Monday, June 27, 2011

The Circle Takes the Square

As innovative a designer as Frank Lloyd Wright was, he was not adverse to "recycling" certain motifs from one commission to another.  The prismatic shapes of the Barton House ceiling molding and the second floor scuppers from the Martin House are repeated in the main floor plan of the Robie House (Chicago, 1908).  The wall sconces ordered for the Barton House were identical to those already designed for the Dana House (Springfield, IL, 1902) and also used in various subsequent houses.  Now, another example has come to light: the repetition of the circle-in-square motif from the Martin House to the Larkin Administration Building (Buffalo, 1904-06).

Larkin building wall sconce
Martin Living room table

A Larkin building wall sconce sold recently via Urban Remains of Chicago bears the conjoined circle and square motif familiar to followers of the Martin House:  distinctive tables Wright designed for the Martin living room and reception room have tops of the same geometric configuration.  In the case of the Martin tables, this unusual shape may have been the whimsical resolution of a difference of opinion between architect and client.  As part of his tout ensemble furnishing scheme for the Martin House, Wright proposed square or rectangular tables for the living room and reception room.  Mrs. Martin, however, desired round tables.  Apparently, Wright decided to give her both, resulting in the tables as built.  The reason for transferring the circle-in-square motif to the Larkin building sconces is unclear, beyond the Larkin commission sharing Wright's drafting board with the Martin House in those years in general.

Detail, entry of Williams House
Plan, Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Wright may have employed a circle-in-square motif first in the Chauncey Williams House (River Forest, IL, 1895), where a window of such geometry flanks the Sullivanesque front door.  For that matter,  the circle-in-square motif enjoys a long history in Western art and architecture, from the floor pattern of the Pantheon to da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.  Wright may well have been aware of such examples, at least with their distant reflections in Sullivan's work.  And there's precedent for Wright's combination of the circle and square in the Eastern tradition as well:  in cosmologically-based Chinese design, a square often represents the ideal city or domestic compound designed by man, and the circle represents the celestial realm and the divine (e.g. the Temple of Heaven in Beijing).  Given Wright's burgeoning interest in Asian culture at the turn of the century, such Eastern influences come to bear on his Prairie era designs, alongside Western ones.  By extension, one could read the circle-in-square motifs in the Martin House (in the tables as well as the interior light fixtures and urns on the exterior) as suggesting the sanctification of domestic - elevating the concept of house to that of sublime art, as Wright purported to do in his "domestic symphony," the Martin House. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

A New Type of Martin House

Inspired by Buffalo's wealth of architecture and the upcoming visit from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rich Kegler, Founder and Executive Director of the Western New York Book Arts Center, has created a series of innovative letterpress prints of these landmarks.  The series includes City Hall, Grain Elevators, Kleinhans Music Hall and - hot off WNYBAC's Vandercook press - the Darwin D. Martin House. 

Utilizing the Book Arts Center's extensive (and growing) collection of wood type, metal type and printer's ornaments, Kegler is fast becoming the master of representing architectural forms through the once-utilitarian medium of letterpress.  Familiar characters are re-purposed in surprising ways.  For example: if those urns look familiar, that's because they're sideways parentheses.  The sense of proportion and balance achieved is remarkable, rendered through a nearly-lost art that WNYBAC has made great strides in preserving and reviving.  Kegler commented that these images were inspired by having a "shop full of blocks that beg 2-D 'Lego' assemblages," adding that he was "interested in pushing the boundaries of what can be done using only materials found in the shop itself."

The Martin House print was produced in an edition of 100, signed and numbered on Arches paper.  Fifty will be available soon at the Wisteria Museum Shop at the Martin House Complex.  Call Shop Director Becky Lee at (716) 856-3858 x 405 to inquire.

For other examples of WNYBAC's distinctive architectural prints, visit their Etsy store.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Postcards from Michigan

Being a series of pilgrim's impressions from an excursion to Wright and Saarinen sites.

