La Miniatura: the story of a house

The 1920s represented a change in direction for Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential architecture. It started in Los Angeles, with the Millard House (1923), also called La Miniatura, the first to experiment new ways of using concrete for construction.  A method that was meant to eliminate finish and decoration and reveal the material of which the house was made. Known as the textile block, it consists of thin patterned concrete blocks cast in moulds and assembled in a weaving manner. The experiment was repeated three more times only, with the Storer, Ennis and Freeman houses, all designed the same year and in the Los Angeles area. This innovative technique got transformed gradually to reach the efficiency aimed for, by combining utilities with structure and simplifying the construction labour. The so-called Usonian house occupied Wright’s time in the 1930s onwards. While the first phase of Wright’s block architecture is more romantic and artistic in character, probably inspired by the Art Deco style of the time, the later phase shows a more down-to-earth image, reflecting the economic realities of the Great Depression.

This article will analyse the house under various aspects. Its name, La Miniatura, with its double signification (it is also a manuscript illumination in Spanish), tells us two things about the house: its contained space and the type of person living in it. Then, in accordance with Wright’s architectural believes that the house is an interpretation of nature, the material and texture resemble the primitive earth dwelling of southern America:the cheap, efficient and inexhaustible earth, industrialised under the unattractive image of reinforced concrete, is given a new face. The last aspect is the context: the 1920s, with the emergence of international style in Europe, influenced by Le Corbusier’s ideology of a house being a machine to live in, and the apparition of Art Deco style which celebrates the new industrial technology.

The beginning

The client is Alice Millard, a widowed woman living alone and running a rare book and antique business. It’s her second residence designed by Wright: the first was in 1906, a wood and stucco prairie style. The house was meant to be small, inexpensive and personal, combining both work and living. The client was daring enough to let Wright test his new concept.

The house is located in Pasadena, a suburban area of California, under a hot and dry climate.Wright suggested a site less expensive but more interesting than the one previously chosen by the client. The new site was crossed by a ravine at the back, in which the house is partly built Thus, from the street, we enter the house on the second level at the back of the lot. The main living area is overlooking the ravine and the pond below. The house is oriented so the eastern sunlight enters the bedrooms and the studio in the morning and the living-dining side receives the afternoon rays. Therefore the setting sun can be fully enjoyed at dinner time. The dining room opens up onto a terrace at the lower level to accommodate big ceremonies. The public/ private polarities of the house are separated by the stair and fireplace core, well known in Wright’s earlier designs. The owner’s bedroom is located a floor above with a balcony overlooking the living room. It is accessed from an exterior bridge leading to the garage roof top.

miniatura plan

The design follows the modular system imposed by the 16 inches square concrete blocks. The rectangular grid was the initial modular system used by Wright, later supplanted by various equilateral polygons and circular segments. The method of construction consisted of laying the concrete blocks next to and on top of one other, fortified with steel rods in their joints so no mortar line was visible. The mullions are divided according to a 16 inches grid, to follow the unit system of the block. The cross shape perforation is of the same dimension as the window mullions below, creating a play between negative and positive matter. The floor is made of wood beams and joists with a hardwood finish.

Development of a cubic shape

The Californian block houses, like the majority of their Prairie predecessors, are multilevel structures. La Miniatura can be compared with other Wright’s residential works, like the 1905 Hardy house and its cousin, the Storer house. The material plays an important role in the final aspect of the house. This is why it should be already considered in the preliminary phase of the design. Wood constructions are appropriate for sloping, overhanging roofs, like the ones of northern dwellings protecting people from rain and snow. Concrete is massive, opaque and compact, and suits well a dry and hot climate.

The contained plan is still broad enough in possibilities to have generated different designs. For instance, the next illustrations compare four plans from four different periods.  To the traditional American house of the 19th century which respects the classical rigidity of the four quadrant division, with a centralised entrance, Wright added some freedom in the plan by shifting the entrance and porch on the side of the house. The core combines stair, corridor, and fireplace, and crosses the house on its length, allowing an uninterrupted window facade for the living room. Le Corbusier was altering the plan vertically: the main rooms are lifted above ground, which leaves the house footprint free for a court and entrance/ access.  With the post-modernism of Mario Botta, it is the whole volume of the cube that is modelled: the house is no longer made by stacking floors.

typical american house plan
In the typical American house (1845), the entrance and porch are at the centre of the facade, while the stair/ hall/ circulation core is cutting the house perpendicular to the front facade. The fireplaces separate the rooms on each side.

