By Nicholas Olsberg
Current Photographs by Tim Street-Porter
“Frank Lloyd Wright . . . creates architecture as a plastic whole and perceives the new spiritual forces working in the inner being of the masses, in the abstract form.” — TH. Wijdeveld 1925
The Storer house is one of four homes, built at almost the same time, in experimental textured concrete block. They were an effort by Wright to develop a building system in a single structural material that would fit the emerging landscape of Los Angeles, to which he had moved his practice on returning from Japan with the completion of the Imperial Hotel. It was designed in the fall of 1923 on the basis of an abortive plan for a standard California city house for Lowes. It was built in the following year, and occupied in October 1924, though never, until a major and impeccable restoration in the 1980s by Wright’s grandson, completed to the level of refinement and detail planned. Now, however, it stands as one of the most successful and durable restorations of a Wright masterpiece, and — conceived for a relatively conventional household and on a still highly desirable lot — one of the most livable and romantic. Immediately taking its place as a major step forward in the literature of the day, including Neutra’s ‘Wie Baut in Amerika’, Storer illustrates the two critical and most widely recognized features of Wright’s achievement at the time: what one great architect of the time, Robert Mallet-Stevens, called his “mastery of volume at play in space,” and another, JJP Oud, called his unrivalled ability to achieve “unity of conception in the whole and in details.”
The Storer House is the central chapter in the story of a crucial phase in Wright’s work. With it, Wright tried to carry into the everyday domestic landscape of the city a richly expressive and newly ordered sculptural language that he had been exploring since his return from Europe in 1911 and that first flowered in the great ‘romances’ (as he called them) of his own Wisconsin home at Taliesin, Chicago’s Midway Gardens, the Barnsdall colony for Los Angeles’ Olive Hill, and Tokyo’s triumphant Imperial Hotel.
Historians have dwelt heavily on Storer House as an example of Wright’s newly invented ‘textile block’ system. This unusual material, and the structural language it represents, were certainly integral to the endeavor. The use of textured and pierced blocks is still persuasive, as a way to seize and manage the extraordinary qualities of California light and to make a native fabric for California buildings that, like the adobe bricks that came before them, would use the ground on which the houses sat to produce the matter from which they were made. But the blocks were never the purpose of Wright’s experiment. They were an attempt to find the economic means to reach a wider aesthetic goal.
It is clear from the growing documentation of Wright’s practice in his Los Angeles years and of the ways in which he described it later that Storer was intended for something much larger. Wright was in fact working (and himself investing) with his client — John Storer, a homeopathic doctor with a fragile practice — in a fullyfledged housing development scheme; and it is likely that they saw this first house as one among a number of linked properties on the hillside in which it sits. It was to be both the prototype of a new form of city dwelling in its own right, and the anchor for a visionary approach to development in which homes, roadways, paths and gardens would be welded into a single, continuous, structured, monolithic landscape of enormous emotional force. Wright saw the house and the extraordinary series of terraces and walls that wedded it to the land as a model for the transformation of fast-growing suburbs that were haphazard, eclectic, transitory and lightweight into something scented with permanence – a solid, coherent, substantial, and timeless garden city.
Wright had returned from Europe with a stated determination not to continue scattering his reformist and modernizing prairie houses into whatever chance lots his clients had acquired, but to re-cast the American domestic landscape by orchestrating whole sections of the city in coherent form. He had first proposed this in published schemes for a quarter section; then in projects — some partially realized – for planned rental suburbs north of Chicago, in which monumental sculptures, roadways, bridges, and parkland were an integral part. He tried again on a vastly more ambitious scale with the prefabricated house designs at many different scales and for varied settings in his famous “American System,” a project that produced quite a number of built examples but that failed as a business in the face of shortages once the US entered the First World War.
