Wright 'prairie school' grows in Florida

Frank Lloyd Wright lives on here through the works of his former student, architect Robert Broward. The basic elements of the so-called "prairie school of architecture" can be seen and appreciated by anyone who will look. The Dake house, for example, and the Unitarian-Universalist church are typical examples of what was once called "revolutionary" architecture by a conservative community.

Bob Broward is a relaxed, low-key person who is at peace with himself. He lives close to nature and has a reverence for it. From an early age he was influenced by Thoreau, Emerson, and Jefferson and emulates their philosophies, both in his work and his personal life. He is, above all else, honest.

"I know who I am and what I can do with my own particular talents," he says. "I have no desire for fame or a big corporate image. My goal is to "celebrate life" through the medium of architecture which, to me, is the highest art form man can achieve.

"I do only work that I believe in; therefore, I'm free."

Bob Broward remembers his first meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright. The year was 1948.

"I was a student at Georgia Tech and had read about Mr. Wright at the public library in Atlanta," he recalls. "I was impressed by the scope of this human being and wrote him a letter. He wrote back and invited me to visit him for the Christmas holidays at Taliesen West in Arizona.

"After seeing pictures of the buildings there, I had expected everything to be larger than life. So I was disappointed when faced with reality.

"My first visual impression of Mr. Wright was that he was such a small man. He was wearing a pork-pie hat and a cape and carried his cane with great flair. He was a 'man in miniature.'

"His first words to me were: 'How do you like it?' I replied, 'I think it's fantastic, but everything is so small."

Mr. Wright just chuckled and said nothing. He knew so much more than I did and was a master of "scale." He knew how to relate a building to a human being. The photographs that I had seen of Taliesen were set against a desert landscape without trees or mountains in the background; therefore, there was no scale, so everything looked larger than it was.

"I went back to school to complete my senior year with new ideas and concepts learned from Mr. Wright," Bob Broward continues.

"Deeply influenced by him, I entered a design competition for a church for sharecroppers in Oak Mountain, Ga. Much to my surprise, I won. The design was not only chosen by the faculty, but when all the designs were submitted to the sharecroppers, they chose mine."

"Mind you, these were unsophisticated people from the Old South, where churches were always white frame and had a tall steeple. They selected my design because it looked as if it belonged on the mountain as a part of nature.

"The prize for winning was that the church would be built, using local labor, college students, and Quakers from the American Friends Field Service," he recalls.

Bob Broward says he went back to the commune at Taliesen as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright and felt, for the first time, the importance of people working together and helping one another.

"We had to grow our own crops, cook our food, and work on the buildings that were always under construction," he reports.

One of the projects he worked on in the desert was called the "Sun Trap." It was a little house for Iovanna, Mr. Wright's daughter, who is a harpist. It was built of cast concrete and boulders with canvas and wood holding it all together.

It actually was one of the original solar houses as the sun filtered in for both light and heat.

"There isn't a single 'new' thing in architecture that Frank Lloyd Wright did not deal with and made some statement about," says Mr. Broward. "He was a warm human being. He would have been an earth shaker even if he were not an architect.

"I learned at Taliesen about the 'prairie school of architecture,' which originated in Illinois. Mr. Wright and his great teacher, Louis Sullivan, came from there. It's referred to as 'organic architecture' and now I'm an extension of this in my own way.

"The idea was to build and design in a way that was expressive of the time and place in which we live," Bob Broward continues.

"In the early 1900s steel was being rolled. Sullivan was one of the first to realize that it was an 'honest' material and used it sensibly to build skyscrapers. He considered such tall buildings to be an art form, like any other."

Plate glass, wood, and brick were used naturally and not covered over by anything that was considered phony. In Illinois, where the land is flat, Sullivan and Wright built houses that were low and wed to the ground. Attics and basements were eliminated and other, more practical, storage spaces were designed and utilized.

Glass was used intelligently, and unnecessary walls were taken away to make continuous, flowing spaces.

"Frank Lloyd Wright invented the carport," according to Mr. Broward, "and he took the cantilever and made it a principle of modern architecture. It was from the prairie school that he says he learned about the excitement of spaces and how to use them to best advantage.

In 1951, after he had finished his apprenticeship with Wright, he built a house in Atlanta which arched a creek. It jutted out of the side of a black granite hill and was one long, continuous room with sliding-glass walls.

"I used cypress wood, glass, and more granite for the fireplaces," he says. "It was exactly right for the family it was built for, and they said they always felt at peace there."

Since then he's done many buildings but always tried to meet the needs of the people who would be using them.

"My best reward is a happy client and I work on only one project at a time," he declares.

Not long ago he designed a home for the Dake family here. The house, which many people think is unusual, is fitted between four live oak trees so the trees are a part of the house. The house is four stories high and is openly ventilated on all sides.

"You drive your car right into the center of the house," he says, "and a circular staircase winds up to the living quarters."

The house is built on a marsh swamp and Mr. Broward says he purposely designed it to resist both hurricanes and floods. The main living floors are above the ocean's flood plain and are anchored in concrete.

The house was designed in a crucible shape so that it can withstand high winds.

"Since I love wood as a natural material, it is used throughout the house in its natural unpainted form," asserts Bob Broward. "As the years pass the exterior walls will weather to a silver gray and will appear as if the house has always been part of the site -- a part of nature although it is manmade."

The Jacksonville Unitarian-Universalist Church won an award of merit from the Florida Association of Architects. The outside of the church is unstained cypress wood and, in some ways, resembles an inverted ship's hull.

It is crowned with a rectangular-shaped open bell tower that reaches for the sky.

Glass walls overlook the lily pads floating on the still waters of the pond. Water birds nest in the swamp and surrounding woods. Civilization lies just across the expressway, but one would not suspect it.

Simply, it is Walden Pond relieved in the space age. Thoreau would have been at home here.

Bob Broward now carries on the Frank Lloyd Wright traditions and philosophies in his own way.

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