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Object + Window + Mirror + Lens


object etc

OBJECT + WINDOW + MIRROR + LENS also presents a spectrum and, again, it spans conveniently from objectivity to subjectivity. I wrote about this back in 2013 when a friend (on whom I tried it out and whose judgment has proven to be sound on most matters) thought the meme might be useful. As a case study, consider the example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house of 1908-1909 for Frederick and Lora Robie:


As an OBJECT, the house can be described with several pieces of objective information on which there is general agreement.

  • It is a single-family residence at the northeast corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue [#5757] in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
  • Construction began in the spring of 1909 and the house was occupied the following year.
  • It is an iconic example of Wright’s “Prairie Style” developed during the preceding decade.
  • The client Frederick C. Robie was a Chicago industrialist.

There are several visual characteristics that define Wright’s “Prairie Style” including predominant horizontal lines, window openings in clusters or bands, exaggerated roof overhangs.

It’s possible to continue, using the house as a WINDOW into the clients (Frederick Robie, wife Laura née Hieronymous , son Frederick Jr., and daughter Lorraine), the source of their wealth (automobile manufacturing), and their reasons for choosing the site (to be near Mrs Robie’s alma mater the University of Chicago and her social connections there). WE can legitimately ask what role the house played in their business, social and family life.

  • What construction challenges did the house present its builders H. B. Barnard & Co.?
  • Did Robie entertain business associates here or prefer to do that in the more neutral territory of a downtown social club?
  • How often did Mrs Robie invite university friends and faculty into her home—and how did they react to a design so different from its neighbors in both style and furnishings?
  • Who occupied the service wing (two servant’s rooms and an attached three-car garage)?
  • Why did the Robie family occupy the house for a mere fourteen months?

MIRROR is a category of meaning that will vary with the viewer: What I see and why I see it, i.e., what interests me particularly about the house, may not coincide with your observations or the perspectives they represent. [Think of the Mirror of Erised in “Harry Potter.”] I, for example, am curious about access to the house—the long front on 57th Street presents a level of openness, of visual access, which is both illusory and contradictory: Wright has contrived the planters, roof overhangs and faceted leaded glass doors for light to enter but also to keep out prying eyes. And the entry is anything but obvious and the front door itself so concealed that it conjures the citadel at Mycenae. Was this requested by the Robies or does it represent Wright’s own ambivalence about the institution of marriage? The architect was unable to supervise construction because he had run off to Europe with the wife of a client and the Robie marriage itself would dissolve by divorce in 1912. It reads too much like “The Forsyte Saga.” When I saw the building as a teenager was influential in my choice of architecture as a career. Clearly I see the house for what it can tell us regarding Edwardian social propriety and a personal talisman for fifty-seven years.

Which brings us to LENS, precisely the “big picture” view that any piece of architecture invites; the LENS permits us to see around corners and in greater detail what the WINDOW does not. A survey of architects several years ago identified Robie House as one of the ten most important buildings in the United States. It appears prominently in the Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (a.k.a. the Wasmuth Monograph) whose 1909 publication brought Wright to Europe before the building was even complete. And threats to its existence in 1957 led to the worldwide preservation that has resulted in its restoration as a house museum.

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