THE ROBIE HOUSE
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterwork
of the Prairie School
"…God is the great mysterious motivator of what
we call nature, and it has been said often by
philosophers that nature is the will of God.
And I prefer to say that nature is the only body
of God that we shall ever see. If we wish to
know the truth concerning anything, we will
find it in the nature of that thing."
Frank Lloyd Wright
As the relatively new American nation continued to expand westward, portal cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and most notably Chicago experienced enormous population expansions. These cities were formed and grew initially due to their close proximity to the major north-south transportation corridor of the Mississippi River. With the advent of the railroad to transport goods and services and the increased interest in the western frontier, these cities became very important metropolitan centers in the American landscape.
Chicago was able to distance itself from the other cities largely because the more southern locales were reluctant to build railroad bridges across the Mississippi River. This hesitation enabled the city of Chicago to build upon the influence of the railroads and the many businesses which were attracted to and dependent upon the rail system. In time, Chicago would develop all the amenities, both civil and cultural, that had been reserved for the large cities of the Northeast.
When Chicago rebuilt after the fire of 1873, the city fabric was largely reconstructed in the same architectural aesthetic that existed before the fire. This aesthetic was influenced by the European architectural styles that were the norm in 19th century America. It was not until the 1880’s that architects and engineers began to challenge this ideology as they began to understand and develop new building technologies. The most notable developments were in the designs of tall office buildings which led to the birth of the skyscraper.
Near the end of the century architects and their clients began to challenge the prevalent trends residential constructions. Innovations in residential architecture were not so much restricted by structural limitations as was the skyscraper but rather by an unwillingness to deviate from the historically influenced precedent. All of the styles that were evident in America were borrowed from Europe because an Architectural language had not yet been developed. As the national civic pride increased so did the desire for an architecture that had the individuality of America. It is appropriate that the new American style materialized in the Midwest in cities that were on the edge of another great frontier.
Where the development of the skyscraper had been driven by economic influences and new structural technologies, residential architecture was driven more by form and function. Traditional homes were nothing more than cut-up boxes decorated with ornament from some European style. Little attention was paid to the functions of the family and their needs, so often it was up to the family to adapt their lifestyle to the conglomeration of boxes that was their home.
Frank Lloyd Wright was at the forefront of developing a new American aesthetic in residential architecture. It was his attitudes toward architecture that formulated the basic tenets of what would become known as the ‘prairie school.’ Although many architects participated in the ‘prairie school,’ Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect that gave the movement its vision. As noted by Vincent Scully, "as far as we can tell the innovations were his own, and the development of their common stlye was wholly dependent upon him." The majority of the other prairie architects also apprenticed under Wright at some point in their careers. "Wright’s studio was an unconventional office where employees came in response to Wright’s work, and assisted according to their skill. As employees, they were also pupils and apprentices, but there to learn by observation rather than being taught."
The basic attitudes of the prairie school were derived from an appreciation of nature. The contemporary midwestern houses at the turn of the century alienated themselves from the environment. Wright saw the beauty of the prairie and envisioned architectural elements that evoked the nature and spirit of the prairie. "This observation did not go unnoticed as several literary figures remarked on the ubiquitous gabled house conspicuously sitting on the endless mid-western prairie." As a Sinclair Lewis character observed, "In order to build suitable to the prairie one would need an entirely new form of architecture."
Residential architecture had lost touch with its fundamentals. "Once primarily a shelter, a dwelling place, a family center, it had become a status symbol, a stage for entertainment, and a measure of wealth." In the cities of the East these expressions of wealth took the historical forms of our country’s ancestral heritage. This eclecticism migrated to the expanding prairie but here it was "conspicuously inappropriate and noticeably foreign." As Wright commented about the houses of Chicago, "They are fantastic abortions…Tortured by features that disrupted the distorted roof surfaces from which attenuated chimneys like lean fingers threatening the sky." Their interiors were "box-like compartments…and the architecture chiefly consisted in the healing over of the edges of the holes that had to be cut in the walls for light and air." Wright concluded by saying that the houses in Chicago at the turn of the century "lied about everything."
