What’s the Big Deal about Frank Lloyd Wright?

Frank_Lloyd_Wright_LC-USZ62-36384You have probably heard architects refer to Frank Lloyd Wright on several occasions.  I do.  Let me tell you who he was and then a few of the facts that I find most interesting and why I continue to bring him up (BTW, I highly recommend the Ken Burns film Frank Lloyd Wright for a thorough study of his life and work).

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect born on June 8, 1867 in Wisconsin and died on April 9, 1959, in Arizona.  It is not certain he ever graduated from high school and although he attended a couple of semesters part-time at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he never completed a degree.  He then began working as a draftsman with a series of architectural firms in Chicago. By the age of 21 he was working at the prestigious offices of Adler & Sullivan.  He worked there for 5 years, producing at least 9 “bootleg” houses on the side (violating Adler & Sullivan’s prohibition against moonlighting). At age 27 he began his own practice in Chicago, sharing an office with three other architects.

By 1901, age 34, he had completed about 50 projects and had begun to establish his own style–the “Prairie” style–typified by simple geometric massing, strong horizontal elements, low-pitched roofs with wide overhangs and natural materials that reflected the prairie around the Chicago area.  To be fair, he learned a lot from Louis Sullivan whose phrase “Form follows function” became the rallying cry of modern architecture.  Wright expanded this in his “organic” architecture philosophy.  Essentially it means that the form of a building (exterior shape and arrangement of spaces within the building) should lead logically from the functions of the spaces, so that rather than forcing functions into a preconceived form, the final form of the building is a direct reflection of the functions within.  Much like skin covers muscles that have functional purposes in their shape and location in the body.

For all his genius as an architect, he was very flawed as a person. For one thing, he was an enormously egotistical architect. From his pork pie hat and capes to his womanizing and family abandonment he was totally self-centered.  He was not a likeable character and he became increasingly eccentric as he grew older, experimenting with strange forms and self-imposed design restrictions. He believed that whatever he designed was sheer genius.  On one occasion he was in court to testify and upon being asked his occupation he replied “world’s greatest architect.” His wife Olgivanna, in court at the time, abruptly chided him out loud and he replied, “I had no choice, Olgivanna. I was under oath.”

What was undeniably revolutionary about his architecture was how he deviated from the common architectural styles prevalent at that time:  the heavily ornate Queen Anne style for residences and the neoclassical Beaux-Arts that perpetuated Greek and Roman classical elements.  Wright began his work at the end of the Victorian era and beginning of the Edwardian era.  Houses at this time had a multitude of individual rooms for specific purposes:  parlors, withdrawing rooms, servants’ quarters, smoking rooms.  Each room had a door and one or more individual windows.

In Wright’s houses rooms flowed into each other, usually around a large central fireplace (he loved the idea of the fireplace as the “hearth” of the home).  It was the beginning of the “open plan.”  He placed windows in series and often down to the floor to provide a visual connection between the interior and exterior.  Roofs were simple, low and sheltering. As he put it buildings should “rise naturally from the ground.”

So here you have a largely self-educated architect breaking new ground, leaving the ancient Greek and Roman stereotypes behind, gradually discarding ornamentation, and dissolving the cultural standards of little “cubicle” rooms.  Bold geometric shapes, large expanses of glass joining exterior landscaping with interior free-flowing spaces. His term for his philosophy of design was “organic.”

Therefore the low, sweeping roofs and buildings low to the ground–in his thought–echoed the wide, flat prairie around Chicago.


Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1937)


His buildings did not look “set upon” the ground, they appeared to grow from the ground, organically.  He called it a uniquely American style of architecture:  democratic, is the word he liked to use.

A two-volume folio with 100 lithographs of his designs was published in Germany in 1910, known as the Wasmuth Portfolio. This had a profound impact on European architects, notably Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, founders of the Bauhaus movement and Le Corbusier, leader of the International Style.  Suddenly their eyes were opened to the possibilities of forging a new direction in architecture. Within 10 years of the Wasmuth Portfolio being published they were turning out revolutionary open-plan designs of their own.  And they all credited Frank Lloyd Wright for their inspiration.  Almost single-handedly Frank Lloyd Wright invented Modern architecture.

He was also a very quotable architect.  Some of my favorites are:

Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

An architect’s most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board, and a wrecking bar at the site.

A doctor can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.

and, of course…

Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.

I read and re-read all the books I had of his in college:  The Natural House, Living City, and The Future of Architecture (not to forget the copy of the Wasmuth Porfolio published by Dover Architecture).

He was a towering figure in architecture, both in the US and abroad.  But it is interesting that so many people know so little about why he is considered one of the greatest architects of all time.



Tropical Modern

I live in north Florida.  Some around here call it “south Georgia,” and only half in jest.  Not that I dislike a nice traditional building in the Neoclassical or Neo-Georgian style.  I’ve designed buildings with Doric columns and red brick veneer.

But I like a good Modern design.

So when my old company, McCullar & Boatright Architects, wanted to build a new office for ourselves I decided on Tropical Modern.  Friends of ours, Joe and Beth Mittauer wanted to build neighboring buildings simultaneously with one homogenous design.  This allowed us to dream big.

We purchased a parcel on Wells Road right where Al Capone used to have his horse track.  Before we cleared the property you could still see the banked southwest turn.  So we called our investment group The Horsetrack of Wells Road.

After several drafts we settled on two buildings with a courtyard separating them.  I designed the buildings with tilt-up concrete slabs, steel columns and roof structure covered with modified membrane roofing and curved standing seam aluminum roof panels.

