When he came to Southern California in the early 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright had already known equal measures of personal and professional success and crushing disappointment. Devoted to the idea of developing a new American architecture that was not beholden to the ideals and values of Europe, he had already created the famed Prairie style of architecture, whose horizontal eaves, open floor plans and emphasis on natural colors and materials captured the ethos of his native rolling Midwestern landscapes.
Like so many before and since, Wright was eager for a new start in California. He began visiting the area regularly while designing Tokyo’s famed Imperial Hotel. This commission meant that he had to travel overland from the Midwest to California before boarding a ship to cross the Pacific.
In January 1923, Wright opened up a small office in what is now West Hollywood. He had already finished one local project the previous year, Hollyhock House, built for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. His drawing board was soon filled with plans for four more houses, to be constructed solely of geometric cast concrete blocks. He referred to these commissions as textile block houses and they turned out to be unlike anything he had designed before.
Although Wright’s textile block houses represent only a small fraction of his total architectural output, he used their design to explore the same broad themes and ideas that consistently held his interest throughout his seven-decade architectural career.
These include Wright’s lifelong interest in periodic personal reinvention and developing regional architecture throughout the country using local materials. This passion was closely tied to his ceaseless desire for technological innovation and, sometimes paradoxically, his interest in creating affordable housing for the middle class.
Every Block a Work of Art
But to understand how these elements fit together, you need to understand the blocks themselves. Like any modular system, their success depends on exacting tolerances: each block must be precisely the correct size and dimension so that it can fit snugly against its neighbors.
The blocks were all hand-cast on the premises using the site’s own sand. Wright designed three-dimensional geometric patterns especially for each house that were pressed into the block’s surface. “Each block is a piece of abstract art in its own right, but then together, they form something more,” says Eric Lloyd Wright, a Malibu architect who apprenticed with his famous grandfather for nearly a decade in the 1950s.
The size of each block, 16” x 16” x 3.5”, was “intended to be about what one person can lift without too much effort,” says Wright. The blocks were stacked directly atop each other in parallel rows. “Just as with interlocking children’s building blocks, no mortar was necessary,” he adds.
Reinforcing bars were added, then concrete was pumped into the cavity between the rows to “lock” the blocks together. These bars are what give the textile blocks their name, Wright says: “My grandfather thought of the bars as being woven through the structure, like the warp and [weft] of threads being woven on a loom.”
Four Stunningly Original Homes
Although the textile block houses are widely referred to as being pre-Columbian or Mayan in design, Eric Wright doesn’t see them that way. “My grandfather never imitated anyone and his designs and concepts were all original,” he says. “A poured concrete block is very different from the carved blocks that were used in such a sculptural way in the Yucatan. The effect is similar, but they’re not an imitation.”
The Alice Millard House, known as La Miniatura, came first in 1923. Millard was a repeat Wright client, having already commissioned a Prairie style home back in the Chicago area with her late husband. La Miniatura is located on a one-acre lot on the cusp of a small ravine in Pasadena. In response to the inevitable naysayers, Wright famously proclaimed, “I would rather have built this little house than St. Peter’s in Rome.”
The property’s lush landscaping and guesthouse are the work of Lloyd Wright, Frank’s son and Eric’s father. In addition, Lloyd supervised the construction of all four of his father’s textile block homes, as well as using the technique in several of his own commissions.
The John Storer House, located on a steep hillside site in the Hollywood Hills, also dates from 1923. Its overtly vertical massing was unusual for Wright. This home also features Lloyd Wright’s landscaping.
Dating from 1924, the Samuel Freeman House also features vertical massing. But unlike the Storer House, its hillside setting in the Hollywood Hills “reads” as more horizontal than it actually is. Samuel and Harriet Freeman in effect ran a salon of the arts and letters in their home for nearly 60 years. The smallest of the textile block houses at 1200 sq. ft., the Freeman House nonetheless contains some 12,000 blocks. The house is now owned by the University of Southern California.
