Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eichler Houses - Part 3

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian house for Sidney and Louise Bazett was Joseph Eichler's major influence in his development of California tract housing in the Modernist style. "Usonian" is a quirky coinage that Frank Lloyd Wright used in place of "American", which he thought encompassed both North and South America and therefore was too general a term to refer to designs specific to the United States.


Extracted from Paul Adamson's article in the Eichler network newsletter:

A great admirer of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Eichler had moved his family to California from New York in 1940, and three years later had the rare opportunity to rent a Usonian House Wright designed for Sidney and Louise Bazett, in Hillsborough, just south of San Francisco. Although consisting of only a living/dining room and three small ship's cabin-like bedrooms, including the guest house, the Bazett residence accommodated Eichler and his family, sometimes as many as seven people at a time, from 1943 until 1945, when the house was sold to Louis and Betty Frank.

Eichler's experience living in the Bazett house was profound, and inspired a change in his life. He had been the treasurer for the family produce business, but was forced to change careers when the company encountered difficulties during the war. Inspired by Wright's use of natural materials and his masterful manipulation of daylight, he later remarked that the Bazett house introduced him to "an entirely new way of living." Living there, he wrote, "was such a wonderful experience," that he determined to go into the house-building business himself with the idea of producing "contemporary houses for sale to the person of average income."

On the scale of the individual family, Wright imagined the Usonian: a warm, open-planned, small home designed for convenience, economy, and comfort. Wright's model of residential design for the "everyman" would provide abundant lessons for the designers of Eichler Homes. While the formal imagery of the Eichlers more closely resembles European Modernism, their integration with the landscape and the specific use of indigenous materials owes a debt to Wright, who pursued his vision of the well-designed small house with a sense of moral purpose.

Unlike the mass-produced Eichlers, Wright's Usonians were always custom designed for individual clients, but the homes were always very modestly scaled; their planning made efficient with built-in furniture and a minimum of circulation space. The architects who designed Eichler's homes would employ many of Wright's Usonian principles when designing Eichler's prototypes.

Many features of Wright's Usonian houses, including the Bazett house, and the more famous Hanna house constructed in Palo Alto in 1938, are common to the Eichler homes. It would seem likely, considering their proximity and their considerable notoriety, that these homes provided Eichler's first architect, Bob Anshen, who felt such deep sympathy toward Wright's work, convenient resources for ideas and techniques. In fact, the design parameters Wright defined for his Usonians were remarkably similar to those Anshen would employ in his prototypical designs for Eichler.

When seen today, the Bazett house is obviously a product of an earlier time. The fact that nothing about the house is standardized points to a condition, before modern codes and the machine-like construction methods of contemporary building, when houses were "hand crafted." Ornament aside, however, it is the careful accommodation of the intimate duties and pleasures of domestic life that have made this Usonian meaningful for the Franks for almost 55 years. And for Joe Eichler and Bob Anshen, the house was a touchstone that never ceased to resonate for either of them as they strove to transcend the limits of merchant building.


Daniel Soderberg visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Bazett House and posted the following notes on his blog. See the July 5, 2008 posting for his pictures. Three are shown above.

I surveyed a number of Northern California Frank Lloyd Wright structures in April of 1971. One of my favorites is the Bazett House in Hillsborough, 1939. It is one of Wright’s finest “Usonian” houses. This is a category of house characterized by reduced building cost via simplified design.

Wright’s Usonia doctrine includes flat roofs. “Visible roofs are expensive and unnecessary.”

Carport instead of garage. Slab foundation, no basement. Simplified plumbing. Radiant floor heating.

This house was designed with a hexagonal grid or layout. Note the playful pattern this creates with the glass living room wall. Wright loved blending where exterior space ends and interior space begins. It is a common trait for the Usonian houses to be wide open toward the garden, but closed and private on the side facing the street. That closed side was often butted up along the street to maximize garden space and vista at the open side.


I can understand the appeal of the Brazett House. I like the idea of a house that is closed to public view and that opens up to a hidden garden. However, the blending of interior and exterior space is best suited to mild climates. In Iowa, you want a stout bulwark between the indoors and the outdoors. During most of the year in Iowa (except for about a week in June and a week in October), the outdoors is usually too hot or too cold or too rainy or too infested with mosquitoes.