I have been writing about the process of building one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last designs. A hemicycle, it was designed in 1954 for a Pennsylvania family but never realized. In 1992 construction started on the island of Hawaii and almost four years later it was finished. John Rattenbury, the supervising architect, said that the quality of work was “A plus.” My hat went off to all of the people who worked on it. It was a very special project. People gave their very best and it showed. During the course of construction we had several earthquakes in the five range on the Richter scale. After the home was completed, there was one biggie: it measured 6.9. The house had been built on compacted gravel so the entire structure moved as a unit. Earthquake damage is usually severe because structures are designed to take vertical loads and not horizontal stress. I was in this last earthquake taking a shower in a small cottage. It felt like King Kong had picked up the cottage and was shaking it for all it was worth. Seventeen seconds felt like seventeen years. read more »
In the last post we looked at the the master bedroom and bath. In this post I will show you the daughter’s bedroom and one of the boy’s bedrooms. The current owners turned one of the boy’s rooms into an office and added an additional bed to the other boy’s room. The daughter’s room looked out of the two story prow glass facing the seasonal stream. It also allowed one to look down over the railing to the living room below. There were shutters installed for privacy. The daughter’s room also had a private
half bath. As you can see in the room with two single beds, one of the glass windows is larger than the other two. That was the only change the county required to bring this design to current code. It is a fire escape to the berm. You will note that these were clerestory windows designed by Wright to provide privacy without requiring curtains. A picture of the daughter’s half bath is also included here. When constructing the upper floor we were quite concerned about heat gain. But none occurred. We had installed exhaust fans. They were not necessary. The one glitch we did encounter was a squeaking in the second story floor. This was corrected by installing three quarter inch plywood on top of the existing floor before covering with carpet. You can see in these photos the brick which was left exposed.
In this post we move to the second floor. Here Wright designed two bedrooms for the two small boys and a bedroom with a private bath at the far end for the daughter of the Cornwall family. The master suite was at the opposite end of the daughter’s suite. The master suite was quite large. Perhaps the future owners had prevailed upon him to expand this area. In many of his homes the bedrooms were quite small, even spartan, reflecting the idea that for the most part inhabitants in the sleeping mode were in other worlds and why use a great deal of space for that. Yet in this house the master bedroom took on another dimension like an oasis. It contained a fireplace, walk in closet, large bathroom and outside sitting deck.
We had no idea when we built this whether there would be heat gain, and so exhaust fans were incorporated. Yet the temperature was perfect, never requiring their use. The cylinder housed both the master bathroom and a small bathroom to be shared by the two boys. The bathrooms all carried the same color and tile design element. John Rattenbury, the supervising architect said that in this way Mr. Wright reinforced the idea of a unified design.
Here are photos of the hallway coming up from the first floor, the master bedroom and its’ master bath.
In the last post we were looking at photos of the living room and the alcove at the opposite end of the front entrance and the dining alcove. To the right of the dining area is a cylinder which houses a half bath powder room and leading into the laundry room. The design was clever in this sense because some 80% of the plumbing is contained in this cylinder which contains two bathrooms on the second floor.
Walking into the kitchen from the dining room you would enter at the far end of the island. The cylinder is on the left in this photo. In many of Mr. Wright’s houses the kitchen was called the “work room.” it wasn’t very large. Originally there was a pantry and this photo would have been taken in that room. However, the Taliesin Architects realizing that times had changed and people love to congregate in the kitchen, took out the pantry and installed another working counter, sink and ice maker which is at the lower right hand side of the photo. By so doing, the room was significantly enlarged.
Here is a good point to bring out the idea that this original design was modified, as Mr. Wright, would have done according to his apprentices, had he been alive when this house was to be built. So, when a house was constructed, after Mr. Wright died, it had to be brought up to code, and it needed to use materials and techniques reflective of modern times. The kitchen reflected the classic triangle made up of counter stove and workspace, sink, and refrigerator. A skylight bathed the room during the day. It was a very comfortable space, and easily catered to large parties, of which there were many.
The view through the three part windows allowed one to see the ocean in the very far distance. The circular window on the very right of the photo was in the door leading to the carport for functionality. The floors as you can see here fairly well were polished red concrete, a signature mark of many of Mr. Wright’s homes.
In the last post we had entered the house giving us a view from the dining alcove to the alcove at the far end of the house across the living room or as Wright liked to refer to it, the Great Room. The Alcove footprint at the far end of the house is created by the common space from two overlapping circles. In sacred geometry this is called a “Visica Pices. More discussion of this geometric pattern is talked about at the following website:
The alcove was put to a wonderful use when seminars were being held because it formed the perfect shape for the “socratic method” of teaching. There was built in seating on the on the curved alcove wall facing one or two large chairs. The football shaped area looked out a story and a half of glass forming a mitered prow. One photo here shows the interior and the other photo shows this same alcove from the outside. It formed a “prow.” It was and is a wonderful area for a teacher and students. The house was used for this purpose for just under two years after it was built. Backing up to the windows were cabinets that hid a television set that would rise up when required and then return and be covered from sight. The alcove and cabinets were made from cherry wood. I have included a close up of the facia seen on the exterior roof, because the forms remind one of elders being a part of this house being a teaching center.
