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Frank Lloyd Wright and the Dutch connection

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright had his breakthrough as an architect in 1893 with the Winslow house, then he was only 26 years old. 65 years later in 1958 he saw his last project finished, the Pilgrim Congregational Church in California, then he was 91. Durning his long career he became one of the most important and influential architects of the 20th century, and is credited to be on of the founders of modernism. Wright supplied some of the essential bridges between the architectural culture of the nineteenth century and that of the twentieth. He also was one of the first architects to break with electicism founding a new style based on a spatial conception of interpreting planes and abstract masses. This is considered to have evolved into the international movement, particularly through Dutch developments.

Wright became known in Europe through the Wasmuth Volumes, published in 1910-11, and especially in Holland through Petrus Berlage, a sort of father-figure of modern architecture in Holland. Berlage deeply admired Wright, he found qualities in Wright which matched his own ideals. At the same time certain dutch “expressionist” notably Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer also admired Wrights work, but on a background of aims and ideas that diverged considerably from those of Berlage. It was the “handicraft Wright” they admired rather than the “abstract Wright”. This is evident in De Klerk’s Zaanstraat Post Office in Amsterdam, which is a part of the Amsterdam School. With its strange brick patterns, its wavy roof profiles and its textured tower, it recalls the example of Wright in its horizontal dynamism, its layering of space and its use of materials. Wrights organic philosophy  and sensitivity towards environment and location also matched the Amsterdam Schoole’s own values.

The generation of Gerrit Rietveld, Theo van Doesburg and J.J.P. Oud, who were to contribute to De Stijl and who rejected Expressionism as an outdated manner from the time of individualism and handicraft, also saw Wright as one of their biggest inspirations. They despatched his suburban and naturalistic imagery as well as his sometimes exaggerated use of materials and concentrated on the spatial character and the use of levitating and intersecting planes. They justified this by perceiving this as almost entirely removed from the original physical and social context. De Stijl had a desire to return to more naked essentials of classical order and this was just in accordance with Wright’s radical simplification of base, middle and top in domestic and institutional designs.

Wright use of material and view on machine production shows his forward looking stance and connection to De Stijl. In a paper called ”the art and craft of the machine”, Wright explained that simple geometrical forms could easily be made by machines, and said that the architect must remain open to the changes of a new mechanized age.  Wright’s concrete houses did reveal engagement with technological experimentation and standardization, although it’s far from the mechanistic obsession of the European avant-garde in the same period.

In 1905 Wright chose concrete as his building material for a temple for the Unitarians in Oak Park because it was so cheap and easy to use. This was an extremely  bold move for someone at that time, and especially because he decided to leave the material bare on the exterior. Concrete became extremely popular and important for the modernist movement, including De Stijl, it was in many ways the material of the time. In 1916 Rob van t’Hoff used concrete as building material for the Villa at Huis ter Heide.  This was flat roofed, formed from simple rectangles and made from reinforced concrete. The influence of Wright was clear in the overhangs, the extending horizontals and the sliding  volumes. In fact, Van t’Hoff was one of the few European modern architects to have seen the american’s work at first hand.  It’ s possible that the dutch felt a special connection to Wright, because they saw how good his work stood on a flat and  “artificial” landscape, a landscape they could relate to.

An iconic work of early De Stijl was Rietveld’s red/blue chair design of 1917-18, because here an attempt was made to find a functioning equivalent in three dimensions to a rectilinear abstract painting. There can be no doubt that Rietveld received some stimulus from Wright’s earlier furniture design, founded in arts and crafts ideals, machine cut wood, and japanese simplicity.

The reason why this connection between Wright and Holland, particularly De Stijl, grew so close is maybe because of Hollands neutrality durning the first world war. While most of Europe was locked in war they were able to flurish culturally and to pick up on the new movements abroad. It’s also interesting to see how Wright could influence so totally different directions at the same time, to understand this it’s important to look at Wright’s one individuality. Being from America he was free from many of the old traditions, which were strongest in Europe, and were therefore not to influenced by them or had to much of a urge to revolt against them. His inspirations and influences didn’t even lie in the west, but in the east, it was japanese architecture which helped Wright achieve his synthesis. He did not visit the country until 1905, but saw examples on world exhibitions and from japanese prints. It inspired him to use overhanging roofs and a grammar based upon timber frames, transomes, and screens. Japanese prints suggested a language of shape and colour directly attuned to the feelings. In other words, the prints provided further lessons in abstraction. They gave Wright deeper insight into the intuitive apprehension of higher spiritual values. Through Wright all this would influence the hole international movement.

Frank Lloyd wright invented a language, revealed an new conception of space, and opened views on traditions near and far. His influence stretched far beyond U.S. borders and his connection with Holland is truly obvious and important.


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