Visionary Architecture:
Frank Lloyd Wright vs. House on the Rock

by Julie Reichert-Marton


This discussion will compare two flowerings of Midwestern United States architectural expression, originating from the same region of Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alex Jordan with Tom Every at The House on the Rock. It will explore whether both factions are visionaries by studying an architectural device that both use–the phenomenological experience of architectural compression and expansion--and to what degree this device acts as a simulacrum of a visionary experience in the oceanic sense when one encounters these spaces.


The Compression/Expansion Effect

The phenomenological combination of architectural compression and expansion is an architectural effect possibly first discovered and then exploited for ritual purposes intended to elicit or model a visionary experience by prehistoric man. It has been theorized that one reason that many of the cave paintings of stone age humans were found in caves that were very difficult to access was because they were ritual and sacred spaces. Imagine, for a moment, the initiation of a young hunter that is led, terrified to his initiation ceremony deep inside the earth. Perhaps he is directed to squeeze through many narrow passages and then suddenly he is awed by the shock of an expansive change of spacial proportion. Before him the once bright light of the torches is now, anaemically attempting to illuminate a vast pitch black cavern from the walls of which ferocious hunt animals appear to stampede. The acoustics have changed from the close breathing and sounds of him and his escorts to timeless echoings. The psychological and physical compression that he experiences by squeezing through the long and tight cave passages effects his perceptions and emotions when he suddenly breaches the threshold of a great cavern.

This architectural device has a profound effect on the human psyche and is designed to evoke appreciation, awe, or in some instances spiritual illumination. The oceanic phenomenological experience elicited by spatial flow from a constricted and usually dark area into a much larger, airier space has been a common tool in Architectures’s box of tricks since the prehistoric days of cavern-painting and most famously realized in classical Rome’s Pantheon. Likewise, in Indonesia at the ancient temple of Borobudur the effects of architectural/psychological compression combined with sudden expansion were used to elicit a visionary experience and model the experience of enlightenment for the Buddhist practitioner. The perception of oceanic expansion of space is used to its greatest visionary effect here. The pilgrim after winding up three miles of close, labyrinthine passageways encrusted with increasingly esoteric religious sculptural friezes is allowed to pass to the final level of the temple, turn a corner and is suddenly confronted with a magnificent expansive vista and presumably spiritual enlightenment.


Wright’s Influence on Jordan

Compression/expansion is used by both Frank Lloyd Wright in his architecture and Alex Jordan and his collaborators at the House on the Rock. The relationship between these factions is primarily one of proximity. (Alex Jordan never met Frank Lloyd Wright in person.) They center around the region of southwestern Wisconsin where both Alex Jordan and Frank Lloyd Wright were raised.

Frank Lloyd Wright was admired as a cosmopolitan and world-famous architect by the citizens of Wisconsin during the thirties and forties, Alex Jordan’s formative years. Wright was reputed as both a local hero that had made a great name for himself and an arrogant genius packed into the body of a short man. Jordan’s father, a builder, at one point during Alex’s early years had an opportunity to show some architectural drawings of his finest edifice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright took a look at the drawings and swiftly dismissed them along with Jordan Sr.’s architectural skill. This insult had such a profound effect on Jordan senior and his son that it was possibly the seminal motivation for the House on the Rock. At the time, Jordan senior had half-heartedly sworn to thumb his nose at Wright by building a great house up on Deershelter Rock not far from Wright’s Spring Green, Wisconsin retreat at Taliesin.

But it was Alex Jordan who initiated the building project suggested by his father up at Deershelter Rock, his favorite camping spot, that later became the site of his magnum opus. When construction began, no one paid much attention or interfered, even though the building was already well underway before he looked into leasing the site from the landowners.

