Monday, October 01, 2007

Travel: T+L Australia: Architecture in Chicago



By Julie Earle-Levine

IT MAY BE A RAINY WEEKDAY IN OAK PARK, a serene, perfectly coiffed suburb almost 18 kilometres west of downtown Chicago, but visitors are undaunted by the steamy showers and grey skies. Toting umbrellas and wearing backpacks, their iPod audio tours are at the ready as they crisscross excitedly from one leafy residential street to the next, snapping photos and marking maps. They have been drawn here, from all over the world, by the houses designed by their hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, the self-described genius of American architecture.

Oak Park has had more than its share of pioneers. Ernest Hemingway was born and spent his early days here, and another writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, called Oak Park home. But it was Wright who left the most visible legacy – the 25 buildings he designed. More than 100,000 Frank Lloyd Wright architecture devotees flock annually to Oak Park to visit one of the most recognised collections of the late 19th- and 20th- century American residential architecture. The buildings include his home, studio and Robie House, in nearby Hyde Park, considered by the American Institute of Architects to be one of the 12 most significant buildings of the 20th century.

But I had come to Oak Park with the intention of tracing the work of another architectural master-mind, a man whose American work has perhaps not received the recognition it deserves. Walter Burley Griffin, the architect and landscape designer best known for designing Australia’s capital, Canberra, grew up in Oak Park. Later, he would work for Frank Lloyd Wright at the Home and Studio, the centre of Wright’s creative hub.

As an Australian living in New York, I wondered what it would be like to explore Griffin’s work in Chicago, starting at Wright’s headquarters. I was intrigued to learn that it was suspected that some of the buildings in Oak Park credited to Wright were actually designed by Griffin.

Of course, no visitor to Chicago should miss the tour of Wright’s Home and Studio, but Griffin fans may be disappointed. Inside the studio, I asked my guide about Griffin. He shrugged his shoulders. “Griffin who?” “Walter Burley Griffin.” I replied. “He worked for Wright.” The guide looked at me blankly. I explained that Griffin designed Canberra, and has also been credited with developing the L-shaped floor plan, the carport and the first use of reinforced concrete. The guide nodded his head slowly, “Oh yes, a woman.” An architecture student from Belgrade interrupted and brought any Griffin-related conversation to an abrupt end. It was as if the other architects from the Prairie School, the late-19th and early 20th-century architectural style that Griffin and others engaged in, never existed.

Henry Kuehn, a Griffin enthusiast and volunteer with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, is not surprised. “For many Frank Lloyd Wright followers, there was no one else,” he says. “They are so enamoured with him, they talk as though he is still alive –as if they think he will walk through the door –while Griffin went unrecognized.”

What our guide does not tell our group was that the studio, a stunning room with a two-storey octagonal drafting room and natural light that pours from the roof skylight onto half a dozen desks, was the scene of bitter arguments between Wright and Griffin.

Decorated with Japanese prints and miniature casts of classical sculptures, the studio was an “informal, pleasant place to work” according to H. Allen Brooks, author of The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries. But according to others, tempers had simmered. Wright was a controlling, jealous boss. Griffin was serious about his work, but quiet and sweet-natured with a preference for floppy black bow ties.

I wonder how the disagreements had played out in this serene setting. There had reportedly been many, the most spectacular when Wright left Griffin in charge of the studio when he traveled to Japan. On his return, Wright accused Griffin of overstepping his responsibilities and inserting his own ideas and plans. Wright, who was notoriously careless with money, had borrowed money from Griffin for his trip. On his return, he tried to repay Griffin with Japanese prints. The man who would go on to design Canberra was outraged. He later discovered the prints had far less value than Wright had suggested. After Griffin left Wright’s studio to set up his own practice in 1906, the two men never spoke again.

Kuehn believes Griffin may have even overshadowed Wright’s success had he stayed in America instead of moving to Australia in 1914 after winning the competition to design the country’s capital. Wright was said to be furious to see his former employee featured on the front page of The New York Times for winning the Canberra competition.