Wright had been developing his version of the ‘truth’ since the time he had worked for Louis Sullivan. He described his new residential concept as a conviction that buildings should serve human needs and reflect human size, not be showplaces, status symbols, or museums. He believed that a home should fulfill the family’s needs first and the spaces which were created to meet those needs would create the from of the house.
The cultural atmosphere that existed in Chicago was very condusive for the development of a new architecture. Chicago had developed the cultural sophistication which created a community that could observe its surroundings with a critical eye. As Wright commented on his early clients, "I found them chiefly among the American men of business with unspoiled instincts and ideals. A man of this type usually has the faculty of judging for himself. He has rather liked the ‘idea’ and much of the encouragement this work receives comes straight from him because of the ‘common sense’ of the thing appeals to him." The clients of the prairie school architects were typically western, well-to-do businessmen who were not bound by the same traditions as their eastern counterparts. They did not demand the use of European styles and their remnants as did the eastern building owners.
Frederick Robie was just such a man. Mr. Robie ‘s world was one of industrial engineering. He was young entrepreneur working for his father’s firm, The Excelsior Supply Company. Excelsior manufactured bicycles until it diversified into automobile products during the first decade of the 20th century. Frederick Robie became president of the company after his father’s death in 1910, but the company failed in 1912 and was bought out by Schwinn.
Robie’s passion was the automobile. He was one of many bicycle manufacturers who tried to capitalize on the new transportation invention and converted their plants into automobile based production lines. He even had his own prototype car that he would drive around town. "His name is among the 2,200 automobile makers who operated before 1925." What Robie shared with all these other entrants into the automobile industry, and with Wright, was the mentality of the inventor.
Due to his background, Frederick Robie knew what he wanted in his new home. With the benefit of forty years of reflection, he related his recollections in a 1958 interview:
"I definitely wanted it fireproof, and unlike the sort of thing
prevalent in the homes of that period. The idea most of
those houses was kind of a conglomeration of architecture,
on the outside and they were absolutely cut-up inside. I wanted
sunlight in my living room in the morning before I went to work,
and I wanted to be able to look out and down the street to my
neighbors without having them invade my privacy. I certainly didn’t
want a lot of junk - a lot of fabrics, draperies, and whatnot, or
old-fashioned roller shades with the brass fittings on the ends - in
my line of vision, gathering dust and interfering with window
washing. No sir. I didn’t want any wide trim on the doorways
or windows. I wanted it narrow, to bring in a wider window,
to give me more light."
Robie had given his ideas a lot of thought and sketched out his ideas in order to convey his desires to potential architects. As he interviewed several potential architects and contractors he was repeatedly told, "I know what you want, one of those damn Wright houses." Frederick Robie took that as a good referral and made contact with Wright.
To hear Frederick Robie tell the story, he and Frank Lloyd Wright were a perfect match. In a 1958 interview Robie tells his son, "I contacted him, and from the very start we had a definite community of thought. When I talked in mechanical terms, he talked and thought in architectural terms. I thought, well, he was in my world."
Frederick Robie awarded the commission to design his new residence to Frank Lloyd Wright who subsequently designed what is thought by many to be the finest example of prairie architecture. Wright had been developing his ideas through many previous projects and they all seem to arrive at maturity in this project.
According to Joseph Connors, the Robie House is the culmination of a process that can easily be followed through three other projects of Wright. The project he calls ‘Robie 1’ is the unexecuted 1902 design for the Yahara Boat Club in Madison, Wisconsin. The program is obviously different but with the long, low elevation with banded openings the clubhouse resembles a narrow, simple prairie house. The plan is symmetrical and there is also a vertical division of program.
Connors describes ‘Robie 2’ as the River Forest Tennis Club of 1906. It is completely symmetrical but is more complex than the Yahara design. Each end has a long, cantilevered roof and pointed bay windows underneath. The terrace is a precursor of the Robie House balcony with its band of doors. "Its board and batten exterior emphasize the horizontal as does the corduroy effect of the Robie House bricks."
The Tomek House of 1907 is ‘Robie 3’ according to Connors. It is the further elaboration of the same idea and looks almost like a trial run for the famous Robie House. Unlike its predecessors, the Tomek House is an exercise in intersecting masses. This is a design strategy that Wright will master in the Robie House design. The Tomek House is missing some elements that would have given it the balance that was achieved in the Robie House, but the masses have been moved around to create the tension and movement that will later give the Robie House its power.
