The Robie House: Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece of Architectural Brilliance

The Robie House, located on the campus of the University of Chicago, is not just an architectural masterpiece but also a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this single-family...

The Robie House, located on the campus of the University of Chicago, is not just an architectural masterpiece but also a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this single-family home is a testament to his genius. Built between 1909 and 1910, the Robie House is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the Prairie School architectural style, which is considered truly American.

Robie House Technical Information

  • Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright | Biography & Bibliography
  • Location: 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  • Topics: Prairie Style, Unesco, Brick in Architecture
  • Area: 9,062 square feet, 840 m2
  • Project Year: 1909
  • Photographs: © Hassan Bagheri, © Gerald Humphrey, © Timothy Brown, © Frederick Tim Long, © David Arpi

"During the decades of eclecticism’s triumph, there were also many innovators—less heralded than the fashionable practitioners, but exerting more lasting influence. Of these innovators, none could rival Frank Lloyd Wright. By any standard, his Robie House was the House of the 1900s—indeed the House of the Century."

House and Home magazine, 1957

The Architecture of the Robie House

The Robie House exemplifies Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style of architecture, which celebrates the Midwest prairie landscape. Its distinctive features include horizontal lines, art-glass windows, and Roman brick. Wright's attention to detail extended beyond the building itself to encompass the house's interiors, fixtures, and furnishings, all of which he considered integral to the overall character of the structure.

The exterior of the house showcases cantilevered roof eaves, continuous bands of art-glass windows, and a red-orange iron-spotted Roman brick veneer. The brickwork, designed to accentuate the horizontal lines, features cream-colored mortar in the horizontal joints and brick-colored mortar in the vertical joints. Additionally, the steel structure of the house allows for minimal deflection of the eaves, while the exterior trim work, such as the urns, copings, and lintels, is made of Bedford limestone.

Robie House Interior

The design of the Robie House is characterized by two large rectangles that appear to be sliding past each other. Frank Lloyd Wright referred to the rectangle on the southwest portion of the site, which contains the main living spaces, as "the major vessel." On the first floor, you'll find a billiards room, a children's playroom, and a small passage leading to an enclosed garden on the south side of the building. There's also another door that opens to a courtyard on the east end of the site. On the second floor, an entry hall, living room, and dining room take center stage. The living and dining rooms seamlessly flow into one another and open onto an exterior balcony through a series of twelve French doors with art glass panels, overlooking the enclosed garden. The living room also features a "prow" with art glass windows and doors that lead to the west porch. Wright envisioned a harmonious connection between the interior and exterior spaces, allowing inhabitants to move freely between them.

The Robie House is divided into two main sections: the "major vessel," which houses the principal living spaces, and the "minor vessel," which holds the more functional and service-related rooms. The major vessel includes the billiards room, children's playroom, entry hall, living room, and dining room. On the other hand, the minor vessel, located on the northeast portion of the site, comprises the main entrance, stairway, half-bath, laundry room, workshop, and a three-car garage.

On the second floor, the minor vessel features a guest bedroom, full bath, kitchen, butler's pantry, and servants' quarters. The third floor, known as the "belvedere," offers breathtaking views and accommodates the master bedroom, dressing area, full bath, and two additional bedrooms with a full bath. Art glass panels adorn all the windows on this level.

Stretching across approximately 9,062 square feet, the Robie House is anchored by a central chimney mass with four fireplaces. The main stairway, also constructed with brick and limestone, runs through the center of the house, lending a sense of cohesion to the design.

The house's main entrance, hidden from view on the northwest side, creates an aura of privacy and protection for residents. The intentionally low-ceilinged and dark entrance hall gives way to a staircase leading to the second floor, where the light-filled living and dining rooms provide a striking contrast. This juxtaposition enhances the sense of arrival and elevates these spaces to a special status. The central chimney mass acts as a divider between the two areas, yet an opening above the fireplace connects them, reflecting Frank Lloyd Wright's belief in the openness of American political and social life.

The Quintessential Prairie House

In keeping with the Prairie style, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the light fixtures for the Robie House. Throughout the house, you'll find wall sconces with hemispherical shades suspended beneath square bronze fixtures. On the second floor, spherical globes within wooden squares are integrated into the ceiling trim, visually linking the two spaces. Soffit lighting, backed with translucent colored glass diffusers, runs the length of the north and south sides of the living and dining rooms, as well as in the prows. These lights can be independently operated, allowing for different lighting effects within these areas. Additionally, a Wright-designed table lamp with an art glass shade stands on a Wright-designed library table in the living room.

The ceilings and floors of the Robie House are supported by steel beams that transfer most of the building's weight to piers at the east and west ends. This innovative structural design allows for extensive doors and windows, containing 174 art glass panels in 29 unique designs, to fill the exterior walls. Instead of stylized forms from nature, geometric forms dominate the art glass designs. The abundance of glass, combined with the absence of internal structural columns, creates an airy and spacious atmosphere, accentuating Wright's preference for open floor plans.

Frank Lloyd Wright's attention to detail extended to the furniture, carpets, and textiles in most Prairie houses, including the Robie House. However, due to financial constraints, not all of the furniture in the Robie House was designed by Wright himself. Only specific areas of the house were furnished with Wright's designs, such as the entrance hall, living and dining rooms, guest bedroom, and one bed in the third-floor bedrooms. Some of these pieces were attributed to Wright's interior design collaborator, George Mann Niedecken. Today, the original furniture is housed in the collection of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, with only the dining room table and chairs on permanent display. One notable piece of furniture designed by Wright for the Robie House is a sofa with extended armrests that echo the cantilevers of the exterior roof, effectively creating side tables. Since 1982, this sofa has been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is displayed as part of the furnishings in the reconstructed living room of the Francis W. Little House. Other miniature cantilevers are also incorporated into the shelves of the built-in dining room buffet and a food preparation island in the kitchen.

The Robie House received official recognition as a National Historic Landmark on November 27, 1963, and was included on the first National Register of Historic Places list on October 15, 1966. In July 2019, in acknowledgement of its architectural significance, the house and seven other properties designed by Wright were inscribed on the World Heritage List under the title "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright."

About Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a pioneering American architect, designer, writer, and educator. His career spanned 70 years and left an indelible mark on the world of architecture. Wright's philosophy of "organic architecture" emphasized designing in harmony with humanity and the environment. He played a pivotal role in 20th-century architectural movements and continues to inspire architects worldwide. Some of his most famous works include Fallingwater House, the Johnson Wax Building, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Wright's Prairie School style is considered one of his major contributions to architecture, and his work is widely studied and emulated.

References:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House: The Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece by Donald Hoffmann
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