Friday, April 10, 2009

Diamonds are Forever

Yesterday, a visitor to the Martin House posed a direct question about Wright's palette of geometric shapes used in the complex: "did Frank Lloyd Wright like diamonds?"

I had to think for a minute: diamonds? Was a "diamond" a shape that Wright used? Is the diamond one of the suits in Wright's architectural deck?

The answer was yes...and no.

In the Martin House complex, there are a number of places where Wright employed "diamond" shapes. They include: the floor "lites" in the pergola, the pavers on the pathway to the east of the pergola, the negative space formed by the planters at the "crossing" of the conservatory, the pool / fountain in the garden wall between the drying yard and the carriage house, and the ceiling millwork in the Barton House. But wait a minute - those last two forms are composed of half-squares rotated 45 degrees, otherwise known as right triangles (no pun intended). That led to the realization that, in the Martin House, all of the "diamonds" are really just squares (ubiquitous in the composition) rotated 45 degrees to the surrounding forms or volumes. There is an almost sequential nature to Wright's introduction of the rotated square on the floor of the pergola: pedestrians headed north down the pergola follow a pathway of rotated squares, thus prepared for the dynamic 45 / 90 degree interplay of the conservatory crossing.

Wright began to experiment with the introduction of rotated squares in some of his earliest compositions - his drawing for his interview with "Lieber Meister" Louis Sullivan, for example. In the Prairie period, Wright began using rotated squares as a simple means of challenging (if not breaking) the box. Right triangles began to emerge from the wall planes of Prairie houses such as Willitts (dining room), Fricke (reception room) and Heurtley (breakfast nook and child's room). Often, these right triangular exedra served as bay windows - alternatives to the more traditional bays derived from octagons or circles. In plan, these triangular bays offered a more obvious dialogue with Wright's beloved square, and began to break the box, ironically, by use of the box's corner.

In the River Forest Tennis Club, Banff National Park Pavilion and Robie House, these right triangular exedra take on the role of "prows" at either end of long, rectangular volumes. In the Robie House, this prow association ties-in to Wright's identification of the house as a dampfer, or ship. Such a parti was already in place as early as 1902, with the ceiling millwork of the Walser House, progenitor of the Barton House in Buffalo. This same parti - a rectangle with right triangles at both ends, or prism - is also evident in a surprising detail from the Martin House: the copper scuppers that direct water into the pier catch basins on the second floor, like abstracted models of the Robie house used as water conductors (or toy boats?).

Many of the triangular "prows" in the Martin House complex seem to form arrows that correspond to the major axes of the composition, suggesting lines of force that flow from - and through - the composition, aligned with the cardinal directions and their 45 degree divisions. In the Barton House, for example, these "arrows" in the ceiling millwork serve to mitigate the fairly traditional, boxy corners of the dining room and living room; they direct the inhabitant's eye out of the east and west windows, toward the surrounding landscape and structures. The dynamic plan of the conservatory crossing forms a virtual compass at a major node in the cross-axial complex - a point from which all space-shaping lines in the complex seem to emerge.

Thus, the simple diamond question led me to a rabbit's-hole of contemplation regarding the geometry of the Martin House complex, and the dynamic dance produced by a simple "turn" of the Wrightian square.

1 comment:

Harvey Lichtblau said...

As a visitor on one of my tours pointed out, the 45-degree angle becomes unavoidable at the crossing of the glass roof, visible from below in the conservatory. Wright prepares the eye for it with the rotated squares in the pergola, the fountain at the base of the Nike, and, carrying the eye upward, the millwork at the crossing of the conservatory.
- Harvey Lichtblau, Docent