Wright built to accommodate his growing family. The room was designed and built very much with a child’s sensibilities. A fact that my five year old daughter made me aware of. While we were standing in the playroom enjoying the sense of space and views out to the Gingko tree, my daughter tugged on my arm and said “daddy, we should buy this one.” She was mightily disappointed when I told her the house wasn’t for sale.
The lesson I learned was how Wright, who had a tumultuous personal life to say the least, designed remarkable homes that truly accommodated a family life. And this fact, at the end of the day, was where his true genius was. Bud Dietrich AIA
Dwight Dobberstein AIA
“To understand FLW’s greatness you have to look at the state of architectural design when he began. Greek revival and gingerbread houses. His buildings are the opposite, simple and clean incorporating natural materials and blending with the landscape. I like the long horizontal lines of his buildings and how they meld with their sites.
While simple and modern, his buildings are not void of ornamentation. There is plenty of ornamental detail beautifully incorporated in his work. Much of the ornamentation is derived from nature which reinforces the connection to the site.
The open floor plans flow from room to room in a seemingly simple layout yet complex organization. Falling Water is a good example. The plan seems easy but try to sketch it.
Dwight Dobberstein AIA
The body of the house looks so International and Mies inspired, but a part of it’s heart and soul are perhaps more tied to Frank Lloyd Wright then I will ever know. This process is helping me to understand the collaboration (influence on thought and design) between Pierce, Mies, and Frank…. La dolce vita