The last and largest textile house, for Charles Ennis, is the best known to the general public as it occupies a visually arresting site atop the crest of a steep hillside overlooking Hollywood in the Los Feliz neighborhood. Completed in 1925, the Ennis House has been used in dozens of motion pictures dating back to 1959, most notably as a stand-in for the bleak, futuristic Los Angeles of the 1982 hit “Blade Runner.” The home, which is composed of more than 27,000 blocks, is buttressed by a dramatic retaining wall.
Block by Block
By the early 2000s, Eric Wright and his firm had been called upon to restore the textile blocks of all four houses, recreating and replacing blocks as necessary. “We used exactly the same process my father and grandfather did,” he says. “It was an interesting process to emulate them and find out what the challenges were.”
Not surprisingly, the challenges were substantial, starting with the composition of the blocks and how they were made. “Supposedly all four houses used the same mix, but the aggregate varied and the blocks aged and deteriorated differently,” Eric Wright says. “They cleaned the sand as best they could, but there was no way to wash and test sand like there is now.”
The Ennis House in particular has faced structural challenges. “At Ennis, they used decomposed granite from the site to color the blocks but impurities caused the blocks to wear poorly,” Eric Wright says. “And there wasn’t enough care taken to ensure that the concrete covered the joint, so that water penetrated those blocks and dissolved the reinforcing rods, leading to the collapse of blocks on the south face.” The deterioration was bad enough that the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the property on its "11 Most Endangered Historic Places" for 2005.
And then there were the forms used for pouring. At Millard, the earliest of the houses, workers had used wooden forms. “The wood expanded and contracted, making it hard to get uniformity among the blocks, which in turn made them difficult to lay,” Wright says. “By time the wall was laid, the blocks could be as much as 1.5 inches off plumb.”
The solution: use aluminum forms to cast the blocks, just as the original workers did with the three later textile block houses. “It was difficult work but we were successful,” Wright says. “Now you can’t tell which blocks are repaired or original except that the surfaces of the new ones are not etched due to age.”
Today, Eric Wright is still captivated by the textile block system. “I really love the use of the pattern and the way in which the textile blocks let you simultaneously create both the home’s exterior and interior as you lay the block,” he says. “My grandfather used to talk about bringing the outside in so that there is a congruity between a building’s exterior and its interior and these homes do exactly that.”
Blocks for the 21st Century?
That raises the question of whether such a laborious process could be modernized enough to ensure its viability. “Yes, if it could be mechanized so that the accuracy of a machine is brought to bear in making the blocks,” Wright says. “My grandfather always hoped someone would step forward and recognize the value of the blocks and mass produce them, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
It’s a far cry from commercial viability, but one site has successfully used 3-D printing to restore a much later Wright-designed concrete block project. The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, dating from 1941, is the centerpiece of a 12-building constellation of Wright buildings on the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla. With local oyster shell-based sand mixed into the local concrete, the chapel’s 6,000 blocks have been especially vulnerable to the vagaries of Florida weather.
Using $400,000 in matching grants from the Florida Division of Historical Resources and the National Park Service, the college launched an ongoing project to restore the chapel’s blocks starting in 2014. Several 3-D printers assisted with creating new molds. The new molds ended up being a combination of 3-D printed elements and handmade parts and, the college says, significantly reduced the blocks’ cost.
This technological innovation won’t do much to help realize Frank Lloyd Wright’s dream of his textile blocks being readily available at the local hardware store for an industrious homeowner to use in building his home with his own two hands. But it’s a start.
Ever the architect himself, Eric Wright has given considerable thought to how the textile blocks could be improved. “I always felt it would be good to increase the block width from 3.5” to 6”. The blocks would be heavier but still easily lifted using simple machinery,” he says. “That would make it easier to seal each block at the joints to minimize weather damage, and we could use stronger concrete in the cores.”
Top Image: Detail of the Hollyhock House | Still from "Artbound" S1 E1: That Far Corner - Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles