It is very easy to think of a house (or any dwelling space, really) as an expression of its builder/designer and/or its residents. The house as a sign (just like one’s car, or the sort of clothing one wears) comes to represent status, culture, class, and a host of other things. For the very wealthy, a house is often a venue in which to display one’s taste and accomplishment, an advertisement for superiority of class and the presence of abundant resources. A house like the Great House on the Crane Estate at Castle Hill, for example, exists as much for display as for living, surrounded by elegantly manicured grounds, doubling at times as a showcase for its owner’s own plumbing and fixture products (the home belonged to Richard Teller Crane of Chicago’s Crane Co.). The Stuart-styled 59-room mansion (designed by Chicago architect David Adler) was completed in 1928; it was meant to be a summer retreat, although the Depression slowed the festivities there down rather a lot. It is a beautiful house in the way that a large-ish mansion competently executed in a 17th-century English style ought to be — lofty, well-appointed and expensively furnished. Its design creates an above-stairs world and a below-stairs world, so that the ones served are spared the appearance of effort and the effort of service makes almost no appearance whatsoever. The industrialist could live here like an aristocrat (including the use of an aristocrat’s actual library, bought and imported in its entirety from an estate in Britain).
A house can be more than a sign, though — a house can also be made to govern the behavior of its residents. This is one of the most fascinating things about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, one of which sits on a bluff above the Wapsinicon River near rural Quasqueton, Iowa.
The Usonian Ideal
In the 1954 edition of The Natural House, Frank Lloyd Wright identified moderate-cost housing as “America’s major architectural problem,” and suggested that the main thing preventing us from solving it “is the fact that our people do not really know how to live. They imagine their idiosyncrasies to be their ‘tastes,’ their prejudices to be their predilections, and their ignorance to be virtue — where any beauty of living is concerned” (79). He railed against small houses that were merely cheap knockoffs of their grander cousins; “such houses are stupid makeshifts, putting on some style or other, really having no integrity” (80). He was looking for a uniquely local or indigenous style of house, a building that suited the life to be lived in it and reflected a particularly American (his preferred word: “Usonian”) sensibility. “Style is important,” he wrote, but “A style is not. There is all the difference when we work with style and not for a style” (80).
With that in mind, Wright created a design approach in the 1930s for a “sensible” house that could be built on a budget, with modular components either factory-built or assembled from local elements on-site. Instead of creating a cheap imitation of something grand by seeking economies in the scale of the property or in the materials used to create it, Wright looked elsewhere for efficiencies in his Usonian vision:
It is only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage, necessary to eliminate, so far as possible, field labor which is always expensive; it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems — heating, lighting, and sanitation. At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house (81, emphasis mine).
Note that last bit — a house designed and built to liberate the people who live in it. This is what we see in the Lowell and Agnes Walter House, where an industrialist could live like…well, like anyone else, if Wright had his way.
The Usonian Irony
When Lowell and Agnes Walter commissioned Wright to create a home for them on their property at Cedar Rock (near Quasqueton, IA) in 1942 (it was completed in the period from 1948-1950), they gave him a blank check that he spent with abandon and complete creative control over the design and construction of the house. He didn’t just see to the building of the main house and the boathouse (as well as other changes to the property) — he created unique furniture scaled to the Walters (they were quite short, and all seating and bedding in the house fit them perfectly), he selected all of the decor, and he chose everything from the dishes to the linens. No piece of the Walter house was too small for his careful attention; he would show up at random, years after the house was completed, to move a glass piece back to its original position on a shelf. There are no pictures on the walls and very few unique personal decorative items; “Furniture, pictures, and bric-a-brac are unnecessary because the walls can be made to include them or be them” (83).
The “tadpole” Usonian floor plan of the house features “a central module—containing the living, dining, and kitchen corner—and then a long corridored wing containing, as in a railroad car, a line of bedrooms.” The entire point of the design is to draw residents and visitors into the main living space; the bedrooms are cozy enough, but they are small and simple, and the kitchen and laundry spaces are tucked away from casual view and too small for congregation. The real action is always in that central module, surrounded in glass and green, growing things. There is no garage, no attic, and no basement — Wright loathed them all, and he deliberately minimized and hid other sorts of storage space in order to discourage the accumulation of clutter. There is no plaster and very little paint — wall surfaces are all brick and wood and glass. Heat comes from the floor (“hypocaust” heating); there are two fireplaces in the house, but neither ever drew properly, so they saw little use. While the Walter House does feature a maid’s quarters (basically a small bed-and-bath suite that anchors the far side of the house’s carport), that space was never really used for any resident servant; it was more of a guest space than a servant space, and was furnished just like the bedrooms in the rest of the house.
If it was at least part of the architect’s intent to create spaces that encourage residents to live in a certain way — to “liberate” them from the effects of a borrowed taste, among other things — then the design of the Walter House is an excellent lesson in how to do it. While labor is just as hidden here as it is in the Great House on the Crane Estate, its hiddenness is not a matter of hiding the servers from the served — the careful closing off of the kitchen as workspace is meant to encourage its user to think of it as a site of craft rather than service. Things are tucked away here in tidy, utilitarian ways — there is no backstage mess, only a neatly modular set of spaces meant to be grounded in the central module, constantly drawing everyone into the light of nature. This is not a space for audiences appreciating a display; it is a space in which visitors and residents are supposed to be immersed.
While the Usonian ideal was an affordable house for working-class people in more rural (or at least suburban) environments, the wealthy Walters family paid a princely sum to Wright for a “liberating” house that came with some unforeseen costs and limitations (above and beyond the wildly excessive price of construction). While ostensibly designed to be inhabited year-round, the house was really only comfortably livable for three seasons; without working fireplaces and more serious insulation, it wasn’t an especially pleasant place to be in an Iowa winter on the river. Like many of Wright’s flat-roofed houses, the Walter property suffered from water damage and leakage — when the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources took it over, they installed a membrane to correct the roof problem and protect the structure from further harm. The most intrusive cost of all, however, was the unpredictable presence of Wright himself, who visited in order to tend his creation and forbid the introduction of decorative elements without his approval. The Walters had purchased beauty, and Wright meant to see that beauty maintained — what the house’s own design didn’t train its residents to do, the house’s designer would reinforce or correct himself. Buying the house apparently meant buying the right to live in an artwork, under careful supervision. For the Walters, who wanted their home “to be a symbol of how big dreams can be attained when they are fueled by hard work,” the Usonian ideal offered a strangely expensive liberation under artistic constraint.
[For a full set of pictures from the Walter House, click here!]