The Millard house is one of five concrete block homes constructed by Wright in Southern California — others include the Hollyhock House, the Freeman House (under the care of USC), the John Storer House (owned by Hollywood big-wig Joel Silver), and the Ennis House (which you may recognize from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner). The home represents Wright’s first foray into modular building, and his efforts to break away from the “prairie house” architectural style that had become synonymous with his name. He turned to concrete as his new building material in 1906 when Alice Millard commissioned him to construct her second home on a lush green site located in Pasadena. Wright challenged himself to only create something beautiful from what he called “the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world”, and to develop a new low-cost flexible building system with the same material.
Given the unique location and formation of the site, Wright wanted to design a structure that would meld with the land. The home clings to the lot’s steep ravine, nestled within a thicket of trees. To build the blocks, Wright took sand, gravel and minerals found on the property to create earth-toned concrete that would help the building blend with the natural landscape. Wright aligned both the method of building and the aesthetic of La Miniatura with his lifelong love of natural materials and his belief that buildings should belong to their surroundings.
When developing his concrete block technique, Wright used a standardized block as the basic design unit. The blocks were constructed using wooden molds and a tongue and groove system reinforced with conventional mortar. Each of Wright’s concrete homes has its own unique block design, and the Millard House features a modernized pre-Columbian motif of a central cross and a square in each corner. Some of the blocks are solid while others are perforated to allow filtered light through the cross, breaking up the dullness and visual mass of the concrete. Moreover, by adding ornamental designs to mass-produced blocks, Wright hoped the blocks could become a “masonry fabric capable of great variety in architectural beauty.”
Unfortunately, fabricating the blocks was not as quick and easy as Wright had hoped. While the building system was flexible, it proved to be more expensive than planned, and the house was 70% over budget, totaling $17,000. Some accounts report that the builder walked off the job, leaving Wright to pay for the remaining costs out of his own pocket.