A Green Addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meeting House

Architects of the First Unitarian Society’s new eco-friendly addition find inspiration in the ideas of original architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect rendition of the green addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Society Meeting House. (The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.)

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“We’ve always had a high degree of respect for his body of work,” says Vince Micha, project architect for Kubala Washatko. “He was pretty daring and willing to do the untested. That takes a great deal of courage and self-confidence and a bit of ego. You end up with some pretty astonishing results.”

The architects assembled a panel of Wright experts, including Thorpe, to comment on their designs. Early plans included massive chimneys and triangular spaces echoing those in Wright’s design. The alternative was to counter his sharp angles with a gentle curve.

“The arc was the purest, quietest, simplest form to use in relation to the intense geometry in the Wright building,” says Micha. The architects eventually took advantage of the south-sloping site, placing the mass of the addition below the entrance level. The top floor seems to hug the earth, as does Wright’s building.

“If you’re going to touch it and add onto it, you must respect it,” says Thorpe. “Kubala Washatko was sensitive enough to end up with a design that does that.”

Micha calls the area where the two buildings are joined together “a really tender spot.” Glass walls topped by a glass roof slid underneath the broad eave of Wright’s roof provided the solution. “It sort of created this hyphen between the two structures.”

Windows running the length of the upper-level space dominated by glass, steel, cable wire and red-stained concrete floors (a shade matching Wright’s signature Cherokee red) are accented by red pine support posts from the Menominee tribal lands, a renowned sustainable forestry project in northeastern Wisconsin. As with the limestone used in Wright’s original structure, local products were used in the addition.

Kubala Washatko and other architects practicing sustainable design today rely on local materials to avoid the negative environmental impact of transporting products over long distances. For Wright, materials indigenous to a place had value since they required no additional decoration; the ornament was within. “He wanted it laid up in the way you would find it in nature,” says Garver of Wright’s use of stone in his Meeting House.

The new windows are flush to the floor, an approach similar to the one Wright used in the loggia of his landmark building. “He runs window into stone—there’s no elaborate framing,” says Garver of Wright’s technique. “It makes ambiguous what’s inside and outside.” Bringing light into a space was critical in Wright’s theory of organic architecture, for it connected the interior with nature.

Does all this make Wright a green architect?

“He was essentially green because he believed in the environment. But I wouldn’t call him green,” says Jack Holzhueter, a local historian who lived for a time in Jacobs II, Wright’s pioneering passive solar home. “To attach that label to him is not correct because we did not have that term then. He created structures that would now be called ‘toward green.’”


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