Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Progress before precedent — the relevance of prairie style architecture in Grinnell, Iowa

Ricker House (1911) designed by Walter Burley Griffin, Grinnell, Iowa (owned by Grinnell College): West façade symmetry. (photographs by Versluis)

Perhaps the economic recession/depression of 1893 was just a very faint memory. But, by 1900, according to architectural historian Professor Paul Kruty, a group of young Chicago architects with offices in Steinway Hall started to collectively practice progressive architecture. These architectural designers were inspired by the work, rhetoric, and credo of architect Louis H. Sullivan who thought of architecture as based not on the past but on abstract geometric form combined with the elegance of simple lines and elaborate botanic ornamental patterns. Kruty writes, “Under the banner of ‘progress before precedent’ the Steinway Hall group preached an honest respect for materials, a frank expression of new technologies, and a connection between buildings and the landscape in which they were placed.” (1) For Sullivan’s work in Iowa, check this.

A young Walter Burley Griffin, just out of architecture school, was looking for a job and chose, strategically, to associate with the Steinway Hall group.

Frank Lloyd Wright, for a time, was affiliated with the Steinway Hall group. However, by the summer of 1901, as commissions grew, Wright’s “Prairie Style” made it possible for Griffin to work full time as a draughtsman in Wright’s Oak Park studio. Very soon Griffin became a highly valued designer and employee in Wright’s practice.

As sometimes happens, eventually Griffin received his own commissions from clients that helped to mature his architectural style and by 1906 Griffin was self-employed. As Kruty explains, “The basic vocabulary of form in Griffin’s work between 1906 and 1911, his first Prairie style, was clearly derived from Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet the differences are immediately apparent and appear ever stronger as Griffin gained confidence and a sharper vision of his goals. Wright’s mature Prairie style is a complex combination of formal and informal components, combining picturesque and classical elements held in bravura balance. In contrast, and perhaps as a legacy of his academic training at the University of Illinois, the more elaborate of Griffin’s compositions are invariably symmetrical, despite their appearance of asymmetry from many angles.” (2)

Under the eves — the double panel flora motif formed with “Teco” tiles, which was designed by Marion Mahony Griffin. Obviously, symmetry is evident when viewing the Ricker House — note twin chimneys and twin ornamental patterns as counterparts. One should add that Mahony was indispensable in presenting Griffin’s architectural concepts and by 1911 they were spouses as well as collaborative design partners.

The “Japanese style” veranda.

As a side note, I once had a steady graphic design client who idiosyncratically insisted on doing all design symmetrically. As a way to manage the symmetrical challenge it was very helpful to study Griffin’s work, which resonated in the way he constructed interior and exterior spatial relationships and featured human-centered design. Probably as a result of the experience, students taking design foundations will discover equal time spent on symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.
  1. Maldre, Mati, and Paul Kruty. Walter Burley Griffin in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996. 17.
  2. Ibid. 23.

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