Building Art: Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright Through Research and Construction
Pictured above: A model of the Bachman Wilson House. | Photo by Dan Shreve
Last September, a group of students in the Fay Jones School of Architecture journeyed to a nearby airport hangar where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House lay in pieces on the ground. They wanted to get a peek at this significant work of architecture that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art acquired and moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, from its original site in Millstone, New Jersey.
The home and a pavilion designed by University of Arkansas architecture students are under construction on the museum grounds.
“This was a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and it was just a pile of lumber,” said Gregory Herman of that day at the hangar. “It really takes the reconstitution and the genius of the architecture to give it its spirit. When it’s disassembled, by and large, it’s just a pile of lumber.”
Herman is an associate professor of architecture in the Fay Jones School — named to honor Fay Jones, the school’s first dean, long-time professor and Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice. Last fall, Herman and his students prepared interpretive materials for this Wright home that would be accessible, understandable and enlightening to the public.
Herman’s studio project is one of two projects connected to the Bachman Wilson House that architecture students developed last year in the first collaboration between the Fay Jones School and the museum.
The spirit of Wright’s architecture — and its tie to nature — left a deep imprint on Jones and other Arkansas architects, even though Wright never designed a building in the state.
“It is surprising, considering the influence Wright had on Fay Jones and other faculty here,” Herman said.
The Bachman Wilson House is unique in that it was designed in the later part of Wright’s career and built just five years before his death in 1959. “So, it really reflects the end of his career, but also that he was still very much a productive architect well into his 80s,” Herman said.
Arguably America’s most famous architect with more than 500 completed design projects in his lifetime, Wright might best be known for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and Fallingwater, a home in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.
The students focused on Wright’s residential designs for the project and traveled to the Avery Library at Columbia University in New York City to research Wright’s works on paper.
Relation to the Landscape
Wright’s later work, including the Bachman Wilson House, reflects his unique vision of American democracy. Indeed, the term Usonian means “of or relating to the United States.” In the 1920s Wright designed a Utopian, agrarian, American community called Broadacre City. It was to be filled with Usonian-style homes, a truly original American residential design intended to be affordable with the option of being constructed, at least in part, by the owners.
“They were spatially adventurous and suggested new ways of living through spaces that had multiple uses and were overlapping — which is a hallmark of a lot of Wright’s work anyway, but really was modernized in the Usonian houses,” Herman said.
With the Usonian style, the “organic sensibility” of a structure — its relationship to the landscape — was key. The furnishings and any ornamentation were part of the architecture, often with built-in pieces, such as couches, benches, bookshelves and dining tables. In the Bachman Wilson House, the dining table wraps around an interior wall.
At the Avery Library, students filtered through Wright’s wide variety of approaches to Usonian houses to develop a basis of comparison for visitors to Crystal Bridges. They wanted to show how the Bachman Wilson House fit along a “continuum of thought” for Wright and his Usonian houses. “It’s part of a critical mass of exploratory designs,” Herman said of this house.
“The care and craft that went into the preparation of the drawings, which people don’t see, are just exquisite. And you can also see that in Fay Jones’ work,” Herman said.
Usonian homes were typically single-story structures; the Bachman Wilson House is one of the few homes from his late period that is two stories. The footprint of the Bachman Wilson House shrank to reduce the cost of construction. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, with a balcony that overlooks the living space.
Designed on a 4-foot grid plan, the house features a large expanse of glass, lots of wood inside and out and concrete block — used in a way that is “downright comfortable, rather warm even,” Herman said.
The defining ornament of this house is the pattern of perforated wood panels that covers the band of windows just below the ceiling line. These clerestory windows protect privacy while providing light. The pattern of the panels — 72 panels stacked three high — casts dramatic shadows into the space.
Andrew Schalk, a fifth-year student, said the research of Wright’s work reinforced his own ideals about architecture, such as economy of space, sustainability and affordability. He also was relieved to see how many iterations of a design this revered, prolific architect would create — as often happens in the students’ design studios.
“The point of their research was to inhabit the design ethos of Wright and to present the material so it would be understandable and desirable, even artful,” Herman said. “We are a design school, after all.”
Students drew, diagrammed and analyzed Wright’s work and built what Herman calls a “Buick of a model,” showing the site at Crystal Bridges where the Bachman Wilson House is being reassembled, along with a viewing pavilion that other architecture students designed and built.
Students used digital fabrication technologies to create the pieces for the model. While the entire model was a group project, Grant Gilliard made the model of the pavilion, and Kyle Heflin made the model of the Bachman Wilson House, including interior detailing and furnishings.
“The house itself is a work of art,” Herman said.
Working with a limited space at the museum, the students integrated an exhibit into the model’s walnut base with sliding panels and drawers containing details about the Bachman Wilson House design and Wright’s Usonian style that could engage and enlighten visitors of all ages.
“I think the model on its own helps you understand the building, but it doesn’t help you understand what Wright was going for, and that’s what the drawers are about,” Schalk said.
The model, situated in the Crystal Bridges lobby next to the museum’s Great Hall, will serve as a prelude to experiencing the viewing pavilion and the Wright house.
Veined Leaves and Dragonfly Wings
Months before the model was built, other students had already begun work on a viewing pavilion to be perched just a few yards away from the site of the Bachman Wilson House along a hillside trail at Crystal Bridges. Nearly 30 students worked with Santiago Perez in three studios over the course of 2014 and early 2015 to design and build the pavilion.