 Friday, June 3 - 
A beautiful day for a bus trip - picked up a group of Canadian friends en route across the Niagara peninsula.  Arrived Cranbrook Academy for lunch.  Sitting on original Saarinen-designed chairs made the cafeteria food taste better (at least a little).  The palette of materials here feels familiar - so similar to the warm masonry and wood the Saarinens used in Kleinhans back home.  The campus buildings and Saarinen house are a fascinating mash-up of Nordic Classicism, Deco, and homespun Finnish Arts and Crafts.  Somehow, it works.  Later:  a visit to the Affleck house, a unique L-plan Usonian nearby.  The light-filled entry hall near the bend in the "L" really activates the plan.  Huge cantilevers reach out to the ravine, a la Fallingwater.  I like the Usonians more and more - so much variation on a common theme.

Saturday, June 4 - 
Escaped the mall-sprawl of Novi, and headed west to the Shaberg house.  Love the funky, neo-retro-modern decor - references the era of the house, but doesn't try to live in the past.  Means of support for the ceiling / roof are a mystery, and the mitered glass-meeting-plaster is uncanny.  The owner is a welcoming and entertaining host - said that Pete Townsend once slept on his floor (in NYC).  Knew I'd find a Wright-Who connection some day.  Back on the magic bus... Later:  arrived Grand Rapids and the Meyer May house, which inspires awe before we even step off the bus.  Jerry Foster is waiting with bells on (actually, his Martin House t-shirt on).  The house is a stunner and a must-see.  (Note to self:  buy stock in Steelcase)  So many previews of the finished detail to come at the Martin House:  wall treatments, sconces, furniture, landscaping.  The living room is a tour de force of art glass, integrated with millwork in a way that hints at the California textile block houses.  The Niedecken mosaic is sublime (and makes for a great tote bag).  Nice dinner with Jerry and Hanne and the whole group - great to spend some time with them on their turf.   

Sunday, June 5 - 
Wow...the Turkel House is a gem, and any Wright house owners that hand me a Bloody Mary on the way in are OK in my book!  They explain that the construction was far from "Automatic," but the end result is amazing - integration of the various blocks and glass produce a unique union of structure and enclosure - especially evident in the soaring "music" room.  Great collection of Wright books, decorative objects and art, inside and out.  And then brunch... could this GET any better?  Nobody wanted to leave (good thing we had a travel schedule to keep).  Thanks Dale and Norm - we'll be back!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Art Glass from the "Other" Martin House

The William Martin "lightscreen" offered by Urban Remains

The recent posting of a Wright "lightscreen" from the William E. Martin house (Oak Park, 1903-04) offered for sale in Chicago prompted some reflection (no pun intended) on the art glass Wright designed for the elder Martin, vis a vis that created for brother Darwin D. of Buffalo.

In at least one letter to Darwin, William indicated that he was unhappy with certain aspects of the art glass that Wright provided for their house:

Our windows seem a little awkward but do their work O.K.  If after seeing Mr. Wright you still want sample will do so - ours came from England via Toronto... Our glass job is not satisfactory = but promised to be made so = don't let W[right] give you any glass doors - or French windows - if you can avoid it they won't stand banging - we have four broken. [WEM to DDM, letter of 7 July, 1904]

Detail of the caming used in the William Martin panel
William's comments are relegated to the functional practicality of Wright's light screens (in a household with children), but the design may have given him pause also, based on his use of the word "awkward."  The light screen designs for the William Martin house are much simpler, though more consistent, than those for the Darwin D. Martin house, where Wright lavished sixteen major patterns on the commission.  William's doors and windows bear some resemblance to the lower portion of the "wisteria" doors from Darwin's house, but lack the cascading gold "flakes" that characterize the unit room glass in the latter.  Interestingly, one of Wright's drawings for William's art glass shows a living room cabinet door proposal with simple chevrons a la the upper "branch" sections of Darwin Martin's "Tree of Life" windows, but this variation had been crossed out on the drawing [see Julie Sloan, Light Screens large edition, p. 157].

Martin House Senior Curator Jack Quinan has observed that the William Martin designs convey a sense of horizontal prison bars.  I'm admittedly biased, but daresay that they certainly lack the balance and refinement of many of the art glass motif from the Darwin D. Martin house. 

Thanks to PrairieMod for the tip on this art glass sale.