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Inside One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Final-Ever Designs

Today AD travels to Connecticut to tour Tirranna, one of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s final designs. Considered one of the greatest architects of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright produced over 1000 designs in a career spanning 70 years, revolutionizing architecture in the United States. A pioneer of organic architecture, Wright believed any building should exist in harmony with its inhabitants and surroundings–a concept that runs through the veins of Tirranna. Join Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, as he walks you through one of the final designs of Wright’s career.

Released on 01/16/2024


[birds singing] [gentle music]

One of my favorite quotes

from Frank Lloyd Wright is this,

Nature is the only body of God we see.

What he's saying is that nature has this sacred quality.

It's something that we need to take care of,

that we need to treat with respect and dignity.

And because we're a part of nature,

we also need to treat each other with respect and dignity.

This connection that Wright is trying

to build into his buildings with nature

in fact make our lives better.

Tirranna was commissioned by John Rayward in 1955,

and it's among the last of the houses

that Frank Lloyd Wright built since he died in 1959.

While Tirranna was being built,

Wright was in New York City

working on his largest commission,

the Guggenheim Museum.

During that time, Wright fled his suite

in the Plaza Hotel and came up here to Connecticut,

because he enjoyed this house's connection with nature.

[birds singing] [gentle music]

This is one of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright designs,

but I've only ever seen it in photographs

and in the drawings that Frank Lloyd Wright

and his apprentices created.

When I walked into the space,

it really made my heart race a little bit

because it's this beautiful intersection

of this sweeping curve of the solar hemicycle

and this rectilinear design.

I don't think I've seen that

in any other Frank Lloyd Wright

property in the same way.

And it's this beautiful expression of material

in one of the most breathtaking settings

of all of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings.

The setting rivals even perhaps Wright's most famous work

Fallingwater in the way that the house engages nature.

[gentle music]

The curve in this house

is what Wright called a solar hemicycle.

What that means is that the curve

follows the movement of the sun through the day.

So the curve out here faces east,

that means it's gathering the morning light,

and as the sun moves through the sky,

the light in the room continuously spreads and expands,

illuminating the space,

not only with that natural light,

but with the warmth of the sun.

It's even an early form of sustainable design

because the sun is being used to heat the space,

especially in winter.

Wright loved materials, the integrity of materials,

the intrinsic character of materials,

and bringing that out was something

that was a central part of his organic architecture.

Even humble material like this concrete block,

Wright left it exposed not only to show

what the house was built from,

but also to show how the concrete itself was made.

But he does something unusual with it.

The horizontal joints

between concrete block units are deeply raked.

You see that horizontality expressed,

because that horizontality is the relationship

with the earth itself.

The vertical joints are raised a little bit,

so that they're flush with the concrete masonry unit.

Those two things together

underscore this horizontality

and the relationship of building people

and the land itself.

He juxtaposes this material with this really warm,

wonderful Philippine mahogany,

and when you put these two things together,

sort of the coolness of the block

and the warmth of the wood,

and once again we get a bit of an emotional experience

just by the juxtaposition of materials themselves.

And if you imagine a walk through the woods,

you don't just see one thing,

you see different kinds of trees,

shrubs, and bushes and other plants.

Nature does not like a monoculture,

that actually doesn't really work very well.

Wright is replicating that experience on interiors

by creating these juxtapositions of material.

We also see here in the corner

in a more rectilinear part

of what's otherwise a curve design,

we see this space that is a bit cave-like.

Wright would call this a compression space.

Space with a lower ceiling, little bit more darkness.

[gentle music]

The material that starts inside the house extends outside.

There's this continuity of material

broken only by this thin pane of glass

that draws your eye outward,

and inside and outside start to become a bit blurred.

One of the things that Frank Lloyd Wright did

was to design all of his buildings on a grid system.

He would establish a grid to create a scale,

similar to a musical staff really,

a scale for every part of the design.

In this case, we can see that grid

very clearly expressed on the floor,

but that grid is also replicated

in the panels in the ceiling,

and even in the size of these upper clear story windows

on the curved surface of the building.

By creating that framework,

he once again creates this unified method

or this unified system for ensuring that

every aspect of the property

would be structured according to the grid.

The floor is a characteristic color

for Frank Lloyd Wright's design.

Beautiful subdued shade of red.

Wright used many reds throughout his career,

many different shades, but he loved it

because it was a color not only found in nature,

but it's a color that really defined us.

Of course, it's the color of our blood,

so it gives us life.

This is the primary suite.

Today, it's used as an office.

It's a small space, and there's a reason for that.

Wright wanted to connect people with other people,

even within a family,

and so he creates these designs to push you outwards.

The concrete block of the wall

lines up in an exterior planter,

so that there's nature within the walls of the building,

even though it's outside.

And you also encounter the pool.

