Prairie School Architecture: Style & Materials

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does American architecture look like? One answer can be found in the Prairie School. In this lesson, we'll explore this style and see what made it one of the most influential architectural movements in American history.

Prairie School Architecture

What makes something American? Is the fact that it exists in the United States enough? This was a very important question to Americans of the 19th century, who wondered about the place of their growing nation in the world. What made Americans unique from Europeans? What defined American culture?

In architecture, that question would be finally resolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a group known as the Prairie School. Led by Louis Sullivan and his students (most notably Frank Lloyd Wright), Prairie School architecture rejected the ornate solemnity of English-inspired Victorian styles and sought to define American lives through the homes they lived in. The result was one of the most influential architectural movements in American history.

A Prairie School design
Prairie School design

Prairie School Ideology

This is a lesson on architecture, so clearly we need to start with a discussion of the movement's philosophy. To Sullivan, Wright, and the other members of the Prairie School, architecture was about more than just creating buildings that looked pretty and didn't fall over.

They believed that architecture could have a real impact on society; moral architecture made for moral citizens. Furthermore, American values could only be reinforced by uniquely American architectural styles.

These architects started trying to define American culture and identify the things that made it unique. Greatly inspired by the mid-19th century Transcendentalist movement, they came to the conclusion that the American landscape was what made the USA special.

The access to natural spaces and the vast openness of the Great Plains were unique in the Western world, encouraging an open, honest, self-reliant, and democratic culture.

Integration of Architecture & Landscape

The Prairie School was inspired by the American landscape, and their goal became to capture the essence of the prairie within architecture. In so doing, they hoped to create homes and buildings that would become part of the landscape, perfectly complementing the natural space and not standing apart from it.

So, how do you integrate architecture and landscape? Prairie School architecture was characterized by two main things: horizontal directionality and interior openness.

Note the horizontal focus of Prairie School architecture.
Prairie School architecture

The horizontality of Prairie School homes was created by an emphasis on horizontal lines and a deemphasis on the vertical elements of the house. These homes tend to have flat or very low-pitched hipped roofs with wide, overhanging eaves covering broad porches. Windows were generally thin and arranged in horizontal ribbons as well.

The flatness and emphasis of horizontal lines synthesized the exterior of the house with the flat, sparse openness of the Great Plains. However, this movement was one of total integration, so the interior also had to reflect these themes.

Prairie School architects did this by creating open floor plans with lots of interior space, as opposed to the boxy and intimate rooms of the Victorian styles. Windows brought plenty of natural light into the houses, and walls were generally left sparse, without much decoration or extraneous ornamentation and detailing.

Prairie School architecture emphasized an open interior.
open interior house

Emphasis on Natural Materials

To really drive their philosophy home, the Prairie School architects also put a lot of emphasis on the materials they used in their designs. Again, we can see two main influences in the material choices.

First, Prairie School architecture placed a major emphasis on using natural materials like stone and wood. This was meant to further the connection between the house and the landscape. Furthermore, the natural colors and textures of those materials were accentuated, rather than hidden behind paints, lacquers, or other treatments.

The second major influence on the materials of Prairie School architecture was another aesthetic movement of the time, known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Arts and Crafts Movement, like the Prairie School, rejected the industrialization and mass-production of the Victorian era in favor of artisanal and handcrafted products. With an emphasis on rectilinear shapes and patterns, this movement was a perfect complement to Prairie School architecture.

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