The Barnsdall House, or the Hollyhock House as it is more often labeled, has been politely called everything from “distinctly theatrical in character” (McCarter 135) to “a visual experience that, more than any other serious work of architecture, speaks of the world of romance represented by Hollywood in the late teens and twenties” (Levine 128). Regarded by some as Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest California achievement, it is clear that the Hollyhock House is a structure to be admired; yet Wright was not solely creatively responsible for the work. With such a unique design, it is obvious that there were multiple influential factors – mainly the idea of integrating the regional aspects of the building’s area – that led him to choose the materials and style that he eventually settled upon for this majestic construction.
The very name of the Hollyhock House evokes nature; when the house is seen, it is obvious that Wright drew much of his inspiration from the surrounding environment. At first glance, the “largely single-storey house presents an image of solidity hardly matched even by Wright’s public commissions” (McCarter 129), so it is no wonder the house is seen as one of Wright’s greatest accomplishments. The project was commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, who wished to have a majestic property of structures evoking the artistic romance of the era and maintaining the regional integrity of the building through natural influences: “The hollyhocks growing wild there provided the decorative theme for the house and gave Barnsdall the idea of naming her house after her favorite flower” (Levine 129). Wright saw the project as a wonderful opportunity “to produce an integral architecture suited to the climatic needs of California” (Wright, “Cause of Architecture” 12), which he perceived as “a land of romance – land that, as yet, has no characteristic building material” (Wright, “Cause of Architecture” 12).
Despite his concerns that “there were those who would feel ‘that the architect had indulged himself'” (Levine 125) with the extreme grandeur of the residence, Wright had his mind set that the home would reflect not only Miss Barnsdall’s artistic taste and spirit, but the spirit of the rapidly expanding town of Hollywood itself. When it was finally completed, the house was remarked to have had “an originality that permits us to speak of a new, indigenous American architecture” (Berlage 133). Wright seemed fascinated by the “the land of make-believe” (Levine 126), and was convinced that his design must incorporate the historical grandeur that the movie sets and even the other homes in the area had: “As the palaces in which the movies were shown, along with those in which the stars lived, were becoming as exotic as the sets themselves, a context was established that Wright could hardly ignore” (Levine 126). Just blocks from where Hollyhock House was to be built, in fact, was “D.W. Griffith’s Babylonian palace for [the film] Intolerance, built in 1916 on Sunset Boulevard just a block or so to the east of Olive Hill, and left standing for a number of years afterward as a kind of memorial” (Levine 126). Magnificent sets like this were partially influential for Wright when considering the general style and magnitude of the structure, but the main factor he considered in his design was simply the regional aspects of California itself.
One of the biggest factors as to why the Hollyhock House was designed to be so architecturally unique was Wright’s desire to “think of his work as regionally responsive” (Sweeney 236), as he often tried in his work “though in abstract form, to echo the shapes and dominant rhythms of the landscapes in which his buildings were set” (Scully 12). In relation to the Hollyhock House itself, he believed that “any house should be beautiful in California in the way that California herself is beautiful” (Wright, “Autobiography” 226). The terrain proved to be challenging beneath its’ beauty, however: “Never before had Wright faced a landscape of such elemental power and dramatic presence” (Levine 133). Many of the aspects of the home were specifically planned so that the beauty of the California coastline could be taken in at the most ideal moments: for example, the private entrance on the north features “a covered passage [that] has openings at eye-level [. . .] providing intermittent glimpses of the Pacific Ocean that establish from the outset the thematic link between mountain and sea” (Levine 127). All of the rooms “open generously into the central patio, making the house seem ‘half house and half garden’ – which is, Wright told Barnsdall, what ‘a California house should be'”(Levine 137).
The entire residence seems to lend itself naturally to the magnificence of the Hollywood Hills: “Outside, the monolithic appearance of the smooth, lightly tinted walls, roofs, and parapets [. . .] makes the house seem to be part of the hill, at once reinforcing the temple-like character of the precinct” (Levine 128). This idea is heavily ingrained within the Arts and Crafts Movement, and was utilized in many previous architectural works before Wright designed the Hollyhock House. Indeed, this idea was present in the house as a “relationship between building and landscape […] expressed in a symbolic language that predicts the major themes of Wright’s later work” (Levine 133). Wright thought very highly of his own incorporation of nature into his architectural style, even before the Hollyhock House:
“The idea of organic architecture was the flesh and blood of his being. He saw the universe through architecture. He saw it in the structure of all nature, and often referred to his work as harmonious or intrinsic, an architecture of inner harmony with the exterior world. He truly believed that a beautiful building can help man dissolve the conflicts in his life, that a harmonious building has a quieting effect upon us and serves as inspiration” (O. Wright 26).
