Bringing 3 Forgotten Frank Lloyd Wright Projects Back to Life
Read the original story, first published on Houzz, here.
Several years ago, Spanish architect David Romero decided it was time to sharpen his 3-D modeling and other computer skills. After a long day at the office of a large Madrid design firm—and after putting his two young children to bed—Romero would hole up with his computer late into the night to teach himself the latest nuances of architectural rendering and modeling.
The result? Hooked on the Past, Romero’s web-based portfolio that so far consists of two long-gone Frank Lloyd Wright projects and one that was never built. Working from floor plans, old photographs, and details gleaned from exchanges on Wright-centric chat rooms, Romero painstakingly re-created interiors, exteriors, and sites. The exquisite photorealism of the images makes the projects come alive and is garnering Romero attention from architecture buffs around the world, especially this year—the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth.
The Pauson House (Slides 1-8)
“I decided to pick a Frank Lloyd Wright project as my first exercise,” says Romero, who studied architecture at the University of Seville. “He’s always been one of my favorite architects because of his use of color, materials, and ornamentation.”
Romero began researching Wright’s projects online and found one that caught his eye—the Pauson residence, designed by Wright in 1939 and destroyed by a fire in 1943.
“I wanted to model a building that no longer exists, just as a learning project,” Romero says. “That seemed interesting and challenging.”
The house was originally designed by Wright for sisters Rose and Gertrude Pauson, an artist and landscape designer from San Francisco, who wintered at the Arizona Biltmore—the hotel for which Wright served as a consulting architect.
Enamored with the desert, the sisters bought a ridge-top lot not far from the hotel with views of Phoenix and the surrounding mountains.
Wright created a two-level, three-bedroom winter home for the sisters that included servants’ quarters and a carport tucked into the hillside. Made of redwood and desert masonry, a mix of native stone set in concrete that anchors the structure to its site, the home reaches out into the desert with terraces and balconies. Large expanses of glass blur the line between indoors and out.
Using a combination of AutoCAD, 3ds Max, Photoshop, and other programs and plug-ins, Romero detailed, shaded, and illuminated each view.
“I’m not the first person to do something like this,” Romero says, “but this level of realism is not common because it’s so time-consuming. If you’re working on ‘real’ architectural projects, there are budgets and deadlines, so you don’t spend much time on renderings. Since I was doing this for myself, I spent a lot of time on each image.”
When books, photos, and plans didn’t provide enough information about some aspects of the Pauson home, Romero “tried to get inside Wright’s head” and made an educated guess of how the architect would have handled certain details, such as ceilings and corners.
Romero’s depiction of the two-story living room shows a dramatic fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows and doors.
Romero also bounced ideas and shared initial images with members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, who gave him feedback and suggested corrections.
When it came to furnishings, Romero took a few liberties with the Pauson house, which existing photographs show dotted with standard-issue armchairs and patio furniture.
“I only modeled furniture that Wright designed,” Romero says, “and didn’t use some of the furniture that I saw in the old photographs. I was more interested in the architecture than the furniture.”
Romero furnished the living room with two armless chairs designed by Wright for a home in Kansas City, as well as two origami-style Taliesin chairs.
The Pauson sisters only spent one winter season in the house after it was completed. The next season, they rented it out. It’s thought that a gust of wind blew one of the drapes into the fireplace, where it caught fire and burned down the house.
The sisters never rebuilt, and the home’s ramparts remained on the property for nearly 40 years. Locals dubbed the ruins “Shiprock,” and the site was eventually bulldozed for a roadway extension.
The Larkin Administration Building (Slides 9-13)
After he completed the Pauson house, Romero moved on to re-create the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York, designed by Wright in 1903 and leveled some five decades later.
The Larkin Co. started out as a soap manufacturer but had grown and diversified, needing a new headquarters. Wright came up with a heroically scaled, five-story building of red sandstone with a design that placed then-groundbreaking elements such as worker comfort and ease of maintenance at the forefront.
“When I started Larkin, there were no color photos of the building,” Romero says. “It was exciting to see it in color.”
Romero zeroed in on the Larkin Building’s many decorative elements, including works by sculptor Richard Bock, who frequently collaborated with Wright. Inside, Romero re-created the atrium-like central workspace with its Wright-designed steel furnishings.
“I’m not sure if anyone alive today ever saw the Larkin Building in its original condition,” Romero says. “When I started working on the first few renderings, I felt like Dr. Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.”
The building was known for many innovations, including radiant heat, wall-mounted toilets and partitions for easier cleaning, and built-in furniture. It was also the first office building designed to accommodate air conditioning—then a new technology. With a generous budget from the company, Wright also included a restaurant for employees, an organ so that music often filled the space, and a brick-paved roof terrace for breaks.“I felt as though I was inside of a piece of art” after finishing the Larkin project, Romero says. The Larkin and Pauson projects together took 18 months to complete.
The Larkin details included panels with inspirational words set between interior columns.
The company’s fortunes had declined by the 1940s, and the building was sold. Despite public outcry, the building was demolished in 1950, and the site became a parking lot.
Trinity Chapel (Slides 14-17)
Romero’s next project was Trinity Chapel, an unbuilt project Wright designed in 1958 for the University of Oklahoma in Norman at the behest of Fred Jones, a prominent car dealer and industrialist.
“It was a challenge to do an unbuilt design,” Romero says. “Wright did a colored-pencil rendering, and there were some floor plans and an elevation. I had to speculate about how Wright would have handled the interior.”
Wright sketched out the chapel on the back of an envelope while he was flying between New York and Phoenix. His design was a triangular spire-shaped building, with solid walls that gave way to stained-glass windows. It was elevated off the ground to provide covered parking below, while a series of ramps reached out into the site.
Romero’s speculations on how Wright would have handled the interior of the chapel included typically Wrightian color schemes, materials, and furniture designs.
The chapel was never built because the client had envisioned something more conventional, with ample parking that would be an adjunct to the university. Wright, not one to do anything conventional, bowed out. He died the next year.
After Romero completed the Trinity Chapel project, he started rendering several other demolished Wright projects. He also would like to work on long-gone projects by other 20th-century master architects.
On Romero’s front burner, though, is developing a virtual reality version of the completed projects. “Wouldn’t it be fun to experience being inside these places?” he says.