Perez, an assistant professor and the 21st Century Endowed Chair in the Fay Jones School, sought to integrate design, fabrication and installation with this single project.
“What I’ve tried to do in the DesignFab Lab is to break down the barriers between design technology and production, and to create a place where innovation can take place without barriers,” Perez said.
This pavilion project allowed the students to be hands on through the design and development process. In a typical design studio, when students draw a line for a structure, it matches up perfectly with the connecting lines.
“Well, in the real world, wood shrinks and expands, and steel, when you weld it and heat it, it also distorts,” Perez said.
They had to adjust their project to deal with changes to the site over the last year. “That whole accelerated process was only made possible through digital modeling,” Perez said. “While the conceptual designs were being developed, we were also coming to terms with what actually could be fabricated in the lab by producing a mock-up.”
The pavilion is an open-air structure with cedar frame and decking, polycarbonate panels and steel pieces. One wall arches over the structure to become the roof and features a unique geometric design found in nature — similar to the details of veined leaves and dragonfly wings.
Called a Voronoi pattern, the geometric design creates a plane of polygons that also happens to be a strong pattern for the distribution of forces on a surface, Perez said.
They used digital modeling software to create a Voronoi pattern, and projected it from a two-dimensional plane onto the three-dimensional surface of the pavilion that arches and curves.
The students had to figure out how to take idealized patterns and designs and make them work with real materials as well as they worked on paper.
The pattern continued to evolve as students worked with the steel material. “The ideal pattern broke down, and the new pattern had artifacts and geometric lines that were discontinuous,” Perez said.
“We used the digital modeling to derive the angles, but then the limits of the machine that we had in the shop basically required that the students calibrate by hand the angle on the machine,” Perez said.
That summer studio, with its six-day work schedule, left Molly Evans physically exhausted but mentally satisfied. Now a third-year student, she learned to write the code to direct the computer-controlled plasma cutter on how to cut the steel. She enjoyed the intimacy of working directly with the materials that came from learning to cut and weld steel and helping to build wood joists for the pavilion deck.
The experience influenced her design approach by teaching her the importance of conveying information through drawings.
“Learning how to detail and being able to see the process of the 1:1 scale has changed the way that I view design as a whole,” Evans said. “The process is just as important as the product.”
Students in the fall semester studio picked up the project where the summer class left off. They worked to solve the issue of “drift” — the difference between the design and the realities of construction. They recalibrated the project, which required remaking some of the thin-gauge steel panels that make up the curved wall.
“They were the ones that finally absorbed this drift between the ideal and the real. And that was fascinating to watch,” Perez said.
As Kirsten Henson, a fifth-year student, worked in the fall studio, she learned how to weld and to use saws and benders.
“I think it was the most eye-opening experience as far as architecture because it taught you how things are really put together,” she said. “You can draw anything on paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work.”
Henson and her classmates finished the pavilion to about 90 percent complete at the site by the end of the semester, and a professional contractor in Rogers, Arkansas, was hired to complete the work this spring.
Today’s architecture graduates have to navigate between design as a conceptual process and design as a technical process, Perez said.
“I see these studios as a bridge between academia and the professional life of the alumni, and giving them a chance to determine to what extent they want to encounter material in their careers,” he said.
Perez is thrilled by the physical legacy this project leaves for these students. The museum anticipates opening the exhibit to the public in late summer.
“For those alumni that come back to Fayetteville to visit, they’ll be able to go to that completed structure and walk through it with their family and friends, and explain how that was part of their design education,” he said. n
Connections and Intersections: Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright
The lives of Fay Jones, an Arkansas native and award-winning architect, and his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright intersected for the first time in 1949, when Jones bumped into Wright at the American Institute of Architects’ convention. Wright was there to receive the AIA’s Gold Medal, the highest award in American architecture, given in recognition for a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
Jones and Wright remained in touch throughout the next 10 years, until Wright’s death in 1959. When Jones was still an architecture apprentice, he and his family spent a summer at Taliesin, Wright’s institute and design studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Then, in 1958, Jones convinced Wright to speak at the University of Arkansas, where Jones taught architecture courses. In 1966, the university appointed Jones as the first chair of the Department of Architecture. The School of Architecture was established in 1974, with Jones serving as its first dean. In 1990, Jones received the AIA Gold Medal – the only one of Wright’s disciples to receive this coveted award also held by their mentor. Jones died in 2004, and the school was renamed in his honor in 2009.
In 2014, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in nearby Bentonville, acquired one of Wright’s Usonian-designed homes, the Bachman Wilson House, which was threatened by regular flooding of the Millstone River in Millstone, New Jersey. The home is being reassembled on the grounds of the museum and will open to the public this summer. It will become the only building in Arkansas designed by Wright.
An innovative digital exhibit titled “Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture Comes to Arkansas” explores these two notable architects. Crystal Bridges Library and Archives and University Libraries’ Special Collections collaborated on the online exhibit. Gregory Herman, associate professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture, contributed an essay and advised on the project, and the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the university provided an interview with Fay Jones’ late wife, Gus. The digital exhibit consists of nearly 150 photographs of the two architects’ work, families and colleagues; correspondence; lectures; musings and writings; and other media.
“Despite all of the current shortcomings with online exhibitions, one cannot argue against the incredible value such sources add for scholars and researchers, and the University of Arkansas and Crystal Bridges Museum should be praised for their bold decision to advance this discourse,” wrote Evan Rawn in ArchDaily, one of the world’s leading architectural websites.