RenderingThere are several tenant spaces in both buildings.  Our investment group took the northern building, 590; and the Mittauers took the southern building, 580.  We share a parking lot and the courtyard, which serves as the entry for most of the tenant spaces.

The landscape architect David Johnson, a friend of ours, designed the landscaping.  I requested a low maintenance design that highlighted native Florida plants and other types that helped create the tropical feel.  Of utmost importance to me was having a lot of Sabal Palmettos, our state tree.

The interior served as a showcase for several ideas and experiments.  I wanted to carry the modern theme throughout the interior and to create subtle deviations from expected elements.  Beginning with the entry, I vaulted the space bringing all the light in through filtered louvers.  The lobby doesn’t really need any additional lighting during the day.

It is difficult to capture the lobby height in a single photograph.  At the entry you will see that I angled the ceramic tile at a 60:40 angle, a nod to the old drafting triangles of our recent past. The conference room has a glass wall separating it from the lobby, but I used a frosted film to prevent the dreaded “fishbowl” effect.  Again I exposed the structure, as in the lobby, to display the skeleton of the building.

I designed the dark green wall as a presentation area, and the white wall on the back right is a barn door with a white laminate that serves as a marker board, projection screen, and place to tape drawings during meetings.  The lighting uses indirect natural color lamps to aid in material selections.  Behind the sliding/rolling barn door is the materials and sample library from which we bring out items for meeting with clients.

As I moved into the “bull pen” I decided to have some fun.  Rather than creating ordinary drafting cubicles, I opted for angled walls to add some flair.  There are multiple levels of lighting available in the space, convenient for CAD drafting on computer monitors.  The large windows to the rear face northeast on to Wells Road and Eldridge Avenue.  I sized a large layout table in the center of the room to hold multiple drawing sets using flat file cabinets on one side for current projects and bookcases on the other for codes and manuals.

The offices on the north side have that perfect north lighting for art work, and feature full glass walls and 8-foot doors that allow the borrowed light to filter into the rest of the bull pen area.

Besides being a wonderful place to work, it is a terrific showcase for design ideas that were later used in later projects.  Goes to show that sometimes you just have to do it yourself first before people will appreciate it.

LEED Gold for Updated Collegiate Gothic

One of the projects I was fortunate to develop for my alma mater was a conference center and office building for IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences), the Straughn IFAS Professional Development Center.  Located on the south side of the University of Florida campus, near the veterinary college, it was a perfect site for an agricultural institute.

This project houses three meeting rooms that can be combined into a single larger meeting room capable of seating more than 300 people. A large covered outdoor classroom also seats 300 people. The meeting room area also serves as a hurricane shelter during emergencies. The second floor of the building is an office area for the 4-H administrative department consisting of more than 15 offices, two large conference rooms and associated work areas.

As always, I started by trying to “push the envelope” of design.  And this was one project I developed almost entirely in SketchUp before moving into traditional 2D CADD.

This was a little too far out there, though I really like the auditorium layout with the scalloped walls for acoustic control.  So we started compacting the building and making the mass simpler.

This was more in-line with what the client had envisioned and I pursued this massing in more detail.  I tried merging some exterior hardscape and landscaping ideas into the design.

This looked a little too industrial to the client, so we opted for brick veneer to match the majority of UF campus buildings.

The University definitely wanted the UF collegiate gothic style to be reflected in the new building, even though it was some distance from the historic campus center. Here is the final rendering that was approved for completing the construction package.  Note that there were dozens of intermediate sketches used to tweak the design as we sought to capture the client’s wishes.

Rendering by David W. Shepard

The landscaping was ultimately design by UF’s environmental horticultural program, led by Dr. Gail Hansen, and used as a Demonstration Garden teaching tool to demonstrate LID (low impact design), rainwater harvesting and xeriscape plant selection. You can see how closely the final building matches the design rendering (note that landscaping is always rendered at a 5+ year growth).

A close-up shortly after completion.

The building is two-story and uses ICF (insulated concrete forms).  We used brick veneer to fit in with the campus and precast concrete coping, brick pediment and precast concrete arch voussoirs and imposts to emulate the historic collegiate gothic style on the UF campus.

The interior design featured terrazzo flooring in a pattern I developed to signify movement through the building and progress through the history of IFAS.

The primary donor for the project was Dr. Alto Straughn and his wife Patricia, a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame and an innovator in developing and improving Florida’s blueberry crop.  The dark blue wall and blueberry sculptural medallion on the entry arch was in homage to his contribution.

DSC_0151blueberriesThe orange and blue colors of the University of Florida were woven into the pattern in the terrazzo.

The project was completed in early 2012 and was at that time considered among the most energy efficient buildings on the campus. The ICF walls provide a durable structure (for the hurricane shelter aspect) and superior insulation. Wall insulation exceeds R-21 and roof insulation exceeds R-40, resulting in an energy efficient envelope. HVAC is provided through a rooftop-mounted, variable-air volume unit using evaporative cooled condensors.

This is an example of achieving a Gold certification without using any “exotic” sustainable technologies.  There are no rooftop gardens, solar panels or other on-site energy generation.  Careful selection of materials, attention to the building envelope and insulation, careful design of mechanical and electrical systems all contributed to the rating achieved.

Project Information
Area: 15,500 GSF
Cost: $3,122,519
Contractor: The Brentwood Company, Inc.
Client:  University of Florida
Client Project Manager: William Smith
LEED Certified: Gold, 12/18/2012