Towards the end of the 19th century a series of milestones changed the course of American cities. United States architects began to distance themselves from European schools to create their own style. Something similar happened with the residences in the suburbs: little by little, the Victorian houses imported from England were abandoned to give place to what would be known as “Prairie Style”.
Of all the architects that were part of this movement, the most renowned is Frank Lloyd Wright. His “Prairie Houses” are easily recognizable thanks to certain features that are consistently repeated in all of them.
The American Midwest landscape is very different from the English. The first and most fundamental action applied by American architects was to recognize the horizontality of the environment and transfer it to their buildings. They put aside the vertical edges of the Victorian style, the roofs with steep slopes and the long-shaped windows, to give rise to houses rooted to the ground, almost compressed, mimicking the vast meadows and fields of wheat. The horizontal lines were emphasized through the arrangement of the brick – eliminating the vertical joints – extending the overhangs of the roofs and decreasing their slope, as well as grouping the windows in continuous strips.
The discipline in the use of ornamentation is another characteristic of the “Prairie Style”. It avoids the decorative artifice of neoclassical architecture to create houses composed of simple, easily identifiable volumes: triangles, prisms, semicircles … In the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is especially noticeable since his very first work, the “Romeo and Juliet” windmill, probably influenced by their childhood education through the Froebel system and its building blocks.
The houses do not have a clear, direct, obvious access. Wright wants visitors to observe the building from different points of view before accessing it, so he places the main door at the end of a series of walls, access stairs and tweaks to create that route. In addition, he frequently plays with the compression and expansion of the space, an architectural resource that gives a greater feeling of spaciousness to the main rooms. Some may say that behind this trick, apart from the obvious game of spaces, it is hidden Wright’s short stature and his big ego.
When one walks through the interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, there are certain nuances reminiscent of Japanese architecture: wooden floors, sliding panels, furniture integrated into the walls… After his experience designing the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, fascinated by the art and the oriental culture, the Asian influence becomes much more evident in the work of Wright, through ornamental elements and the design of lamps and backlit panels.
THE MATERIALITY OF LIGHT
Frank Lloyd Wright considered light as an architectural element, not a simple means of illumination. Combining Japanese influence, ornamental rigor and the ideals of organic aesthetics and craftsmanship of the Arts & Crafts movement, Wright developed an infinity of lamps and glass panes. The lamps decorated the bare walls, casting games of light and shadows, while the windows sifted the sunlight from their polychrome geometries, always at angles of 90, 60 and 30 degrees, an architect’s whim or simply the direct application of square and bevel.
Based on these principles, Frank Lloyd Wright and many other architects developed their own single-family housing style. Later, with the popularization of the automobile, the implementation of the highway system and the arrival of technology on a domestic scale – radio, television, music players – suburban housing would become the most common among American families. Little by little the foundations on which Wright had created his Prairie Houses diluted to make way for simpler, economic and industrialized constructions. Perhaps the Case Study Houses, in the mid-twentieth century, were the last attempt to return the lost splendor to the American suburban dwelling, and despite the clear will to use prefabricated elements and facilitate the construction process, many of them remained as ink on paper.