Self-taught architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the legacy he left behind in Redding
Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility.
I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Northern California is home to two internationally acclaimed architects. The first is Michael Graves. Locally you can see Graves’ handiwork at Target. His designs include paper shredders, toilet bowl brush sets (please!) and an upscale version of Monopoly complete with newly designed houses and hotels. The small hotel pieces sport twin triangular tops reminiscent of his renovated 25-story Ministry of Health building in the Netherlands. Very cool!
The second is none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, and if you’re into equilateral triangle design, then head up to Redding and visit the Pilgrim Congregational Church. As one member told me, “This is probably the only unfinished Frank Lloyd Wright church on the planet.” True, and what is finished is outstanding, while what could have been is simply stunning.
Wright had no formal training except for a brief understudy period with the esteemed Louis Sullivan. He started out in 1892 and, like most architects, began by drawing up residential houses on the side. But his fame grew quickly, and he was well-known by age 30. Wright’s genius was due in part to his design versatility over time; much like Picasso’s evolving painting styles. Arguably, “Falling Water” in Pennsylvania is the most famous house in the contemporary world, while the Guggenheim Museum that graces Central Park in New York City is probably his most renowned commercial building.
Wright’s 1936 Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wis. is famous and still cutting-edge. Repeat clients are good for architects, and Wright was commissioned to create a luxury residence for Hibbard Johnson, the wax industrialist who owned the Racine building. One rainy evening Johnson was entertaining several distinguished guests when water started dripping directly onto his head. The angry Hibbard immediately called Wright to complain about the leaks. Wright’s reply was overheard by the entire party: “Well, Hib, why don’t you move your chair?”
Roof leaks are considered a hallmark of the master.
I am an architect, and I am real proud that none of my roofs have leaked in 25 years of practice. But I’m not famous? Hmmm? Anyway, Wright’s work has always inspired me, so I jumped at the chance for a private tour of his little-known church. In fact, no one knows where the original pencil drawings went, and only the contractor’s blueprints remain.
1958 was a good year for circles and triangles. Hula hoops had become the craze, and FLW told Redding’s Pilgrim congregation, “If I like the feel of a job, I take it.” In 1959 the drawings were completed and the project went out to bid. A lone contractor responded with a $360,000 proposal, which was triple the congregation’s budget. So they rejected the bid, regrouped, and decided to build it themselves.
Imagine a series of jumbo concrete croquet hoops plunging down though a metal roof at oblique (or slanting) angles. What would you expect? Leaks. Most of the pesky problems at the Pilgrim Congregational Church have been resolved, except for a spot near the oversized fireplace that awaits this year’s rain test. Oh yeah, and that mop bucket in the altar sanctuary? Some church members had hosed down one of the exterior windows and a pool of water mysteriously appeared on the floor.
Why have a fireplace in a modern church that has an in-slab heated concrete floor? Because Wright liked fireplaces and that is where construction stopped when the building funds ran out. The fireplace is at the altar end of the Fellowship Hall, which is the acting sanctuary. This wing was to extend into the middle of today’s parking lot where it would intersect the real sanctuary and the chapel wings, all in triangular fashion. This central core would have been topped off by a massive, angular, multi-story, boulder belfry tower with an articulated steeple. The scale model in the church tells the whole story.
Back to those concrete hoops. They were originally designed to be poles made of coastal redwood, but they opted for site-cast concrete instead—more durable and stronger. Those hoops serve to support the asymmetrical roof rafters below, from the outside, with slender steel rods. Daring in 1961. Daring today.
The beauty of the hanging roof/structure assembly is that it frees up the exterior walls for visual tasks. For example, the garden terrace wall runs the length of the seating area and is composed of a repetitive series of wood columns and large glass panels. Nothing special until you notice that the top of the wall does not have a large clunky structural beam, rather the junction is handled with a wood cove board and a Plexiglas soffit. This detailing allows for sunlight to filter in above the top of the glass wall making the whole stretch float in the room.
The primary design material is stone (boulders and rocks). Wright was adamant that a building’s materials should originate from the site itself. He thought that natural local materials blend the structure into the site at hand. Today we would techno-label this activity as a sustainable design strategy. I much prefer Wright’s romantic reasoning as the starting concept for great buildings.
Anyway, the boulders have their own story as well. Since 1937, Wright used a method to build stone walls by arranging boulders and wiring rocks to the inside of plywood forms. In various places holes were cut in the wood so portions of the rocks would protrude. Crumpled newspapers were stuffed in between the rocks to create void space. Then liquid mortar was poured in from the top. The results were all over the place, literally. Building with rock is very hard work. The congregation gathered and manhandled over 91 tons of the material into place. The results of their efforts are remarkable. The rough, rusticated texture of the finished wall surface is one of a kind.
As a testimony to their perseverance, the first wing was dedicated in 1963 at a cost of $217,000.
When architects begin a new design they pull out a blank piece of paper and then stare at it for a long, long time. (Trust me on that one!) When Wright’s pencil finally hit the blank paper it wrote “pole and boulder Gothic.” Now the hoops and rock walls make sense. He stated that the design was to represent the form of a tent, the ancient dwelling of Israel, as a symbol of temporary, migratory and transient lives.
Wright himself migrated for the last time in 1959 when he died at the age of 92. He never visited the site. Wright designed nearly a thousand buildings during his 70-year career. About 380 of those buildings were built and some 280 still stand.
The congregation has plans (pun intended) to complete the church. They estimate the cost at $5 million. Hmmm?
To achieve their goal they are setting up a nonprofit organization for building fund donations. In the meantime they continue to gather rocks and boulders.