Art & Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Glasner House, Glencoe, 1905 (Formalist Interpretation)
The interpretation or criticism of any work gives a new insight as it needs a thorough research with external as well as internal factors. One cannot interpret architecture same as the interpretation of drawing, painting or sculpture. It needs a completely different approach. This paper is about the interpretation of a residential building Glasner House, which was built in the beginning of the 20th century. The building was a residential architecture planned and developed by creative American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The architecture was one of the specimens of typical Prairie house. It was the symbol of the changing lifestyle- of the new emerging prosperous middle class in Chicago. Firstly the paper focuses on Bruno Zevi’s thoughtful approach towards the architectural interpretation from different angles. Zevi intends to convey the appropriate method of interpreting the architecture with all its characteristics. The constant focus of Zevi is on the consideration of spatial approach. While studying Wright’s architecture, one can connect Zevi’s several ways of interpreting the building. Further Frank Lloyd Wright has applied these interpretations while planning residential architecture in late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Architectural interpretation of Bruno Zevi
Architectural structure of any building is generally interpreted and judged externally just like the interpretation of sculpture or painting. According to Zevi this method of interpretation is based on misconception. The misconceptions arise due to the consideration of external factors for interpretation.
The misinterpretation of architecture has led the ignorance and lack of interest among the people about architecture. The interpretation of architecture is done by the respective specialists from their perspective which is not comprehensible to the non-specialists. For example, if the Engineer tries to interpret the architecture from technical point of view, it will not be possible for the non-Engineer people to understand whatever is conveyed by the Engineer about the architecture. According to Zevi, if one wants to interpret architecture in an appropriate manner, ‘the essence of architecture should be made clear.’ While interpreting other forms of art, such as painting or sculpture; man remains aside and looks at it from outside. On the contrary, architecture is a structure, which man enters and moves inside it. One cannot stand in front of the building and analyse the building on the basis of its skin (external structure). While judging and studying the architecture analytically, we must take into consideration that irrespective of the abstract beauty, well balanced facades, and well proportioned volume, the architecture can be poor. The interior space is important and this space cannot be measured or represented in any form. On the other hand, it can be grasped or felt through experience. Zevi calls the space as the protagonist of the architecture. ‘Spaces for human habitation and interaction are found throughout the built environment and include urban space. Space becomes place as a result of social practices’ Architecture according to Zevi reveals the emotions and feelings of the spectator. The feelings are incorporated in the structural form of architecture. According to Zevi, the facades and the walls of the house are like container. It is equally important what is contained in the container. Zevi further says that architecture creates its own universe by giving definite form to the hollow space. This is what Zevi calls spatial interpretation of architecture.
The beauty and ugliness of architecture lies in its interior space. When the interior of the architecture attracts us, elevates us and dominates us spiritually, it can be called beautiful architecture. Zevi here gives the example of Chartres Cathedral as a beautiful architecture. According to him, Judgement of architecture is fundamentally judgement of the internal space of building. While constructing any architecture, the architect constructs an interior world in which space and light are measured.
After discussing much about the spatial interpretation of architecture, Zevi tries to correlate spatial interpretation with the other interpretations of the architecture. He discusses about the following interpretations of architecture
Political Interpretation focuses contemporary politics according to Zevi, influences the architectural current, symbolism and the style of architecture. Zevi states, ‘Architecture is the visual aspect of history.’
Social and Economic Interpretation of architecture focuses on the social and economic transition of the certain period, and its influence on the contemporary architecture. The industries, agricultural system of the contemporary society and its impact on the buildings are the topic of interpretation of social and economic perspective. According to Zevi, ‘Architecture is the autobiography of economic systems and of social institutions.’
The architecture in a particular region is very much dependent upon the geographic and geological conditions of the region in which it is constructed. The climate, type of soil and its nature are some of the Geographical and geological factors that determine the architecture.
The architecture must connect itself with the esthetics such as laws, qualities, rules and principles. This interpretation is called the formalist interpretation of architecture. The paper focuses on the architectural interpretations discussed by Zevi. The architecture taken for discussion is the Glasner House which was constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Interpretation of Glasner House
Glasner House started building in 1905. The house was situated in the natural surroundings, on a brow of a ravine. The house had been constructed in Prairie style with horizontal board and batten exteriors. It was the most common style used by Wright in most of his houses. Prairie style was a famous trend in 1900s architecture. The Prairie style is the first American architectural style. The houses were built as if they are amalgamated into the natural surroundings as if they are the part of nature itself. While constructing the house, the architects used to take care to maintain the harmony between human habitation and the natural world. Glasner House, though abstractly harmonized with the nature, is relatively isolated from the environment.
While describing Glasner House, Curtis focuses on the interior design of the House. The Glasner House thus can be interpreted from physio-psychological perspective. Glasner House played off a diagonal geometry against the controlling orthogonal axis. The fireplace is unconventionally located in the living room. It is on a forty five degree line of sight from the corner entrance and the same angle determines the disposition of the bedrooms and octagonal sewing room that step out over the ravine. The longitudinal axis defined by the two larger octagons of the library and projected tea house stabilizes the plan in the rectilinear fashion; however, making the diagonal seems somewhat out of place. The juxtaposition of Glasner House was on the horizontal plane. This house can be interpreted as collection of dissimilar volumes.
