In the Weeds

While in the Chicago area over the holidays this past December, I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Unity Temple”, located in Oak Park, Illinois. I had not been to Unity Temple in perhaps 20 years or more, and I decided it was time to enjoy it again. I always like to see architectural works if I am traveling, and wright buildings are certainly a favorite of mine. For anyone unfamiliar with Unity Temple in oak park, the building was designed by frank lloyd wright at the turn of the century as a religious meeting place, or more conventionally known as a ”church”. Unity Temple stands boldly today on the main avenue, much as it did when completed in 1906. The design for this “church” was heretical in its day, and challenged the traditional notion of “god above” –a quality which was commonly embodied in church design for centuries. In Unity Temple, Mr. Wright designed a building form aimed to communicate the belief of “god among us”, rather than “god above us”. Mr. Wright’s concept for the building was bold and innovative, conceiving the building as a cast in place concrete structure—no steeple, no spire.

As the docent gave us a quick orientation at Unity Temple, she invited us to walk around the building’s grounds and interior unaccompanied. There was something very personal about that un-narrated experience of the building, one which allowed me to take it all in, at my own pace. It is a richer experience, I think, to respond to a spatial setting through one’s own sense of it, as opposed to having it explained to you room by room—with the unavoidable phrase of “ok, let’s move on please”, when being herded from one room to another. My emotional experience of the building was one of inspired calm. There is a quality of light, of color, of line—that make the whole a very moving space to be in. As a designer, I was impressed by the extent of detail and thought demonstrated throughout the building. The level of commitment and discipline required to create such a building, in all, its intricate detail impressed me greatly. It struck me that the congregation and its leadership must have believed strongly in their architect’s radical design for a house of fellowship and worship. Clearly Mr. Wright was completely committed to the art of design, in order to manifest so many different design inventions and detailed material delineations in the building as a whole. It is relatable I think, to every designer or architect, that there is always tremendous value and richness in detail—in today’s world of design, as much as in the time of the creation of Unity Temple. Bold conceptual design is certainly initially important, as it was in the design for Unity Temple—but also important are the details!

In my self guided experience of Unity Temple, I was, of course, aware of the richness and the complexity of the details throughout detailing throughout – but not trivial details or disconnected ideas obligated to material expression, but rather, all connected details — all connected to a philosophical center. each detail, each material, line and color, all conspiring to create a specific effect — one that is conceptually and fully well married.

I was reminded, as I walked around each portion of the building, the importance of being “in the weeds” as a designer. This reality was reinforced in me that day at Unity Temple — that strong central design concepts, surrounded by material and detailing that support that concept, help to create a whole that can transcend time and fashion. Great architecture, supported in part by well conceived and well detailed interiors, can help to achieve a timeless built environment. Our value as designers is, at least in part, embedded in the beauty and complexity of the detail that we bring to our work. I was happy to be reminded of this, in the compelling embodiment of Unity Temple. The beauty of line and material in that building design, is as good an example of “god among us” as I can conjure.

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