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The Anatomy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Aesthetic

Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in the Architectural Review February 1968

Frank Lloyd Wright’s acknowledgment of his kindergarten experience and outward resemblance buildings and the illustrations of the ‘gifts’ in the Froebel manual (1) are already well known (see Grant Manson’s ‘Wright in the Nursery,’ AR, June, 1953). Though remarkable, these comparisons did little more than indicate the source of Wright’s characteristic ‘style.’ Closer investigation – at the level of intention and organisation rather than simply of appearance – suggests that; time kindergarten was of a much more radical significance for Wright, that it provided him with a philosophy and with a design discipline to realize his architecture.

Froebel did not intend his patterns merely to have aesthetic appeal. He conceived them as the instrument of a system of education based upon a pantheistic conception of nature. The aim of this was two-fold, intellectual and spiritual; an understanding of Natural Law would simultaneously develop the powers of reason and convey a sense of the harmony and order of God: ‘God’s works reflect the logic of his spirit and human education cannot do anything better than imitate the logic of nature.’

Froebel identified the governing force of nature as ‘the Divine principle of Unity’ and found a medium for conveying this metaphysical ideal during his study of crystallography (he studied several natural sciences in an effort to substantiate his preconceptions). The geometry of crystallography, which he supposed was typical of the structure of all matter, became the basis of the patterns in the kindergarten handbooks (2). The Froebel gifts were presented to children as sets of wooden blocks packed in cubic boxes and accompanied by a text describing the purpose of each. By modern standards, the requirements of the manual are extraordinarily strict. The theme of unity becomes a moral discipline; only complete symmetrical patterns are allowed, and the child is encouraged to feel that their pleasing effect is a reward for respecting ‘order…Heaven’s  first law’ while ‘arbitrariness’ are condemned as being against nature.
Such a discipline must have made a deep impression upon Wright. It presented him with a comprehensive vision in which aesthetics were inseparable from universal principles of form. In the light of such an inheritance we may appreciate his extraordinary confidence in the absolute validity of his architecture as an expression of Natural Law and his almost messianic belief in his role as an architect. The extent to which he was indeed affected becomes apparent if one compares extracts from the text of the manual and examples from the exercises with some of his own characteristic statements.

‘The child is first taught to take the cube out of the box undivided in order to inculcate alike the sense of order and the idea of completeness…In life we find no isolation. One part of the cube, therefore, must never be left apart from or without relation to the whole. The child will thus become accustomed to treating all things in life as bearing a certain relation to one another.’

‘Any building should be complete,’ said Wright, ‘including all within itself. Instead of many things one thing…Perfect correlation, integration is life. it is the first principle of any growth that the thing grown be no mere aggregation…and integration means that no part of anything is of any great value except as it be integrate part of the harmonious whole.’
In each of the Froebel patterns the parts have to some extent surrendered their identity to the whole to which they contribute. For Wright this was a basic recognition; parts added, porches, verandahs and balconies, should not be sensed as additional but should seem intrinsic, as extensions of inner structure. To help the child arrange the blocks, the kindergartener could provide a table-top ruled with a grid.(3) The discipline of a grid, combined with modular components, engenders the kind of correlation described. Wright appreciated this in his own planning: ‘What we call standardization is seen to be fundamental groundwork in architecture. All things in nature exhibit this tendency to crystallize…The kindergarten training, as I have shown, proved an unforeseen asset…a properly proportional unit system kept all to scale like a tapestry, a consistent fabric of interdependent related units, however various.