If form follows function then the earliest structures at Alex Jordan’s home and environment near Spring Green, Wisconsin, were originally intended to function as the curio cabinet of a visionary with the collecting bug, a meditational swinger’s retreat in the wilderness and conversation pit. Stylistically, the earliest phases of House on the Rock are a homage and a mockery of his famous and citified neighbor to the north. Jordan caricatures all of Wright’s architectural signatures. Ceilings are impractically lower, and cantilevers are more extreme. There is more stained glass, there is more orientalism, there are more and larger hearths and more of the natural environment is literally brought indoors. Likewise, Jordan is supremely successful in his organic melding of the architecture to the Rock. Throughout the early structures one gets a sense of Jordan’s joy of the site and surrounding landscape, an affinity that he shared with Wright.

Compression/expansion isn’t a major element of the early phases of House on the Rock. It features somewhat from room to room, and building to building especially when one enters the three-story library, but the effect is secondary to the riot of other architectural kudzu encompassing and incorporating the landscape. It isn’t until years later in the House on the Rock’s development that Jordan revisits one of Wright’s favorite architectural devices in a way that transcends anything Wright ever created with it.


Wright and Compression/Expansion

Frank Lloyd Wright uses compression and expansion more than once in his Oak Park, Illinois home and studio where the effect is especially notable upon entering the play room and the studio’s octagonal presentation room/office. However, upon passing through the compression hallway and into Wright’s rooms one is not overcome with an oceanic universal sense as discussed above or of anything beyond the virtuosic and rational use of space and intent to awe on a terrestrial level. His use of the effect is meant as a drum roll before the reveal of the work of art and design. It’s about displaying his formidable genius and his rationally developed and elegant aesthetic.

Frank Lloyd Wright is often lauded as a visionary architect. Here we will consider the definition of a visionary artist as someone who uses expressive means to show what lies beyond the confines of terrestrial sensory perception. Such an individual is convinced that he or she has directly experienced or perhaps indirectly intuited that which transcends the boundary of regular modes of human senses.

These experiences are often impossible to recreate by artistic means or by verbal means. Those who have had these experiences are compelled by them to try to recreate or describe them in any way that approximates the experiences and communicate or express them somehow to other people. In a nutshell, visionaries can be defined as evangelists of subjective, physically intangible, ultra sensory experiences.

Does Frank Lloyd Wright fit this definition? No. Granted, he might have had visionary experiences that influenced his work, but his personal genius and ego overrode any touch of the otherworldly that might have inspired him. There appear to be a few clues that appear within the work of Wright that can lead one to suspect that there was a glimmer of the transcendental moving him. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by nature. It’s especially promising that he took inspiration from the lowly prairie weeds that so many of his well-heeled neighbors took great pains to remove from their gardens in favor of ornamental species. One of the most impressive but humble items that a visitor will see on a tour of the home and studio is a 30" tall copper weed holder. It’s very tall and slender with a tapering square profile. The curators at the home and studio in Oak Park, IL activate the weed holder with four pieces of long and curling dry prairie grass that fills the space in an oriental, minimal and asymmetrical fashion. Gorgeous. Poignant. Simple. Zen. The design demonstrates that Wright understood the Japanese design aesthetic beyond simple oriental mannerism. However, if Wright was a visionary, he was a visionary that reigned in his expression with such great restraint and perfect analytical skill and rationality that the Ess curves and juice of nature have been dehydrated and crystallized through the apollinian filter of a shining brow.


Compression/Expansion at the House on the Rock

If Frank Lloyd Wright’s rationality and restraint make him a dubious visionary, his Wisconsin neighbor, Alex Jordan’s raw visionary aesthetic leaves no room for doubt. Jordan’s life work, House on the Rock, is a runaway wreck of a visionary spectacle. The sheer excess of it screams Jordan’s message from a literal mountain top. The tour of House on the Rock begins in the earliest sections when it was the hand built home of an eccentric young man both inspired by and spiteful of Frank Lloyd Wright. Double tiered shag-covered window banquettes create intimate lounges with fire pits/hearths where the visitor can recline and gaze down onto the tree tops through Japanese style square lattice windows. This pad is swank. It tempts the viewer to indulge in sultan style indolence. This early home is a caricature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic minus any attempt at rationality. Jordan never made blueprints or plans for his buildings more sophisticated than a doodle on a paper napkin. This domestic space is about creature comforts, enjoyment of nature, curio display and sensual indulgence. It is loose and fun.

