Thursday, March 25, 2010

Things Spiral and Things Round

When I first saw a cross-section of a Nautilus shell, I was amazed by the delicacy of the design – something created or something that evolved – and the brilliance of the system of internal chambers that allowed the creature to raise or to lower itself in the sea.

I was too young to realize that Don must have experienced this same sense of wonderment upon his first glimpse of a Nautilus shell. I can only image that his first viewing of such a creature was through a visit to the Shedd Aquarium, or perhaps, there was a collection of shells maintained by Don’s science teacher at Proviso High School, or earlier, at John Mills Elementary School.

Regardless, this fascination with spirals was something that probably originated when Don was young. Certainly, his father, a master craftsperson, for whom design came through the genes, was fascinated with spirals. Gunnar became known for his free-standing spiral wood staircases, one of a few master stairbuilders in the U.S. I remember how large sections of wood, that, having been soaked in water, were later influenced by Gunnar and his vises and glue from their natural straight lines into curved structures. (It is strange, how in retrospect, one sees things so clearly. . .)

Facing me is an unbuilt design, a present from my father in 2005, of the “snail house,” or, as one of his friends called it, the “escargot house.” During one Easter visit, my father drew this thumb nail sketch (over a doodle of mine) and explained his concept of the house, which I will share with you today. But, this house did not originate with this sketch. The concept probably originated when Don was helping his father bend wood into spiral structures. Certainly, spirals and things round were a common theme throughout Don’s life.

Drawn by shaky hands affected by years of chemotherapy and cancer. . .

I digress . . . The snail house was a concept that Don first presented to Mr. Wright in 1948, and then, again to a client in the mid-1950’s. (The client was adventurous, not so his wife.) While Don was never able to find a client to build the snail house (and Don’s own house is a long expanse of rectangles and squares), the spiral concept cropped up in many designs . . . Birdcage apartments . . . the Round House designed for Jack Mayes. . .even to the spiral staircase of wood, steel and ropes used in the “Coach” house, part of Erickson’s home. (The “coach” house is a bit pretentious . . . the coach house was our barn. No usual barn, we stored hay and straw bales in the upper level of the pagoda roof and, below, we sheltered horses. . .pintos and palominos and Arabians.) Don would prefer calling the coach house a “pad” for when one climbed the spiral stairs, one arrived at the loft which overlooked the living room and an expansive of land and trees. A romantic retreat in the midst of the bustling Chicago suburbs . . . a breath of fresh air.

Mr. Wright also had a fascination with spirals and things round. . . from the gallery on Maiden Lane in San Francisco, to the Guggenheim in New York, to the circular windows, surrounded by golden frames at the Marin County Civic Center, which, as one drives by at night, remind me of the bubbled windows of the “Singer Bowl” designed by Don for the 1965 New York World’s Fair. . .Undoubtedly, Mr. Wright had a profound influence on Don, both as an architect and as it relates to women. (But, that is yet another story. . .)

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