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Sarah Susanka, Hip Roofs, and Prairie Style DNA

Aloha Sarah — and Mahalo Frank

Let’s take a DNA strand out of Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating Finding Your Roots show on PBS, and apply it to residential architecture and our latest design by architect Sarah Susanka, Plan 454-11. It was  originally

conceived for a dramatic view-oriented meadow on the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown here. The plan is a new addition to our Signature Studio and one of the descendants, if you will, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School houses (remember the recent film of the same name about a Hawaiian family, starring George Clooney — genealogy is everywhere at the moment!). I’m thinking of the

Ward Willits house in Highland Park,Illinois, of 1901, shown above (photo and plan, courtesy delmars.com). See how the hipped roofs and horizontal lines of the Willits house dominate, appearing to float over the deeply recessed eaves. Susanka’s roofs also float; her design resembles a series of interlocking pavilions shaped to capture views in every direction. In the Willits plan, below, the

rooms radiate from the hearth at the center of a pinwheel, further accentuating the horizontality of the design and thereby expressing the lines of the Prairie

itself, hence the style name. Sarah Susanka’s plan, above, does something similar but within the overall constraint of the rectangle. A generous central hearth also anchors her design while the island kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom wings reach toward terraces and the landscape beyond. A classic

Susanka touch is to craft a room-within-a room for a sense of intimacy in a larger space, as she does here in the breakfast alcove with its built in seating and

window walls. She uses dropped soffits — like abstract cornices — to support concealed lighting and vary ceiling heights, which is also something Wright did. Susanka’s use of wood to articulate structure also recalls Japanesque design and this resonates with Wright and his lifelong interest in Japanese prints, not to mention his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from the early 1920s. It turns out he traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905, with guess who — Mr. and Mrs. Willits.

But you may ask, how does Prairie style relate to Hawaii? Well actually, there’s a logical connection, and it has to do with the hipped roof. The Hawaiian architect Charles Dickey is credited with developing a regional Hawaiian style of architecture through his use of the broadly sheltering hip roof — as shown

on his own house of 1926 at Waikiki (photo courtesy Wikipedia). Bertram

Goodhue’s more elongated hip roof for the Honolulu Academy of Art of 1927 developed the form on a monumental scale (photo by Burl Burlingame courtesy Honolulu Star Bulletin). Though the Wrightian and Susankan roofs read more as separate geometric units that seem to levitate over their structures than the Hawaiian hips, I think you can see the visual DNA connection. I’d just call them calabash cousins — i.e. extended family — no saliva test required.