Usonian houses with a shed roof

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Laurie Virr
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Usonian houses with a shed roof

Post by Laurie Virr »

It is generally accepted that Frank Lloyd Wright used Taliesin in Wisconsin as a laboratory, and experimented accordingly.

The roofs of Taliesin are an almost complete text book for architects of all ages. Light is introduced from above in myriad ways, rivaling anything achieved by Francesco Borromini or Johann Balthasar Neumann. With the exception of very small areas of flats, eyebrows in effect, all the principal roofs slope down towards the eaves from ridges, some of which are symmetrical, and others asymmetrical, about the center lines of the spaces below.

In 1949, when he was already over 80 years of age, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house at Parkwyn Village, Kalamazoo, Michigan for Robert and Rae Levin. My research may well not be perfect, but it has suggested that this house is the first design, in a long career, for which the architect employed a shed roof over part of the structure. The same device was used later for the houses for John and Syd Dobkins, Ina Morris Harper, and Jorgine Boomer amongst others.

Almost all the windows and French doors at Taliesin are protected from the sun, rain and snow by sheltering eaves, and always of a width to emphasize the sense of scale.

A shed roof makes passive climate control more difficult of course. No matter how wide the eaves, it is impossible to banish the late sun in summer, and the height of the glass results in the increased volume of the space requiring more heating in winter. [In this regard, it is well known that the flat roofed Herbert Jacobs II house - where FLLW’s fabled sense of scale for once failed him - was too hot in summer, and difficult to heat in a Wisconsin winter].

Frank Lloyd Wright had almost 10 years to live after he designed the Robert and Rae Levin house. I surmise that neither prior to 1949, nor after, did he ever experiment with a shed roof at Taliesin. Why was this? Perhaps Spring Green and Roderick Grant, among others, can answer this query?

Paul Ringstrom
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Post by Paul Ringstrom »

Seamour Shavin and Seth Peterson also come to mind.

Tom
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Post by Tom »

The history of the shed roof in Wright's work, great idea for a thread.
Flipping through Storrer just to check I'm forced to realize that TWest and Ocatilla must fall into the category of a shed roof! Storrer also lists the Beecher Roberts house of 1936 which definitely has a shed roof, two as a matter of fact!; FSC Industrial Arts Building of 1942; Chauncey Griggs of 1945; Aplaugh Studio Residence of 1947; Sam Epstien house in Galesburg of 1948; then the Levin house (Storrer says 1948); Buehler of 1948; and it goes on ...off hand I also remember Shavin, Peterson, and the house in Cody Wyoming.



I'll check to see if there are any earlier than 1936

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Ocatillo? Where is there a shed roof there? The heat gain at Ocatillo would be by way of the translucent canvas roofs.

Although "Who's On First?" really doesn't matter, the shed roof goes all the way back to the three vacation houses FLW designed for Mrs. Gale in 1905. In addition to being an aesthetic consideration, this was generally a device that FLW used for houses built amid plenty of tree cover -- like the Abby Beecher Roberts House -- to capture the light. I doubt he gave much thought to the heat gain problem inherent in the design. Light was very important to him, but he seemed always to be cold, bundled up in wool even in the summertime, with straps at his cuffs to keep cold winds from blowing up his pant legs. Unless a client complained about it, I suspect it didn't occur to him. Remember he didn't have air conditioning at T-West!

DRN
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Post by DRN »

I'm not sure I would classify the roofs of Ocatillo and Taliesin West as sheds. They are asymmetrical gables, both in pitch and placement of the ridge with respect to the spaces they span.

The shed form seems at odds with the landscape at Taliesin. The Wisconsin site is a place of rounded hills, with the occasional rock outcropping to be sure, but the sense one takes from the region is that of rolling land weathered over time. A shed defiantly projects out into space, it does not have the sense of repose that is characterized by a shallow gable or a hip. I find it telling that at some of Wright's gables at Taliesin a pent roof is wrapped around the corner to modulate the wall and shelter the lower fenestration. The roofs at Taliesin are a textbook of nearly every condition one could imagine in a sloped roof, but amid all those gymnastics, the quiet repose of the surrounding landscape is always addressed by the return of the roof planes toward the ground.

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Yeah, I see what you mean about the ridgeline being inside, that probably does technically disqualify them from being sheds.

The description that Wright wrote about their suffering from the heat and snakes at Ocatilla is hilarious. It's amazing they drew San Marcos in the desert there.

Those Gale Cottage sheds are interesting. Sort of anomalies for that period of his. I think Storrer is probably correct about the pitch being concerned more with inclement weather as opposed to dramatic interior.

