A Visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright House & Museum and Our American Inspired Architecture

frank lloyd wright, daniel burnham, william parson, juan arellano, oak park chicago

Chicago Ave scenes. Top photo is the studio, now museum, of Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s an interesting old tree standing between the house and the studio. Its fruits smell like cat poop.

My first lessons in 20th century Philippine architecture was discovering the works of the great pensionado architects: Carlos Barreto, Tomas Mapúa and Juan Marcos Arellano. Their education in the beaux arts architecture schools in the US and the demands of their time is palpable in the projects they undertook. These architect works complimented the American blueprint for the city. Of all the pensionado architect, Arellano is the most prolific having designed the great neoclassic structures; the Post Office building and Legislative building. I’m frequently reminded of his brilliance because the Capitol building of Bulacan in Malolos—one of his towering creations—is literally a stone’s throw away from a brother’s house.

There were also the works of American Daniel Burnham and his Protégé William Parsons who planned many of our existing American colonial building, like the Manila Hotel, the Laguna Capitol building, Philippine Normal school, the PGH and the recently gutted Army Navy club—and let’s not forget the Gabaldon schools—he had a hand on planning those too. This great American architect is all but forgotten now but his works stands as a reminder of the American’s imperial achievements in our country.

I stay in a suburb less than an hour away from Chicago, a city whose urban design owe much from the visionary Burnham design—the same man who would draw the city plan for Manila and Baguio. It is said that Burnham intended to built the new city outside Intramuros because he admired the ancient city—he wanted to retain the old to compliment the new. As the writer Lynn Baker puts it Burnham “had a kind of genius for identifying centers of power, cultural as well as political, and pulling them together into a forceful consensus.” Just imagine if he had built on top or even annexed Intramuros—if Burnham were Filipino this is exactly what he would have done!

I was already in college when I started reading about modern architectural styles in 20th century Philippines; prior to this I only studied Spanish era structures. I learned about the decorative style of Art Deco and I became an Art Deco spotter! Buildings in this style add an appealing historical stratum to our cities. Some of the best examples of Art Deco are in Manila: the decaying Metropolitan Theater and old Manila hotel. As for the former, they still have not figured out what to do with it. Well, at least it’s standing, the Jai Alai buildin was not as fortunate—that vision less Mayor Atienza tore it down. After leveling it to the ground what did they built? Nothing. The city has had the bad luck of having mayors who does not appreciate its tangible heritage.

The blogger standing right beside Wright’s deck stairs

I have fond memories of Manila Jai Alai building for it was where Basque pelota was played. While my father enjoyed laying his bets, we cut plastic oil containers and used bald tennis balls to play “Jai Alai” at home—attempting to impersonate those flamboyant Spanish and Filipino Jai Alai players.

Heritage advocates are waiting what will happen to the Metropolitan Theater, the last great Art Deco standing in Manila. Are there plans to revive it or are the powers-that-be just waiting for it to cave in so they can do their deals and sell the land beneath it?

Now, going back to Frank Lloyd Wright. A relative of mine brought me to the house and school of the iconic American architect last week in Oak Park. It took us less than half an hour to reach this Chicago suburb. The century old house and the studio were in exceptional state. If there’s one thing that I admire most about these Americans is how they value their heritage—and theirs are not even as old as ours but they put  great effort in conservation and education. Not far from the Wright museum are the birthplace and boyhood home of another iconic American artist, Ernest Hemingway—more on this on a later post.

Now there’s an interesting link between Daniel Burnham  and Frank Lloyd Wright. According to historians Burnham saw the young architect’s potential and offered to sent him to Ecole de Beaux Arts in France to further his study. In return, he would be employed by the veteran architect with considerable pay and commission. Around this time Burnham was already well-known in the industry with several commissions from the city of Chicago under his company. The young architect believing that American architecture is headed away from the classic styles turned down the offer.

Don’t let the sunny look deceive you—it’s below freezing!

Oak Park in Chicago is a historic district dotted with delightful century old homes. These structures represent the quintessential modern American style of building houses. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation manages the historic Frank Lloyd Wright house & museum. They’re an NGO that conducts tours, educational activities and preservation projects. There are many extant examples of works from Wright and his students in the area and if you’re engrossed in authentic American architecture and Wright drop by Oak Park when you’re in the west side of Chicago.

December 2014

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