Monday, 2 November 2020

Robie House, Chicago

Fred Robie was a young man given to motoring around Chicago in a car of his own design - he had an engineering background and he was making good money from his own business supplying auto-parts as well as from a share in his father’s business interests which ranged from bicycles to sewing machine parts. Recently married with two young children, Robie was only 28 when he bought a corner plot in the Hyde Park area of Chicago in the university neighbourhood on which to build a new home for his family.  Robie was ambitious and in tune with the spirit of the age, obsessed with technology - innovative design was the key to future prosperity.  Frank Lloyd Wright was his choice of architect.  In his early forties at the time, Wright was well established in Chicago and beyond and could be depended on to deliver a statement design that would signal to the world that his client was a person of distinction and financially secure.  Robie, in many ways was the ideal client for Wright - he shared his dislike of superfluous refinements such as curtains and drapes and he was looking for a home with minimal interior furnishings and partitioning. They were both enraptured by the world of the automobile.

Wright came up with a radical design that would come to be widely regarded as the supreme articulation of his Prairie Style - an idiom marked by low rise horizontal forms, flat or hipped roofs and deep overhanging eaves. The Robie House would occupy the entire plot leaving no space for a garden though space was found for a three-car garage, complete with inspection pit and car wash. Three levels of accommodation were provided - services and an entrance lobby on level one, living and recreational areas on level two and bedrooms on a much smaller level three. Like so many of Wright’s dwellings, including his own, it would not be enjoyed for long by its original owner. In May 1910 the Robie family moved into the house while the final installation of furniture and fittings went on around them until final completion in January 1911. At the same time, Robie’s comfortable, orderly life was falling apart and in December 1911 the Robies were moving out after a disastrous year during which Robie had been bankrupted by the inheritance of his late father’s gambling debts (over one million dollars), the disintegration of his marriage and the loss of his family.

Externally the key feature is the long cantilever that projects forward from level two, protecting the interior from the power of the summer sun while sheltering the terraces and balconies that provide outdoor space to mitigate the absence of a garden. In the process creating an overwhelming sense of horizontality. Inside level two the rooms flow into one another, all generously supplied with decorative glazing that admits light but minimises visual distraction from the street outside. Every item of oak furniture was built to Wright’s design by German woodworkers in Milwaukee, then placed according to his instructions - every floor covering, lighting fixture and radiator grill likewise.  Horizontal strings of diamond motifs and vertical threads of chevrons evoking the forms of ears of wheat as grown on the prairie grace the stained glass windows. Wright’s fascination with geometry and the visual power of forms in parallel is everywhere to be seen. The vertical rods of the chair backs that descend to the floor and the stained wooden strips that band the ceilings before taking a right angle turn down the walls, then wrapping and enclosing the light fittings are notable examples. All is organised to inter-relate and share common elements to develop a grammar of visual unity. The geometry of Modernism and the search for formal purity was not for Wright but his visual enhancements could not be easily dismissed as mere decoration. There’s an air of restraint in Wright’s use of ornamentation that he took from the Arts and Crafts tradition.

Today’s Robie House is a meticulously curated national landmark and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exquisite as it is, it remains difficult to get much sense of what it might have been like as a family home. The Robies were succeeded by a Chicago advertising executive D L Taylor, another victim of Wright’s curse - he died in less than a year and the house again changed hands. New owners, the Wilber family lived there for 14 years - the only occupants to enjoy an extended residency. In 1926 the house was acquired by the Chicago Theological Seminary, owners of several neighbouring properties. The Seminary converted the house into student dorms and a refectory while developing plans to demolish and replace with a much larger building of their own. The threat of demolition was only lifted in 1958 when ownership passed to the University of Chicago for whom it would function as office space right up to 1997. Restoration to its former condition was a 17 year task begun in 2002 and finally completed in 2019 which is when these photos were taken.  On the other side of the road stands the Booth School of Business, housed in a 2004 building designed by Rafael Viñoly. The block closest to the street intelligently pays respect to Wright's preference for extended horizontal rectangles without mimicry or post-modern parody.  A later building by Viñoly in the City of London (20 Fenchurch Street) became popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie and notorious for melting parked cars with sunlight reflected from its concave glazing.


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