Friday, May 27, 2011

Grid Lock

Parkside residents are well aware of the gently curving streets laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as part of their master plan for the Buffalo Park system.  Most Parkside houses follow suit, their facades aligned with the slight curve of the street.  But, standing at the corner of Jewett Parkway and Summit Avenue, it's immediately apparent that the Martin House ignores the sweeping curve of the parkway. 

Is the house out of alignment, or just in line with something else?

The conventional wisdom is that Wright liked to align his Prairie houses with the perfect grid planning ubiquitous in the American Midwest, tied into the Public Land Survey System that established a grid across the Prairie and Plains, and inspired by the Froebel tabletop grids of Wright's childhood experience.  Wright's Prairie grid is most often aligned with the cardinal directions of the compass - the low-tech forerunner of GPS - reflected in many Native American motifs representing the four directions and four winds, expressed in beadwork, basketry, and other traditional arts.  

First page of Wright's letter to Darwin D. Martin, May 11, 1903

But with the Martin House Complex, there may be a more specific, practical reason why the main house is aligned with an invisible grid, rather than with Jewett Parkway:  the simpler Barton House - the first building constructed on the site - calls the shots.  As evidenced by Wright's illustrated letter to Martin of May 11, 1903, Wright planned to align the Barton House with Summit Avenue and knew that the rest of the composition would have to follow suit in order to be "Wright."  

Wright's Oak Park Studio logo
The underlying force that prevents the main Martin House from squaring itself to Jewett Parkway is hiding in plain sight in Wright's letter:  the Celtic cross-inspired logo used in his Oak Park Studio letterhead.  This simplified mandala clearly shows Wright's design allegiance to working within the compass-aligned grid.  His "quadruple block" plan from "A Home in a Prairie Town" is a prime example of such a mandala translated to a residential planning proposal.
The quadruple block plan

By virtue of Wright's Prairie houses being almost exclusively in the Midwest, the vast majority of them are planned in step with the existing grid and cardinal directions.  There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions:  the Ward Willits house (Highland Park, IL, 1901), widely considered the first full-blown Prairie house, and Wright's own Taliesin (Spring Green, WI, 1911 -).  These exceptions point to that fact that, while Wright kept to the square grid throughout the Prairie period, he was already thinking of the grid as an abstraction which need not always align with the compass.

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