Given these disciplines, T-square and set-square were the obvious tools of Wright’s aesthetic. It is characteristic of his sketch-plans that they are matted with explanatory lines – a mesh refined and tightened to correlate appropriate parts. ‘This principle of design was natural, inevitable for me. It is based on the straight line technique of T-square and triangle. It was inherent in the Froebel system of kindergarten training given to me by my mother.’
Some of the exercises are composed with rectangular blocks rather than cubes, and these set up a tartan, rather than an even, modular grid. A typical pattern consists of two interpenetrating cruciforms, breaking through a square, establishing an interdependence of interior structure and external shape comparable to that in Wright’s work. Infact it is surprising to find Froebel anticipating one of Wright’s most fundamental propositions; for the handbook claims that the gifts ‘enable the child to strive after the comprehension of both external appearances and inner conditions’ and emphasizes that the outward shape of the patterns is conditioned by the geometry of the whole. Similarly, the exterior forms of Wright’s buildings usually project internal spaces, the precedent of the Froebel excercise suggesting that he started from a geometric premise rather than from some personal spatial insight: ‘This sense of the within, or of.the room itself, or of the rooms themselves, I now saw as great thing to be expressed architecture. This sense of interior space, made exterior as architecture, transcended all that had gone before…Hitherto all classical or ancient buildings had been great masses or blocks of building material sculpted into shape outside and hollowed out to live in.’
Comparisons of this kind, between flat patterns and architecture, must take into consideration the perceptual difference between seeing the whole pattern from above and grasping the overall form of a building from its perimeter. Wright understood this problem when he wrote, ‘I have endeavoured to establish a harmonious relationship between ground plan and elevation of these buildings; considering the one as a solution and the other as an expression…’ This is aptly illustrated by one of the models in the manual, which is an alternative to the flat patterns. The rather unbelievable ‘bath,’ translates the characteristic intersection of square and cruciform into three dimensions. The overall structure is conveyed by the elevational distinction between the two figures; the interplay of steps and podium at each end depend upon a similar expression.

The approach to Wright’s Prairie  houses, which follows, has been developed from the preceding analyses. The evolution of typical features of the period, the overhanging rooLs, the podia and the projecting cubic forms, is considered as an extension of the kindergarten system rather than simply the invention of a personal idiom. Wright’s architecture, often supposed the most impervious to formal analysis, reveals a surprising geometric rigour. The plan of the George Blossom house of 1892 is, for example, obviously analogous to the intersecting squares and cruciforms of the patterns. Elevationally the plan is conveyed by the recessed central bays, which suggest that the entrance porch and balcony are extensions of the plan rather than additions. In comparison, the front and side elevations of the Winslow house of the following year are far less explicit. They obscure the grid extending through them, making no response to the main entrance and porte cochère. In this respect, the august exterior of the Winslow house seems to have made little contribution to the main stream of Wright’s development. The interior, on the other hand, heralds his future spatial technique. At the centre of the house the entrance hall, a deceptively simple box, is ingeniously integrated with the rooms to which it gives access. Its constituents – fireplace, doorways, balustrades and steps – provide a substructure corresponding with the dimensions of adjacent spaces.

The plan of the Isidor Heller house (1897) is similarly conditioned. Here the dining-room and living-room are related across the entrance hall by a common axis. The dining-room, like the entrance-hall of the Winslow house, is substructured to integrate with the spaces serving it. The access slots and dining area are consequently distinguished and a served-servant hierarchy suggested – an early precedent for that currently fashionable idea. This subdivision in plan enabled a distinction to be made between loadbearing wall and window. Wright had been dissatisfied with the windows which simply appeared as holes in the walls of the Winslow house (‘I used to gloat over the beautiful buildings I could build if only it were unnecessary to cut windows in them.’) Here the position of the windows is determined and they express the cruciform organization of the plan – a step towards the complete interdependence of exterior and plan in the living area of the Joseph W. Husser house, two years later. The exterior of the Husser house is in this respect the antithesis of the front elevations of the Winslow house. No longer conceived as a separate entity wrapped around the plan, it is the product of the various components which make up the interlocking volumes of the interior; this is the crux of the idea which Wright’s architecture inherited from the kindergarten.

