Monday, June 08, 2009

Two decades after writing about it, I finally get to see (and photograph) FLW's Pew House for myself

Frank Lloyd Wright perspective drawing of the Pew House, from "Frank Lloyd Wright's Madison," Wisconsin Trails, September/October, 1988

My photograph of the Pew House from the Wright & Like 2009: Madison tour, June 6, 2009

In the fall of 1988, the UW's Elvehjem Museum of Art (since renamed the Chazen) mounted its biggest exhibit ever -- "Frank Lloyd Wright and Madison: Eight Decades of Artistic and Social Interaction." The show celebrated the fact that Madison was the only city for which Wright created designs during every decade of his long career, from his first year of independent practice, 1893, to the year of his death, 1959 -- some never built, some built and no longer surviving. Last Saturday I saw several of the survivors in the Wright & Like 2009: Madison tour.

Like many people, I was excited about the opportunity to tour the Pew House on Lake Mendota, which is very rarely open to the public. I also had a more personal reason. In 1988, I wrote a cover story for Wisconsin Trails magazine about the Wright exhibit. In preparation, I met with Elvehjem staff and selected the drawings we would use to illustrate the article. One of my favorites was the Pew drawing. We ran it across two pages, which is why there's a page break (the drawing, of course, is a single sheet).

The Pew House caught my eye because of its resemblance to Wright's famous Fallingwater. In fact, it's sometimes called "a poor man's Fallingwater," because of the way the house straddles a ravine and the fact that it was built on a tight budget, with salvaged materials. While Fallingwater bridges a stream, the ravine under the Pew House normally is dry, but storm runoff does flow through it (somewhat fancifully indicated in Wright's drawing, since there's no other evidence of a storm in the picture, and the water is a lovely pristine blue.)

I had the Pew House in mind when I wrote that Wright's perspective drawings excelled at showing the relationship of a house to its site in ways that are difficult to capture photographically.
In the exhibit, photos of Wright's buildings supplement the drawings. Viewing the drawings and photos together is a reminder that, in an age when the the camera defines so much of our reality, there still are aspects that escape the mechanical gaze of the lens.

It is nearly impossible to photograph an idea, which is why architects continue to draw -- and why Wright's drawings played such an important role in his career.
I've always wanted to see the lake side of the site for myself, viewing with my own eyes what I've only seen in this drawing and the occasional photograph. It's a hard site to photograph, because the best sight lines are compromised by vegetation, the contours of the land and property lines. As a result, photos really don't do a good job of capturing the way the house relates to its physical environment.

I ran into the same problems when taking my own pictures (when I could get a clear view around the outstretched cameras of my fellow visitors). The photo catches some of the horizontal sweep of the structure, and some sense of the luxurious woodsy greenery of the site. But the house is not a three-dimensional presence, and there's no sense of how it sits on the site.

One man captured it, with just some colored pencils and paper, some seventy years ago, when the house was just an idea in his imagination. I always wondered how Wright's drawing would stand up after a visit to the site in person. Would it still capture the way the house relates to its surroundings after all these years?

Now I know. It does.

Note: See more of my Wright & Like 2009: Madison tour photos here.


hugo avila said...

tienes mucha suerte amigo, es una casa espectacular y las fotos son muy buenas

Peter Nause said...

Enjoyed your Blog Posting Here.

I have a special Pew House connection, having worked on the stonework and ravine landscape for nearly 3 years at this historic location overlooking Lake Mendota.
I experienced this unique Usonian home's relationship with its woodland slope overlooking Lake Mendota in every season and came away with a profound admiration for Wright's fabled "genius loci".

Here's a link to a photo of the ravine adjacent to the Pew House:
Peter Nause Madison Wisconsin