Friday, August 19, 2011

Wrighting the Ship


From the ocean liner appurtenances of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye to Louis Kahn's floating concert hall, Point Counterpoint II, nautical vessels have figured significantly into the history of modern architecture.  But before Le Corbusier or Kahn's celebration of boats as the ultimate expression of "form follows function," Frank Lloyd Wright referenced them in his work of the Prairie era.

Rendering of the Robie House
The best-known instance of this may be Wright's use of the German term  Dampfer ("steamship") to describe his design for the Frederick C. Robie House (Chicago, 1908-10).  Here, Wright applies the term as a metaphor for the hull-like volume of the Robie main living space, with its belvedere third floor evocative of a ship's bridge above.  Prior to the Robie commission, Wright and his Buffalo client Darwin Martin employed nautical terms in discussing the highly integrated environment of the master bedroom proposed for the Martin House.  In response to the ship's cabin-like qualities of the room's extensive built-in furniture and storage (to be reconstructed in phase 5A of interior restoration of the house), Darwin Martin refers to the "port" and "starboard" sides of the space (letter to Wright, 24 March, 1906).  Such nautical connotations also serve to underscore the generally masculine nature of the room's design, with integrated sleeping berths and stowage units that suggest naval efficiency.  This masculine coding of the master bedroom may have contributed indirectly to Isabelle Martin's exodus from the space some time after 1907.

Detail of Martin master bedroom
Nautical metaphors have been employed by Wright scholars to great effect in interpreting aspects of Wright's Prairie designs.  Robert Twombley poetically describes the sense of shelter achieved in the Prairie houses by saying, "Anchored resolutely in place, looking as if nothing could rip it from its moorings,  the prairie house offered a snug harbor to the family battered about on the uncharted seas of metropolitan life" ("Saving the Family:  Middle Class Attraction to Wright's Prairie House, 1901-1909," American Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Mar., 1975), p. 68).  Underscoring this metaphor of house-as-moored-vessel, Jack Quinan characterizes the Robie house as "...a design that so transcended conventional notions of domestic architecture as to resemble a magical brick ship moored alongside East Fifty-eighth Street in Chicago" (Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House:  Architecture as Portraiture, p. 172).  Quinan extends the seagoing vessel analogy even further in discussing the plan of the Martin House complex:
A metaphorical interpretation of the Martin plan would hold that the buildings are shiplike...Understood as a vessel, the Martin House "steams" eastward, "driven" by Darwin's office at the west end of the main floor, its bow (the east porch) breasting a wave of flowers (the floricycle designed by Walter Burley Griffin, later redesigned as a semicircular pool) in the vast "sea" of lawn in the southeast quadrant of the lot.  The destination of Darwin's metaphorical vessel is the village of Clayville in central New York, the site of Darwin's fondest childhood memories and of his mother's grave.  Delta's house is poised, tuglike, to assist, just as she had assisted Darwin through his most difficult early years in Buffalo... (Quinan, p. 188).
Detail, north end of conservatory
Nike on "prow" in conservatory
In addition, it's worth noting that the Nike of Samothrace, a cast of which is the sculptural consort to the Martin conservatory, was originally part of a Hellenistic monument to naval victory.  The ship's prow of the original Samothrace monument (now part of the Nike's installation in the Louvre) was abstracted by Wright into the prow-like form of the small pool / fountain at the base of the cast in the Martin conservatory.  Along with its larger counterpart at the north end of the west gardens, the Nike pool / fountain conveys a sense of the Martin "fleet" steaming southward, driven by the carriage house and conservatory (with their dual metaphorical engines of nature and technology).  Alternately, the complex is "moored," with an abundance of potential energy provided by its sublimated nautical forms and vigorously axial composition.

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