THE PRAIRIE HOUSE –
‘The horizontal line is the line of domesticity’
After Wright’s Sullivan years he started practising on his own and based his practice around the Oak Park area where he built a number of houses. It was during this period that he was consumed by a search for a new language in design of homes. The prevailing concepts, heavily borrowing from European designs with claustrophobic rooms and ornate ornamentation led Wright to come up with an entirely new concept of residential design. By 1901, he had refined and crystallised his ideas and published it in the February edition of the Ladies Home Journal as ‘A Home in a Prairie Town’. This remarkable concept showed houses with overhanging shady roofs, horizontal suspended terraces and balconies, bands of windows and free flowing interiors – a total deviation from all existing typologies.
The inspiration for the design was the mid-western Prairie landscape. The single most predominant feature of the prairie is its flatness and endless horizon. Wright based his concept of the Prairie House on this theme of horizontality. He emphasised the horizontal lines in his design over the verticals, through long horizontal cantilevered roof planes, terraces, bands of windows etc, thereby properly grounding his buildings in the prairie. Yet he had the artist’s eye for composition, proportion & balance, often juxtaposing the volumes and also by accentuating the chimney to create an asymmetrical balance.
‘The prairie has a beauty of its own and we should recognise and accentuate this natural beauty, its quiet level. Hence, gently sloping roofs, low proportions, quiet sky lines, suppressed heavy-set chimneys.’ – FLW (1908)
Wright also elevated the living spaces of his Prairie houses so that it offered the inhabitants a sense of enclosure and protection from the elements, while at the same time offering them unobstructed views to the horizon. The interiors too were remarkable in that there were no rigid demarcated rooms. Instead, the Prairie house had an open plan with spaces flowing into each other. The formal rooms were dissolved into free-flowing living spaces – Wright was committed to destroying the ‘box’ in architecture. The major spaces were centered around the massive fireplace, which Wright believed was the centre of any family.
Hildebrand’s book, ‘The Wright Space – Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses’ (1991) classifies the common elements of all Prairie Houses –
· The major spaces are elevated well above the terrain they overlook – giving a sense of shelter
· The fireplace is withdrawn to the centre of the house and to the internal edge of the room it serves
· Its withdrawal is emphasised by a low ceiling edge and flanking built-in seating and cabinet-work.
· The ceiling forward of the fireplace sweeps upwards into the roof, echoing its form
· Glass & glazed doors are located on walls distant from the fire.
· A generous elevated terrace lies beyond
· The exterior consists of deep overhanging eaves, an evident central chimney, broad horizontal groupings of window bands and conspicuous balconies or terraces
· The connection from exterior to interior is by means of a long and circuitous path.
The prairie houses seized the imagination of the American public, especially the lay people, which is evidence by the large number of houses built. He designed hundreds of houses based on this concept, of which, over 120 were built. His clients simply loved their homes, even returning back for more commissions. Thus the Prairie Houses marked a major shift in residential design.