Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Take Five: The Road Less Traveled
By Robert Ivy, FAIA
AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer
Sometimes a trip down an alternate path leads to surprise and delight. For me, such a detour occurred over Labor Day.
You all know the architect’s version of the busman’s holiday: We pile into a car, or strap on a pair of sneakers, and spend our free time soaking up architecture. Should you be lucky enough to fly to France, you sketch perched hill towns. Find yourself in Philadelphia, and you invariably walk through care-worn streets and seek out early 19th century townhouses as well as the Barnes museum under construction. Architects, and AIA members, love architecture.
Historically, few architectural types inculcate our ideas more completely than residences—the universal design laboratory for holistic architectural thinking. We design them as early projects at the academy; we noodle on them over lunch at our computers. Architects love well-designed houses.
So it is fitting that we have cause for reflection in the midst of a housing downturn, because one of our most celebrated exemplars (perhaps the quintessential modern American house) turned 75 years old this year. Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ode to landscape for the Kaufmann family, has been hanging above Bear Run in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania since the mid-1930s. You know this sublime site and have drunk from its spring whether or not you have made the pilgrimage.
Spurred by that vision, hungry for Wright but unable to make the trek to southwestern Pennsylvania, three architects and their wives piled into a car, strapped on a pair of sneakers, and toured the closest Wright house we could get our eyes on—in this case, the Pope-Leighey house (1941), currently occupying property owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation near Woodlawn Plantation near Alexandria, Va.
No, no creek ran beside the residence, nor had it been built for a retail magnate. However, this tiny Usonian wonder packs power (even genius, if we dare to use that word in 2011) into its 1,200 square feet. Feel encouraged. America’s greatest living architect turned his attention to basic housing at the request of a young client—in this case a journalist, Loren Pope, and his small family. After all, journalists have small salaries. (Pope made $50.00 per week, we are told). While the original plans called for a somewhat larger residence of 1,800 square feet, it exceeded the Pope’s limited budget (what else has changed?), and Wright reduced the footprint to align with his client’s need.
But what he made for them! Moved twice (once from an approaching Interstate 66, later away from problematic siting and soil), direct in its countenance, minimally adorned with architectural showpieces, the Pope-Leighey house manages to encapsulate Wright’s essential mastery—something we architects can be inspired by and hope to achieve. Passing through the compression of the entryway, past the carport, the interior opens in a great spatial burst that can only be described as a passionate unfolding.
Simple materials underscore the program, from the cypress siding rescued from Florida overcutting (would we ever be able to do this today?), to the screened porch framed in humble metal bar stock. Its effects are additive, building from Wright’s organic philosophy in which small decisions relate to whole, even cosmic ones, joining detail to plan to siting to total geophysical context. Here is a house a small family could inhabit and be ennobled by.
I didn’t make it to Fallingwater, I’ll admit, but an afternoon’s sojourn took me to a Wrightian nirvana in my own backyard. It demonstrated how architects who focus on their clients’ needs can fashion great things from simple materials, and lift the most common building type into another plane. The Pope-Leighey house took my breath away, at a time, and a year, that deserved a fresh perspective. Go get in your car, or take to the streets to soak up the richness already present, and then return to work refreshed. A hillside house, whether bespoke or humble, may unlock the wellsprings of your own great thoughts. We love houses.