Monday, August 28, 2006

building on history

One last remark about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas house, and then I’ll let it rest.

In addition to everything else that is going on in that house, Wright framed the cornices and baseline of the home with poured concrete finishes that strongly emulate the lines of Yucatec Maya pyramids. It’s all in the angle – and that angle is all Yucatec – you don’t see these same lines at the Mayan sites in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala, but they’re all over the place in the Yucatan.

It was exciting to see that line (and mind-bending to see it teamed up with Pagoda-like pedimental details, but that’s another story) -- particularly once we got into the belly of the beast and discovered all those layers and platforms. Sixteen layers worth; overlapping, intersecting, all flowing seamlessly one to the next.

It’s known that Wright traveled in the Yucatan, although to my shame I don’t know the dates of his time there, but I suspect it was early, because the monstrosity that is the Nathan G. Moore house in Oak Park, built originally in 1905, has some styling Puuc-like roofcombs going on (god I hate that house). Just down the street the sweet little Laura Gale house also reflects the simple stucco-ed surfaces of the Mayan pyramid (I like her much better).

I had the good luck to travel to the Yucatan with an architect who apprenticed with Wright at Taliesin. I asked him about the influence of Mayan architecture on Wright and he (the architect’s name was Bob) said only: “It was profound.” Then he went off to sketch. He spent that whole trip sketching.

What I don’t know is what was known about the Maya when Wright traveled there – but here’s what’s known now, and what, so excitingly, seemed to be conveyed in the design of the Dana-Thomas house: the Maya built their new pyramids on top of their old pyramids, and did so reverently. See Rosalila at Copan for more on that reverence.

If you wander among these ruins you’re confronted by a crazy, delightful confluence of lines and steps that merge together to create new forms – new construction on old, building ever upward. Evidence, everywhere, of the Ancestors who had gone before – figures who are very important in the mythology and the daily lives of the Maya people, even today.

The Dana-Thomas house conveys something of the same thing, and the reason I got such a charge out of this idea was because the home itself was built on the foundations of a Victorian home that Sarah Lawrence Dana’s father had built there before for his family.

Most of the evidence of the original house was gone, with an important exception: In the heart of the home, surrounded by Wright’s stunningly appointed Prairie-style furnishings and details, Wright preserved the heart of the original home – with the original hearth still in place.

This is the only room in the house that is furnished in the Victorian-style. Stylized butterflies dot the hearth stone – Wright took that motif and extended it in his art glass throughout the house – a rare example of a crawling critter in his art glass designs (the Prairie Sumac is present here too, and that’s more Wright’s usual style – alluding to green, growing things).

For me, the deal was sealed on this little story that I was telling myself when I turned, and looked, and saw the portraits on the wall, just as the docent explained that “these are Sarah’s parents.”

The Ancestors.

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