Even though Canberra’s designer never built any houses in Oak Park - Wright had the market cornered – Kuehn, who has agreed to accompany me on my Walter Burley Griffin quest, believes Griffin’s trademarks can be found in Wright houses in Oak Park and other areas. He’s not alone in his opinion. Paul Kruty, president of the Walter Burley Griffin Society and Professor of Architectural History at the University of Illinois, supports that view. “There are specific houses that have Griffin’s trademarks, houses that Wright was credited with – but Wright would never admit that,” he says. “Wright often changed the dates on his drawings or just denied it.”

A short stroll from Wright’s Home and Studio on a self-guided walking tour is Wright’s Beachy House (238 Forest Avenue). Some people believe it has Griffin’s trademarks – big piers at the corner, blocks and a gable roof. “Beachy is known as the Wright house but if Griffin didn’t have a hand in it, it certainly has Griffin’s trademarks. I suspect Griffin was heavily involved,” says Kuehn. “Wright was a pretty big self-promoter. He would say he crafted fire and water if you listened.” Tim Loftus, an architectural historian and Griffin fan who has documented Griffin’s work on his website, agrees: “Beachy House has Griffin written all over it.”

Kruty also believes Wright was heavily influenced by Griffin. The Mrs Thomas H. Gale House in Oak Park (6 Elizabeth Court) is another famous Wright house which features horizontal planes that hover, and a flat roof.

Its abstract nature and geometrical shapes stand out in a street of Queen Anne-style houses and apparently, at the time, some of the neighbours hated it.

It is considered to be one of Wright’s most unusual styles here, although there is some debate about whether it was built in 1904 or 1909. “When everyone thought the Gale house was 1904, they would compare it to Griffin’s Mary Bovee house,” says Kruty. Plans for the Bovee house, in the suburb of Evanston, were completed by November 1907and it was constructed the following year. Wright fans will say Griffin’s house was clearly derived from Wright’s work, but it wasn’t, Kruty says. “I don’t actually have proof, of course, that Wright knew the building before he designed the Gale house, but it is very, very likely that he did, for a variety of reasons.”

Strolling in Oak Park, where Griffin grew up (he was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood in 1876, the son of an insurance salesman), it is easy to imagine him being passionate about gardening and landscape design. The lawns are spectacular rolling green carpets, with perfectly pruned hedges and trees that seem to have been planted for each house. As a young man, Griffin was considering landscape design but decided to study architecture and in 1899 received a degree from the architecture program at the University of Illinois. He then worked as a draftsman for two years at Steinway Hall in Chicago, where a number of young architects shared office space. Among them were Wright and many others who would become important Prairie School designers. These architects, let by Wright, were heavily influenced by Louis Sullivan, an influential architect often referred to as “father of modernism”. Their style was marked by horizontal lines, flat roofs with broad, overhanging eaves, solid construction and craftsmanship.

Instead of opening his own practice, Griffin joined Wright’s studio- where the Prairie School style would flourish – as an associate from 1901 to 1906.

Kruty believes neither man knew what he was in for. “Griffin wanted to be a partner but Wright was not the kind of person who could ever have a partner. He had no respect for individual talents except to use them.” By 1914 Griffin had left Chicago for good, embarking on the ultimately controversial task of creating a national capital for Australia and later designing the Sydney harbourside suburb of Castlecrag.

To view one of Griffin’s first significant architectural commissions, we drive 20 minutes’ west of Oak Park to the William H. Emery House in Elmhurst. On the journey, Kuehn praises Griffin’s wife, Marion Mahony, who was the second woman to graduate in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (She also worked for Wright.) A highly regarded draftsman, illustrator and furnishings designer, she is believed by many to have been crucial to Griffin’s successful Canberra bid. The Griffins went on to design more than 350 building, landscape and urban design projects, as well as interiors and furniture.