In the same spirit, he then attempted two major schemes for Los Angeles, devoting extraordinary design energy and genius to terraced housing, shopping facilities, studios and a cinema complex on Hollywood Boulevard. This colony, just below the Barnsdall house, was to be built in a mix of poured concrete, stucco and decorated block. Then, on his return from Japan, he began design of a suburb in concrete block at the Doheny ranch. This was a canyon landscape in which houses much like those for Storer and Ennis would fit into the terrain as part of a unified structure of roads, hanging gardens, terraced walks and bridges. Both are sadly unrealized.
The Doheny project is astonishingly beautiful. Its origins and fate remain a mystery; but Wright clearly saw it as a testing ground for a housing practice that would keep him in the burgeoning city of Los Angeles and formulate a new approach to metropolitan expansion on virgin land. Indeed the Storer site seems to have been the first to be occupied of twelve lots on the steep ‘sky view’ hillside of the Cielo Vista tract; and it is very likely that Wright and his client planned it as the demonstration home for a suite of houses arranged in a unified system – like the Doheny ranch but at more modest scale.
The effort was frustrated. Storer failed to raise funds to complete even this single dwelling to Wight’s specifications, and the contractor backed in and out as bills were paid or not and as the block system tested his capacities. Wright himself made it clear that more was at stake than the fine finish of a single house when he declared its fate a “tragedy,” surely referring to the lost promise of the scheme as a whole. Leaving his son Lloyd to complete Storer as best he could, Wright abandoned the attempt to settle in Los Angeles and went home to Chicago.
The Storer plan houses a wing of four bedrooms, a suite of service rooms, a tower of two pavilioned living spaces – the lower one for dining, study and reception and the upper room a magnificent open ‘studio/living room’ — and a wealth of terrace space leading up to and surrounding the whole at all levels. In the three other California block houses – for Millard, Freeman and Ennis — plans are dispersed, functions distributed, and landscapes contained. They open up behind the roads on which they sit. In contrast, Storer has the character of a genuine city house, echoing the walls Wright knew so well from his time in Fiesole and translating them into almost meso-American terms. Like the cities of the Maya, it is set a little up and back in a cubic recession of masonry. And like a traditional city home or Renaissance palace, it clearly and decisively fronts the city and street that lie before it. This is the quality the historian David de Long sees in Storer’s emphatic composition of terraces. “It is a strongly urban scheme of concentrated masses; on one plan he noted ‘Palazzo!’ … in reference to this.”
Like any ideal city house, there is a decisive contrast between the approach to the house, its place in the cityscape, and the experience within. From below Storer talks decisively of within. From below Storer talks decisively of the coherence and concentration of its form, and screens its interior almost completely from the street. On approach, it opens slowly and still conceals most of its secrets as the path angles upward. Once inside, the experience is entirely different: a compact welcoming area quickly leads to spaces in which the markedly rugged texture of walls and piers play against intensely patterned light screens (there are over 90 faithfully re-created artglass windows). This dialogue between open and closed, opaque and translucent, somehow makes spaces that are continuous with the light, the city, and the vistas, as terraces open on all sides. There is a marvelous balance between openness to the world beyond and a richly protective shell from which to enjoy it.
Wright had introduced some of the same ideas to an earlier scheme for a “model city house” for Frederick Bogk in Milwaukee, designed just as he left for Japan five years before. He had adopted them again at the Allen house in suburban Wichita. Bogk and Allen both have the same discreet approach to entry and to the first steps inside the home; the same strongly protective fronting to the street; and the same success in opening the rooms behind the street; and the same success in opening the rooms behind to light, height, and openness.
To achieve this, Storer develops two other powerful ideas that had been evolving in Wright’s work in the previous fifteen years. One is the construction of an emphatic central columned frontispiece set on a solid base as the anchor about which to organize a complex composition. We see this in the tiny model of a city house in his 1914 exhibition; at the Coonley Playhouse; and in the rising central section of the Imperial Hotel, around which Wright spins a vast and complicated scheme.
