Saturday, January 17, 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright's Beacon of Light: A Step Back in Time Inside the Robie House

The "Wall of Light":  Art Glass Windows on the South Side of the Robie House

I've always felt that Hyde Park was one place in which you can still feel the presence of old Chicago (see our post on the 1893 World's Fair HERE).  One of the older suburbs of the city (which it remained until Chicago officially annexed it in 1889), Hyde Park maintains many of its old vestiges.  Driving south of the city nearing its Midway Plaissance, the lake seems calmer, and it seems a little quieter amid the park grounds, old homes and university campus in the area.  Hyde Park still has that old feeling to it which is both urban Chicago and suburban at once.

It’s no wonder, then, why a budding businessman, husband and father of two young children would select the location for his home to be built.  Frederick C. Robie commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright for the job some time during 1908, and construction began on the Robie House in 1909.  Wright’s Prairie style gem was completed in 1910, now over a century ago.

The history of the house itself is pretty fascinating, having changed hands several times in the subsequent decades (once even having served as a dormitory!).  Today it is operated exclusively by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.  It stands as a tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright, an exemplar of some of his best and most iconic work.
The Frederick C. Robie House, as seen from outside
In fact, even today, the house stands out in the neighborhood.  While there are now newer and more modern-style buildings around than there were in 1910, the Robie House still shines among them as an example of modern architecture.  Just think, how unique the style was for 1910!  It would have been alone amid the other Queen Annes, Victorian style homes which were in fashion at the time.  The straight lines and cantilevers on the Robie House were quite the converse of the neo-Gothic curves on the Queen Annes. 

It’s something really incredible to be able to forge a connection with the past, and in the Robie House, it’s like taking a step back in time.  The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust guides offer a fascinating tour of the place.  They are quick to point out the nuances of the house, and made it so easy to see the genius in Wright’s designs there.  Actually, it’s hard to believe that this place is over 100 years old, given the forward thinking in the design, the modern straight lines throughout, and the incredible built-in functionality of the house.  Among my favorite features were the “hidden” radiators, designed by Wright to be encased in decorative wooden covers so as to unify form and functionality.  There are plenty more points like this in the house, such as the outdoor planters that are built into the home, replete with their own irrigation system!  Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t skimp on the details in the design of this home.
Paint swatches are visible here
Also noted by the tour guides, and obvious to the naked eye, was the disrepair of the house.  This was obvious in the broken, exposed wall sconces, the in progress paint jobs occurring on the walls, the windows being replaced.  That is not to say that the Robie House is in any state of ruin—repairs are being made and restoration is in progress, fear not.  It was just so striking to see the wear on the building throughout the tour.  Maintenance is not something museum goers ever really get to witness or have to think about, because that’s usually done behind closed doors, after hours.  But in this case of the Robie House, the museum and exhibit is the venue itself.  The tour pointed out how much upkeep is required to preserve a building in its original state, and just how much work the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has to do to keep Wright’s beacon shining.

Light peeking on the Stairway
But that's not to talk down its beauty. I snapped some unauthorized photos during the tour, and if nothing else, you can clearly see from these pictures that the lighting in this house is gorgeous.  The first photo above shows the lighting from the staircase of the original main entrance of the home leading up to the living room.  In order of the tour and the progression through the house, next is the “wall of light,” the literal wall of windows on the south side of the home that runs from the living room and the dining room.  Fortunately on the day of this tour a few weeks ago, we had great sunlight, pointing out that shining is something that the home still does well, even after a century.

Walking from the Living Room to the Dining Room, through the Light

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Reflection for the New Year

Happy New Year to all you MuseumX fans!  For our first post of 2015, we (predictably) will be doing some reflecting on the past…  Although we are going back kinda far this New Year—from 2015 all the long way back to 1968.

As 2014 has come to a close, so too will “The 1968 Exhibit” at the Chicago History Museum (tomorrow is the last day to catch it!).  Fortunately we did not drop the ball before the ball dropped - we were able to attend a special viewing of it last month!

To be honest, I was not thrilled about the subject matter of this exhibit, solely based on personal preferences.  The 1960’s are generally a period of American History I have always been uninterested in.  My parents are products of the mid-60’s, and my mother is nostalgic, so she always had on TV sitcoms from the era..  As a kid, these bugged me because they were A) not animated and B), unbelievably not-funny.  So much of what I reluctantly digested from the 60s, I disliked, because it was not relatable.  As I grew older and learned more about the Civil Rights Movement, the American political system, the Vietnam War, my disinterest was sustained.  What a sad, sad time.  To have an exhibit that highlighted so many of these central events and themes of the 1960s, was not that exciting to me.  Fortunately, my mind was changed very quickly upon entering the gallery in the Chicago History Museum.

The foremost recollection of this exhibit is the entrance, because it is so striking.  The first space within ‘1968’ is at first, a normal living room by 1960s standards: golden brown, straight lines, wooden furniture, more shades of brown, and, a television set.  Next in the order of the living room properties is an actual “Huey” helicopter, to denote the heavy presence of the Vietnam War in the thoughts (and tv sets) of Americans during the war.  It’s a powerful and provocative image.  The staging in ‘1968’ is pretty well done elsewhere in the gallery, too—my favorite “scene” is the desk of a typical young woman in her 20s during the 1960s.  While the technology has shifted a bit from the blue typewriter featured on this desk, I can firmly say that the general set up of the room (political posters, colors, birth control) remains the same (being friends with several female new-age hippies currently in their 20s).

Desk of a "Modern Woman," from 1968
Actually, this very characteristic of ‘1968: The Exhibit’ to me is what was most surprising, and most rewarding: the events presented during 1968 are presented in such a way that they are totally relatable to the happenings of 2014.  While ‘1968’ is nostalgic to many of the museumgoers that lived through the year themselves, I have no personal ties to the 60s.  Although I was not really turned on by the subject matter of the exhibit, I was able to enjoy myself moving through the year of 1968, both learning new information about these events, and relating them to events that are happening this day in age.

One of the many graphics on Race Issues in 1968
At no point was this relatability more clear than at the station in the exhibit dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Watching the featured documentary clip, listening to his words on oppression, violence and peace, was so eerie.  The violence and racism of which he speaks has not really changed at all, although 46 years have passed since that time.  Ambling through the exhibit, you will see words like “police brutality,” “violence,” “racism,” and “equality” appear at multiple points during that year.  Although the exhibit provides great context for these words and corresponding events, none is needed.  These words, these struggles and instances, are still occurring.  In light of the recent tragedies in Ferguson and New York, to name just a few, it was striking to look upon these acts of violence that happened in 1968 and know that we have made little progress since. The Civil Rights Movement remains ongoing all the way into 2015.  I was grateful “1968” was able to make me look at my own day in age differently.

Food for Thought: Up top, from 2014, below, from 1968