Monday, November 29, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House

The Gordon House, Silverton, OR
Most people aren’t knowledgeable enough  to be able to rattle off famous architects. There is one name, though, that is somewhat familiar to all – Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, in 1991 the American Institute of Architects named Wright as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

In Silverton, Oregon there is a Wright house that is open to the public. The Gordon House is located at the Oregon Gardens after having been saved and moved there in 2001. Originally finished in 1964 in Wilsonville, it was in danger of demolition when the property was sold in 2000. After a hurried rush of fundraising by preservationists, the house was disassembled and moved to Silverton.

The house is one of Wright’s last structures. He designed the house for the Gordons in 1957 and died shortly after signing over the final design to them. It is considered an example of Usonian architecture.

Usonian was based on the anagram for United States of North America (he added an ‘I’ for easier pronunciation). Wright had been known for many years designing very expensive Prairie style homes for those that could afford them. But he had a desire to build affordable, practical small homes for the middle-class. Some of the features that are in Usonian homes and in Gordon House include:
carport
  •  Concrete slab floors versus raised foundations. They included piping for hot water to create heated floors.
  • No basements or attics.
  • Flat, cantilevered roofs.
  • Open floor plans and great rooms – a huge influence seen in today’s modern homes.
  • Based on building units, whether squares, hexagons, or other shapes. In the Gordon House the unit is 7 foot squares. You can see them gridded in the concrete floor and everything else is built off the units.
  • Carports were a Wright innovation as a cheaper alternative to enclosed garages. Again, a cost saving measure.
  • Lots of built-in cabinets and closets, means less need for storage furniture.
  • Use of horizontal lines to enlarge spaces (more on this later).
Wright was also famous for wanting to integrate nature into his structures, whether in the building materials or in the placement and structure of the house.  The Gordon House’s original location had it situated so that the Willamette River ran close and around it and the eastern side had spectacular view of Mt. Hood. There are tall French doors that open outward to encourage you to go outside. The placement of the upstairs windows make you a part of the tree canopy when you are lying in bed or sitting in the bathtub looking out. There are even windows so that you get a beautiful view from the toilet.  

great room showing fireplace, fretwork windows, and library alcove

Material-wise, the house uses a lot stained wood and concrete. The wood fretwork windows were intended to be a cheaper decorative window style versus the stained glass windows used in many of his Prairie style designs.
great room opposite direction. note low ceiling over entryway, 7' square grid in floor, and fretwork

Wright used architecture to influence human behavior as well. He wanted people to go out and experience nature and to socialize with others.  He did this by using a method called ‘compression’. Apparently any entrance way in a Wright house is made in such a way as to force the person to decide to go out or come in and not dawdle in the foyer. In this example, the roof is low at only 6’6” and the space is narrow. It forces you to want to continue into the open great room which is 1.5 stories tall with floor to ceiling windows. In the same way, the bedrooms are kept small and a bit claustrophobic so as to make a person want to get out and join everyone outside. 

kitchen or 'work space'

The same is true for the kitchen, or, as Wright called it, the ‘work space’. Although small in square footage, there is plenty of storage and counter space to make it easy to work in. Again, he wanted people out in the great room versus in the kitchen or bedrooms.

His designs were very exact and did use a lot of horizontal lines to create a sense of width and space. For instance, the concrete blocks were put in place and the masons were told to fill the vertical lines so that your eyes only saw the horizontal grout lines. Everything is exactly placed to continue the horizontal line. You could follow the concrete grout line over and see that it would perfectly line up with the horizontal wood paneling line, then continue on to the horizontal edge of the fretwork, then to the shelving, and even to the placement of the hardware on the cabinetry. This continuous horizontal line forces your eye to keep moving along it to create the sense of space.

I really enjoyed the tour and learned a lot about Wright's style and influence. I look forward to any chances in the future to see some of his other houses that are open to the public.


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