It’s easy to overlook sybaritic or sensually indulgent visionary art forms as just kitschy play. But what drives visionaries like Jordan to express themselves with over the top sensuality, as evidenced in spectacular creations like the World’s Largest Chandelier made out of, (what else!) hundreds of huge crystal chandeliers, is the memory of a visionary experience or experiences that compel them to recreate them. Often they report sensations of depths of transcendent experience that is physically unperceivable and therefore irreproducible. Yet they repeatedly attempt to approximate the euphoria or communicate the impact of that experience, in vain, by heaping and layering terrestrial spectacles and an overload of stimuli. This visionary opulence is the thread of continuity that runs throughout the evolving buildings and collections of exhibits at The House on the Rock. It’s an implacable "Too much is never enough" aesthetic.

Moving to later areas of the building project the change of form makes it clear that these spaces are meant to function as a people-moving roadside attraction and not an intimate living space. Jordan is no longer trying to build a great-looking piece of architecture. From the outside the later buildings look like huge windowless, corrugated metal warehouses. They’re not meant to be seen from the outside so they’re painted brown to blend in with the forest shadows. Clearly, the importance has shifted to what is housed inside the buildings, Jordan’s collection of collections, the gigantic, theme exhibition halls.

Throughout the building of the House on the Rock, Alex Jordan employed a series of artisans and craftspeople to help him realize some of his otherwise unattainable dreams. One of these collaborators, Tom Every, a visionary artist in his own right, was an instrumental influence on two of the most wondrous spaces at the attraction, the Carousel Room and the Organ Room (the World’s Largest Chandelier mentioned above is in the Organ Room). The Carousel Room is without doubt the most over-the-top example of architectural compression/expansion on the planet. Tom Every claims that he designed it. A look at his background and personal body of work lends credence to this claim.


Dr. Evermore

Tom Every is a salvage master and assembleur of Texas-sized industrial found objects. At certain times in his career he’s even had access to defense department and space program grade surplus. He’s assembled a Jules Verne style visionary environment called, "The Forevertron" in Baraboo, Wisconsin behind Delaney’s Surplus and across from the Badger Ammo Plant. The environment is the stage set of a very elaborate narrative in which a scientist has himself whisked across time and space through this device, while visiting dignitaries watch from their V.I.P. box. The sculpture is hashed together from the oversized debris of the industrial age. It appears as if one could flip a giant switch like Dr. Frankenstein and set the whole thing abuzz with a super cell amount of electricity. Every calls The Forevertron, The World’s Largest Sculpture. The scale of it is immense indeed. All of the archeologists who are mystified that ancient humankind had the ability to accomplish the building of the Pyramids of Egypt and Mexico or Stonehenge might get an inkling of understanding of how it is done if they talk to Tom Every. Creative or religious passion combined with a stubborn compulsion is a force of nature that can literally move mountains. That elusive force is apparent in most of the projects that Every has set his hand to, whether a personal project or in his collaboration with Alex Jordan at The House on the Rock.

This collaboration between Jordan and Every was a miraculous marriage of minds. Every brought his access to monster surplus, the experience, drive and ability to manipulate matter on a titanic scale, and his own flamboyant artistic style to the House on the Rock. Every’s contributions freed Jordan from his need to express himself as an architect and allowed him to indulge in his love of collecting and creating wonderful things that delight and transfix the masses. The focus of the building project shifted from the display of architecture to a display of environments and collections.


