Four decades:

Wright then and now

I realized the other day that September 2019 marks my fortieth anniversary as a professional architect.  Well, technically, I wasn’t an architect until I got my license in 1986, but my first job after college started in September of 1979. I had graduated in the spring and spent all summer looking for employment, not getting lucky until a developer in Davis asked me to come in for an interview.

I got really lucky. Mike Corbett wasn’t an architect but he was designing and developing the first all-solar heated subdivision in the country. Village Homes was also laid out in a revolutionary fashion to be a sustainable neighborhood. It emphasized walking and bike riding instead of automobiles, natural drainage, community gardens and orchards, and social cohesion.  I got my start designing houses, the same sort of work our office does now.

Of course, going back a bit further, my first paid commission was from my cousin Ann and her husband Herb, in 1973. They commissioned me to design a backyard barn for their horse. $75.00 for my several days of labor. At the time I was taking architectural drafting in high school; by the time I got to college I was already fairly proficient in at least the more mundane aspects of architectural work.

But where did this enthusiasm for architecture come from? Going back another decade, when I was in elementary school, my parents got me a big ‘coffee table’ book of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.  I was mesmerized by the amazing, beautiful work of one the world’s finest architectural minds. I still am.

In the last week of fifth grade, our wonderful teacher, who even back in the sixties was doing project-based learning, gave everyone the opportunity to bring in personal projects for ‘show and tell’.  I promptly decided to design, draw and make a model of a house – and did so – one per day for five days straight.

That was it for me, architecture became my settled career path. In the years since Village Homes I’ve worked on Fed Ex stations, air cargo facilities, a CSAA office building, a senior center, the Emporium department store, auto dealerships, high rise hotels, a ski resort, high tech corporate headquarters, and lots of new and remodeled houses. None of their designs had much in common with anything Frank Lloyd Wright ever drew, as architecture has largely moved on from his legacy.

Frank Lloyd Wright ‘s Florida Southern College Chapel. Photo by Calvin Knight 2018.

Fast forward to last year, when a new client mentioned she had graduated from Florida Southern College, a campus which Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the fifties. She said she had loved his work ever since.  Would she want us to design a house in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright, I asked?


Oh joy!  I don’t generally like the idea of aping someone else’s work, but this was too good to pass up. We quickly settled on doing a ‘Prairie Style’ design, reminiscent of Wright’s and his contemporaries’ work in the mid-west around the turn of the last century. It was a real pleasure to review the historic work, analyze what made it tick and apply the ideas to a new, contemporary house. 

Frank Lloyd Wright ‘s Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois

Prairie style emphasizes horizontal lines, broken up by vertical strokes, and often uses bands of multiple windows, wide overhangs under low slope roofs, architectural ornament and a mixture of stucco and stone finishes in an asymmetrical but balanced composition.

We had a bit of a run-in with the Los Altos Planning Department over our design for the project – they didn’t think the two story corner element on the left in our original front elevation complied with the ‘neighborhood character’, even though it met all of the zoning criteria.  We ended up adding a porch which wrapped around the corner, masking its verticality.

Original design – 3D rendering of front elevation
Final design – 3D rendering of front elevation

The project just completed plan check and is about to start construction. We look forward to working with the owners to complete the interior design and see the project constructed.

Frank Lloyd Wright would visit a completed project, swirl his cape around, and rearrange the furniture to its ‘correct’ location. I promise not to do that to our wonderful clients. I don’t actually own a cape, though that could be remedied…

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