DRN has a nice argument about why a shed might not be found at Taleisin. I especially like the part about the repose of the hills always being addressed by the return of the roof to the ground. One might classify the argument as an argument from restraint. I suppose if Wright ever desired a dramatic opening up he could always walk out on that diving board balcony thing. I kinda like that.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

I must say that I have always thought of Wright's shed-roof houses as the least Wrightian, though perhaps the most likely to appeal to the run-of-the-mill mid-century modern-house lover, such as I was in my teens -- bested only by the uncompromisingly Modern (read, Different, therefore Better) flat-roofed ones. And even then, the unusually steep angle of the roof -- contrasting nicely, in an abstract way, with the flat-roofed portions of the structure, I suppose -- seemed off-putting to my eye. I haven't set foot in any of these houses, so I can't realistically comment on their appropriateness in the flesh. But I have always believed that Mr Wright went "there" just because there was a "there" to be explored -- and that the excessive pitch, if that's what it is, served, if for no other purpose, to differentiate his work from that of his reviled professional competition . . . who needed, always, to be shown How It Is Done by a genius.

SDR

Tom
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Post by Tom »

I agree with that.
And yet having been inside Buehler and Shavin. I felt both of them to be great spaces and I was surprised. The shed roof takes full advantage of the 'compression/release' formula in a way that other roof types just can't.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

On the Triangle web page (see Alden B Dow thread, p 1) we see the Michigan Solar House (1945), which opens a shed roof to the sun (I presume). This raises the question whether Wright, too, may have used the shed roof for solar gain. Do we see a consistent orientation of plan in Wright's shed-roofed houses ?

To me, the shed roof lets the enclosed space "escape" through the glass and into the air. A relatively steep shed roof would seem to accelerate that exodus, potentially taking everything within with it -- including any sense of shelter ?

I wonder if any of the houses actually feel that way to the occupant or the visitor . . . or whether the principal effect is merely that of focusing one's attention on the exterior, the view and the sky . . .

SDR

Tom
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Post by Tom »

Well, but like you said, when his Geniusness handles this things are different. Not to say that you don't have a point. It might make a difference if you make a point of seeking one of these spaces out. Personally I'd like to know what you thought after that. If I remember correctly I think I felt the same way as you before I stumbled across Buehler then it seemed to me that Wright sacrificed having a clumsy exterior aspect for this interior feel, even though it does loose the sense of shelter relative to his other work.
You know the Fawcett house is something of a shed. There, however he introduces that soffit which helps with your sense of shelter.

What's your take on the Chauncey Griggs house? I really like it. Seems unique in the general oeuvre also. Know anything about the history of that house?

SDR
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Post by SDR »

The sense of a shed roof is essentially absent at Fawcett (one of the few houses I have visited), both inside and out, I would say -- at least in part because of the major intervention of the soffit plane, as you note. And the roof pitch isn't as severed as in the houses we've mentioned so far.

We did a discussion of the Griggs house, here, a year or two ago. You can search for a thread. An unusual house for several reasons . . .

SDR

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Griggs is surrounded by dense woods. It needs all the light it can get. There is no sense of heat gain in the house at all, nor excessive light. It is one of FLW's best late works.

I wonder what the view is like at Blair. Being in or near the mountains, I imagine FLW wanted to lift the roof to take in the view. Same with Stromquist. At Teater, the end wall, which is the highest, faces due north, as it should in an artist's studio. There seems not to be an immediately noticeable pattern to the design or orientation of these houses. Perhaps a detailed examination is due. How's the heat gain in Dobkins' living room?

Laurie Virr
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Post by Laurie Virr »

Thank you to all those who have posted on this thread:

Roderick Grant:
My thanks to you for reminding me of the Gale cottages: my memory was at fault in that regard. Having used the shed roof there, rather like a lid, unfortunately, FLLW chose not to use the form again for decades, albeit far more dramatically at the later date.

DRN:
Frank Lloyd Wright makes mention in his Autobiography, when discussing the construction of Taliesin, to the pitch of the roofs reflecting the slopes of the surrounding hills. I have always assumed this to be 1:3, which is also the minimum recommended for the use of cedar shingles.

It would be difficult to argue however that the Creamery, which serves as a terminal at one end of the Midway, relates to the surrounding hills, or to anything else for that matter. It has always appeared to me to be totally inappropriate, mere whimsy. If he could experiment in that way, why not with the shed roof?

The shed form is not only at odds with the landscape at Taliesin, but also against the dictum that the struggle in design of buildings is always in favor of increased length as opposed to excessive height: the Earth line.

Nevertheless, its use did enhance the drama of some of the interiors in his later houses. Having experienced it, who can forget the Dobkins house, where the contrast between the ceiling heights of the entry and dining areas and the the soaring space of the living room, is most marked?

There is an old saw to the effect that successful folk search for the circumstances they want, and if they are unable to find them, create them. In contrast to the Abby Beecher Roberts house, built in a forested area, and having opted for the roof form at the Dobkins house, the original site of which I understand was a cornfield, FLLW then specified the species of trees with which he wished to surround the house, and their locations.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Now, there's site-sensitive architecture ! Choose ("opt for" ?) a pleasing form, and rearrange the landscape to suit.

:roll:

Tom
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Post by Tom »

( SDR: I couldn't find the Griggs thread using search function. Any clues?)

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