 

wright square plan 1907
In Wright’s square plan, like the Hunt house (1907), the entry/ hall and courtyard are placed on the side of the house, while the stair/ circulation/ fireplace core cuts parallel to the front facade.
mario botta bianchi house
In Mario Botta’s Bianchi house (1972), the entrance is on the top floor with the main living space below. The staircase is placed centrally and interior courtyards occupy the two opposite corners.
maison cook 1926
With Maison Cook (1926), Le Corbusier uses concrete, a cubic form and a flat roof similar to La Miniatura. While most of Le Corbusier’s houses appear to be carefully placed on the ground, La Miniatura emerges from the site. The location of the main living space on the upper level is a consideration shared by both architects.

La Miniatura and Le Corbusier

An interesting comparison can be made between La Miniature and the work of Le Corbusier that was performed at the same time in Europe. Wright’s house was somehow influenced by the modernist ideas of the time. The five points of Le Corbusier were proposed as guidelines to design a functional house:

  1. The building is to be raised above the ground to allow additional space below and provide an uninterrupted view to the living floor above. It eliminates the dark and damp inconvenient basement.
  2. The use of a flat roof to create a garden, an outdoor area that has privacy, panoramic views, refreshing breeze and plenty of sun.
  3. Leave the floors open to accommodate the free plan. Every floor can be subdivided with non-structural walls independent of those on the other floors.
  4. An unobstructed free façade can be covered with glass for maximum light and ventilation.
  5. Use of long horizontal windows for abundant illumination.

La Miniatura is in accordance with the first two points only. The main living space is raised above the ground to offer an uninterrupted view over the ravine. The flat roof makes its apparition, which certainly suits well the hot climate of California and contrasts with the sweeping roof of the prairie houses. The similitude stop there, as the plan is fixed between massive walls and the openings cut the walls vertically.

The concrete controversy

Architects usually consider concrete as cold and dull and are reluctant to use it for housing. While Le Corbusier and his modernist companions used it in its pure form without any reserve, boldly exposing its austere image, Wright looked for another alternative that would restore dignity and aesthetic to the house.

Concrete is a material that possesses many advantages. It is cheap, fireproof, and has plastic qualities: it can be shaped, pre-cast, reinforced with steel, or pre-stressed (reinforced under compression). The use of earth material is the most ancient way of building shelters. Its resources are inexhaustible and its use doesn’t affect the topography of the land. Moreover, it requires little energy since it is not heated and necessitates little industrial transformation. The proportion of clay in the mixture must be kept as low as 20% to avoid shrinkage and instability when drying. In the case of brick and terra-cotta, only fire can stabilise the too great proportion of clay it contains, that would otherwise liquefy by absorbing the missing water. Whether it is cast on site into wooden mould or pre-cast in forms of block or panels, the conventional way of using concrete didn’t please to Wright. First, its consistency offers no modular orders since it is not standardised like bricks or wood. Then, the overall pattern lacks rhythm, and no unit can be used to construct the grid that eliminates dimensions and serves to shape the design. In Wright’s own words:

What about the concrete block? It was the cheapest and ugliest thing in the building world. It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat? Steel rods cast inside the joints of the blocks themselves and the whole brought into some broad, practical scheme of general treatment, why would it not be fit for a new phase of our modern architecture? It might be permanent, noble, beautiful.

The solution

The apparition of the Art Nouveau style and the influence of modern procedures of construction on artistic forms have been one of the themes debated during the 6th International congress of architects held in 1904 in Madrid. The following resolutions were adopted as a mean to develop an architecture that visually celebrates the construction process:

  • Decoration must celebrate a building’s materials and structure.
  • To be beautiful, these forms must be in harmony with the qualities of the material.
  • Of all the modern means of construction, reinforced concrete is one of those that unites the most constructive conditions that respond the most to the greatest number of uses. But we have yet found the artistic form corresponding to the use of this method of construction.
  • A good and beautiful architecture can be obtained only to the extent that, given a particular material, the artistic form is a consequence of the properties of this material, adopted for the end for which this material has been used.
  • To obtain a new style, there must be a new generating principle of construction and a new application of this principle.
  • Reasoning and feeling in architecture are perfectly compatible. Every artistic form must be logical.

To give a handcrafted quality to a modern means of construction, Wright came with this idea:

Refine the concrete block and knit it together with steel in the joints and construct the joints so they could be poured full of concrete after they were set up. The walls would thus become thin but solid reinforced slabs and yield to any desire imaginable. We would make the walls double, of course, one wall facing inside and the other wall facing outside, thus getting continual hollow spaces between, so the house would be cool in summer, warm in winter and dry always.

The principle of the textile block

The blocks consist of concrete rammed into wood or metal moulds, having an outside face that can be patterned and an inside face usually coffered for lightness. But the textile block method was not flawless. This enveloping membrane acts as a piece of cloth under which are hidden the structural members required to stabilised the thin mosaic-like walls, such as concrete beams and column sections. The Freeman house offers an innovation to the basic principle. The textile blocks run into open glass corners that seem to emerge directly from the joints between the blocks. The extension of the semi-solid membrane into largely glazed surfaces is a continuous flowing of two contrasting materials without any formal transition. This shows a total separation of the inner cantilevered concrete armature from the outer membrane, which can create dramatic articulation of structural and superficial form.

concrete block construction
The Millard House under construction and a drawing of the Freeman House (1923) in L.A.