It will be seen that the Hlusser house is developed from an underlying grid. From the plan of the Charles S. Ross house of 1902 it is possible to abstract a perfect tartan and from this the volumes of the building can be projected exactly, in the same way as in the case of the Froebel bath. The predominant figure is a cruciform with another contained within it, comparable with the Froebel cruciforms on a tartan grid. This kind of figure was to be the basis of most of Wright’s later houses. In this example, the inner cruciform is expressed with porches and balconies and the outer with the roofs, which are extended geometrically from the main cube of the house. The raised portion of the living-room ceiling and bedroom casements also correspond with the inner grid. The podium further develops the theme of modules contained one within another by expressing a yet wider module, which is related to the volume it surrounds as the eaves are to the volumes beneath them. The same grid underlies the little Barton house of the following year, distinguished by a more consistent structural discipline which perhaps reflects Wright’s preoccupation with the large scale structure of the LarkinBuilding at this time. The plan is again composed crosses, one within another, the exterior walls and main piers of the porch representing the outer figure, and the bay-window of the kitchen, the living-room flower boxes and the extended verandah of the porch representing the inner one. Other components submit as rigidly to the pattern; the living-room windows, with their large flat cills, and the chimney and dining-room sideboard expose the wider module of the tartan, the lesser module being taken up by the structure throughout. The grid also relates the house to the adjacent Martin house, with which it forms a larger group.

The E. E. Tomek house of 1907 is another variant of the same theme. The grid, not so explicit or so readily comparable with Froebelian precedents, engages the sidewalks of the suburban corner site and integrates them into a circulation system continuous inside and outside the building. In the living areas, a distinction is made between ‘served’ and ‘servant’ spaces which recalls the Isidor Heller dining-room. Although it can be interpreted as a cross penetrating a rectangle, the Tomek house illustrates the longitudinality which Wright had begun to adopt in preference to the symmetrical cruciform plan. The organization is revealed frontally as a succession of layers standing one behind another. In previous examples, the inner modules of the plan have been revealed by successive projections at the extremities. Here, in addition, the screen-wall and non-structural piers in the foreground suggest that a layer has been stripped away to reveal the actual external wall in the middle. By disintegrating the perimeter wall in this way, Wright was able to expose further cross-references between the extremities of the plan, and to suggest that the main volume of the building stood within the grid rather than around it.(4)

The detached corner piers of the Robert Evans house of 1908, have the same effect. To use an analogy with the kindergarten- it is almost as if they defined the extent of the ruled table-top within which the pattern stands. Wright’s progress can be measured by comparing the Evans house with the Blossom house based upon the same cross-in-square plan sixteen years before. The windows of the Blossom house conform to an elevational discipline unrelated to the interior. Those of the Evans house express the cruciform component projecting between the blank corner units which establish the square. The tentative projections of the Blossom house have become, in the Evans house, the cantilevered roofs of verandah and porte-cochère. Beneath these the inner modules of the grid are represented by components of various heights, flower boxes, balustrades and bay windows arranged so that they overlap but do not obscure one another. With this assembly of parts, characteristic of the mature Prairie period, Wright translated the patterns of the kindergarten into a three-dimensional system of architecture.

1 – The Kindergarten Guide, an illustrated handbook designed for the self of kindergarteners, mothers and nurses. By Maria Kraus Boelte and John Kraus. New York, E. Steiger, 1877. All quotations are from this edition.
2 – ‘As late as 1898 Herbert Spencer (whose works Wright was to read avidly) could stifl assert that the growth of crystals and organisms was “an essentially similar process”. See Peter Collins, ‘Biological Analogy,’ AR, December, 1959.
3 – At the end of the eighteenth century Durand was providing his students at the Ecole Polytechnique with an array abstract room-shapes which could be arranged on squared paper to make ideal symmetrical designs. There is no evidence to suggest that Froebel was familiar with this technique, though he was, for a time, apprenticed to an architect. See Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture by Peter Collins.
4 – Grids and intersecting forms in the work of Le Corbusier are discussed in a joint aiticle by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutsky, to which the present study is indebted. See Perspecta 8: Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal.’