Prairie School, Usonian -- equality of terms ?

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SDR
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Prairie School, Usonian -- equality of terms ?

Post by SDR »

What is the consensus (if any) on the parity of the terms "Prairie School" and "Usonian" as applied to work in architecture, furnishings, etc designed and executed by those other than Frank Lloyd Wright ? That is, do both terms cover the same territory in their respective eras; are both given equal weight as catch-alls denoting similarity to their Wrightian forebears ? Do makers of neo-Wrightian buildings and objects have equal claim to the respective terms; do Wright followers consider that such makers have the same license (as it were) to their use ?

Assuming (correctly ?) that Prairie School design is no longer found appropriate for new construction, is the same true of Usonian design -- either as a style or as the essence of a building's design and construction ? Does a difference here translate to a difference in the acceptability of the terms, today, as applied either to found objects or to new construction ?

What do you think ? What have others said on the matter ?

SDR

Unbrook
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Prairie School vrs. Usonian

Post by Unbrook »

The term "Usonian" I have considered to be a "brand" name which Wright used for the houses he built after 1936. Prairie School is a name which seems to have been applied to architecture around the turn of the 20th century. Other architects seem to have "worked" in a similar style. The principals set established in Wright's Prairie School houses were continued into the Usonian era. It is an artificial label, but seems to have been accepted.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

So far so good. H Allen Brooks claims to have coined the term "Prairie School"; when, I do not know, but it may have appeared with his 1972 study of the same name.

Your comment seems to suggest that the terms are not equivalent. I'd like to explore that . . .

SDR

Paul Ringstrom
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Post by Paul Ringstrom »

1) Most realtors do not know the difference between the two terms. They associate almost everything the Wright did as Prairie School.

2) I do not think the two terms describe that same type of structure.

Prairie Style houses (1900-1920) were two story built on urban city lots that had ribbon windows with large overhanging hip roofs and basements. These houses were, for most part, large homes designed for people of means, many designed to be serviced by servants. Interior woodwork was mainly quarter-sawn oak including the flooring. Kitchens were not "designed" but utilitarian for use of the servants. Most of the furniture was free-standing. Dining room tables were designed specifically for the houses. Bookcases were built-in with glass doors. Windows contained stained-glass or wood muntins. Free standing garages appear in some of them. Many of the clients were entrepreneurs or high-level professional types.

Usonian houses (1936-1959) were mostly one story built on exurban acreage, and were designed for the post-servant USA. Designed for middle class people who, for the most part, wouldn't have been able to afford a Prairie Style home, but appreciated good design in a smaller package. Most Usonians had flat roofs. The large overhangs remained. The ribbon windows were still there but now there were doors incorporated will full height windows to allow easier access to the exterior enhancing the inside/outside feeling. Corner-less mitered windows are introduced. Stained-glass not used, replaced by perforated wood panels covering clerestory windows. Interior woodwork was mostly red tidewater cypress or Philippine mahogany. The basements were gone, replaced by a red-stained concrete slab for interior flooring. A lot of the furniture was built-in and the majority of the free standing furniture was designed specifically for the house. Bult-in bookcases with glass doors were replaced by open shelving. Kitchens were part of the interior design and opened to the other rooms. Carports appear in most of them. Many of the clients were academics.

Did I miss anything?
Owner of the G. Curtis Yelland House (1910), by Wm. Drummond

SDR
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Post by SDR »

I think so -- though your definitions are good attempts at comprehensive description. My point was not to question whether the terms are synonymous (clearly they are not); it was to ask whether readers feel they are equivalent in terms of how they are applied and used.

That is: does Prairie mean the same thing for Wright's pre-WWI era, as Usonian does in Wright's post-Depression period ? Further, does a "Usonian" house have to be a Wright design, or is the term now meant to include work recognizably influenced by Wright's Usonians -- in the way that a "Prairie" table is not expected to be an original Wright design, or even one designed by the small circle of Wright's original crew ?

Realtors' uses of the terms should be included in the discussion, surely. I think we have observed that many such professionals fail to grasp the finer points -- if they do not in fact grossly misuse the terms. It does seem, as you suggest, that the term "Prairie" is often misapplied.

SDR

Macrodex
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Post by Macrodex »

The largest errors I tend to see regarding "Prairie" architecture: lack of overhanging eaves stressing the horizontal; low stories; bands of windows; symmetry in some regards; etc.

By contrast to the Prairie, Usonians were, ironically, part of the type of "Machine" architectural-ideal echoed by the International Style architects: stripping down the non-essential.

