This Wednesday at Design Within Reach (ground floor of the Wieden + Kennedy building at 1200 NW Everett) brings the fourth installment of 'Designs on Portland', a bi-monthly discussion series I am hosting in collaboration with DWR. This time our guest will be Larry Woodin of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to discuss Wright's Gordon House and the legacy of Wright in Oregon.
As many may remember, the Gordon House is the only Wright-designed building in Oregon. In 2000 the house was threatened with demolition when a local couple purchased it with the intention of tearing down the house and building a new McMansion on the site. Word at the time was that they had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is pretty much a unanimous choice as America's greatest and most famous architect. The Gordon House, which was designed to take advantage of the adjacent river view as well as a perfectly framed view of Mt. Hood, had to be moved from its original location along the Willamette in suburban Charbonneau to the Oregon Garden near Silverton.
Gordon3 Larry Woodin was among a small handful of people along with Saundra Stevens of AIA/Portland (my old boss) who mobilized to help save the Gordon House from demolition. For our discussion, he'll recall that episode but will also focus on Wright's ongoing legacy in Oregon and for designers at large. What can we learn from Wright that's still relevant today?
Back when the home was threatened, I had the good fortune of spending a day at the Gordon House at its original location while it was photographed by a local historic preservationist, architect Al Staehli. Although the house is very small, particularly by today's standards, it was a real gem. And while it was really too bad the Gordon House had to be dismantled and moved, the house has now been restored and occupies a much more public presence. If you haven't been down to the Oregon Garden to see the house, it's a must for any architecture enthusiast. Plus it's just a couple miles away from what is another of Oregon's best architectural treasures: the Mt Angel Abbey library, the only one of only two American buildings designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
The Conrad and Evelyn Gordon House is based on Wright's "House for a Family of $5-6,000 Income" plan, originally published in a 1938 issue of Life magazine. Designed in 1956 and completed in 1964 after Wright's death, the 2,100-square-foot Gordon House is Lilliputian by today's building standards, but it radiates beauty and craftsmanship in a way that most cavernous houses don't come close to. In other words, Wright knew it's not size that matters but what you do with it.
The Gordon House is far from seminal Frank Lloyd Wright. This isn't Fallingwater or the Guggenheim or the Johnson Wax factory. Even so, Wright was passionate about the Usonian homes such as the Gordon that were designed for the average working family of modest means. In fact, that's ultimately one of the best things about Wright. Here was this genius whose talent was matched only by his own ego, a man who sought to spare no expense when the project called for it, bringing great design to the masses more than most any of his contemporaries or disciples.
The 'Designs on Portland' talk with Larry Woodin begins at 6:30pm, with refreshments served. For more information, I also wrote about the Gordon house back at the time of its move for Architecture Week and Willamette Week, the latter of which brought threats of legal action when I came down hard on the homeowners who had planned to demolish the house. I seem to recall writing that their intentions were like finger-painting over a Picasso canvas.
by Brian Libby, 2008
Published with permission of Portland Architecture