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VOL. 121 | NO. 189 | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Art and Architecture

Latest Architecture Month presentation explores form of buildings and artistic functions

By Andy Meek

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ON TAP: Historical preservationist Karen Sweeney is scheduled to speak tonight at Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church in conjunction with Architecture Month. -- Photo Courtesy Of Karen Sweeney

By the end of his 70-year career, architect Frank Lloyd Wright had designed 1,141 buildings, including homes, churches, schools, libraries, museums and more.

Much has been written about the master architect since his death in 1959. He was homespun and a big spender, as well as experimental and deeply intellectual. He was perfectly coiffed, scornful of reporters and even the subject of a song by Simon & Garfunkel, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright."

And tonight, the work of the man who is regarded in many circles as the most well-known architect in America is also the subject of a lecture that's part of the Architecture Month series by the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) Memphis office and Memphis Heritage Inc. The series is a month-long look at the profession through discussions, film and activities that are open to the general public.

Preservationist Karen Sweeney will give a lecture on the status of a home Wright designed in Chicago at 7 p.m. at Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 1720 Peabody Ave.

Products of an era

Close to home, a brief drive around Midtown Memphis reveals Wright's influence on buildings in the city, said June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. The features to look for are long rectangular forms and low-slung roofs.

"I do believe," West said, "there was a reverberating spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright in Memphis."

In an example of the wit he was known for, Wright told The New York Times in 1953, "The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."

Some of Wright's most renowned designs include the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and Fallingwater, a home in Pennsylvania that features a stream and waterfall with a series of stacked decks and balconies.

But another of his famous projects - and the subject of tonight's lecture - is a home he designed in Chicago, the Robie House. It's a three-story, 9,000-square-foot prairie-style home built in 1910 in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's south side. Prairie houses generally are long and low and have such features as central chimneys and overhanging eaves.

And it says something about the design of the Robie House that the American Institute of Architects named it one of the 10 most significant buildings of the 20th century.

"Robie House Restoration: A Work in Progress"
Lecture by Karen Sweeney
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 1720 Peabody Ave.
Why: Fourth of five lectures and presentations in the Architecture Month slate of events

Karen Sweeney, director of restoration and facilities for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, will use a PowerPoint presentation tonight to discuss the 10-year, $8 million restoration that's gone into shoring up the Robie House, which was given to the University of Chicago by a developer in 1963.

'A work in progress'

Today, the house is a museum operated by the preservation trust, which has a lease from the university and is in charge of operating and taking care of the home. Sweeney's lecture is titled "Robie House Restoration: A Work in Progress."

"It's really a national historic landmark, as well as a state and city landmark," Sweeney said. "That's mainly because of its place in architecture, as far as it being kind of the end of the prairie style and the beginning of modern architecture in the U.S."

The preservation trust she works with is nearing the completion of its massive, 10-year restoration project, so Sweeney likely will discuss some of the major hurdles they've leaped in restoring the iconic building. One problem, for example, is that the restoration required a large amount of custom-made handiwork.

The Robie House has custom-made clay shingles on its roof, she said, special bricks created to match those on the exterior and custom-mixed mortar on the outside. The home's decks had to be heavily restored, not to mention the task of making the building safe for daily crowds of visitors.

"You have, for example, 1910 wiring and electrical, gas and water lines, so it involves getting those up to modern-day code," Sweeney said.

The home also has large overhangs with cantilevers, and on the edge sits a distinctive copper eave - yet another feature that required extra care to touch up.

"We actually hired sculpture conservators to come in and conserve that copper eave," Sweeney said.

Art, architecture intertwined

Meanwhile, the thinking behind lining up tonight's lecture topic is not only that there are lessons in the massive renovation project that could apply to Memphis. As Architecture Month's calendar of events winds down, Sweeney's presentation continues to bring a major theme into focus.

The founders of Architecture Month say they wanted all the offerings to show how art and architecture can be as interrelated as bricks and mortar.

And what better way to help illustrate that link than the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, lionized in the Simon & Garfunkel song that reads, in part, "Architects may come and architects may go, but never change your point of view. When I run dry, I stop awhile and think of you."

"When we started talking about the theme for Architecture Month for 2006, we were very interested in exploring the art in architecture," said Heather Baugus, executive director of the Memphis chapter of AIA.

"In other words, elements of architecture that go beyond the building itself. From that, that kind of became the guiding principle in terms of how the lectures were selected."

The work of Frank Lloyd Wright was the touchstone Architecture Month organizers were looking for to express that theme. As a testament to his influence, his work also remains intensely sought after and valuable.

In his book "Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright," biographer Brendan Gill said a house designed by Wright and "well worth preserving as a residence may be worth half a million dollars if put on the market for that purpose alone."

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