As you enter this house the front door is like a small portal in a large wall of glass. It blends in with no statement of its own. Stepping into the house you look immediately ahead to the dining alcove. The alcove is fitted with lovely built in cherry wood shelving seating and storage under the seat. The unit was so well made that when it was brought up from the cabinet shop in Kona and slid into place, you could hardly pass a razor between the wood and the brick. The large dining table is immediately ahead and off to the left. Barrel chairs replicating the original designs from the Robie house in Chicago surround the table. When you gaze to the right, your eye see the expansive room that curves blending into the wall of glass making up the front of the house allowing you to see the distant alcove. It is over 90 feet. Wright liked to create what he referred to as the “great room.” It was the hub of social activity. Here was no different. As we had mentioned before, the fact that the second floor hung from the ceiling meant there were no posts on the first floor and made it look like the ceiling was floating. It also gave one the feeling that the outdoors was much closer to the interior space.
When building the house, we were planning on fabricating the three pair of ten foot front doors and the transom windows, which were above these doors, in a woodworking shop at the end of the driveway. Heaven only knows how long that would have taken. Roy Lambrecht’s cabinetry shop in Kona was light on work and had all of the right machinery. They fabricated the entire front of the house in no time.
The chairs around the coffee table in the living room were called “Taliesin” chairs. They were made out of plywood, and were both heavy and surprisingly comfortable. The look was much like a Japanese Oragami design.
We will continue to move through the house in future posts.
In the last post I showed you pictures of the narrow rather undramatic entrance. You would have no idea what you were to see as you entered this narrow passageway. These additional photos show the passageway emerging to the front of the house, a view from the other side of the house looking across to the entrance, and part of the vista. Really, there is no photo that can do it justice. It is breath taking. There are some 360,000 acres of unobstructed views of Austrailian pampas grasslands and three volcanoes, Mauna Kea, Mauana Loa, and Hualalai. The latter two are still active. In the distance and sloping down some 1800 feet over a 12 to 20 mile stretch is the Kohala Coast and Ocean. “The original site in Pennsylvania was I am sure unique, but this site,” said John Rattenbury, the supervising architect from Taliesin West, “was magnificent.”
And this was exactly the effect Frank Lloyd Wright was after. You would enter a mysterious small passageway not knowing what to expect, and then be blown into a whole new reality as you entered the expansive vista and the two story wall of concave glass paying tribute to it.
In the last post I showed you the approach to the house is from the back and side. The idea is that you walk past the carport and the plantings on the right which forces you to focus on a very narrow tunnel like breezeway. You enter this house as if going into a birthing canal. Here are photos of the carport area in both the day and night as you approach the entrance.
This series of photos gives you a view of the rear of the house from the entrance driveway. You can see the berm and then the prow of the house as it protrudes. The driveway descends downward and to the left into the carport and entrance area. Above and to the back of the carport is the master bedroom. The roof is flat made by spraying down foam and covering it with an elastomeric seal. This method was chosen so as to create the most desirable coefficient of expansion between different materials. Attached to the roof is a facia made with a styrofoam yielding copper patina effect. Wright liked creating a sense of mystery . In many homes and buildings the entire personality of the house is entirely out front. There is a big entrance, facade, columns etc.: in short these are elements that say it all before one even enters the structure. Wright understood the joy of curiosity. For example you approach this house from the rear, and it is mostly hidden. As you come down past the carport and approach the entrance you still see nothing grand. In fact you almost have to search for the entrance down a breezeway past the carport. You are actually led past a rather lackluster carport. In this way one’s curiosity is continuously piqued. More on this subject in the next post.
One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature applications in many homes was the Cherokee red dyed concrete floor. This house was no exception. Many people have no idea how complex a concrete floor can be. In this case the entire footprint was a compacted fill material. On top of that was poured the first slab, a four inch working floor. Then when the interior had been completed aluminum strips were attached with “L” brackets to the working pad. A black elastomeric rubber seal was rolled on then metal lattice was applied over that. Brass expansion joints were affixed to the top of these aluminum strips. There were two options available for the dyed concrete, (1) an integral mix with the dye mixed in the concrete coming from the cement truck, and (2) a “dust on” application where the cement is poured and the dye is troweled into the top two or so inches of concrete. We elected to do the latter for more control and the fact that this process would give us a brighter finnish. After the dye was worked in and the cement dried, a wax was applied to the floor. The brass expansion strips provided a pleasant sectioning appearance to the floor and were necessary to accommodate the earthquake prone area of the Big Island. The house withstood during construction several earthquakes measuring over 5 on the Richter scale ,and after it was completed, a 6.9 shake. No damage was incurred. read more »