The Carousel Room

As a visitor winds his or her way through the site one comes to a long, dark, narrow passageway. Moving through to the end of the corridor, a small postage stamp of busy movement and music appears to be at the end. When the threshold is breached, the entirety of the room is revealed and the source of the movement is discovered to be a huge carousel. The impact of the compression/expansion architectural technique combined with the environment that it reveals leads one to understand that this room is about more than showing The World’s Largest Carousel.

The Carousel Room is one of the high points of Jordan and Every’s working relationship. Tom Every claims that he "designed" this part of the attraction, but it has a very different feel than the Jules Verne inspired atmosphere seen in the Organ Room and The Forevertron. On the surface, the Carousel Room is dominated by "The World’s Largest (and gaudiest) Carousel" which spins very fast opposite the entrance of the room. The ceiling and upper part of the wall is covered with a host of life sized mannequin-like female angels. Along the back and left side of the room are countless individual carousel horses/animals installed one atop the other. The room is loud with the sound of the pneumatic music machine at the center of the carousel jingling, tooting and honking early 20th century arcade music. The carousel is a stunner. It looks like it came into being when Lawrence Welk gobbled up Versailles for dinner, got nauseous from dervishing a furious Polka and then vomited into a roaring blender . . . only more sparkly. The carousel is so visually busy and encrusted with detail that the only place for the viewer’s eye to rest, even for just a microsecond, is upon one of the lurid peacocks looming in the canopy. Below the canopy, lit by the illumination of chandelier after chandelier, more than a hundred fanciful and unique carousel animals whiz past to the right like a mutant menagerie stampeding through the dressing room of a Vegas showgirl revue. To the left of the giant carousel one must be corralled, having been stupefied and blinded by opulence, by roped walkways and signage toward a Hellmouth exit. In relation to every thing else vying for attention in the Carousel Room, it is unnoticeable.

To recap, the designers of the Carousel Room have used compression/expansion to reveal a great space populated by hosts of angels above, and dominated by an overwhelming sensory fantasy, from which the visitor exits via Hellmouth. Since the usage of compression/expansion is often used to instill a sense of wonder and awe and even evoke a feeling of otherworldliness, it is natural to suspect that someone is illustrating or trying to evoke this kind of euphoric state here at The House on the Rock. It seems likely that this environment was inspired by a direct visionary experience instead of an intuitive expression of someone’s idea of a heaven. The layering and layering of sensual stimuli and overkill of opulence are symptomatic of a kind of ultra sensory states that are described by visionaries. The presence of the angelic figures and the Hellmouth function to drive home the point to the viewer using the common language of stereotypical mythology that the visitor is being exposed to something more sublime than The World’s Largest Carousel.

If the Carousel Room was designed to model the emotional and experiential impact of a vision of otherworldly paradise, it is a paradise that differs from most other visionary depictions of the heavens. Instead of being a typical portrayal of a serene and placid heavenly paradise, this vision of otherworldly bliss is a raucous, frenzied heaven that resembles a Mardi Gras celebration on fast forward. The carousel could be read as an animated set for the frolicking of heavenly creatures. Or perhaps, one is meant to read it as a single entity or the face of God. If this is so, the spinning of it calls to mind the hovering gyroscopic creatures that drift in from time to time to address Jim Woodring’s Frank. It certainly evokes within the viewer similar reactions to those described by biblical visionaries, especially the feeling of humbled confrontation which is intentionally enhanced by the use of compression/expansion, and the desire to avert one’s eyes away from its overpowering splendor.

So at House on the Rock compression/expansion has in a way outpaced the local genius that originally ignited Jordan’s desire to be an architect. The Carousel Room, a possible attempt at lampooning one of Wright’s favorite architectural tricks takes the effect beyond the terrestrial dimension and creates a phenomenological estimation of a very profound visionary experience. Wright’s use of compression/expansion was virtuosic, but it doesn’t indicate any possible state of being beyond the rational, and harmonious use of terrestrial space. Wright is an innovative and artistic designer and inventor but not a transcendent visionary. Which is fine, because a place like House on the Rock is a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.