Field Trip :: The Zimmerman House

Rear façade – photo from Currier Museum
By Ian Hester, BArch Candidate

One of the most intriguing readings in Richard Griswold’s Undergraduate Design Principles class is H. Allen Brooks’ “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Destruction of the Box.”  The article effectively relates Wright’s concepts regarding the manipulation of space and the creation of powerful human experiences, but as with all other writings about architecture and design it is inherently limited by its inability to allow the reader to actually physically experience the space.  To fully comprehend Wright’s techniques it is necessary to visit one of his homes, and fortunately there is one less than an hour away from Boston: The Zimmerman House in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Front façade – photo from Boston College
The Zimmerman House is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses.  If you do not know what Usonian means, do not worry because Wright made it up to define his new style of residential design that ideally would be affordable to middle class Americans.  Usonian homes are much smaller than some of Wright’s more glamorous and renown works such as Fallingwater and the Robie House, yet they invariably maintain Wright’s design ideals.  This strength in design despite the limited space and budget is arguably one of the most fascinating aspects of the home, especially for design students who are eager to find ways in which they can create spaces that are simple and practical yet incredibly rich and powerful.

Wright employed several of his most famous design features in the Zimmerman House, several of which will be illustrated by quick sketches that I made during the tour.  His use of a constricted space to emphasize the magnitude of a larger space is frequently repeated, beginning even before one reaches the house itself with the placement of oversized hedges along either side of the driveway.  This is then repeated with great success upon entering the house: the dark, narrow, low-ceilinged hallway that serves as an entryway leads to the main living space, which has a high pitched ceiling and plenty of light entering through windows on three sides.

Sketch of entryway and living room in section by Ian Hester

View of living room from entryway from
This living space includes one of the strongest design elements in the house.  Along the back side of the room there is a set of windows, each set into a shallow bay and running nearly from floor to ceiling.  At the base of each of these bays is a small planter with flowers that perfectly reflects the planters running along the opposite sides of the windows on the exterior.  This remarkably simple technique creates such a strong sense of harmony between the interior and exterior of the home.

Sketch of interior and exterior planters in plan by Ian Hester

Exterior planters (interior planters visible through windows)
photo from lifeat55mph blog
Another striking feature in the design is the way in which Wright addressed several of the corners in the house, most notably between the living space and the dining room.  The two spaces overlap in traditional Wright fashion, but the transition is made even smoother by installing built-in shelving that wraps around the corner to create a three dimensional form out of two planes. 
Sketch of built-in shelving on a corner by Ian Hester

Corner shelving in living room photo from Currier Museum of Art
The corners, constricted spaces, and harmony between interior and exterior are all discussed by Brooks in “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Destruction of the Box,” but their effectiveness is undoubtedly greatly emphasized and more clearly understood when they are experienced in person.  The student discount for a tour is $16, which is rather expensive for most design students, but it is certainly worth the money, especially if you have never been to a Frank Lloyd Wright house.  Architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture are about creating human experiences, and to learn about them there is absolutely no better way than to experience them in person.

The Zimmerman House is in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is slightly under an hour’s drive from Boston.  The house is owned and operated by the Currier Museum of Art, so if you are interested in visiting click hereUnfortunately tours are not given during the late winter and early spring, but they will resume on April 11, 2013.  After spring break, find a friend with a car and check it out.