In order to integrate the house into the surroundings as he wanted, Wright actually had to differ from his original ‘Prairie House’ idea of “relating house to ground through the extended horizontal line of the eaves” (Levine 138), instead utilizing the massive portion of the building “above the line of hollyhocks [to relate] to the sky allow[ing] for the effects of aerial perspective in a land where, as Wright noted, ‘foreground spreads to distance so vast’ that ‘human scale is utterly lost as all features recede, turn blue, recede, and become bluer still to merge their blue mountain shapes, snowcapped, with the azure of the skies'” (Levine 138). Taken as a whole, Hollyhock House is possibly one of the most well thought out houses in relation to the surrounding landscape, incorporating the many geographical aspects of California – ocean, mountains, sky – without hesitation or conflict.
Wright’s choice of materials also took into account the nature of California, but in a different way: as a method of ensuring safety in relation to the frequent earthquakes. Wright had just completed the Imperial Hotel, located in Japan, which was looked upon as an engineering masterpiece when it survived the most catastrophic earthquake in Japanese history. Wright knew that “Hollyhock House [. . .] was designed to be built on the same ‘red line of seismic convulsion’ as the Imperial Hotel, only on the other ‘rim of the Pacific Basin'” (Levine 124). For this reason, Wright knew that “a standardized system of concrete block construction” (Costantino 78) was something he must emulate with the Hollyhock House. Despite the fact that “‘poured stone’, as it was called, was more often considered a poor substitute for traditional masonry” (Costantino 78) and was looked down upon by many traditional architects, Wright had high hopes for the material. Although Wright eventually settled on a structure “not composed of concrete, but of hollow clay tiles covered with stucco” (Costantino 80), it is clear the idea Wright was aiming for was one of “block-like simplicity [. . .] relieved only by the use of abstract patterns in the form of the stylized hollyhock motif” (Costantino 80). The fluidity of stucco and the ease in which it can be molded into shapely designs made it the perfect choice for this majestic home, while still retaining the strength and resistance properties necessary for withstanding California earthquakes. As the main entrance is approached, there are located “a pair of precast concrete entrance doors, each weighing 300 pounds – yet they open easily, and in this unexpected and astonishing way we enter the house” (McCarter 129). This idea is reflective of the nature of the place in which the house is built – a land of lights and mirrors, falsity and unexpectedness.
The Hollyhock House is, on the whole, very unpredictable when it comes to layout and feature placement. Although Hollyhock House, according to Wright, “was to be a natural house, naturally built; native to the region of California as the house in the Middle West had been native to the Middle West” (“Autobiography” 226), some of the positioning of architectural elements seems a little unnatural. The fireplace, for example, has a strange location in comparison to most of Wright’s other designs: “In the typical Prairie House [. . .] one enters the living room around the fireplace and senses it in the background as a three-dimensional, sculptural presence. In Hollyhock House, it is both a focal point and a pictorial element designed to be read narratively and to provide a visual link between the secluded oasis of the patio and the view beyond the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific Ocean” (Levine 142).
The fireplace is also surrounded by a pool of water and set under a skylight. This is not only unique, but recalls the regionalism of the connection between fire and water in California; although close to the ocean, there are often immense wildfires because of the area’s lack of rain and relative dryness. The fireplace, then, represents the unification of “the four natural elements of earth, air, fire and water [. . .] combined in a mythical union ultimately defining the meaning of the house as a form of control over the landscape” (Levine 141). This unexpectedness is actually quite architecturally pleasing and intelligent: “The real mastery of environmental design exhibited by Wright in these houses lies in achieving conspicuously improved performance by taking thought about the rearrangement of known and familiar architectural elements” (Banham 158).