The other key concept is the reduction of the principle space to a rectangular pavilion, open to the light on both long sides. It is a strategy we see, pitched low and horizontally, in the projecting second floor of the Robie House, in the separate living room wing at Allen, and standing nearly free in the Little House living pavilion, now reconstructed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
Storer uniquely and brilliantly doublews this idea up, laying out two distinct layers of columned pavilion space that lie on top of one another, and then raises the ceiling height of both through rooms, with vertical art glass windows. The effect is radically new: we sense a rising roofless space, contained within a steeply sloping landscape, where Little, Allen and Robie all speak to the horizontal line, the sheltering ceiling, and the expanse of the land around. As with Wright’s house designs for the Doheny resort, Storer goes further toward a densely contained formal structure than anything before, and talks to a wider conception.
Both at Doheny and in Storer, Wright was rethinking not just the form of a city house but the shape of the very city itself — wishing on the still empty hills that made up the cityscape of Los Angeles a metropolis that would not be separate from nature but mount the landscape and live within it. It was a vision ( in what he himself praised as ‘a land of romance’ but scorned for its want of history ) of continuity, timelessness and flow within the house, in its connection to its outside spaces, and in its relation to the larger world around it. This was what the young Harwell Harris would recognize when seeing Wright’s Barnsdall project for the first time, noting that he was “impelled . . . to follow its development,“ for “it was sculpture on a completely different scale, and I simply couldn’t stand still . . . As the building moved, I moved.”
In contrast to this compelling sense of continuity and flow, De Long talks of a number of consciously “discontinuous elements,” like the rhythmic lines of columns in the two living spaces that break the boundary between inside and out and the constantly changing floor and ceiling levels of the transitional spaces, which vary the experience and pace of moving through. In the same way Wright interrupts the two great rooms with a hearth, and — in a gesture taken from Japanese traditions — puts no great emphasis on the main entrance, the stairways and the turning points inside the house.
All these are carefully placed off center, unemphatic, even uncertain. The resulting informality, with its choice of pathways, loosens up a home whose crusty materials and dense massing could otherwise make it ponderous and solemn. A number of other ideas reinforce this idea of blending the substance and solidity of a palazzo with the lightness and good spirits of a modern home: the way the high French windows simply rise to meet the ceiling serves to “amplify the openness they celebrate,” in De Long’s words; the multicolored geometric patterns that are painted under the soffits to soften the fall of light; the carnival features that shelter the two upper terraces and make them merry.
Wright saw his block houses as the steps on the road to a new kind of modernity, in which the 16 inch square blocks themselves – made of crushed granite and rebar — would marry industry and nature, the decorative and the practical, the handmade and the massproduced. Yet there are aspects of the house – its denseness, the richness of its material palette, the monumental sturdiness of its streetside terraces, its intensely managed plays of light and shade, its complex passage from level to level and room to room, its sense of the palazzo – that carry echoes of more archaic worlds, and of deeper, more psychic structures and spaces than the plainness and evident rationality of later, Mid Century Modernism. As such we can look at Storer as a very rare American example of other more expressive ‘modernisms’ that were appearing in the Twenties, as the world sought a return to order after a cataclysmic conflict. In the same way Wright himself, in the face of the catastrophic tragedy that had destroyed his first Taliesin and the beloved family within it, was looking not just for freedom and modernity but for something reassuring, lasting, impregnable and lovely.
Storer is closer in spirit to the sometimes magical sculptural modernisms of that time, in which reason is wedded to the emotional power and spiritual force that can derive from the materials and shapes of a building. Nothing captures Storer’s expression of this magic and its power to enchant better than a tale Pauline Schindler tells, and to which Robert Sweeney has drawn our attention. Caretaking the place in the Thirties, this great critic of design spoke about the grace and comfort of her time in the great ‘studio living room’ carved out on the top floor of the house, and of her son, who in a burst of tenderness sitting there, told her “muv, I love you as much as I . . . love this room.”