Both styles have similarities: large overhangs, bands of windows, "breaking the box", etc. but the Prairie style still separated living/dining areas -- as was the custom of the time -- and the Usonian brought them together as one.

And so on. I see more errors done by realtors than architects, which isn't shocking since they want to drive traffic.

Unbrook
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Usonian

Post by Unbrook »

I will advocate that the term "Usonian" should refer to post 1936 residential work by Wright. Prairie School seems to involve other architects working in an Arts and Crafts-ish style. In my own mind, Prairie School style is early Wright, Usonian is late Wright. Not specifically accurate, but a way of talking about Wright.

Paul Ringstrom
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Post by Paul Ringstrom »

I think it would be fair to call the works by apprentices after 1936 that include "Usonian" features as Mid-Century Modern.
Owner of the G. Curtis Yelland House (1910), by Wm. Drummond

Paul Ringstrom
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Post by Paul Ringstrom »

Here is another question: Does Wright's ASB work fall into the Prairie or Usonian type? What about his textile block houses?
Owner of the G. Curtis Yelland House (1910), by Wm. Drummond

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Thank you. Now we're back on track. The definition of the respective terms is a part of the equation; what really interests me now is the issue of their appropriate and accepted use.

So, you do not hold with the use of the term "Usonian" for any work other than Wright's; a house by an architect other than Mr Wright, even when it has the features you mention above, should not be called Usonian. Is that correct ?

Is Mid-centrury Modern too broad a term ? Is there something else which would denote late-Wright-influenced without borrowing the term Usonian itself ?

SDR

jmcnally
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Post by jmcnally »

MCM is too broad because it covers too many unique styles (Mies van der Rohe, Neutra, Saarinen to start with) that have no connection with FLW or have lost that connection.

Why can't we just use the terms "Wrightian" or "Wright-influenced" to describe those projects that look like his but aren't?

I agree that Usonian should only be used to describe Wright's work - it's like a trade mark, although I don't think he ever sought that protection. I know he did not first use that word, but he was first to apply it to architecture.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

So, there's one significant difference between "Prairie" and "Usonian": The former was not a term used by Mr Wright himself -- though the derivation is clear enough for readers of his autobiography -- while the latter was his chosen monicker.

What other differences can we identify, between the two terms, that leads us to use them, appropriately or not, in distinct ways ?

Do we have dissenters to the views expressed so far ?

SDR

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

Do you know who disdained the term "Midcentury Modern"? Donald Wexler, who more that anyone, other than Anshen & Allen, exemplified MCM. A recent PBS program featured his work and an interview. He said he didn't like labels applied to his work.

(By the way, in that show, the book that Wexler wrote about Henry John Klutho, a significant Floridian architect of the Prairie Style, was mentioned. Has anyone seen that book? Klutho was a fine architect, whose work reminds me of Nechodoma in Puerto Rico.)

The easiest would be to call everything from Hickox to 1917, including ASB and Japan, 'Prairie,' and from Jacobs I to 1959 'Usonian.' That would leave the periods of the 1890s and from Barnsdall through Fallingwater to be named, if they must be. You cannot really call Fallingwater either Prairie or Usonian, can you?

Where does H. Allen Brooks claim to have named the Prairie Style? Didn't FLW himself refer to Wingspread as "the last Prairie house"?

SDR
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Post by SDR »

Brooks makes that claim, as an aside, in one of the lecture videos we saw recently. I can't imagine Wright using the word "style," so maybe Brooks can claim the whole term as his ? Brooks is not infallible, as can be seen in a double of minor slips during those lectures . . .

SDR

peterm
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Post by peterm »

I would agree that Usonian is to a certain extent a Wright trademark. It is probably best to only use the term for the houses (and probably not public, institutional, or commercial buildings) designed by Wright after Jacobs 1. I would add the communal cooperative projects like Suntop as well as the Usonia houses in New York designed by Paul Schweikher, Theodore Dixon Bower, Ulrich Franzen, Kaneji Domoto, Aaron Resnick and David Henken, and possibly the Rush Creek Village houses. Designs by former apprentices and employees (think Schindler, Neutra, Lautner, etc. should not be considered Usonians. These architects never called their own work Usonian, so why should we?

Gray areas: What about Fallingwater? Or solo work by Tafel, Peters, etc. done while still employed by Wright?
And to complicate matters further, I have also heard or read that some say that Wright himself later said that La Miniatura was the first Usonian, although can any of us confirm that?

Work done at Taliesin or by apprentices after Wright's passing should only be called Usonian style or Wrightian.

Prairie is a whole other question, isn't it?
Last edited by peterm on Sun Jul 05, 2015 7:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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