Visiting the Robie House in Chicago I
Bill Long 7/27/09
Frank Lloyd Wright's 1909-10 Masterpiece
After worshipping on Sunday morning, July 26, at Fourth Presbyterian Church (see my essays expositing the biblical text--on David and Bathsheba--for the morning), I headed over to Hyde Park to take a tour of the Frederick C. Robie house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) as the "last act" of his "Chicago" period of architecture (1889-1909). I parked my car near Woodlawn and South 52nd so that I would have lots of walking to do (the Robie house is at 5757 South Woodlawn, and the blocks are very long). I had never been in this neighborhood; the greater Boston area was my higher educational home in the US. I loved walking along the old brownstones, engaging one of the residents of the Jesuit house at 55th about the tree in the front yard (it was an English walnut--Juglans regia), and continuing on to the Robie house. Though my tour was for 2:00 p.m., I managed to sneak in to the 1:00 p.m. tour. I wanted to have time to look over the University for a bit after the tour and still make it up to Milwaukee to visit the Boerner Botanical Gardens before they closed at 7:00 p.m. Actually, the gardens were open to the public, though one was supposed to pay a fee, and I sneaked in there too. I was already preparing my line if approached--"Oh, you mean you had to go into the big building to pay before going into the gardens?"--but no one approached me.
The Home and The Tour
So, I arrived at the Robie home. I had long been aware of Wright's architecture, and I had grown to appreciate it as I studied more and more of the various Victorian-era styles of American homes. The Classical/French/Italian/Victorian home-building craze lasted from about 1850-1910; it was that overabundant, stiff, elegant and stuffy style against which Wright was rebelling. Indeed the church at which I had just worshipped, Fourth Presbyterian, a soaring Gothic structure, was built about the same time as the Robie house. Thus, I was traversing theological as well as architectural worlds as I made my way to Hyde Park.
Make no mistake about it. Wright represents a radically new style in architecture. Though you usually have to read about a revolution in order to understand it, you could see the revolution Wright helped to bring about simply by standing outside and looking at the roof line of the Robie House.
Pictures of the home are everywhere. Here is a good one. Before you can understand the house itself, you need to place yourself back to the time when the house was being built. Wright designed the house to be a South-facing house, looking across South 58th, even though the front entrance was on Woodlawn. Prairie fields streched for several blocks south of 58th in 1909-10, when the house was built. Thus, when looking at the house from the South, you see it "emerging" from the ground or snuggled into the prairie setting around it. This was to be one of the chief features of the prairie style chosen by Wright--its "organicity" and "horizontal," rather than "vertical," design. Victorian buildings and neo-Gothic structures, which were then the rage, reached towards the heavens. Wright wanted to locate his work firmly in the earth. The colors, forms and lines of the building all favored this approach.
It was interesting for me to learn that the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, diagonally across the street from the Robie House, was built in the 1920s, a decade or so after the Robie House. The "Gothicity" of this huge structure, much too big for any possible worshipping congregation that would gather in that part of Chicago today, seems to drown out everything else in the neighborhood as it arches its way heavenward. Thus, perhaps unwittingly, a "competition" of sorts ensued between the new Prairie style, represented by the older building (the Robie house) and the imitative Gothic style (imitating a 14th century model) of the Rockefeller Chapel.
As if the philosopher GWF Hegel were still alive in the modern architectural world, a "synthesis" of these two approaches to architecture is found in the design of the Business School of the University of Chicago, which is directly across 57th from the Robie House and directly across Woodlawn from Rockefeller Chapel. Designed by the firm of Rafael Vinoly about five years ago, the Business School reflects the "Robie style" in its exterior and the "Gothic" in its interior (interior picture is here). That is, the exterior lines of the building are horizontal; the Robie House can be viewed perfectly from an outside porch of the school and the broad windows and light construction material mirrors the same in the Robie House. On the other hand, the large interior space of the Business School is called the Winter Garden quad, which is enclosed by greenhouse-like glass and steel. Its interior looks like the nave of a huge Gothic sanctuary.
Thus, we had a fascinating architectural tableau before us even before I took one step inside the Robie house. Both Gothic and Prairie styles are swallowed up, so to speak, in a new synthesis of the whole, while each exemplar of the two styles remains. Even though I toured the Gothic Chapel after the Robie House, and even though I love the language and architecture of Gothic spaces, my attention was riveted today by the alluring lines and lore of the Robie House.
The next essay tells you what I learned.