You’re wandering downtown. Suddenly the leaves turn topsy-turvy in the air. The whining wind gives you shiver. Heavy raindrops start splattering around. Where to shelter? All is wet except a sidewalk’s stripe that stubbornly remains dry: step into the dry stripe and lean against the wall. Squint up at the wooden roof overhanging the wall. This is your protection: THE EAVES.
The eaves are neither a special decoration nor Frank Lloyd Wright’s invention. Keep an eye on roofs when you walk in the city or countryside: there are broad eaves, narrow eaves, or no eaves at all. Long time ago, when there were no architecture universities (and no schools at all), people built their houses with the materials at hand (stone, wood, clay, thatch), looking at models nearby. This is called vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture, especially in wooden areas (Eastern and Central Europe for instance), has plenty of diverse eaves to display.
The Master against the Fashion
So used since centuries, yet so overlooked, the eaves became the mark of a starring American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, only around 120 years ago. How? At the time when Mr. Wright began working as an architect, people wanted their houses to follow peculiar styles, which were considered fashionable. As with clothes, buildings used to follow the fashion, even more than nowadays.
What was the building fashion some 120 years ago in the US? Like in Europe, the appearance of the building had nothing to do with its use and location: a rich house in Southern US could look similar to a university in Europe, because both used as a model the Ancient Greek columns and pediments. In brief, there were many architectural styles that improvised based on historical periods of architecture.
Mr. Wright was annoyed by this fashion. Why using a copy-and-paste method that makes everything looks the same? (Doesn’t sound familiar? Nowadays we also struggle to overcome the uniformity of clothes, food, blocks of flats as disadvantages of globalization.) He thought that buildings need to fit their surroundings, to follow the shapes of the landscape, to use the materials available in the region, and also to show off their function. As a result a rich house in Mid-West won’t look like a museum in Western Europe.
Today we use a fancier word to grapple with the surroundings of a building: environment. We use it at school and at work sooo much because it’s fashionable. Yet, more often than not, it is just an empty buzz-word. A country house shaped like a closed concrete cube will not be environmentally-friendly in a million years, even if it is equipped with high-tech energy saving gizmos, since the shape of the house doesn’t fit the countryside landscape. This would be enough for Mr. Wright to discard that house as bad architecture. Next time in class, be inquisitive about the way in which an object is friendly to the environment.
Mastering the Horizontal Line
Mr. Wright was not content with the architectural styles in fashion. Little by little – it took him around 10 years of work — he changed the design of his houses and persuaded his clients to love his style. How was his style? It emphasized in buildings:
Horizontal lines. All buildings have horizontal lines, you’d argue. True, but … perception works differently. We tend to see what is more important in a picture, what is bigger, taller, more colored. The same with horizontal lines.
Look at the window on the left: it has 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines. Look at the windows on the right: Wright made a band of windows that is lots of short vertical lines embedded in 2 looong horizontal lines. We perceive just the horizontality. Why? Because it dominates the view.
Broad eaves. Wright’s roofs are like a signature. They’re just his. The roofs emphasize the horizontal line by their low pitch and broad overhanging eaves.
Look at any roof: it has a pitch and eaves. Look at his roof: it has the same features except it is veeery compressed as if an elephant slept on it. Why do we like better his roof? Because it shows us a dominant feature, something easy to grasp before all other features. Remember this for your next drawings (it works even in the comic books you make): do exaggerate just one thing.
Open floor plan. Wright’s houses do not have many walls inside. The ground floor is open. The floor plan means how you use the floor: a part for the kitchen, a part for the living-room, a part for the bedroom, and so on. For example: nowadays we are all used to kitchens that are inside the living room. But back in Wright’s time, the kitchens were completely separated by heavy walls from the living area. He opened the rooms toward each other more than just through doors. Once again he emphasized the horizontality of the building.
The Prairie Houses
These elements of style are characteristics for Wright’s buildings. There is more to it, but if you grasp just these above and the idea of horizontality, you can confidently recognize the houses planned by a world master.
Mr. Wright lived and worked in Chicago, which is situated in Midwestern U.S. Up there the land is flat, lake Michigan extends the soil’s smoothness, and the Mississippi river watershed seems to wipe out any vertical irregularities. This vast open plain inspired many artists, including architects, as they linked this horizontal broadness to serenity, composure and the American pioneers. Wright was one of them, although he wouldn’t have called his buildings “the prairie houses.” After Wright’s death, a historian, Allen Brooks, who wrote about Wright and other architects in Chicago area coined this name “prairie” style that became famous.