The influence of Louis Sullivan is clearly evident in Wright’s belief that nature provides the means and the structure by which to design. "Good architecture, of course, was not the literal reproduction but the translation of natural principles into form and method." "Just as nature’s creations were all perfectly functional and carried their own decoration, so architectural trim ought not be applied but should grow organically from the structure itself, in the form of doors, windows, and other functional requisites."
The Robie House has been interpreted by many as being like a tree that grows out of the site and the spaces and elements of the design project from the chimney like limbs from a tree trunk. It was Wright’s belief that a building should grow out of its environment but until now he had not expressed this belief with such visual conviction. The use of steel beams allowed Wright to move the supports for the roof planes further away from the perimeter and produce the unbelievable cantilevered roofs to reinforce the floating horizontality which was generated at the massive core. Wright opened the house within itself and opened it out to nature.
"Wright believed that the true function of architecture was to inform man about his own nature. He analyzed nature and its underlying geometric structures, using their purity of form and clarity of purpose to critique historical and contemporary architecture." He believed the architect was "born into nature’s highest creatures and if he chose to meet nature face to face, then the architect could become nature’s instrument." Wright said, "Nature is not only the source, it is the measure. Thus architecture, to be a vital art, must be like nature."
"Nature is the best and only true guide to scale, proportions, and the right relations of parts to the whole and whole to parts." Wright’s understanding of natural forms led to the dynamic and balanced simplicity in the architecture of the Robie House. "Simplicity is not plainness. Simplicity leads to clarity in design. To know what to leave out and what to put in, and just where to put it, is something that comes from the knowledge of simplicity."
These beliefs influenced his choices in materials and detail. Wright learned that each material demanded different handling and had possibilities peculiar to its own nature. From a visual perspective, the Robie House consist of four basic materials. These materials are the limestone used for the water table and the copings, the roman brick used on the exterior, the oak used as trim and in the furnishings, and finally the glass which serves to keep out the wind and rain but lets light effect the inner spaces.
The stone used for the water table and copings plays a very prominent role in the composition of the exterior form. It is light in color to contrast with the roman brick and combines with the long cantilevered roof lines to emphasize the horizontality of the house. The contrast of the stone and the brick in conjunction with the shadows and recesses of the facade reinforce the kinetic quality of the entire structure. The horizontal elements seem to move beyond the physical site.
The roman brick give the masses texture while reinforcing the horizontal plane of the prairie. The horizontality was emphasized by tooling the horizontal joints while the vertical joints were mortared flush with the face of the brick with red tinted mortar. The dimensions of the brick themselves were reinforcements of the horizontal as their dimensional relationships more favored the horizontal than even standard brick.
With the exception of the door and window frames, exposed wood was and exclusively interior material. There was no mixing of materials from the exterior and interior except for the brick and stone used in the fireplace and hearth. Wood was used to soften spaces and to help give them scale. In the case of the living room and dining room, the wood trim helps define the human scale of the rooms while their continuity reinforces the free-flowing nature of the open plan. Wood also becomes the detail material as it is used in grilles, light fixtures, and furnishings.
Wright felt that glass was the most precious of the architect’s new materials. Its near invisibility minimized the distinction between inside and outside, he thought, and by its opening vistas and its admission of light allowed people to visually and mentally escape from the cave-like darkness that had dominated their dwellings in the past.
For Wright the plan came first. It was the generator for the design and provided form and order to the project. As he states in his essay, The Logic of the Plan, "A good plan is the beginning and the end, because every good plan is organic." He further states the importance of the plan, "because before the plan is a plan it is a concept in some creative mind. It is, after all, only a purposeful record of that dream, which saw the destined building living in its appointed place." Wright also advocated the changing of the plan once construction began by saying the original plan should be "thrown away" because the concept grows and changes through realization. He believed that if the plan was not beautiful then the building could not be either.
