Prairie style architecture mimics the horizon of the prairie in an attempt to capture the beauty of that landscape in an abstract form. Created by Frank Lloyd Wright and his draftsmen while working from Wright's studio in Oak park, Illinois, prairie style was radical for it's time. Both staggered and sprawling, Wright's prairie style homes possessed strong horizontal lines that looked as if they stretched across the land. That focus on the horizontal looked drastically different from the Victorian homes being built at the time and greatly influenced the architecture of the 20th century.
Wright's creation of the prairie style comes as relatively no surprise. He spent the later part of his childhood living in Wisconsin and working on his mother's family's farm. During that time Wright developed an appreciation for and knowledge of the prairie. While working in Chicago as an architect, those feelings and memories of the prairie returned to Wright as he began to create his own style of architecture. Wright believed that buildings should agree with the landscape, and when designing homes for the flat lands of Chicago, Wright had already established a relationship with that landscape - the prairie.
Of all of Wright's prairie homes, there is one that is considered the quintessential example of prairie style: the Robie house, which is where I started my journey to learn about that fascinating style. Karen Sweeney, the director of restoration at the Robie house
, spent some time teaching me about Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style. Here's what I found out:
The prairie style was created by Frank Lloyd Wright and his draftsmen, but Wright did not name the style.
"He didn't name it, no," Sweeney said. "Architectural historians have named it the Prairie Style. What he does is he starts building buildings that he feels are appropriate to the prairie, to the setting they're in."
Prairie style homes are wide and short to mimic the look of the prairie. Everything on the homes is expressed horizontally: bands of windows, bands of masonry or stucco and low roofs with large overhangs that keep the summer sun from blazing through the windows.
"He has these long, horizontal buildings with overhangs that reinforce it even more," Sweeney said. "Bands of windows and bands of masonry or stucco massing that really makes it feel like a prairie house because it hugs the prairie. Prairies are low and flat. So, then the houses you build in them should be low and flat."
Prairie style homes revolve around a center hearth.
"He does take a few things that he feels like are typical of American architecture," Sweeney said. "One is the hearth, and to have the hearth at the center of the building and to have the building rotate around it. And his prairie houses have several standard floor plans that vary on that. Where you would have that central hearth and then the building radiate around it."
Numerous geometric, abstract forms are used to decorate and create the shape of Prairie style homes. Those geometric patterns were often representations of nature.
"He calls it organic because he's taking forms in nature but abstracting them to then, which other artists were doing at the same time," Sweeney said. "I mean, this is all a kind of synergy of minds when people are doing stuff like that. But Mr. Wright just always seems to take it that one step further, and really elaborates on it in architecture. ... And everything is like that. ... They would have this geometry, and you would take a pattern and kind of build on it."
Each material used in a prairie home had a specific purpose to Wright and could not be interchanged. To switch one material for another would ruin the design. As a result, Wright took great care when choosing each material and would at times have specific instructions for how each material should be installed.
"There's lots of wood, lots of glass," Sweeney said. "On the interior lots of plaster - usually texturized. He tries in several different buildings different finishes on it. In this building it's a called a, it's painted, but it's dry brushed, so there's actually three different colors of paint that go on the walls and then he hits it with the wire brush to actually expose some of the plaster aggregate so it's a mixture of all three. Some of the other buildings have wax finishes on it, bees wax and stuff. So, he tries all sorts of organic things to try and get different finishes on the walls. Some of the Wright's homes the exterior and interior have plaster colors that are actually integral, the color gets added to the plaster and then mixed and then applied."
"I know there are certain bricks that are used in prairie style homes," I said.
"Yes, Roman bricks," Sweeney said. "They're long and horizontal and then even the mortar joints are reinforced in this building where we have natural mortar joints on the horizontal and then we have red vertical joints that are flush with the brick so it then emphasizes the horizontality again."
Specific colors were used in Prairie style homes. The colors were typically earth colors, such as green, brown or ocher
"Earth colors," Sweeney said. "Greens and browns. As you can see in here we have a brown ocher so it's a very natural color, and it would typically coordinate with the colors that were in the art glass, and the colors in here just reinforce the colors in the art glass. So, they become that much brighter.
"I noticed the colors he used are kind of dark, and it's almost like it's open and then the dark colors make it more intimate and closed feeling," I said.
"It does," Sweeney said. "It creates kind of a "home" feeling that you want to have, these colors. He also uses these colors because they blend in with nature and if we didn't have houses or buildings around us and you look out into nature, it would make that stronger connection."
Space was expertly used in Prairie style homes. Even though the ceilings were low, the rooms felt very open and spacious due to the open floor plan, large amounts of windows and juxtaposition of tiny spaces with large spaces.
"You know, you need to create the scale," Sweeney said. "You make that low feeling in some rooms so then the other rooms feel that much bigger and that's what Mr. Wright really liked to manipulate space like that. This is not a really tall space, but if feels very spacious. Part of that is the way he bringing the windows and the doors almost all the way up to the ceilings in here. So, you see, those windows in that area are right up to the ceiling, so you feel like the height goes up and they're very tall, and he just plays with space that way."
The use of art glass in a Prairie style home is extremely important to the design. Because prairie style homes have so many windows to allow nature in, the art glass is needed to keep people inside the homes from feeling exposed to the outside world.
"It's not always art glass because sometimes it would be windows and it would never get the art glass put in it, but it was always projected to be this art glass screen," Sweeney said. "And he uses art glass for another reason. It really creates a screen between and creates a whole geometry that if these were just windows with no art glass you would have a different feel in here. It's almost like it would be so open, but by adding the art glass into it kind of, it's a barrier but not a barrier.
"In all the houses I've been in the one thing that is really amazing to me is even though many of them are very big houses like this, they always have very intimate spaces in them. There's a real level of understanding of how people use space that you don't see in a lot of buildings."