Just Wright

A new show at the Design Museum focuses on Frank Lloyd Wright’s early years. Clare Melhuish looks back on his life

In 1957, when he was not far shy of his 90th birthday, Frank Lloyd Wright gave a lecture at London’s Architectural Association. Architect Mike Gold, formerly of the Grunt Group, recalls that after arriving three hours late, Wright entered the hall from the wrong end and began to speak from the back of the room, forcing the audience to turn its chairs round to face in the opposite direction. As the commotion subsided Wright bellowed, “Boys, who is the greatest living architect?” and received a gratifying chorus of appreciation: “Frank Lloyd Wright!”

His irrepressible arrogance and flair for self-publicity are well-known. His influence as an architect has fluctuated with the mood of the times, both during and after his lifetime. The rich and even rather florid style of Wright’s work, especially in the early years, is not to everyone’s taste. But the masterpiece of his later years, Fallingwater, is probably universally admired.

During the past 20 years he has joined Le

Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn in the canon of great modern architects taught in architecture schools. Yet in the late 1950s at the AA, students who emulated Wright’s “organic” approach and artistic style of drawing were failed. Wright and his organic approach were seen as being in opposition to the Modernists: you had to choose between them. Most students were deeply in thrall to Le Corbusier and the International Style, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s artistic style “captured people’s minds” as Gold (not one of those to be strongly influenced by his work) puts it.

Since the rejection of Modern Movement dogma in the late 1960s and 1970s, recognition of Frank Lloyd Wright has grown dramatically. He offered a possible lead in the search for a new approach to architecture – an alternative to functionalism and the machine aesthetic. In Britain he was a particular influence on such architects as Terry Farrell, Richard MacCormac and Ted Cullinan. These three were part of the first wave of reaction against Modernism and have each, in their different ways, established distinct architectural styles characterised by complexity, integrated ornament, varied materials and sensitivity to context. Farrell states in a recent interview (Images monograph, 1994) that “I consider Frank Lloyd Wright the major architect of the last 100 years. He was outside all the major schools or extremes, yet he was greatly influenced by all that was going on in the world around him.” MacCormac and Cullinan came under the influence of Wright while at the Cambridge School of Architecture in the 1950s. At the time this was a centre of enthusiasm for the work of Wright and Alvar Aalto, who represented rich alternative strands of Modernism to the Bauhaus and the International Style.

Wright considered himself a Modernist. He rejected revivalism, believing that architecture should reflect its time, and blamed the Chicago World Exposition of 1893 for setting back US architecture because of the undue influence of Beaux-Arts ideology. Like Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school, he believed in functionalism, technology, and the free plan. He aspired to designing as much of the living environment as possible, including furniture and fittings, and as his career progressed his commitment to a social programme for architecture became increasingly clear. But he pursued these ideas in architectural forms very different to those favoured by the European Modernists. In so doing, he established an approach rooted in American cultural traditions and landscape which – for that very reason – was denigrated by American architects. These included such names as Philip Johnson, who was interested in promoting the European Modernism of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier because it seemed more cultivated.

As early as the 1890s Wright evolved a set of six principles of organic architecture which by the 1930s had become a whole lifestyle, embodied in the Taliesin Fellowship – the house, lands, office and apprenticeship structure that Wright and his wife built in Wisconsin. The first principle was that simplicity and repose, implying the elimination of all unnecessary structure, detail, decoration and furniture, should be the measure of art. Second, architectural style should reflect the individuality of the client. Third, buildings should be shaped to harmonise with their site and surroundings. Fourth, architectural form and detail should be abstracted to its essentials, as exhibited in the colours and forms of nature. Fifth, materials – and, by implication, structures – should be deployed in such a way as to express their nature. Sixth, architecture should have spiritual integrity, reflecting human values of sincerity, truth, and graciousness, and bringing delight to people.

These values were already clearly expressed in the work that forms the subject of the Design Museum exhibition – the so-called Prairie houses. Wright made his first trip to Japan in 1905 and was inspired by the simplicity and spirituality of traditional Japanese architecture. In 1909 he travelled to Europe and saw the work of the Austrian Secessionists. Wright considered this the European equivalent of his own and Louis Sullivan’s work in the States. By the mid-1920s Wright had developed a critique of the International style, rejecting the idea that functional efficiency in a building should be expressed by a machine, or factory aesthetic.

Wright’s commitment to architecture generated by a true-to-their-nature use of materials, the integration of detail and ornament, and the harmonisation of buildings with their settings started to take on a new resonance. His concern for the comfort, delight, and individuality of those using his buildings contrasted with the European Modernist concern with housing, feeding and educating the masses. In this Modernist work, individuals faded to ciphers and their happiness had no meaning beyond the satisfaction of physical needs.

In Britain, Wright’s influence is most evident in the work of architects who have developed a more expressive, decorative style that makes the break with Modernism explicit. But his power to captivate the architectural imagination has infiltrated the work of architects, particularly in the younger generations, who at first seem to owe more to the austere European Modernist tradition and little to the British-born Arts and Crafts tradition of the late nineteenth-century that is closer to Frank Lloyd Wright in spirit.

Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison says it is Wright’s approach to detail, particularly “the divisibility of detail in a large surface”, his flair for visual composition, and “his ability to make things beautiful using materials honestly” which is a strong influence in his office. Tony Fretton, architect of the Lisson Gallery, says that he is influenced “hardly at all” by Wright, but has an affinity for such unwavering Wright devotees as Alvaro Siza and his mentor Fernando Tavora. Nick Helm, who designed shops for Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake which epitomised the 1980s trend towards minimalist, highly crafted retail interiors, says that Wright has been an influence on his work in terms of detail, such as his horizontal bands of metal-framed windows, and for his concrete work.

Last year the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted the first major retrospective of Wright’s work since his death. This also acted as a sequel to the 1940 retrospective. Intended to present “a new generational view of Wright and his architecture”, since the earlier retrospective reflected the views of an earlier generation, the fact that it was criticised in some quarters for not being critical enough seems

to indicate that Wright’s place alongside Le

Corbusier, Mies and Kahn in the galaxy of the good and great is assured now for posterity.m

Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago: The Early Years opens today at the Design Museum in London and runs until 3 September.

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