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Sunday20 August 2017

Learning from Chicago: Travels with Frank Lloyd Wright

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Despite barely building outside the US, Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence – and influences – are felt all over the world, writes Gwyn Lloyd Jones

 

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth I set off on a journey with him to six very different countries outside America, reflecting on how Wright’s own personal encounters with new cultures moved him and how he in turn disturbed these indigenous settings.

These journeys take Wright beyond his American masterpieces and open up a dialogue with “organic” architecture and the wider world. Whereas the scope of my journey and the resulting book is global, many of the insights into Wright’s work were gained from local examples of his “organic” homes:

 

KOBE, JAPAN

Contrary to most other architects in America at the time, who traditionally sought their education in Europe, Wright’s first journey outside the United States was to Japan in 1905. He called it the “most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth…”

I arrived a century later to retrace Wright’s journey that he recorded with a set of photographs. I took a detour to visit Kobe and the Yamamura Villa (1918) that Wright designed as a second home for a local sake brewer and which was constructed by his assistant, Arata Endo.

 

Yamamura Villa, Japan, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Copyright: Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Entry to Yamamura Villa, Kobe, Japan (1918) by Frank Lloyd Wright

 

From the images I had seen of the Yamamura Villa, I was excited to see how Wright had taken his Japanese-influenced residential designs back to their origin. The villa follows the Taliesin mantra “of the hill”, stepping back with the receding contours. It rises to four storeys, yet is only two storeys high at any point. In plan it has a slight turn at its centre.

A set of ornamental urns greeted me as I entered the house beneath the first-floor breakfast room that formed a sheltered carport. This room commanded great views on three sides, overlooking the entrance, the adjacent hill, and a prow that addressed Osaka Bay. At the back was a western hearth with an abstract expressionist design.

On the second floor a stunning galleried landing directly engaged with the spectacular autumn colours, and behind the landing were three Japanese-style rooms featuring tatami floor mats, retractable screens and built-in cupboards. The wall decorations and cupboards were muted in comparison to Wright’s typical western rooms. I had hoped that perhaps this was Wright’s tribute to Japanese architecture, but unfortunately not, as these rooms were a late addition by the client and were designed by Endo.

 

Galleried landing, second floor, Yamamura Villa, Kobe, Japan

Copyright: Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Galleried landing, second floor, Yamamura Villa, Kobe, Japan (1918) by Frank Lloyd Wright

 

The Yamamura Villa interiors articulated the conflict between two approaches: prairie house versus the Japanese dwelling. Wright’s rooms are constructed around a focused perspective that is familiar and legible for westerners, while Endo’s Japanese sequence of rooms exists in a self-contained void. The intensity of Wright’s ornamentation was tempered by the stillness and simplicity of Endo’s rooms. Yet juxtaposed they offer an inventive example of cultural translation and integration.

 

ILMINGTON, COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND

Wright was famously invited to Britain in 1939 to occupy the Sir George Watson Chair on behalf of the Sulgrave Manor and in honour he presented four provocative lectures at the RIBA. It was a seminal confrontation between Wright’s democratic-based decentralised Broadacre utopia and the dense urban living that was supported by the British modernists. Wright recalled of his 1939 visit, “[We] found the old place delightful. English homeliness and quaint ugliness. As English as anything in Pickwick.” For Wright, England remained a Dickensian world of inequity.

In 1950 at the annual prize giving of the Architectural Association, Wright again railed against the elitist architectural establishment and education. The English architect Robert Harvey had travelled from the Cotswolds to hear Wright speak. I visited Ilmington to view some of Harvey’s work.

 

Frog Orchard House, Ilmington, England

Copyright: Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Entrance to Frog Orchard House beneath overhanging eaves, Ilmington, England (1959) by Robert Harvey

 

As I approached Frog Orchard House (1959) by car, I was struck by how uncannily true it was to the Wright idiom, with its dominant roof form, deep overhanging eaves, the use of natural horizontal banded stone tied to the earth and long bands of horizontal casement windows. I could almost have been in Oak Park. The house was carefully sited, engaging directly with the orchard and a southern aspect, and the garage acted as an enclosing arm drawing the visitor in, yet protecting the occupants.

The owner kindly discussed the house and its architecture with me. She thought it a beautiful and brilliantly designed property, and explained how the roof was designed so that the sun always reached the end of the living room in winter, and always stopped at the window sill in summer. Despite the external appearance of the house, its internal spaces were divided into a formal arrangement and did not feature the flow of space that was such an essential characteristic of Wright’s homes.

Yet the house articulated an emergent “usonian” architecture in Britain that was particular, modest and well designed and a counterpoint to the dominant architecture of the Welfare State of the time.

 

UDINE, ITALY

Wright’s fame was called on in 1951 to bolster western capitalist values in Italy. As part of this cultural propaganda, he opened his own retrospective entitled “Sixty Years of Living Architecture” in Florence, the home of the Renaissance. Wright’s work was promoted in post-war Italy by Bruno Zevi and the Venice School of Architecture as a reaction to Mussolini’s modernist architecture.

I visited the Romanelli Villa (1950-55) in Udine by Angelo Masieri and Carlo Scarpa, which is now set within a modern suburb. The owner welcomed me in and was keen to show me around his house. He explained the concept of the property:

“It is a long wing that spans from one side of the property to the other. You have just entered via one part of the wing and at the other end is the garden. The house is in the middle … The original design was by Angelo Masieri but when he died in a car crash the house was finished by Carlo Scarpa. The horizontal roof on the right of the house was introduced by Scarpa, as it was originally pitched.”

 

Romanelli Villa (1950-55) in Udine by Angelo Masieri and Carlo Scarpa

Copyright: Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Garden view, Romanelli Villa, Udine, Italy (1950–55) by Carlo Scarpa and Angelo Masieri

 

The villa faced the garden obliquely. The wing feature identified by the owner began at the entry, passed through the house and formed an abstracted pergola. The roof followed the same orientation. But the central part of the house was rotated so that its leading corner addressed the garden. In addition, the elevation was articulated by wide vertical render bands, forming an abstracted set of columns.

Looking at the house from the garden, I could recognise that it had been inspired by Wright’s Taliesin West, with its geometrical spatial planning, while it also possessed certain details from the prairie house period – the projecting roof forms, compression of the entrance space, and the corner window details. The embracing wing seemed to ground the design in its site, making me think of Palladio’s work.

Travels With Frank Lloyd Wright by Gwyn Lloyd Jones

Travels With Frank Lloyd Wright by Gwyn Lloyd Jones - cover showing the former Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Inside the house the owner opened up the shutters to show off the internal space to its best advantage. Here, the space flows seamlessly around the central hearth in the approved Wrightian manner. Part of the living room was a double-height space divided by the external wing, forming a close dialogue with the garden beyond. While Wright’s dynamic “organic” architecture may be considered as the opposite to the static Palladian architecture, the Romanelli Villa seeks to reconcile this conflict.

Wright realised many of his global ambitions: by designing and building examples of “organic” architecture overseas; by lecturing widely; and by exhibiting his ideas and presenting his work to an international audience. He also became a promoter of his own “organic” mantra that had developed from a site-specific inspiration to a dogmatic style that was “everywhere and nowhere”.

My journeys with Wright provide an alternative reading of his global ambitions contrasted with tales of contemporary resistance which reclaim “organic” architecture from being a bland global phenomenon to a highly articulated local expression of difference.

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