Monday, June 27, 2011

The Circle Takes the Square

As innovative a designer as Frank Lloyd Wright was, he was not adverse to "recycling" certain motifs from one commission to another.  The prismatic shapes of the Barton House ceiling molding and the second floor scuppers from the Martin House are repeated in the main floor plan of the Robie House (Chicago, 1908).  The wall sconces ordered for the Barton House were identical to those already designed for the Dana House (Springfield, IL, 1902) and also used in various subsequent houses.  Now, another example has come to light: the repetition of the circle-in-square motif from the Martin House to the Larkin Administration Building (Buffalo, 1904-06).

Larkin building wall sconce
Martin Living room table

A Larkin building wall sconce sold recently via Urban Remains of Chicago bears the conjoined circle and square motif familiar to followers of the Martin House:  distinctive tables Wright designed for the Martin living room and reception room have tops of the same geometric configuration.  In the case of the Martin tables, this unusual shape may have been the whimsical resolution of a difference of opinion between architect and client.  As part of his tout ensemble furnishing scheme for the Martin House, Wright proposed square or rectangular tables for the living room and reception room.  Mrs. Martin, however, desired round tables.  Apparently, Wright decided to give her both, resulting in the tables as built.  The reason for transferring the circle-in-square motif to the Larkin building sconces is unclear, beyond the Larkin commission sharing Wright's drafting board with the Martin House in those years in general.

Detail, entry of Williams House
Plan, Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Wright may have employed a circle-in-square motif first in the Chauncey Williams House (River Forest, IL, 1895), where a window of such geometry flanks the Sullivanesque front door.  For that matter,  the circle-in-square motif enjoys a long history in Western art and architecture, from the floor pattern of the Pantheon to da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.  Wright may well have been aware of such examples, at least with their distant reflections in Sullivan's work.  And there's precedent for Wright's combination of the circle and square in the Eastern tradition as well:  in cosmologically-based Chinese design, a square often represents the ideal city or domestic compound designed by man, and the circle represents the celestial realm and the divine (e.g. the Temple of Heaven in Beijing).  Given Wright's burgeoning interest in Asian culture at the turn of the century, such Eastern influences come to bear on his Prairie era designs, alongside Western ones.  By extension, one could read the circle-in-square motifs in the Martin House (in the tables as well as the interior light fixtures and urns on the exterior) as suggesting the sanctification of domestic - elevating the concept of house to that of sublime art, as Wright purported to do in his "domestic symphony," the Martin House. 

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