You'd start your day with this connection with water,

and that's important in this house

because the name Tirranna was selected by Wright

to signify the relationship of this house

to the Noroton River right outside the window here.

And that swimming pool really floats out

over a pond that he's created by damning that river,

and then you have the river itself.

So there's always this connection with running water,

Tirranna, being an Aboriginal word for running water.

You have this beautiful mitered glass window.

The post that you would normally expect

to find in the corner is gone,

and instead it's a glass upon glass conjunction there,

which allows you this uninterrupted view of nature.

Wright can do this because of the structural techniques

that he uses where he doesn't need a post

in the corner of the house to hold up the roof here.

Instead, he's using cantilevers,

a technique that he's really well known for,

to support the roof and other parts of the structure.

One of the things that you see throughout this house

is Frank Lloyd Wright's use of built-ins,

whether it's shelving, cabinetry, even furniture.

This is a very common element

of Frank Lloyd Wright's properties.

He loves the shelves for a couple of different reasons.

First off, he can control where art's being placed,

so it doesn't start disrupting the view of nature.

But it also is something that Wright uses

to create a sense of continuity.

You'll notice how narrow this hallway is.

There's a reason for that.

We don't spend time in hallways,

and Wright doesn't want you to spend time in this hallway.

As you emerge from the bedrooms that line the space,

he really wants you to move out,

but head directly to that living space,

that big open floor plan that's connected

with that primary view

that's setting above the river and into the forest.

The other bedrooms of the house are also small,

but they don't have the same visual connection to nature,

though there's still a beautiful view of trees.

They're small and dark.

As we said, Wright's trying to move you

out of this personal space where you're coming to sleep,

and into that primary open floor plan.

We not only have more built-ins,

but we have beautiful simple chairs.

I particularly love these chairs

'cause I think they're a little bit up on their toes.

It's a nice design.

The scale is small.

And when this house was built,

we tended to sit a little bit

more toward the earth than we do today,

and by seating us a little bit lower,

the low ceilings that we have in these rooms

don't seem quite so low.

The space opens up as we sit down.

[gentle music]

This is now one of the many bedrooms

that exist in Tirranna,

because that primary bedroom that Wright had designed

for the Raywards was quite small,

they came back to him a few years

after the house was initially built

and asked him to design

a more expansive primary suite for them.

A much larger bedroom,

still having a connection with the natural world,

but also a huge primary bathroom suite.

And here in the bedroom,

a circular dressing area and closet.

There's even an observatory above this bedroom suite,

so that at night, Mr. Rayward could go up

and through a telescope gaze at the stars.

The addition that was made to the house

a few years after it was initially built by Wright himself

created this wonderful interior courtyard,

allowing you to look at what had been

the primary facade of the house,

but still also embracing its connection with nature.

The trees, this beautiful wood underneath the pergola,

and even the soffit detail that breaks up the board,

so that it's a bit more like leaves

found in nature off of a tree.

That broken line is something that

Wright uses always to try to connect us

more with the natural landscape,

since the solid line is not something

that we necessarily find in nature.

And instead of downspouts, Wright hated downspouts.

He has these little stubs and chains hanging down,

so that as it rained,

we would actually hear the water flowing,

settling into the ground,

or even the small little pool right here.

Wright wants to create this multisensory experience.

It's not always visual in his architecture.

[gentle music]

Wright has us to descend

this beautiful floating staircase,

and now we're back to the earth, back on the ground.

While the building,

because of Wright's cantilever techniques,

seems to hover above the earth.

That means we're really immersed in nature.

We're totally connected to the land at this point,

even though we know there's the structure above us.

Because the house had such a beautiful setting,

Wright designed it in a way that would take advantage

of the natural landscape.

He left the natural stones in situ

just where the river had placed them

hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

And he gives the house this great sense of repose,

the gray of the concrete withdrawing,

the warmth of the wood emerging,

so that the building seems

to have always belonged in this setting.

He dams this gently flowing river to create a pond,

and now we get to see the house in reflection as well.

This is a technique that we often see

in the Japanese gardens that inspired Wright,

and indeed the Raywards hired

an expert in Japanese garden design

to create the landscape for them.

He believed that a building should grace the landscape,

that the building should feel

as if it emerged naturally from the ground,

and I really think it does that here.

[gentle music]

[birds singing]

[river trickling]

When I first encountered Wright's work

as an 8-year-old boy,

it was the space and the light that got me all excited,

'cause I'd never seen anything like it.

Today, the space and the light still excites me

because I now understand why that gives us

the feeling that it does,

why we feel different in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,

and that's because he uses space and light

to create this sense of intimacy with the world around us.

It concerns me that there's so much bland architecture,

it's just functional, when what we could do

and what we should do is take

that inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright

to give their clients a gracious way to live

as part of the world around them,

connected with everybody

and everything that will make their lives better.

[birds singing] [gentle music]