Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright Socialist Review



House on the prairie

Frank Lloyd Wright In Chicago: the early years

The Larking Building, Buffalo, 1904

A chance to see the work of one of the great modern architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, should never be missed, and the exhibition of his early work now in London is no exception.
Wright learnt his skills as an architect and engineer in turn of the century Chicago, and more significantly, at the offices of Adler and Sullivan, who created the first skyscrapers. Chicago was booming, and architects and builders had huge opportunities to experiment with new constructions following the fire that engulfed much of the city in 1871.
The exhibition has a number of drawings and pictures of Adler and Sullivan's beautifully crafted buildings, many of which Wright contributed to. They show the lessons Wright must have learnt both from the firm's engineering and its attention to detail and, to a degree, its ornamentation.
The exhibition also shows the influence on Wright of European thinkers such as John Ruskin and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, and the ideas of the Art Nouveau movement. It reveals the importance of the Japanese prints which Wright collected.
Wright was to use all of these influences when he left Adler and Sullivan and began designing homes for the firm's wealthy and enlightened clients. From this point on Wright began to quickly develop his own ideas and particularly the model Prairie House around which he gained fame.
His insistence on keeping to specific themes throughout a building produced not only lovely houses to look at but lovely houses to walk into and live in. He would often design not just a house, but all the furniture, furnishings and even the dinner service to create what he called an 'organic unity' of materials and space.
The exhibition has a good display of the beautifully executed drawings, furniture and leaded glass which Wright produced during this period, all of it showing the degree of detail and the use of natural materials which Wright was to employ throughout his life.
But Wright did not just design houses for the rich.
He was one of the first architects to use reinforced concrete in buildings. He was the first architect to design an open plan office, which accommodated what was then becoming production line clerical work. He was one of the first to completely break from the traditional 'rectangular rooms with doors' layout for houses, preferring to flow spaces into one another and to use leaded glass or wooden screens to partition areas. He was one of the first architects to use flat roofs. And he was the first architect to design a large building to withstand an earthquake--the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
Not everything Wright produced was good, but then he did design over 700 buildings during a career which stretched for over 60 years.
The only criticism is the entrance fee, but then for the price you do get to see the whole of the Design Museum which has a number of interesting exhibits over and above Frank Lloyd Wright's works.
Alan Gibson
The exhibition is at the Design Museum, Butlers Wharf London SE1, until 3 September

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