Later, in 1929, on the Lloyd-Jones house, larger blocks are laid up as piers to save labour time. An alternating pattern of solid and void was achieved. The space inside the concrete block columns could be used for ventilation and other services. The lack of built-in ducts in the textile block may have contributed to its abandonment since Wright was more preoccupied with the tectonic integration of services than any other architect of his generation. Listed as additional technical information, here are the basic steps to make your own textile block house, taken from Frank Lloyd Wright’s own book “The natural house”:

  1. Vertical reinforcing bars are set on unit intervals in slab or in footing which is to receive the block wall construction.
  2. The blocks are set between these rods so that one vertical rod falls into the cylindrical groove of each two blocks.
  3. Grout, formed of one part cement and two parts sand, is then poured into the vertical groove at joints, running into the horizontal groove at joints locking all into a solid mass. Thus, there is no visible mortar line as with brick or stone.
  4. Horizontal rods are laid in horizontal grooves as the courses are laid up.
  5. If double walls are planned,galvanised u-shaped wall tie rods are set at each joint to anchor outer and inner block walls to each other.
  6. Special monolithic corner blocks are used.
  7. Blocks can be made with patterned holes into which glass is set. About 9 various types of block are needed to complete the house.

The economy and comfort that concrete can procure are developed later with the Usonian (or organic) house. The thermal mass of masonry and heavy floors and roof prevent the structure and the occupants from suffering extremes of temperature. By warming massive materials such as concrete floor and block walls, gravity heat prevents the occupants of the space from losing body heat by radiation. The body stays warm at a lower temperature and it is even possible to open the windows in winter to refresh the house without losing the heat stored by the heavy elements of the structure.

ennis house construction
Ennis House (1923) construction details
usonian house construction
The Usonian house construction principle, similar to the original textile-block, except for the unit dimensions of 1’ x 2’.

When machine meets art

With its reference to traditional architecture, the Millard House makes a ceremonial version of modernism. Architecture is a form of art and therefore should express something in relation to its original function of a shelter, and not just be a machine to live in. Frank Lloyd Wright had a poetic vision of the industrial process, where his European counterparts praised its practical virtues.

The machine, by its wonderful cutting, shaping, smoothing and repetitive capacity, has made it possible to use it without waste that the poor, as well as rich, may enjoy today beautiful surface treatments of clean, strong forms that the branch veneers of Chippendale only hinted at with extravagance, and which the middle ages utterly ignored.

The Art Deco style also associates industry and art by exploring all the creative possibilities that can be done by simple repetition and combination of geometrical forms.

miniatura2
(a) Millard house, (b) Storer house, (c) Ennis house, (d) Freeman house. The main block design used in the four Californian textile houses, all expressing the Art Deco graphic of interconnecting geometric forms, playing with embosses and perforations, from the simple cross shape of the first houses to the elaborate designs of the last ones.
combination pattern
Various possibilities of combinations of a basic pattern.
north african architecture3
Examples of North African traditional earth architecture that could have inspired the Millard house. The first building has its cob made (hard dried concrete) load bearing walls pierced with crosses and circles to allow light and air inside. The second image shows an interior space with heavy earth walls and wood beam ceiling with daylight filtering through.

A new beginning

With the textile block, Wright was able to make the house appears as if it was a crystalline structure growing out of the earth, with the texture of a three, surrounded by a jungle-like vegetation. The image of a Mayan temple together with the pueblo dwellings comes to mind when looking at it. A space that is enclosed inside solid walls offer some advantages over a “glass house”. It allows the architect to play with the light entering the house, by varying the size and shape of the openings, which gives a new perception of light and space, different than the one known in nature. The house also procures a sentiment of security, as defined by poet Gaston Bachelard (in The Poetics of Space, 1958):

House procures a feeling of cosy shelter, conveyed through certain spatial configurations such as miniatures, nests, corners, and the movement from cellar to attic, as well as the dialectical counterpart of cosiness, which is the sentiment of expensive freedom.

The protective feeling of a restrained environment enclosed within opaque walls is suitable for an individual living alone like Miss Millard. An access to a roof top procures a freedom bordered with physical and visual privacy. For a familial environment, better look for a spread living space with extended boundaries opening directly outside. An elevated house fits well a sloping land. Besides giving a perspective of the surrounding landscape otherwise unknown to the occupant, it procures him a sentiment of stability and control.  The same house standing alone on a flat land would look and feel awkward.

The Millard house is a good example of an architectonic achievement when engineering meets art, where the method of construction has decorative quality integrated and the form responds both to the environment and the client’s personality.

 

 

 

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