What Can You Learn From a Dead Architect?

A lot actually.  One of the great things about the practice of Architecture is that it is a living Art.  It remains in place and in use long after the master is gone.

This pond, set outside the door to Wright’s Study, could be used on hot days to sit in and cool off for a while.

If you pay any attention to this blog (and I know who both of you are…) then you will recall my most recent post dealt with a wet and wild weekend spent visiting the home of Frank Lloyd Wright in Central Wisconsin.  Known as Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”) the house sits on roughly a thousand acres of Wright’s land, now managed by Taliesin Preservation, Inc. As described by the Docent, several times on the tour, the house is a whopping 37,000 square feet!!!  Fit for a King would you not agree?  It was clear to me right away that she was, of course, referring to not only the house but also the stables, barns, sheds, and other outdoor living spaces that surround the house itself.  A misleading statement on the surface but when pressed for details she was quick to point out the facts as I stated above.  However, most of these outbuildings are tucked up tight to the house and connected by walkways and covered canopies making the whole compound easy to access.  According to Taliesin Preservation, Inc. the actual interior square footage of these spaces amounts to 21,000 sq. ft.!  That, my friends, is McMansion-esque.  Keep in mind that construction on Taliesin began in the early 1900’s and is located in rural Wisconsin.  Not to mention it eventually became the home for Wright’s own fellowship program devoted to the teaching of the practice of architecture.  Therefore, all of the buildings constructed on-site are purposeful and were a necessity at the time.

Now, a good little blog writer would do some research for you and break down what is actually living quarter space versus what is included in the outbuildings.  But I am not a good little blog writer.  More importantly I don’t really care right now because the point I hope to focus on here is the scale and proportion of Taliesin  as well as the design principles that went into its design compared to what we now see making up the stock of American’s homes.

So, what does Taliesin amount to when you get down to actual living space?  If I were to write the tag line for a Realtor to post on his/her website for this house I would pitch it as “A three bedroom, three bath home tucked into the hillside with spacious living room and ample outdoor space including a…tub (more on that later).  That’s about it.  The Guest Bedroom has a private bathroom as does the Master Bedroom which was occupied by Wright’s wife (Wright himself had stopped sleeping in the late thirties you know) and a separate bedroom for his daughter (which we, unfortunately, did not get to see).  It has kitchen and dining space and Wright had a beautiful studio where he did his work (he didn’t sleep you know, had to do something with all that spare time) right off the Master Bedroom.  Taliesin Preservation, Inc. still defines the main living space as, yes, a Living Room.  Compare that to today’s marketing oriented homes which, if it has a 10′ x 12′ room with one window in it we shall call it “The Great Room” even when there is nothing all that “great” about it.

So, for comparison’s sake, lets assume that only 25% of Taliesin is family oriented living space.  That would make this area about 5,250 square feet.  This would be over twice the size of the average American house in 2011.  Oddly enough, my own humble abode falls right into this average clocking in at 2,400 sq. ft. on the nose.  And this is where the central point of my argument begins.

Before taking the above referenced wet and wild weekend trip to Taliesin I have been spending countless hours about the task of re-staining the cedar siding on the outside of the house.  After almost nine years the time had come to re-stain and dress the place up making it look as good as new for the upcoming high school graduation party we expect to host next spring (assuming Jr.  can continue to score acceptable marks while dreaming of life outside the walls of my dictatorship).  While working on the house one day Jr. took this picture of me while working off the 32′ extension ladder.  I had asked him to take this picture for a completely different blog post which never was written.  It was to celebrate the overcoming of one’s fears which, after falling from a ladder in 1998 and shattering my heel it was a small bloody miracle I found the nerve to climb this ladder to stain this wall.  Who knows, I may get around to writing that post sometime this winter.

The intention of showing you this picture is to use it as a comparison to what can be experienced while visiting Taliesin.  Keep in mind that Taliesin is, by our assumptions, twice the size of my house.  Now compare this picture below to the one of me on the ladder and look at the difference in proportions between the two.  The scale of the entire facade reflects a different feel and creates a different ambiance to the setting.  Both are taken from the private, family side of the house.  That area where, when outside you would tend to spend most of your time.  Rest assured, there is no place here that requires the use of 32 foot extension ladder to reach any part of the house.  The reason?  A much better scaling of house to occupant.

This fact can also be seen inside the house as well.  Inside that large expanse of windows you see next to me on the ladder is a beautiful Great Room.  It is, by and large, a Greater Room than the one I described earlier.  Take a look at these simple profile sketches I made to show the difference in “space.”

On the left is my Great Room which boasts a 12 foot soffit height before hitting the barrel vault over the center of the room.

To the right is Frank’s Living Room which has a 6 foot soffit height before transitioning into a cathedral ceiling in the middle of the room.

At six-foot tall, I found the top of my head sliding across the ceiling of the soffit while visiting Taliesin.  These short soffits are everywhere throughout Taliesin.  Wright was not a tall man, by any means, so these short ceilings never affected him (though guests, I’m sure, found it annoying).  Despite this fact I found the space to be much more intimate than what I am accustomed to in my own home.  Yes, the high ceilings make for a “great room” but they also require a great deal to heat and cool.  Wright had no air conditioning in his time so it was imperative to design the house in such a way to take advantage of cross circulation through window openings.  He also, in many places, takes advantage of the cooling effects of water by placing small ponds outside the windows allowing the breeze coming through the window to pick up the cool, moist air from the surface of the pond and carry it through the house.

The invention of air conditioning has certainly been a tremendous benefit and has become a standard feature for all new American homes.  But, because of it we have all become indoor oriented creatures.  If the weather outside falls beyond the 65 to 75 degree comfort range most of us have grown accustomed to we tend to want to be inside.  As you walk through the grounds at Taliesin you can see numerous different outdoor seating areas.  The outside spaces were extensions of the indoors, often used as much as the space inside.  All this tends to lend justice to the docent’s insistence that Taliesin is indeed 37,000 square feet of living space.

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About scotthaz

I love the creative process of Architecture (and tolerate the administrative end of the process), golf as often as my family will allow, and enjoy nature photography.
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