In the plan for the Robie House, Wright departs from his typical cruciform and pinwheel plans, and gives the plan beauty and dynamism by employing an asymmetrical balance. This is achieved by sliding the service facilities, which are on the back of the house, past the open, central spaces of the main house. This also exposes the garage and with the extended garden walls creates the enclosed exterior court. The center of the plan is located just off the mass of the large, brick fireplace which has taken the place of the central crossing of Wright’s earlier plan forms.
One of Wright’s plan conventions is the open plan. "The wall, redefined as a screen, was no longer as obstacle to the flow of space. Rejecting what he described as boxes beside boxes or inside boxes, called rooms, he declared the whole lower floor as one room. Then he screened various portions of the big room for certain domestic puposes like dining, reading, or receiving callers."
The only place were the interior boxes remain intact is the formation of the bedrooms. By enclosing the bedrooms Wright reinforces the privacy of the sleeping quarters in contrast with the public and communal spaces of the lower two floors. The bedrooms are not enclosed cells but have a space that is perceived through the window bands and cover of the overhanging eaves. Because of the way Wright tucks the bedrooms behind the fireplace chimney and imbeds them in the lower roof, the bedrooms are given a secluded privacy where interaction with the outside is controlled and reserved.
With the elimination of the unnecessary walls Wright claims an end to the cluttered house. Unnecessary doors were eliminated. Long bands of windows were used to create more window area but with fewer holes made in the walls. The house became a more free-flowing, livable space. The use of the open plan shows that Wright understood the changes in American family life. There was a shifting in the relationship of time and place which dictated that there was no longer a fixed time to use a certain room or a certain time to do a specific task. The open plan created an informality that broadened family activities to include everyone.
Entry into the Robie House was not immediately obvious. Wright intentionally lengthened the path to increase the number of angles from which the house was seen. From the sidewalk in front of the house one must walk around the house on the sidewalk and enter the site through an entry court in the rear. After passing through the door there is a ground floor entry foyer with stairs that lead up to the first floor. Upon reaching the top of the the entry stairs one has still not arrived in the main living space. The culmination of the lengthy entry sequence turns on itself and faces the occupant toward the rear of the house away from the living space. One has to pass through a small upstairs entry hall to the living room where one is presented the expansive views over the balcony. (see figure 3, pp. 11)
With this route Wright greets guests with the form of the house and then introduces them to the space by depositing them in the center of the ‘piano noble’
level of the home. There is a sense that no goal is worth attaining without effort and the desirability increases with each attempt to reach it. Wright varies the space, material, and light along the entryway in contrast to the characteristics of the ultimate goal.The entryway is compressed and dark with the heaviness of the masonry and concrete of the exterior. Both the entry court and the entry foyer are confining spaces. Once the inhabitant endures this journey he is rewarded with the openness of the living room and the light and open view provided across the balcony. The ordering ideas were the means while man’s experience was the end.
The entry sequence of the Robie House is a radical departure from the accepted practice. Up to this time the entrance into a house was usually treated as a monumental, columned, grand, and often overly pretentious doorway. Invariably it was placed right in the center of the plan and was the show feature to visitors. While I think the Robie House entry is about displaying the house to visitors, the lack of monumentality and overt grandness takes the edge off the pretentiousness.
The obscure entry combined with the massing and deep recesses of the facades create a reserved interaction with the street. The casual approach to the house is discouraged and the walled terraces and the ‘piano noble’ reinforce the notion that the inhabitants are going to control all contact with the outside world. "The house is obviously a safe, secure, family place - strong, sheltering, and protective. With a long wall guarding the terrace from intruders but permitting social intercourse, and with the family room and bedrooms on the second and third stories overlooking the street, it stipulates independence without withdrawl, group solidarity without rejection of the community."
The massing of the building is seen as two staggered vessels. The main vessel contains all of the living spaces while the smaller vessel is reserved for the service functions. In section the main vessel is further divided from the more public spaces on the ground floor, the billiard room, playroom, and entry foyer, to the semi-private ‘piano noble’ of the living and dining rooms on the first floor, to the private bedrooms on the second floor. This sectional division is also apparent on the southern facade where the masses retreat from the street in a ziggurat fashion.
It is within the spaces of the main vessel that the character of the Robie House is defined. The fireplace hearth is the center of the house as Wright felt the hearth was the heart of the home and, indirectly, the family. This is not only the center of the home but of the family. From the exterior the fireplace chimney serves as the visual anchor to the otherwise kinetic nature of the facade.
