Wood, concrete, steel, and glass.
If someone were to ask you what a building is constructed from, these are the likely the first elements that would come to mind. In a Frank Lloyd Wright work, however, there is always another essential element, one which is as much a part of Wright’s calling card as the cantilever. His use of light, both natural and artificial, is perhaps as important to his designs as the foundations on which they rest. In this regard, Unity Temple is an exemplar of his early use of light to shape both the dimensions and the perception of a space.
From the exterior, Unity Temple is imposing. It is monochromatic in color and simple in design, many of its interior secrets carefully hidden from the outside world. Simple shape, texture, and relief are the fundamental components of the exterior. Nonetheless, depending on the time of day or night in which Unity Temple is viewed, the building reveals different aspects of its character as the sun and lights casts their shadows across the facade. The building’s lines and recesses are either hidden or accentuated by the light, imbuing it with a sense of lightness and life…no small feat for such a solid and simply-adorned structure.
Inside, Wright uses his trademark art glass windows and light fixtures to carefully shape the experience of the visitor. When in one of the three main interior spaces, only the filtered glow of the sun stirs a vague awareness of the world outside. As the sun moves across the sky, its light dances through the interior, creating new shapes and patterns and highlighting (or even revealing) different architectural details. Just as with the exterior, light brings the space to life. The experience is dynamic, but also solid and consistent. It creates a sense of solemness without heaviness. It is a sanctuary without coldness or isolation.
Unity Temple is like a theatre stage, Wright directing (or even misdirecting) your attention through his masterful use of light. You must stay for the entire show to fully appreciate it, though. If you are able, visit more than once, at different times of day, and give yourself time to experience how Wright’s design unfolds, minute by minute.
James F. Carr, jamesfcarr.design