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Living in a Frank Lloyd Wright House is Like Eating Humble Pie

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For contributor Sarah F. Cox’s ongoing series on the changing face of Detroit, she got to spend two weeks in October running around the Motor City in search of the region's most compelling architecture and design. She frequently stopped for BBQ, as well—equally compelling.

For most architecture scholars, the most intimate experience they will have with Frank Lloyd Wright house will entail a trip to his house in Oak Park, Ill., or Falling Water in Mill Run, Pa. But Ralph Nelson went much further than a passing tourist—he moved into one. As of six months ago, he’s the newest resident of the Affleck House, located in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The home was built in 1940 and is owned by Nelson’s employer, Lawrence Technological University, where he is the assistant dean and director of graduate programs for the College of Architecture and Design. We sat down in his home to talk about what might be considered the ultimate job perk of an architecture professor.

Curbed National: What's your favorite part of the house?
Ralph Nelson: The kitchen. Because it's just this small footprint with a very, very tall space and in the morning all the sunlight comes from the clerestory windows up above, and it just plays on the brick walls.

CN: Is this house drafty at all?
RN: It’s all radiant heat in the floors. There are water tubes that wind back and forth in the concrete.

CN: And that (radiant heat) was built originally?
RN: Yes, that's all original. And it still works so far—no leaks! Wright was very progressive. And it's kind of the most comfortable way of heating a space; you’re always next to the floor.

CN: Are there any drawback to living here? You mentioned the location was a bit isolating, but is there anything missing in the design? Is it at all out-dated?
RN: I actually prefer houses that are a little bit simple, almost primitive. You get back to the basics of living. I can’t really say anything bad about the house; I really just take it for what it is: wonderful. It’s an old cliché to say that Frank Lloyd Wright designed to be in harmony with nature and bring the outside in, but we are sitting here, and that is what it is. That is what it feels like. There is this connection to the sky and the tree tops, we’ve got rolling landscape. So it's not a cliché; it's just a fact. You feel like you are outside and inside at the same time. It’s indoor camping.

CN: How has living here affected you?
RN: Living here has made me think about what people need to be happy in a living environment. In America, there is this sense that you need more, you need more stuff. From my perspective, it's actually more luxurious to have less and to live simply because you appreciate everything so much.

CN: Do you live differently here than you have in other places?
RN: No, but I think it's not unlike the philosophy that Frank Lloyd Wright had about what is important for good living. You don’t need fancy materials, per se: this house is concrete, brick, and some wood. But that's actually more rich because it's simple and rustic. It's not the materials that make it rich, it's the sophistication about how it's all put together.

CN: Many will argue that Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous American architect. Do you agree with that? Does he deserve his reputation?
RN: Most people think the bigger the building, the more important the building, and therefore the more important the people built it. But Frank Lloyd Wright is a perfect example of someone with a core set of simple beliefs, simple principles —but very profound—that end up being more meaningful in society for recognizing the uniqueness of the individual. He helped promote the idea that he was a mythic figure, but he did it in a really interesting way, which was to be modest in his ideas but very bold in the dissemination.

CN: So how did you get to live here?
RN: Just pure luck, chance, and cheekiness.

· All Motor City coverage [Curbed National]
· All Frank Lloyd Wright coverage [Curbed National]