While building Glasner House, Wright had experimented with organizing the rooms along with implied diagonal axis. When the Glasner House was built, it was necessary to take into consideration the natural surrounding while constructing the house. The site was located in the forest. Hence, the usual plinth based, basement less house was not at all suitable for such environment. Hence Wright developed a plan of the house in such a way that the horizontal datum was supplied by the roofline; the house casacaded downwards from this line to meet the ravine at various levels. One entered on the upper level from the rear past the kitchen, to find the combined living/dining room and the master bedroom; the other rooms were placed downstairs. The volumes were anchored in place by three vertical elements, polygonal in plan: a liberty at one end, a tea house, though not built over a bridge at the other, and a sewing room alongside the master bedroom.A large fireplace was placed on the long side of the living room exactly the same in Taliesin architecture.
Glasner had no separate dining room. While describing the structure of Glasner House, Hitchcock states, ‘The entire plan of Glasner House was long and thin. The uniqueness of Glasner House lies in its striking contrast between a very low facade on one side and the deep base extending down into the ravine on the other side. The dramatic interest of the attached octagons is also an added trait in the uniqueness of Glasner House.’
The living room was at the tree top height and it was surrounded by bushes. There was a trouble of mosquitoes, flies and other insects. The window in that case needed the frame but then the frames would have blocked the view. Wright found out the solution on this problem by cross breeding this usual “Prairie House” fenestration with the well-tried ‘Chicago window’ In these types of windows there is central fixed pane exclusively for light and two small, side, vertical panes with screens exclusively for ventilation. Thus it was possible to keep the house free from insects. The interior was rendered sensitive to every change of light and colour in the ravine.
The architecture of Wright thus reflects a typical Utopian dream with a perfect harmony of space with nature. While describing the Geometry, Wright has managed to evolve an architectural language of symbolic Geometries that gave shape to a mythical view of society. It has absorbed the ideas and images from diverse sources. In Glasner House, basically we can find the characteristics of Prairie school which was first introduced by the mentor of Wright Louis Sullivan. The first characteristic of Prairie House found in Glasner House is its hipped roof and pitched low. It has the roof extended lines and oversized eaves. Glasner House has strong horizontal lines. The windows of Glasner House were set in groups with art glass and they had certain Geometric shapes. It had open interior spaces.
Bruno Zevi, while directing the right architectural interpretation, focuses on the spatial interpretation. Like Zevi, Wright has also adopted the new style of architectural interpretation based on spatial conception. While constructing Glasner House or any other architecture, Wright has given importance to the American scenario. Wright was against the blind imitation of European architecture. It is because the American conditions are completely different from the European conditions and in such circumstances; it is not a good idea to follow the architectural style of Europe. He was regarded as conventionalist in his approach who intended to preserve the values of an individualist and democratic America against the onslaught of mechanization. The major attribute of the architectural style of Wright was that he used symbolic geometries which gave shape to a mythical view of society that absorbs images and ideas from diverse sources. In the spatial perception of Wright can be seen in Glasner. Glasner House is a residential architecture. As said by Zevi,
For Wright also the house was more than just a construction. A house for him is a sacred institution and it deserves noble and formal architectural treatment. Zevi has given prominence to the interior space while defining architectural structure. Beautiful architecture according to him is the architecture in which the interior space attracts us, elevates us and dominates us spiritually. Wright also seems to give importance to the interior space with philosophical and esthetic point of view. He has maintained that perception in Glasner House. There is a combination of formality and informality in Glasner House as explained by Norris Kelly Smith.
While designing the residential architecture, Wright considered the economic, social and cultural scenario of the contemporary society in Chicago. Glasner House was built in 1905. In the last decade of 19th century and in the first decade of 20th century, Chicago was developing and the new prosperous middle class was emerging rapidly. Along with the main city, the suburbs of Chicago were also developing speedily. They had money earned by themselves. Though prosperous, this middle class was living with conservative values. Wright’s clients were mainly self-made men. They had not obtained wealth by inheritance, but they themselves had obtained it. It was the demand of his clients to have a house that assured them the feeling of sobriety, fantasy and noble quality. The spatial approach thus gives a feeling of calmness and retreat. Wright intended towards designing the space in Glasner House and all other residential architecture.
Wright’s work can be divided into two phases which incorporated different characteristics. Before the turn of 20th century, Wright’s focus was on the group as a unit of the house. The other characteristics of his architecture included subordination as a whole, symmetry, completeness, closed and inward looking.
But after the turning of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, the contrast traits started reflecting in the architecture of Wright. His domestic architecture incorporated the opposite traits. In it instead of group, then the individual was regarded as the unit. Asymmetry, incompleteness and open outward looking were the other characteristics of his houses built during this period. Glasner House was the fine example of these changing characteristics.
Glasner House and other domestic structures formed by Wright can be interpreted in various ways as described by Bruno Zevi. If interpreted it from political point of view, Glasner House reflects individualism and democratic view of contemporary America. It is an architecture that reflects the taste of newly emerging higher middle class, who had enough money to spend on the house of their choice. The construction reflects the dream of the American middle class society hence the house has social and economic background. It has some religious and philosophical touch also. While planning any architecture, Wright always thought that the house is not just a structure, but it is a sacred place. So everything should be arranged neatly that will create comfort and security to the person. The scientific approach of interpreting Glasner House is also there while discussing the mathematical and Geometrical factors in Glasner House. The Glasner House can also be interpreted from geological and geographical point of view. When constructing Glasner House, Wright thoroughly observed the geographical condition. It was not a house that was built on a plain surface. Further the area was covered with trees. Glasner used organic architectural pattern to overcome the environmental obstacles. Glasner House is the fine example of Prairie House. Wright’s Glasner House and other residential architectures thus can be ideally interpreted through the comprehensive approach of architectural interpretations propounded by Bruno Zevi.
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