Frank knew best

Martin Pawley

  • Frank Lloyd Wright. The Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influences by Anthony Alofsin
    Chicago, 456 pp, £43.95, March 1994, ISBN 0 226 01366 9

It may not be remembered in the current mammoth Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art, but in May 1939, just after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Frank Lloyd Wright paid a significant visit to England. His purpose was to deliver four lectures to the RIBA; lectures that he supplemented by showing 16 mm colour films of life at Taliesin West, the Arizona winter home of his peripatetic architectural family. Wright had been invited to speak as a ‘Modernist’ in much the same way as a speaker today might be invited to lecture as an ‘Environmentalist’ – and as far as can he discerned from the transcripts of his lectures, he accepted the role. This is remarkable, because from 1908 onwards he called his own architecture ‘Organic Architecture’, and from the early Thirties, drew clear distinctions between it and what he came to dismiss as ‘European Bauhaus Modernism’.

In that spring of 1939 Frank Lloyd Wright’s audiences were the largest that had ever been attracted to the RIBA’s new headquarters in Portland Place. The charismatic American architect drew in would-be Modernists from all over the country, young architects and students whose enthusiasm had been ignited by visits to the Continent as well as by magazine and book illustrations of the work of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Bruno Taut, Vladimir Karfik and others. At that time in England, Modernism was conceived to be an avant-garde, cosmopolitan, Continental and socialistic phenomenon, whose ramifications extended far beyond architectural style. Its leading figures were German, French, Italian, Czech, Soviet Russian or American. Although some German Modernists had visited Britain as refugees from Fascism, en route to the United States, in almost every case their visit had been brief; most Britlish architects had never seen them. Thus the Modernists and would-be Modernists who came to hear Frank Lloyd Wright were encountering their first authentic English-speaking Modern pioneer.

Wright knew Europe well, by the standards of the pre-aviation age; his first visit had been in 1909. Only two years before the London lectures, he had passed through again on his way to the Soviet Union to inspect the enormous collective farms developed under the Five-Year Plans. There he had seen what the émigré Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin described as ‘the disurbanisation of the towns and the urbanisation of the country ... the abolition of the contradictions between the urban and the rural proletariat ... the extinction of existing towns with their concentrated and unhealthy habitations, and their replacement with endless streams of human dwellings along the big arteries joining centres of industry with centres of agriculture’.

We do not know if the sight of Stalin’s awesome collective farms reminded Wright of the American Midwest. What we do know is that in 1939 he had curious ideas about Europe. At one of his London lectures he assured his audience, overwhelmingly composed of young men on the brink of the second great bloodbath of the 20th century; ‘the more you analyse Russian Communism, German Fascism, Italian Fascism, British democracy and American democracy, the less you will be able to see any substantial differences between them.’ Such blasé opinions, far from being confined to out-of-touch non-Europeans, were widely shared. Wright’s audiences included people who, like himself, had attended the debate at the English-Speaking Union on the motion about London being in more danger from builders than from bombers. This was an opinion that in certain quarters lasted until the Blitz. Fifty years later it was revived by Prince Charles in his 1987 ‘Luftwaffe’ speech at Mansion House.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a 19th-century man, with an uncomplicated belief in progress. He was born before Imperial Germany existed, at a time when the Emperor Napoleon III was securely on the throne of France and General Grant had just been inaugurated President of a mere 37 United States. Wright had seen and assimilated massive changes in his lifetime, and in architectural matters considered himself far in advance of the European Modern pioneers. In one sense at least he was right. In 1893, the year he set up in practice on his own in Chicago, Mies van der Rohe was barely seven years old, Le Corbusier was six, and Walter Gropius was ten. By 1908, when Wright’s work was first featured in the American magazine Architectural Record, in a flamboyant article entitled ‘In the Cause of Architecture’, he had already designed and built 187 buildings and planned and detailed 37 more. ‘In the Cause of Architecture’ compared the air-conditioned ‘commercial engine’ of a building that he had designed for the Larkin mail order company in Buffalo to ‘an ocean liner, a locomotive or a battleship’ – 14 years before any such comparisons were made by Le Corbusier. As Wright later observed, ‘the words may have escaped the Swiss discoverer – Le Corbusier – but he was young at the time.’

Wright’s 1939 London lectures give us an idea of his own view about his sources of inspiration before these became a matter for debate. This is important in considering Anthony Alofsin’s book, whose burden is that Frank Lloyd Wright was heavily influenced by the art and architecture of Europe. This is contrary to the received wisdom, which is that it was the European architectural avant-garde that was greatly influenced by Wright after the electrifying publication, in Berlin in 1910 and 1911, of two books devoted to his work. The next point of contact between Wright and Europe, other historians and biographers agree, did not occur until 1936, when the Kaufmann house, ‘Falling Water’ – the first design of his to show European influence – was completed. Alofsin’s view is that, given the small print run of the books published in 1910 – fewer than two hundred copies of the first edition – this pattern of cause and effect is unlikely. He argues that Wright’s visit to Europe in connection with the publication of the book was more important. Wright, he says, was welcomed in Berlin and Vienna in 1910 as a kind of American Secessionist (‘The Olbrich of America’) whose Chicago decorative style fitted perfectly, though accidentally, into the art world of the late German and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

That the work of Olbrich, Hoffmann, Wagner and Plecnik overwhelmed Wright on his European visit is not at all unlikely, in view of its grand urban context, its lavishness and its cost. Alofsin further argues that Wright transported Secessionist detailing and imagery back to the United States with him, in the form of a full-blown decorative and sculptural style of his own – a style that was to emerge in his work as early as 1914, at Midway Gardens, and was then to appear in a design of accessories to the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and finally to form a motif of circular planning and apertures that can be seen in his buildings until his death.

