Monday, January 4, 2010

Tethered Magic Carpets: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Flotation/ Grounding Duality

Heurtley House by Frank LLoyd Wright. 1902 (Photo:Argitect)

“Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was a master architect because he embraced the duality of architecture in two key ways (among many others). First he embraced the opposing concept of flotation/grounding in his buildings. Second, his buildings were directly inspired by nature, yet at the same time they projected a large degree of mimetic abstraction. In the history of architecture up to his time, Wright came closest and furthest from the concept of mimesis (imitation of nature).

Frank Lloyd Wright’s dual relationship with gravity can be seen clearly in the Heurtley House of 1902. Looking at the front exterior facade one can clearly see the roof and upper stories have a quality of flotation, achieved by the close repetitive banding of windows, the horizontal leading lines in the brickwork, and the low sloped overhanging roof. The separation of the lower part of the facade from the roof via the windows creates the illusion that the roof plane is hovering over the building. Wright uses these tricks of aesthetics to relieve us from the effects of oppressive gravity. Yet on the opposite spectrum, the ground floor uses aesthetic tricks in such a way to create an illusion of heaviness. Somehow, at the top of the building the banding of the brickwork helps reinforce the floating nature of the roof, but as one gets closer to the ground, the banding seems to visually settle into sedimentary layers until it gets to the stone base. The stone base is of a huge proportion, almost a foot tall, and truncated inwards, to create a feeling of heaviness and firm attachment to the earth. The overly large arched entrance exaggerates the weight that the arch is carrying above it. The tricks are quite effective in making one feel the building is firmly placed. This tension between heaviness and lightness is what makes Wrights facades so effective aesthetically, and psychologically. A person living in this house would simultaneously feel the stability and comfort of a grounded building, but not be overburdened by the effects of gravity. The one thing pinning the top of the house in place, at least visually, is the large fireplace poking through the top and center of the hipped roof. The hearth is the literal and figurative anchor of the home. The concept of mimesis can be inferred by relating the house to that of a tree. The trunk (hearth and base) grounds the tree and keeps it firmly in the soil, while the filigree of branches and their leaves (the floating roof) reach toward the sky in need of nourishment. The tree has the duality of grounding and flotation, and it is the most fundamental example of mimesis found in all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. These dual properties also carried a moral rhetoric. The trunk (hearth) embraces the values of hard work, tradition and discipline, while the branches and leaves (floating roof) speak of freedom, democracy, and progress.

Fallingwater by FLLW. 1935.

Another potent, and further distilled, example of this flotation/grounding tension can be found at Fallingwater. Here, Frank Lloyd Wright uses dramatic cantilevers that sprout from the center of the building and soar defiantly in the air above a small waterfall. The length of these cantilevers is where the drama really comes from. Almost the entire living room projects out unsupported over the creek. The floating elements of the building have a materiality of reinforced concrete clad in soft colored stucco with thin rounded corners. This gives them a dreamlike and abstract quality. The windows have leading lines in red, very streamlined, and from what I’ve heard, are Wrights response to the International Style. The opposing forces to the floating elements at Fallingwater are the grounding elements that firmly anchor the building to the earth. The grounding elements are exclusively made of roughly stacked Pottsville sandstone. The texture and color of the grounding elements are in direct opposition to the smooth floating elements. The rough-hewn sandstone appears as an ambiguous outcropping of the boulders it is built on. This ambiguity between what is architecture and what is nature is reinforced in the living room, where pieces of the boulder that the structure is built on pops up out the floor! The central core of the grounding element in the house is the hearth, which is the vertical stake that keeps the building in place. An interesting element of the hearth is the cauldron that is used for cooking. This cauldron has a swiveled hinge and rests in a niche carved right into the fireplace stone. This furthers the rhetoric that the grounding elements seem to be carved from surrounding nature as opposed to transcending them.

The effectiveness of the floating/grounding duality at Fallingwater is due to the extreme distillation of these two elements. To recap, the flotation elements are almost uniformly; horizontal, tan colored, smooth textured, and cantilevered. The grounding elements are almost uniformly: vertical, similarly colored to the surrounding rocks, rough textured, and densely supportive. The mimetic impetus for Fallingwater came from the local rhododendron plant which has leaves that project out horizontally, in direct contrast to its vertical stalk.

It was unrealistic of me to think that I could cover two major dualities found in Wright’s architecture in one single post, so I have decided to analyze Wright’s concepts of mimetic abstraction in the next essay. As for this essay, the grounding/flotation criteria can be applied when analyzing almost every single Frank Lloyd Wright building. This tension is what makes his buildings such an effective experience when one sees them in person. Photographs cannot pretend to do justice to an FLLW building in person. They have their own magnetic force.

It seems unfashionable this day and age to study Wright as seriously as the other major master architects, but he IS the most important architect in recent history, finding an incredible synthesis between the myriad dualities found in architecture. He is the harbinger of the aesthetic vocabulary of the modern age, and one must remember he was 15 to 20 years ahead of his time. Unfortunately, although he was influential, his aesthetic vocabulary was insular, and unique to just himself. Any other architect using his vocabulary would subsequently be accused of unoriginality (Bruce Goff), something that strangely does not happen as generally with other major modern figures such as Le Corbusier, Kahn, Gropius, and Mies Van Der Rohe. His buildings seem to suggest an alternate universe of architectural possibility.

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