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Frank Lloyd Wright

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From the beginning of the 20th century through present day, the relationship between the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the traditional architecture of Japan has been widely discussed amongst fans and critics. Wright acknowledged an important commitment to Japanese art, and particularly to the woodblock print, but he consistently rejected that Japanese architecture had any direct impact on his work. Wright maintained that the Japanese culture confirmed many of his own design principles, but was not the inspiration for his architectural works.

Japanese art made its US debut at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Seventeen years later, Japanese architecture became the focus when the Ho-o-den Palace was put on display at the Chicago World's Fair (Birk 62). Although Frank Lloyd Wright was familiar with these examples, his fondness of Japanese art did not become apparent until his trip to Japan in 1905. At this time, the young architect became quite taken with Japanese printmakers, who he believed caught the essence of natural materials in rare and beautiful fashion. Wright took pictures of Japanese temples, waterfalls, and other examples of nature. He acquired a huge collection of Japanese art over his lifetime. Wright was also captivated by Japan's architecture which some people think started the Japanese influence on his future works. One commentator has gone so far as to suggest that the prairie style with which Frank Lloyd Wright distinguished himself in the early years of this century could more accurately be termed the Japanese style. One particular house Wright designed has a resemblance to the Japanese design.

Frank Lloyd Wright is essentially the "father" of Prairie style, and the acknowledged master of the prairie house. Prairie houses were well suited to the flat, open spaces of the Midwest, and their horizontal compositions helped them blend into the landscape. They utilize low slung roofs with deep overhanging eaves, which are both strong Japanese influences. They were also the first to use interior walls sparingly, providing flowing space and freedom of movement. There was commonly a taller central area, such as a two-story living room, from which wings of the house extended in cruciform, L, or T-shaped plans, among others. A fireplace usually had a central location and provided additional structure support. Casement windows, skylights, and French doors extended the view into the surrounding countryside. There was generous use of wood, especially white oak, as well as fireproof materials such as brick, stucco, and concrete (Commissions 2). When designing the prairie house, Wright kept in mind that the form of the building should articulate its primary function and that architecture should be a social expression, as well as, an art form.

In the early Prairie House, Wright effectively reduced the American suburban dwelling to a simpler form consisting of a large communal space centered on a free-standing chimney and bordered by dining and study areas. The particular configuration of the early Prairie House appears to have had part of its inspiration from the central hall of the Ho-o-den Palace, the Japanese pavilion built in south Chicago for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which remained on its well-known island site at the center of Jackson Park for almost half a century (Commissions 3). The plan of the Ho-o-den's central half consisted of four main spaces, the jodannoma, a private sitting area which was separated by a change of level from the tsuginoma, where guests were received; the shosai, a study or library; and the konnoma, a food serving room. The central hall of the Ho-o-den and the plan for the American family dwelling, had broadly similar domestic functions. Each element of the Japanese arrangement appears to have been the source to its Western equivalent in the early Prairie House plan. The jodannoma became a sitting area directly in front of the hearth, which had replaced the traditional decorative wall-alcove. The tsuginoma became a living area, the konnoma a dining room, and the shosai, a study or library. Under normal circumstances the various spaces of the central hall of the Ho-o-den were separated by fusuma, opaque sliding screen (Storrer 38-39). However, during the World's Fair several of these screens were removed in order to allow visitors a better view of the interiors from the surrounding verandah. There was essentially one large space serving several different functions.

The implications of this for the American domestic interior were apparently not lost on Wright, who later described this characteristic as one of the central features of the new Prairie House. There were indeed no plans precisely like that of the Prairie House at the time. However, one only had to remove the fusuma, sliding screen, from the central hall of the Ho-o-den in order to produce something very similar (Storrer 45). Ironically, it seems they may have been the origin of some of the practical problems discovered in several of Wright's early houses. Without internal divisions, for example, there was little separation between such incompatible activities as dining and study. Similarly, although Wright occasionally used fixed seating and other types of screen in an attempt to offset the feeling of exposure in some of the Prairie House living rooms, as in the 1902 Ward Willits House, for example, within an open-plan arrangement the sitting area in front of the typical Prairie House hearth was often far from intimate (American 2-3). The Ward Willits House is considered the first of the great Prairie houses. Built in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, the house presents a symmetrical faÐ"§ade to the street, the plan is a cruciform with four wings that extend out from a central hearth (American 3). In addition to art glass windows and wooden screens that divide rooms, Wright also designed most of the furniture in the house. Wright continued to visit Japan and receive great pleasure and inspiration from its architecture.

Shortly before the end of his first visit to Japan, in late April 1905, Wright made the popular tourist pilgrimage to the mountain resort of Nikko, a hundred miles north of Tokyo where he saw the two main attractions, the Tosho-gu and the Taiyu-in-byo. Wright seems to have been impressed with these structures, although not, however, with their fabulously rich decoration, but rather with their distinctive gongen-style plan forms (James 24). Within a month of visiting Nikko, Wright and his wife Catherine returned home to Oak Park but, three weeks later their local Unitarian Church was struck by lighting and burned to the ground. Wright was asked by the Unitarian Church to present a proposal for a replacement building. The resulting plan, which Wright presented to the church committee in early September 1905, had a striking resemblance



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