The Language of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Houses

The Language of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Houses

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1698-0.ch008


This chapter uses a combined syntactical and grammatic method to analyse 19 of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie houses. The purpose of this analysis is to illuminate the formal and social properties of Wright's early architecture. The data developed through this process is used to provide mathematical insights into the topological and geometric patterns that provide the foundation for Wright's Prairie style language. The data is then used to generate a new socially and formally derived and compliant instance of this style. Whereas past research has shown how Wright's architecture might be computationally generated solely on the basis of its formal composition, this chapter shows how its social and functional properties can also be replicated as part of such a process.
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This chapter uses the new combined grammatical and syntactical method to analyse Frank Lloyd Wright’s early twentieth century “Prairie style” architecture. Wright’s Prairie style has not only fascinated a large number of architects, but over time historians have also begun to document and debate its properties. In particular, historians have identified a high level of complexity in the spatial planning and formal modelling of Wright’s architecture of the era. In order to better understand these properties, Koning and Eizenberg (1981) developed one of the most well-known early Shape Grammar applications to investigate thirteen Prairie style houses built between 1900 and 1909. Koning and Eizenberg’s additive Shape Grammar had its origins in Wright’s admission that Froebel blocks had a profound influence on his early childhood experience of form-making (Alofsin, 1993). The Shape Grammar starts with the generation of a central fireplace as the core of the plan, and sequentially adds rectangular Froebel-esque blocks before configuring exterior details. This Shape Grammar not only successfully captures the major formal properties of Wright’s Prairie houses, but Koning and Eizenberg showed how it could be used to convincingly generate a new Prairie-style form.

Despite its capacity to model the formal properties of the Prairie style, Koning and Eizenberg’s grammar ignores its underlying socio-functional properties, which are arguably more significant for the architecture (Chan 1992; Pinnell 2005). Furthermore, historians describe the Prairie Style as featuring complex overlapping formal compositions in both massing and planning, and suggest that it is the combination of the two that is significant (Lind 1994). The combined spatial and formal properties of Wright’s Prairie houses have repeatedly drawn architectural scholars to attempt to uncover their underlying rules and properties. For example, Laseau and Tice (1992) develop two-dimensional formal patterns, highlighting the connection between space, form and principle. Computational and mathematical studies have also examined the formal complexity of Wright’s Prairie style designs using fractal dimension analysis (Ostwald & Vaughan, 2010, 2016), social properties using syntactical comparative analysis (Amini Behbahani, Ostwald, & Gu, 2016) and experiential characteristics using isovist fields (Ostwald & Dawes, 2013, 2018). All of these past studies have uncovered various parts of the larger formal, functional and spatio-visual patterns in Wright’s architecture. However, as past research notes, it is the combination of space and form which makes the language both distinctive and difficult to analyse (Laseau & Tice, 1992).

In response to this issue, the present chapter uses a combined method to analyse the grammatical (rule or form-based) and syntactical (social or function-based) language of Wright’s Prairie architecture. The method identifies dominant patterns in Wright’s design strategies and a design permutation that most closely captures its linguistic characteristics. The method starts by developing the specific Justified Plan Graph (s-JPG) grammar that systematically captures aspects of the two-dimensional socio-functional structure of an architectural style (Lee, Ostwald, & Gu, 2015a, 2015b, 2017). It then employs the massing grammar to derive the three-dimensional formal expression of each sector node developed by the s-JPG grammar. The body of work which is analysed in the present chapter comprises nineteen of Wright’s Prairie designs, spanning from the 1902 Little House to the 1912 Harry S. Adams House. Data developed using the two grammars is used to identify the dominant rules in the language and their sequential application, which in turn captures the underlying socio-functional and formal properties of the houses. The chapter concludes by identifying the most dominant or characteristic JPG of the Prairie houses and its formal massing.

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