Following Frank: The Oak Park Home & Studio, Part 2
Like most Wright sites, it is difficult to fully appreciate the design of the Home & Studio from pictures alone. Wright was a master of space, which can be difficult to convey in a two-dimensional image. His designs are also highly detailed and tightly integrated with the sites upon which they are constructed. The Home & Studio is no different. It is almost impossible to imagine anything else in the lot on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Forest Avenue.
Arriving from Chicago
We approached the site from the east on Chicago Avenue, after a walk from southern Oak Park. Even though we knew we were close, the site snuck up on us. Before we knew it, we were in the courtyard and in front of the giant gingko tree. After a moment of amazement, we walked around to the Studio entrance, and back down to the front yard of the residence on Chicago Avenue. The inside tour was still some time away, so we took several minutes more to admire the front of the house, then headed into the gift shop to pick up our Forest Avenue self-guided audio tour devices. We would explore more of Wright’s nearby works before returning to the Home & Studio for the day’s main event.
As much as I loved the residence and, in particular, the Children’s Playroom, it was Wrights Studio that I most anticipated seeing. Myself being an artist and coming from a family of artists and makers, I had long ago learned to appreciate the workspaces where genius minds created their masterpieces. In this regard, standing in Wright’s Studio was on the same level as visiting the studio where DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa, or the room where Mozart composed Le Nozze Di Figaro.
A Grande Entrance
The Studio entrance is ornate and leaves little doubt as to the identity of the proprietor. Again, this place is decidedly different from Wright’s later works, combining classical elements with new ideas about space…and the psychological use of space. If Wright’s intention was, in fact, to always make people feel like they had arrived someplace special as they find and enter a structure, he achieved this in spectacular fashion with the Studio. The crouching human sculptures above the entrance provide a sense of wonder and weight, while the intricate stork capitals indicate the attention to detail that the architect would pay to his designs. Approaching the entrance from the eastern side, you would be certain to notice the inscription that reads “Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect” and, in the lower right corner the motif of the circle within a square, with which Wright would become synonymous.
The facade of the Studio is like a temple, yet at a human scale. It is both imposing and inviting, inspiring curiosity as to what awaits beyond the pillars. That curiosity is rewarded as you encounter the first part of Wright’s theory of “compression and release.” You are first squeezed into a tight, dark entry and through the door where you are released into a welcoming reception with higher ceilings that glow with the warm, colorful hues of ornate art glass skylights. It is a dramatic journey into Wright’s workspace and left me with a sense of wonder and discovery. I can only imagine what this must have felt like for the average client who came through these doors at the turn of the twentieth century. It is so remarkable different from almost anything I have experienced from that era.
After a few moments in the reception area, it was on to the drafting room, where I had dreamt of standing since I was a teenager. By the time I graduated from college, I had spent countless hours at a drafting table. None of them were located in a space so inspiring as Wright’s Chicago studio, however. Even though there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the main space, it is still comfortable and beautifully designed. It is a bit dark for drawing, so each drafting table is equipped with an overhead lamp. The windows, most of which are situated, higher on the walls, allow very little direct natural light into the space. More indirect light is introduced through the windows of the second story loft space that opens up from above – an element that I would see repeated in another significant Wright design.
Inspiration from Above
It is the loft that provides much of the drafting room’s architectural and visual interest. The windows of the upper level provide light that washes in to contrast against the dark wood of the interior walls and ceiling. A complicated array of chains provide mechanical detail and provide a sense that the second floor is floating above. In this way, Wright transforms a utilitarian space into a place of wonder. Decades after seeing the space in books, it was a moving experience to see it with my own eyes. My only disappointment was that I was not able to see the second story. Still, it was a (nearly) life-long dream fulfilled. Despite the desire to stay longer and to belly-up to one of the drafting tables with a square and pencil, it was time to move on.
From the drafting room, it was into Wright’s office, a beautiful softly-lighted room, also with an art glass skylight. It is a somewhat confined space, which makes me wonder if Wright ever had much intention of remaining at his desk for any extended period of time. Like the Dining room, it was lovely to look at but, I suspect, difficult to remain in for long periods of time. Again, it was a beautiful and very intentionally and intricately designed space, just not one I would imagine Wright spending his time in, poring over business documents or or managing the finances of the business. It may have been the desire of Wright to use the compression of this space to push clients back out into the reception area or drafting room, the latter of which being a place where Wright would be much more in his element.
An Architectural Library
The library, though, located on the opposite end of the reception area, is a space I could imagine spending a great deal of time in. Wright apparently intended for this space to be open to the public, a plan that never quite came to fruition. Still, it is a beautiful space with a high ceiling and windows that allow for soft, indirect sunlight. The high ceiling makes the octagonal space feel much larger than it is. The space is intricate, yet not overly formal. It is comfortable, yet academic, with little to distract during time of reading, research, and reflection.
The fact that Wright had designs on a publicly available library is laudable and, I think, consitent with his desire to elevate humankind. Despite his personal failings, he spent much of his life thinking about and planning what he perceived to be a better future. Much of that envisioned future was centered around the importance of communal resources.
From the library, it was back out into the reception area for a few moments — just enough time to once again enjoy the art glass skylights, before squeezing back out though the Studio doors and being released back into the late July sunlight on Chicago Avenue. It was a wonderful, if not all-to-short, experience. It was the perfect way to begin our time in Chicago and Oak Park, and would prepare us for the exploration of many more of Wright’s most iconic works, over the next two days. Even if you are not necessarily as devoted fan of Frank Lloyd Wright as I am, I would still recommend that, if you are in Chicago and have the time, make your way to Oak Park and treat yourself to a walk down Forest Avenue, from Lake Street to Chicago Avenue.