The Gordon House

We were near Silverton, Oregon for a wedding last week and took the opportunity to visit the Gordon House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, at the Oregon Garden.

I was particularly curious to experience Wright’s low ceilings and dropped soffits. I’ve been reading Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House series, and she’s a big proponent of this kind of ceiling height variety.

There seemed to be two ceiling heights in the Gordon House: about 6’8″ in the entryway, halls and bedrooms, and about 11’8″ in the great room.

The theory is that ceiling height changes help to define distinct spaces and levels of intimacy within an open floor plan. This seems true to me. “They” also say lower ceilings in pass-through spaces create a feeling of compression that enhances the feeling of grandeur of arriving in the taller rooms. That one I’m less sure about.

This is on my mind because I wanted to vault the ceiling in the main room of our house, to create some grandeur. I eventually concluded that it was impractical, and started looking for other ways to solve the problem of an oppressive drywall ceiling. Going lower instead of higher seemed like a surprisingly risky move.

6’8″ is low. The Schindler House, built 40 years before the Gordon House, is also shockingly “horizontal.” Here’s a photo of my 6′ 6″ father encountering a beam there.

schindler house beamsIt’s interesting that strikingly low ceilings were used in modern architecture for several decades, and now nobody does them. Why did they go so low? And why has the standard 8′ ceiling has become a minimum now, with custom houses going higher instead of lower?

The tour guide pointed out two major patterns that organize the house.

The first is a 7′ square module: the scores in the slab, 7′ apart, align with the cinderblock pillars that support the ceiling beams. Thus, the ‘ribs’ of the building are 7′ on center. The module is old idea in architecture; Vitruvius describes using the width of a column as a module to determine other dimensions in a building, including the height of the column.

I’m not sure where the 7′ module went when it came to ceiling height – why weren’t the ceilings 7′ and 14′ instead of 6′ something and 11′ something? Apparently Wright wasn’t a slave to the module. (He does seem to have been a slave to alignment though. Notice how the built-in shelving and trim are aligned with the horizontal lines in the brickwork.)

The second pattern is a 15 degree angle. Custom furniture was part of Wright’s design package – whether you wanted it or not – but apparently Mr. Gordon thought Wright’s usual furniture looked very uncomfortable. Wright asked what was the most comfortable thing he could think of. Mr. Gordon cited his new ’57 Chevy pickup. Wright sent one of his apprentices to sit in the pickup and suss out what made it comfortable, and the apprentice determined that it was the 15 degree slant of the seat back. This angle is used not only for the built-in bench (which was indeed quite comfortable), but also on everything else, from the furniture and trim to the window fretwork.

On the one hand, these abstract systems of organizing the built environment seem uptight and disconnected, a way of grasping for control and order that has little to do with the needs of the person living in the building. On the other hand, the Gordon house feels calm and expansive, despite a lot of detail.

Given the choice between symmetry and asymmetry, Wright seems to choose the latter. The bedrooms, where the beds are centered and flanked by furniture on each side, are the most symmetrical rooms in the house. Other elements are, as Susanka would say, “one bubble off.” This kind of asymmetry (like the fireplace below) seems like one of the most non-intuitive aspects of the design. I think it looks great, and I never would have thought of it.

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