The first floor consists of the family room and dining room divided by the mass of the fireplace. Wright utilizes the mass of the fireplace with its attached main stair as the centralizing element of the design. The fireplace is constructed as two massive brick piers which support the horizontal and equally massive hearth over the fire pit. The form of the fireplace echoes the form and horizontal nature of the house exterior by accenting the hearth with a concrete mantle. The fireplace is the only part of the house where Wright brings the exterior materials indoors.
The fireplace is constructed with an opening through its mass that allows the ceiling plane to flow continuously through the main vessel. The opening is a near mirror image of the fireplace opening. This opening also provides a visual connection between the living room and dining room. This is a common ploy of Wright. Often he would block the center of an elevation or of a room to physical passage while leaving it partially open with visual linkages. This was done to make the occupant aware to the differences between experiences of the eye and those of the body.
This continuity of space is also reinforced by the changing ceiling heights within the rooms. The circulation areas along the perimeters have ceiling heights of approximately 8’-0" that recess to heights of 10’-0" over the main areas. These volume changes are then accented with ribbons of oak trim that follow the rhythm of the french doors along the southern edge of the main vessel.
Frank Lloyd Wright understood that people respond to differing scales and experience space and form by way of empathetic experience. The fireplace at the center of the house, its couching, hulking mass, and its low mantle, combines with the low ceilings to make the occupants feel taller and in more command of the space.
Wright employs all of these elements work together to express the living room and the dining room as parts of the same vessel while each retains its own independence and privacy. "The room was the focus of Wright’s spatial investigation because of its essential part in the experience of the inhabitant. The room was the place where man was truly embodied in a world of his making."
"When it was finished and in fresh flower, the Robie House stood as something new under the sun, saying exactly what Wright wanted it to say: Every man in America had the peculiar and inalienable right to live in his own house in his own way." Although I doubt that it went as smoothly as Fred Robie might have us believe, having had forty years to reflect, it does seem that both architect and client had similar visions for the design and the execution of what has become the icon of the prairie school.
The Robie House contributed to a totally new concept of the house and thus broke with the prevalent tradition in architecture. For centuries the facade "was the static face of a building, solid, symmetrical, and set at right angles to the axis of approach." Although Wright’s early houses fit this mold, the Robie House destroys the mold and presents a new image and ideal for residential architecture.
The prairie school took up the challenge of developing the ‘American style’ in its own terms. "With the abstract language of pure form, it tried to find a way to keep contemporary dynamics from overwhelming traditional architectural statics." The architects of the prairie school developed designs based on the functions of the clients. Houses were designed around the unifying, protective institution of the family.
Frank Lloyd Wright guided these architects and introduced many of the design philosophies that defined the architecture of the movement. Much like Louis Sullivan mentored him, he provided the tutelage that was needed for the prairie school to prosper. His ideas developed in a response to a growing American culture that was becoming more and more sophisticated and aware of their identity. "In the simplest of terms, the prairie school was one in a series of attempts to preserve the dignity and authority traditionally claimed by architecture while adapting to changes in society and technology."
Many elements of the Robie House have endured the decades and much like Wright himself continue to influence architects and their designs. Because of Frederick Robie’s fascination with the developing automobile, Wright’s design included what is possibly the first attached garage in America. The house also had a natural air conditioning system and a central vacuum system.
Despite the many accomplishments that were achieved in the design of the Robie House I feel that Wright’s design contradicts some of his well published attitudes toward nature as well as his definition of a house. While it is true that the house ‘grows’ from the site, I do not think that it engages nature or its context very well at all. The house is very reserved in its outward gestures and seems to be more about dominating its surroundings than interacting with them.
Nonetheless, the Robie House is a very important piece of architecture and American history. It was built in a time when the entire country was going through a metamorphosis with the advances in industrialism and the continued expansion westward. Contrary to Wright’s belief that a house should not be a showplace or a museum, the Robie House has become both in architectural history.
"The intellect pierces the form, overlaps the wall,
detects intrinsic likeness between remote things and
reduces all things to a few principles."
Ralph Waldo Emerson