Friday, October 29, 2010

Architecture Trivia Answer

The previous blog entry ended with a question: Is the following house a Frank Lloyd Wright design?  Or is it authored by one of Wright's many followers? 
Wright or faux Wright?
Russell Barr Williamson residence.
The house is located at 4800 North Oakland Avenue, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Whitefish Bay is a leafy Milwaukee suburb on the Lake Michigan shore. This is a standout house architecturally, but not unusual for the neighborhood in terms of quality. The north shore suburbs of Milwaukee (Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside) are affluent; many of the homes here qualify as genuine mansions.

The answer to our trivia question is no, this is not a Wright design. It was built in 1921 by Russell Barr Williamson as his own house. He lived in it for thirty years. This is the same architect who designed the faux Wright design profiled in the previous blog entry.

I was fooled by this one for many years. At some point I read, or was told, that this is a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Perhaps unsupervised, but definitely Wright. Wrong!

Wright was a prolific architect, with hundreds of designs scattered throughout the country. However, there are more Wright look-alikes than one man could ever be responsible for.  Many architects rode the crest of his fame to develop alternate visions of prairie style architecture.  Not all of them produced great work, but many did. Among the more notable, besides Williamson, are Marion Mahoney, Walter Burly Griffin, and the firm of Purcell and Elmslie. All of these architects are worth looking into, either on the internet or, better, by seeking out the many examples of their work.
Detail of porte chochere.
All photographs:  M. Knorr.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wright or Wrong?

Bogk residence by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Detail Bogk residence. 
One of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright designs is the Bogk residence in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Built in 1916 it is atypical Wright.  It lacks the horizontality of his prairie style architecture from the same period. Instead it is vertical and blocky.  Very un-Wrightian: it even allows for a third level attic space.  However, this stately home is brilliantly executed with exquisite massing, well-developed detail, and complex interior volumes. It should rate as one of his most sophisticated designs, but is hardly ever mentioned in Wright biographies. The Bogk residence reflects the proportions and ornamentation he was beginning to develop for the Imperial Hotel in Japan during the same period. It also foreshadows his California projects of the twenties which are typically blocky and utilize vaguely-Mayan motifs. These include the Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall (1922), La Miniatura for Alice Millard (1923), and the Ennis house (1924), among others.

Also in Milwaukee, less than a mile north, is a similar home.
It displays the same proportions, though it is actually much smaller.  It has the same approach to fenestration, the same gold tiles in leaded glass, the same horizontal banding played against vertical structure.  One could easily identify this as another Wright design executed on a slightly more modest budget.  Many have assumed this to be the case, but this assumption is wrong.  This house, originally built for T. Robinson Bours, was designed by Milwaukee architect Russell Barr Williamson.  It was completed in 1921.

Bours residence by Russell Barr Williamson.
The confusion is understandable. Williamson worked for Wright in the late-1910s and actually supervised the Bogk resdience for him.  Given their proximity in time, space, and lineage it is not surprising the two structures bear a resemblance.

Besides obvious budgetary differences, not everything about the two residences is similar.  The biggest divergence is in the interiors.  The Wright design bears richer rewards in the interplay of spaces and exhibits a higher sense of drama.  In contrast, the Williamson design feels much like the typical bungalow built throughout Milwaukee and the rest of the country during these pre-depression years. It is very pleasant but certainly less adventuresome. The Williamson design differs on the exterior as well.  Wright was loathe to use barrel (or "Spanish") tiles on his roofs; Williamson uses them here to great effect.  Wright was characteristically stubborn when it came to entries as well.  They were often hidden at the end of a circuitous path.  This seemed to be deliberate;  it was a way of establishing a sense of intrigue.  In Wright's Bogk house, however, the main entrance abuts the side drive with  little grace and no drama.  It is marked only by a stubby little cantilevered canopy.  Williamson's design, by contrast, announces the entrance to the house with a pavilion-like structure set back on the right.  It complements the house and signals welcome.  In this respect, it is the more successful of the two.

Russell Barr Williamson had a distinguished career in Milwaukee.  He designed several notable buildings, some in the manner of Wright and others with his own distinctive flair.  He died in 1964.

Frank Lloyd Wright also designed many other buildings in and around Milwaukee. Here is another residence only three miles further north in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood:
Wright or faux Wright?
Is this Wright?  Williamson? Some other prairie school architect?

The answer will be provided in the next blog entry.

All photos:  M. Knorr
Research Librarian for Williamson history: Susan Knorr

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Is Architecture Like Rugby?

I went to a rugby game last night.  Navy vs. Air Force.  Always great fun without the craziness and hype attending NFL games and other professional American teams. Rugby is still a nascent sport in the United States, so the ushers thoughtfully provided a brief guide to the rules, which included this pithy summary:
On the pitch: Navy, left.  Air Force, right.
"Rugby has its unique aspects, but like many other sports, it is essentially about the creation and use of space.  The winners of a game of Rugby will be the team of players who can get themselves and the ball into space and use that space wisely, while denying the opposing team both possession of the ball and access to space in which to use it." (Italics added.)
In the scrum.
Hmmm.  Sounds a lot like???? Architecture.  I never thought of it that way before.  Of course, with architecture we are not usually "denying the opposing team... access to space."  But the rest of it rings right. Sports are often used as a metaphor for life. I suppose Rugby could be a useful metaphor for architecture.

In this game, Navy created and used more space, 19 to 10.
Creating space.