- The Experience of Prospect and Refuge: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses as Holding Environments
I. Introduction: Wright and Winnicott
William and Elizabeth Tracy were nothing if not persistent. In 1953, they wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright to request a design for their new home. They were, in a sense, “students” of Wright: at Michigan State University, Elizabeth Tracy had taken art courses from professors Alma Goetsch and Kathrine Winckler, who lived a Wright-designed house built in 1940. William Tracy had studied architecture and engineering at the University of Idaho. In summer 1952, they had traveled across the Midwest, visiting Wright buildings in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. But when they contacted the Wright office in 1953, an apprentice wrote back that Wright was too busy, the distance (to the Pacific Northwest) was too far, and their budget was too small. So they contacted a local architect, Milton Stricker, who had been a Wright apprentice. Once Stricker met the Tracys, recognized their commitment to Wright’s ideas, and saw their lot overlooking Puget Sound, he agreed to help. Thus, in August 1954, when the Tracys again contacted Wright, he responded positively.
The Tracys’ commitment did not end there. They proposed that the house might use the modular concrete block system that Wright had developed, which integrated design and construction; he called the system, and the houses built with it, “Usonian Automatics.”1 Based on Wright’s drawings (completed [End Page 179] in December 1954), they commissioned a set of metal forms with wood inserts to make the different types of concrete blocks required for the 1150-square-foot house. Beginning in spring 1955, the Tracys themselves cast blocks twice a day, five days each week, for nearly a year, producing the more than 1700 individual concrete blocks needed for the project (Ochsner, 2012).2 Once construction began in July 1955, there was no possibility of taking a break: they had to cast enough blocks each day to stay ahead of their contractor; when not casting blocks, they also participated in the construction process (Fig. 1). The house was completed in 1956. The Tracys lived in the house until their deaths—William in 2008 and Elizabeth in 2010.
The Tracys’ story seems extraordinary, but stories of similar devotion are told by many of Wright’s residential clients. Some, having lived in one Wright house, came back for a second, and even a third.3 Owners forced to leave their Wright-designed houses usually departed “with considerable reluctance” (Twombly, 1979, p. 260).4 Scholars, too, have noted the passionate responses that Wright-designed houses evoke, particularly from their owners. Even the general public has not been immune to the attractions of Wright houses; today more than twenty are open to the public—over a dozen as museums, and others for scheduled tours. Some require reservations made months in advance.5 Such enthusiasm seems all the more extraordinary given the many deficiencies of these buildings—Wright houses frequently went over budget, proved difficult to furnish, and presented numerous material and detailing problems including leaking roofs—not to mention requiring their owners to cope with Wright’s often cantankerous personality. Few architects could survive these kinds of failings, yet through much of his career Wright was besieged with commissions (Hildebrand, 1991, p. 15). Indeed, by any measure, Wright’s architectural achievements have rarely, if ever, been equaled.
The centrality of Wright’s career to the story of architecture in the twentieth century has made it the subject of an immense body of scholarship that places the work in its time, explores individual buildings in detail, and demonstrates Wright’s influence on the emergence and development of modern architecture.6 Still, the basis for the unusual appeal of Wright’s work, particularly his houses, has remained elusive. To give [End Page 180] just one example, in a 1976 study of Wright’s smaller houses, English architect John Sergeant suggested the “materials and spatial characteristics . . . gave a sense of serenity, variety, and security,” but this is more description than explanation (1976, p. 27). Other accounts have traced the emotional impact of these houses to material properties, spatial archetypes, and the like (Norberg...