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January 24th, 2001 Brian Libby | News Stories
 

BIGGER ISN'T BETTER

As Frank Lloyd Wright knew, it's not the size that matters, but what you do with it.

     
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Local architects and history buffs cheered when Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House in Charbonneau was recently spared from the bulldozers.

Given Wright's visionary ideas about connecting structures to the surrounding landscape, the plan to move his only Oregon building to Silverton isn't a perfect ending to the story. But by placing the dwelling in a public place--the Oregon Garden--there's a chance that it can serve as an important, and timely, lesson: Bigger isn't always better.

The rich have always measured their success in square feet and cubic inches, from their castles and beach homes to their yachts and SUVs. It was this same drive for a visible status symbol that almost led to the Gordon House's demise.

Since its completion in 1963, the Gordon House has been quietly nestled on 22 acres of farmland along the Willamette. Following the Gordons' death a few years ago, however, their son demanded a sky-high price for its subdivision-ready acreage, hoping it would be included in an expanded urban growth boundary. When that hope fizzled, and with it any development options, he sold the property to an affluent Wilsonville couple, Dave and Carey Smith, who were attracted not to Wright's craftsmanship but to the acreage below it.

The demolition request brought widespread outrage and the offer from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to remove it for free. Removal will allow the Smiths to upgrade from a 38-year-old, 2,100-square-foot home to a brand new McMansion of more gargantuan proportions.

The Smiths aren't the only ones who seem to value quantity over quality. Within the past few years, homes designed by Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon have been bulldozed for bigger dwellings. The new structures are the antithesis of what Wright built on the banks of Willamette.

Wright designed a lot of big buildings in his career (his famed Robie House in Chicago is more than four times as large as the Garden House), but this minister's son was also faithfully committed to modest-size, middle-class homes, which he christened "Usonian." The Gordon House is one of them, based on Wright's "House for a Family of $5,000--$6,000 Income" plan, originally published in a 1938 issue of Life magazine. (That wage translates to about $65,000-$75,000 today.) Lilliputian by today's status-home standards, it radiates beauty and craftsmanship in a way that most cavernous West Hills homes never approach.

As the Gordon House makes the transition from a home to a museum, it should serve as a reminder not only to architects and builders, but also to those hiring them:

Despite efforts to limit lot sizes and boost density (not to mention the current energy crunch), we continue to build banal, monstrous houses.

"Everybody says that they want craftsmanship over size," says David Giulietti, a leading residential architect, "but usually in the end it's a 4,000-to-5,000-square-foot home they wind up asking for."

Still, Giulietti hopes that attitude will change. Wright, after all, proved a home's quality can--and should--be measured in workmanship and design, not square footage.

ARCHITECT AL STAEHLI'S COMMENTARY
Wright's houses are delightful to walk into. Unlike in most McMansions (or what
I call "big-hair houses"), you don't walk into some totally inappropriate corporate-sized lobby where you feel lost. You enter this house through a small, constricted opening with a low ceiling and transition into a dramatic high-ceiling area. You always have a sense of moving through a sequence of different-scaled spaces. Wright's Usonian houses are of a scale that you can live in. I'm not the kind of architect who could design, say, a 600-square-foot bathroom, so I relate to these designs.

Wright was especially known for using wood and masonry for their color, their texture, their warmth. A lot of the Northwest-style architects like Walter Gordon and Pietro Belluschi did that, too. People here like to be able to look out the window to the trees but also have a cozy feel on the inside.

You would not find this kind of detail in most builder-made houses today--it would be too expensive and require more attention to detailing. But that's exactly what some architects are now arguing for: more modest-sized spaces but spending the money on finish and detail and materials.

"We're losing landmarks monthly throughout the state. A little bit goes here, a little bit there, and first thing you know you've lost the integrity of the land. It isn't as if this was one of Wright's major buildings, but in the context of surviving Usonian homes it's actually very important. And it's definitely the only work of its kind in Oregon."


Nationally recognized architect Al Staehli is a founding member of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon and has also worked with the National Trust.
He was actively involved in preserving the Pittock Mansion as well as the Wah Chung Building
 
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