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Building Homes With Plastic Forms: Will It Be the Wright Stuff?

November 09, 1986|DIANE KANNER | Kanner is a Los Feliz are free-lance writer. and

Taliesin Associated Architects, heir to Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy of "organic architecture," is building a house out of plastic.

Located near the gates of Wright's Arizona home and school, Taliesin West, the one-story structure with a rooftop deck that provides a 360-degree view of the Phoenix Valley, is framed in steel, formed of polyurethane foam and is sheathed with stucco.

Using foam forming makes economic sense in the desert, where the greatest building expense is beating the heat. Its R 50 insulation factor, clean application with glue-like concrete, freedom from flashing and seams and its flame resistance, are making its use as a construction material more common in the Phoenix area. It resists absorbing the rays of the sun.

At least 50 other homes will be built on the 74-acre tract in Paradise Valley, some with Wright plans which, until now, have only existed on paper. Some plans were executed by his disciples, the Taliesin Associated Architects.

More are planned in foam so that the architects can experiment with the dozen or so products. The first house, according to a spokesman for the Taliesin Gates Development Co., is being built on speculation and has several interested buyers. Price figures are not available, but are estimated at $1 million plus. Changes are being made daily, and even with the acceptance of the foam in the local building trades, workmen are having a tough time working with it in its zig-zag configuration.

The use of a substance that is not plucked from the desert floor, such as the natural rubble rock of Wright's own home, makes some wonder whether Wright would think polyurethane was right for construction purposes.

Certainly he was the first to use materials that people considered bizarre, but he usually pulled the experiment off. He used steel members in homes when contemporaries were using it in skyscrapers. He reinforced concrete, put sinuous patterns into it, then formed it into blocks. Who else could have gotten away with a building that looked like a seashell in the middle of Manhattan, as the Guggenheim Museum does?

The steel of the 4,300-square-foot "focus house" would not have grated at his philosophy, for he believed that man-made materials were as appropriate to 20th Century construction as those of nature.

Would polyurethane foam, hot-wired into a vertical arrangement of triangles, qualify? In a lesser density, and with a different chemical makeup, this is the stuff that we throw away every day. Can a material used for coffee cups and flotation devices be considered classic enough for time-immemorial "organic architecture?"

That was the question put to half a dozen one-time Wright clients. Now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, they worked with Wright before he died in 1959. The Cultural Heritage Department of the city of Los Angeles arranged for them to meet for the first time to discuss the pleasures and perils of living with Wright's work. Over 100 homeowners and administrators of Wright homes met at his Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park.

"Wright was able to find steel when war was on the horizon," Arch Oboler, recalled. "He had an amazing genius for using the right material at he right time. Who am I to say he would not use plastic?

The client most familiar with the foam form process, a chemical engineer, feels Wright would have used it years ago, since it is already accepted in Europe.

'Knew Value of Material'

"He was not interested in practical details like fireplace dampers," says Donald Loveness, who commissioned a home in 1958 in Stillwater, Minn. "But he knew the value of a material derived from 3-cent a gallon oil, which was what it cost in the 1950s."

Taliesin Associates has been building with polyurethane for at least five years. According to Tony Puttnam, who had studied at Taliesin under Wright, the group showed the material to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation when they were planning a building north of Phoenix, and the soundness of the plastic "took everyone aback. I took along a hammer, and no one could put a dent in it. When you don't have craftsmen anymore, you have to try new materials," he said.

In Los Angeles, the Department of Building and Safety has not been as anxious as its Phoenix counterpart to approve the material. Six brands have passed its fire standards, and are being limited to applications in commerical refrigeration panels and as residential roof insulators. But engineers in the department do not rule out a future application in wall forms.

Perhaps the foam walls will go up in the Hollywood Hills, where a group called the "The Wrightian Association" is hoping to build houses in the Wright way in the $200,000 price range. It sounds like a cheaper version of what architectural historian Kathryn Smith calls "the yuppie retirement village" of Taliesin.

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