Our American Architect for the 4th of July

By Joel Barkley

I've always liked and thought about houses, and in elementary school I wanted to be a "house builder." In spite of weekends making my parents take me to construction sites, my teachers and friends all seemed to point me toward architecture instead. Maybe because I drew all the time, or because I wasn't handy.

I was a vernacular boy and it was a reach for my tastes to get excited about canonical architecture at first. I decided to do lots of research on my own. One day, in my high school library, I found a musty, “important”-looking, never-before-cracked black and white volume of "Four Great Masters of Modern Architecture."

The book, and a work of Gropius'.  

It was divided into the works of Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike the other three sections, the one on Wright let me pry my way in: as an American, I recognized his name, and the warm-but-otherworldly images of his houses felt uncannily inspiring. The picturesque balance of so many planes and surfaces rendered in warm materials gives bounteous shelter, both physical and psychological. I was very excited - so excited that for Spring Break in the 9th Grade I made my parents take me to Oak Park to tour his houses and studio.

It's well known how his early work in the first decade of the last century influenced the above-mentioned European modernists, who in turn influenced us (including Wright again; consider Fallingwater.)

But it's also the regional identification I feel with his work. I live across the street from Wright's Christie House of 1940, one of his first "Usonian" designs. The way the house is sited lowly and horizontally deep in a forest, its cypress wings opening out centrifugally from the anchoring red brick hearth, verifies his term "Usonian" to me as particularly of my part of the United States.