Elmhurst streets are wide and the houses large, but none commands attention like the Emery House (281 South Arlington Avenue), with its vast landscaping. The visitor is greeted by what Kuehn says is “a pure Griffin house” in deep red brick that rests squarely on the ground, with roof lines that soar. And while there are no public tours, twice a year the house is opened to members of the Walter Burley Griffin Society courtesy of the home’s owner, Tom Zusag. He bought the house in 1998 and worked on it for two years before livingi n it with his family.

“This is the quintessential Walter Burley Griffin house. The biggest and the best he built,” says Kuehn, in awe, as if seeing it for the first time (he has seen it a handful of times, both inside and out). Griffin designed it when he was 25 years old. The wood-framed windows, four massive brick piers and gabled roof are distinctly Griffin. Zusag meets us outside, sweating slightly as if he has been cleaning, but once inside it becomes obvious that he may just have been climbing the many staircases in this enormous property.

Griffin received the commission for Emery House in 1901-02. At the time, Wright had been overseeing the nearby F.B. Henderson House, explains Zusag. Wright’s bid for Emery had been rejected because he was considered “too uncompromising” and the commission went to Griffin, whose parents’ house was nearby. Griffin would design the house as a wedding gift from William H. Emery’s father. He would also design, in 1909, the William B. Sloane House just down the road at 248 South Arlington Avenue. The size and scale of Emery House is impressive. “I think he was showing off,” says Kuehn. “This sticks up right out of the prairie and it would have been seen right across the farmland.” The plan was considered to be “ingenious.”

Our next stop is 296 North Elm Avenue in Elmhurst, but when we reach the address Kuehn screeches the car to a halt. “It’s gone!” A Griffin property that stood there months earlier had been demolished. “And look what is there. A monster!” he says, referring to a modern brick Sopranos-style home. He makes a note to find out what happened. The landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois is militant, but this one had apparently slipped through. “Don’t worry, we’ll see others.”

To see Griffin’s other houses, we travel to an area on the south side of Chicago that is home to a mix of blue-collar Irish, Italians and Poles. Here we find the largest concentration of small-scale Griffin houses in existence, as well as a street dedicated to him.

Most Prairie School houses are large structures with custom millwork, elaborate stained-glass windows and expansive floor plans, but his houses in south Chicago reduce the design elements of the Prairie School to their essentials.

The houses that line 104th Place (renamed Griffin Place) are neatly marked with plaques and notes for each property, making it easy to wald from one to the next. These Griffin houses were designed as low-cost housing, with innovative L-shaped or open-plan living areas.

Pauline Saliga and her family of four have lived in a Griffin house (1741 Griffin Place) since 1990. “We thought it would be intriguing to live in an architect-designed house that was created specifically with affordability in mind.” Says Saliga, who is executive director of the Society of Architectural Historians in Chicago. Historians have said that the Griffin houses on Griffin Place are modelled after Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5000”, which, was published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1907, and Saliga believes this may be true.

Mati Maldre, who lives in the Jenkinson House (1727 Griffin Place), has owned the house since 1980. “It’s great to own a small piece of America’s architectural heritage.” Maldre is also co-author and photographer for the book Walter Burley Griffin in America that became the inspiration for a television documentary on Griffin. She has photographed all of Griffin’s work in the US and Australia.

Griffin created more than 130 designs in his Chicago office for buildings, urban plans and landscapes. Half of these were built in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin but it was his Australian designs that brought him worldwide notoriety. Griffin’s letterhead came to carry the legend, “Architect and Landscape Architect – Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago.”

In 1935 Griffin moved to India, where he and Mahony operated a practice and received numerous commissions. He died there of peritonitis in 1937.

One wonders what he might have gone on to design had he lived as long as Wright, who died in 1959.

Seventy years on it is a thrill to find that on one street in a Chicago suburb, the work of Griffin - whose architecture and life is revered on the other side of the world – still quietly lives on.