In many ways the interaction of European and American influences in architecture is an unrewarding study. True, European architecture was one of the major cultural legacies bequeathed to the former American colonies. It can also be argued, as it was by Adolf Loos and Richard Neutra, that advanced American building technology was the mainspring of all real Modernism. But if iron and steel construction, lifts and skyscrapers, all stemmed from Yankee ingenuity, it took European Bauhaus radicalism to convert them into the bald steel and glass see-through office buildings that became the architectural calling card of the 20th century.

It requires an act of decision to separate these transatlantic cross-influences. Wright made his in the 1939 lectures by dismissing the colonial legacy to America as ‘an Italo-French-English stumbling block that we still have to fight’. He ignored the European Secession (a creative movement wiped out when Germany and Austria-Hungary were overthrown in the First World War and, in any case, never more than a decorative inspiration for him), and then moved on to the inter-war urbanism advocated by the Bauhaus Modernists of the Twenties. ‘Collectivised’ Modernism, like Georgian architecture in America, did not appeal to him. Frank Lloyd Wright saw ‘negation’ at work, in both Europe’s Classical heritage in America and its inter-war preoccupations in Europe.

In 1939 Wright’s definition of ‘negation’ was very simple: it encompassed any design ideology that repudiated the ‘organic’ connection between a building and the land on which it stood. Thus, in Wright’s view, everything from the Parthenon to the towers of Manhattan – in effect all urban projects except those of the garden-city movement – were wrongly conceived. The young ‘discoverer’ Le Corbusier could never hope to enter Wright’s ‘organic’ pantheon in the way that the Secessionists Olbrich and Hoffmann had. Le Corbusier was damned by his own five points of architecture, the first of which called for buildings to be raised up above ground level on columns or pilotis, thus destroying their relationship with the earth.

When Wright arrived in Europe in 1909 he had found, as well as the decorative art of the Secession, a nascent Modernism already inextricably involved with urban ideas. It was this strain of architectural thought which, over the next fifteen years, and aided by the horrors of the Great War, came to him to seem a ‘negation’. Wright had no sympathy with the European Modernists’ ‘three-dimensional’ metropolitan centres, with motorways, train stations, airports and masts for dirigibles incorporated into the design of office towers, factory buildings and apartment blocks. All European Modernist housing was, as Wright saw it, urban. Its characteristic form was the rectangular, flat-roofed ‘German worker’ housing of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, arranged in serried ranks, like lines of trenches.

Wright found wholly unacceptable such drastic European practices as the orienting of housing according to sun angles and wind directions, without reference to physical topography, or allowing the most economical pattern of movement for an assembly crane to determine the distance between rows of apartments. Terraced housing was anathema to him. In all these things he saw architecture enacting the physical submergence of the individual into the group, and the disappearance of his own brand of 19th-century individualism. In Europe, as the Czech artist Karel Teige put it, the Modern building was destined to be an instrument, not a monument. For Wright this involved an annihilation of individuality characteristic of the mobilised slave societies of the Old World where, as the demobilised military engineer Corporal Mies van der Rohe wrote in 1924, ‘the decisive achievements in all fields are impersonal and their authors are for the most part unknown.’

Le Corbusier’s various urban plans, steadily developed from 1922 onwards into what became known as the Ville Radieuse, incorporated all that Wright detested. In it ‘the discoverer’ proposed an apartment city with a population density of 400 persons per acre housed in superblocks raised off the ground so as to leave 88 per cent of the land surface free. Later versions pushed the density up to 1200 persons per acre in 60-storey skyscrapers. Le Corbusier even addressed the possibility of mass air raids. His apartments incorporated roof slabs armoured against bombs and pilotis disposed so as to permit poison gas to blow harmlessly beneath the buildings.

This was the ‘battleship existence’ that Wright deplored. His American counter-attack continued for the rest of his life. Using the enforced idleness of the Depression years, he developed an arcadian urban framework called Broadacre City, and a variety of building types carefully designed to fit into it. Broadacre City was designed around the principle of one acre of land per person with building plots based on household size, so that a couple with five children would have seven acres and would, in effect, live on a small farm. Wright envisaged a new form of tenure whereby no one would actually own land, but only have the right to ‘use and improve’ it. With every household sized for self-sufficiency, Wright reasoned, there could be no proletariat. Nor would every resident be condemned to agricultural labour. The project would also include the spectacularly capitalistic ‘Mile-High Illinois’ skyscraper, with 528 storeys, out-rigged helipads and 56 ‘atomic-powered elevators’ where those inclined to be office workers would labour from nine to five before driving home to their one and two-acre plots.

Variations on the ideas expressed in Broadacre City appeared during Wright’s lifetime in several forms – from ‘The Disappearing City’ of 1932 to ‘The Living City’ of 1958. If these schemes were the architect’s longterm practical answers to Europe, then this in itself answers Alofsin’s argument. Indisputably Europe exercised an influence on his architecture, but it was an influence that helped drive him into more and more ‘Usonian’ (American) solutions. Ironically, the nearest Broadacre City ever came to realisation was in 1947 when the Presidential Advisory Commission on Universal Military Training, concerned at the difficulty of defending the United States against Soviet nuclear weapons, proposed that the whole of the habitable land surface of the country be arranged into grids by a system of superhighways, spaced 25 miles apart. An industrial complex was to be located at the centre of each square, while the population would be housed in low-density linear residential zones along the highways. An echo, perhaps, of the collective farms Wright had toured in the Soviet Union ten years before.