Long low brick house
Architecture,  Chicago,  Happy Place Happy Space

Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago

Architects may come, and architects may go

And never change your point of view

When I run dry

I’ll stop awhile and think of you

Paul Simon: So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

When I first heard that song on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ in my teens (still one of my favourite albums ever, incidentally) I knew nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright. Nor, it turned out, did Paul Simon. Art Garfunkel, who had studied as an architect, was a big admirer and asked Simon to write a song about him. The result was a rather plaintive goodbye not to Wright, but to Garfunkel, with the pair’s separation already on the horizon.

No matter, my interest in Frank Lloyd Wright was sparked. Over the intervening decades I’ve seen many images of his buildings, read a bit about them, and visited one, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But only one.

When my friend Isa suggested that while in Chicago we might do a tour visiting a number of his buildings in the area, including his own home, I was quick to agree and sign up. And I was so glad I did. While not cheap, the tour, run by the Frank Lloyd Trust, took us to a lot of places that would have taken us days to cover under our own steam. And the guides were so informative. I learned loads not just about Frank Lloyd Wright but also other architects of his day.

The Rookery Building

Looking up at dark stone building with lots of windows
The Rookery Building

The tour started in the heart of downtown Chicago in the stunning Rookery Building. While Wright didn’t build this, he was responsible for a major renovation of the interior spaces in the early 20th century. Our guide told us all about its original design by architect John Wellborn Root, which was very innovative at the time (1886). Its central glass atrium provided light to the offices. And its ‘floating’ foundations enabled this tall heavy building to be constructed on Chicago’s swampy soil.

Wright covered some of the internal steel in white marble with gold decorations and modernised the lighting, among other changes. Here are some of my favourite features, some introduced by Wright and some dating back to Root’s original design.

After our tour of the Rookery we boarded the bus for the drive out to Oak Park, west of the city centre. On the way one of the guides talked about the World Fair held in Chicago. We learned how one of the many architects involved, Sullivan, maintained that America needed to develop its own style rather than continue to copy from classical European influences. He wasn’t really listened to, but one of the young architects in his practice took the message to heart and adopted it as his own. That was Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Unity Temple

Looking up at solid concrete building with moulded decorations
Looking up from the entrance to moulded details

Our first visit in Oak Park was to the Unity Temple. This is the oldest Wright building still in use for the same purpose for which it was built, and is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Our guide Sue gave us a very thorough tour, explaining many of Wright’s architectural principles and design characteristics.

The brief was for a modern church, one that reflected the congregation’s dedication to community as much as to prayer. Thus as much emphasis is given to the meeting space, Unity House, as to the church itself. The inscription over the door reflects this: For the worship of God and the service of man.

One key characteristic of a Wright design, Sue told us, is a concealed entrance. Here the door is tucked away from the busy main road, invisible from it. Another characteristic, she explained, is the notion of ‘compress and release. We enter into a low hallway before being ‘released’ into the wider spaces of the hall on one side and temple on the other. The latter is accessed through dark passages on either side – more ‘compression’.

We also saw how cleverly Wright introduced light into what appears from outside to be a rather solid building. There are high clerestory windows around the edge and twenty-five square skylights of amber tinted leaded glass above. Sue drew our attention too to the electric lights. Their design is based on squares and circles, a common thread in Wright’s work.

Oak Park

House built of dark brick with horizontal lines
Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Oak Park

We then walked through part of Oak Park, clearly an affluent neighbourhood with lots of lovely houses. Those designed by Wright really stood out from their neighbours. Of course we couldn’t go in these private homes. But we could take photos, one of which I posted as a virtual postcard.

Home and studio

Corner of a room with windows and window seats
Front sitting room in Wright’s Oak Park home

The walk finished at Wright’s own home and studio. There was some restoration work in progress so I couldn’t get good photos of the exterior. Again we had a thorough tour of both house and studio, with lots of interesting facts and details. We learned how Wright had extended the original fairly modest home over time and how the extensions showed the way in which his style was evolving towards what became his unique and distinctive Prairie style. I won’t repeat it all here; the trust’s website has a very thorough description. My favourite rooms were the children’s playroom with low seating built in and a lovely fireplace with a mural of Aladdin and the lamp, and the dining room with the table placed below a skylight and high-backed chairs creating a sense of intimacy.

The bus met us at Wright’s home and took us to downtown Oak Park for an excellent lunch, included in the tour cost.

The Robie House

Brick fireplace in a room with leaded light windows
Sitting room area and central fireplace, Robie House

After lunch we drove back into the city and south to Hyde Park. There we visited the Robie House, seeing how Wright’s style had evolved and been consolidated by this point. The house is described on the Trust’s website as:

‘the consummate expression of his Prairie style. The house is conceived as an integral whole—site and structure, interior and exterior, furniture, ornament and architecture, each element is connected. Unrelentingly horizontal in its elevation and a dynamic configuration of sliding planes in its plan, the Robie House is the most innovative and forward thinking of all Wright’s Prairie houses.’

The open-plan ground floor amazed me with its simplicity, yet the more you look the more details you notice. Light fittings again incorporating squares and circles, beautiful leaded light windows, a sunken fireplace in the centre of the space.

From the Trust’s website again:

‘In his design of the Robie House, Wright achieves a dynamic balance between transparency and enclosure, blurring the boundaries between interior space and the world of nature beyond.’

What a perfect place to end our tour! Except this wasn’t quite the end, as we were driven back to the Rookery where we all toasted Frank Lloyd Wright with a glass of prosecco! I was definitely in a Happy Place Happy Space.

I visited Chicago in September 2023


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