In architectural history, dwellings consisted of spaces just large enough to be shelter. Small huts, pit houses, and later aggregate dwellings where homes shared walls and external circulation was non-existent (such as the city of Catal Huyuk) were the norm. As migration paths started to cross, and materials and goods were traded, what was once an egalitarian society started to form classes.
As cities grew and people began to from beliefs systems resting in divine ideas, buildings specifically for worship or residence of the gods were constructed. Residences for holy men were built in close proximity to the temples, and eventually, the entire religious complex was moved away from dwellings and oftentimes placed on higher ground or plinths to raise them above and give them height and prominence.
As we moved onward, and class and religion took a permanent hold on society, we see this movement towards using scale to delineate importance extend to become a norm of architecture. Similar values also extended into domestic architecture with bigger homes correlating to more wealth. This idea has persisted well into the 21st century. From 17th century plantations to million-dollar custom homes high in the hills, one thing is certain…size means money. The taller your entryway ceiling, the more money in your pocket.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie homes and much of his architecture, were the complete antithesis to this idea that taller is better. His spaces often feel short, almost squat, but that is because we so often surround ourselves with taller than life spaces. In truth, his domestic architecture is scaled for the average human body. It is intimate. It is designed so that you become an inhabitant of the space when you enter, you are not engulfed by it. You are not overwhelmed.
“Human use and comfort should have intimate possession of every interior —should be felt in every exterior.”1 Wright was 5’-8 ½” tall. He brought the height of all of his Prairie homes down to suit his height. It was once noted that if he had been taller, his architecture may have been entirely different. He added no basements, no high dormer windows, no extraneous elements. He widened the mass of the building and began the walls at a ground plane oftentimes placed upon a stone platform or plinth, which extended out on all sides of the house. The walls ended to beneath the upper floor window sills to offer the bedrooms full advantage of being tucked under wide, sloping roofs.
Inside, Wright’s homes broke away from the series of little boxes that homes are most often divided into. Each domestic function has its own box, and the box was within a larger external box. He devised plans where the first floor was one large room – screening accomplished the task of dividing spaces into smaller user areas such as reading or dining. Yet, the flow and the visual sense was not divided. Upstairs, he left walls to maintain the privacy that humans in repose are accustomed to. Unnecessary doors disappeared, walls vanished, and the height of the ceilings was lowered to meet a band just above the windows. In this manner the ceiling visually wrapped onto the walls and expanded the room.
These ideas of using his personal human scale in architecture helped Frank Lloyd Wright to refine his ideas of plasticity in architecture – architecture should be able to be shaped and molded. He used materials and scale to create a sense of being a part of a whole. He wasn’t building walls and ceiling, he was building space.
1 Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography of Frank Lloyd Wright, 145