Another major tenant of the Arts and Crafts Movement is the idea that decoration should come secondary, if at all, and should be an afterthought of form and style. The idea was highlighted in Adolf Loos’ famous essay Ornament and Crime, which Wright certainly would have known of but was brought into even closer contact with when he hired Rudolph Schindler, who “had contact with the work of architects Josef Hoffman, Josef Olbrich, and Adolf Loos” (Costantino 78) to work in his Los Angeles office. Wright agreed with Loos’ idea, and it can be seen in the design of the Hollyhock House, as he believed in “simplify[ing] architectural masses, while treating ornament as something secondary” (Berlage 132). The nature of the house, as a “blend of public and private in the programme for [Barnsdall’s] theatre-house, or house-theatre, seems to have led Wright to design the house as an integration of symmetrical front rooms and asymmetrical secondary rooms around the court behind” (McCarter 128). Only after considering what the house would be utilized for, and how efficient each section should be in the grand layout, did Wright begin planning the central courtyard and other stylistic details. The hollyhock flower designs were integrated later at the request of Barnsdall, and “his intimacy with nature enabled him to translate it into architectural terms” (O. Wright 26) as an addition to the plan of the home. Wright also “preferred his decorative motifs highly abstract, geometrical patterns which do not look like the natural forms they represent, but are the essence of these forms” (Costantino 11), which would explain why often times the hollyhock flower cannot be recognized in the highly conceptual vertical ‘floral’ designs incorporated into the design of the house.
It is hypothesized that Wright was also inspired by “specific Mesoamerican buildings of which Wright would have had knowledge from full-size casts displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition” (Sweeney 293). Wright himself compared the structure to “a good size pueblo on one of New Mexico’s mesas or low clean bluffs seen in some parts of the foothills of the Sierras” (Levine 126). This return to a previous era’s forms and shapes may have been a direct response to the technological changes occurring before and at the time the house was built, when architects were struggling with ways to deal with new materials that allowed them new freedom in design. The Hollyhock House, composed of “hollow terra-cotta tile and wood framing, covered with stucco […] used to convey the impression of solid masonry forms” (Levine 132), was certainly more innovative and creative than it’s time. When confronted with a project of such magnitude, it is possible that Wright was “attempting to make a direct relation in his work towards the great monuments of the Maya in the Yucatan – powerful examples of indigenous place-making” (McCarter 129). These structures had managed to create a regional architecture worthy of praise and admiration, and in “his search for an appropriate American form of monumentality” (McCarter 129), Wright was most likely inspired by this. It is known that he, at the very least, admired so-called ‘primitive’ architecture, calling these immense structures “earth-architectures: gigantic masses of masonry raised up on great stone-paved terrain, all planned as one mountain, one vast plateau lying there or made into the great mountain ranges themselves” (Levine 141). The description of these ‘earth-architectures’ truly is reminiscent of the Hollyhock House itself, which could also be considered a gigantic mass of masonry as magnificent as the mountains around it. It was even noted by observers at the time the Hollyhock House was completed that
“its imagery derives from the two historical models Wright felt were most appropriate to the region. The stepped and layered horizontal masses recall the ‘mesa silhouette,’ as Wright’s son Lloyd put it, ‘characterized and developed by Pueble Indians’ in their terraced adobe constructions. More significant and more obvious, perhaps, are the shapes of Precolumbian Mexican architecture. The profile of the high canted attic, and the squat proportions resulting from the mid-height placement of the continuos decorative frieze, immeadiately bring to mind the temples of Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza” (Levine 139).
Wright, however, considered his techniques exceptionally unique and lacking of any influences from previous architectural styles: “Frank Lloyd Wright studied under Sullivan and, like his mentor, his designs retain nothing that remind us of historical styles” (Berlage 132). Although this is arguable, as every architectural style seems to have roots in another, the Hollyhock House certainly retains an exceptional individuality that is yet unparalleled by any of the other structures in the area.
Although “Barnsdall’s peripatetic lifestyle [. . .] and her annoyance and disappointment at a house too large and at a cost too great eventually resulted in her abandoning the main residence” (Costantino 80), eventually leaving the entire property to be vacated and donated soon after it’s completion, the Hollyhock House remains one of the most beautiful and unique structures in California. It is regarded as one of Wright’s greatest achievements simply because he found the perfect balance of architectural ideas, integrating principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, regionalism, and monumentality while still maintaining the equilibrium required for the building’s function.
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