Frank Lloyd Wright's sojourn as a Modernist in inter-war Europe
Everyone agrees that Frank Lloyd Wright occupies a unique place in the history of 20th-century American architecture, but not many would also know that it was a man named William Allin Storrer who confirmed it when he followed Ludwig von Köchel in devising a numbering system for his master's works. As a result, for the past 15 years, along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 'K' numbers, we have had Wright's 'S' numbers.
The Storrer Index now lists more than 450 individual buildings and projects undertaken by Wright between 1886 and 1959. Whether it will eventually supersede the older Taliesin Index remains to be seen.
But it has already proved one thing: there is still vast academic mileage in Frank Lloyd Wright studies. America devours one hero after another, but American scholarship seeks the evidence of inspiration wherever it is found.
Wright knew Europe well - for a Midwestern American in the preJumbo jet age. His first visit was in 1909 and his last only months before the outbreak of the Second World War. In May 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright paid a visit to England. His purpose was to deliver four lectures to the RIBA, which he supplemented by showing 16mm 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 might be invited to lecture as an 'Environmentalist' today. As far as can be discerned from the transcripts of his lectures, later published as a book and included in Wright's own 1954 publication The Future of Architecture, this was a role he accepted. This is remarkable because from 1908 onwards he called his work 'Organic Architecture' and, from the early 1930s, drew clear distinctions between it and what he dismissed as 'European Bauhaus Modernism'.
Wright's RIBA audiences were the largest that had ever been seen at its new headquarters in Portland Place. The charismatic American architect drew in potential Modernists from all over the country;
young architects and students whose enthusiasm had been ignited by continental visits, as well as magazine and book illustrations of the work of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ernst May, Bruno Taut, Vladimir Karfik and others.
At the time in England, Modernism was thought to be an avant-garde, cosmopolitan, continental and socialistic phenomenon, whose political ramifications extended far beyond its architectural style. All its leading figures were German, French, Italian, Czech, Soviet Russian or American. Some of them had visited Britain, en route to the US, as refugees from fascism. But in almost every case their visit had been brief and most English architects had never met any of them. Thus, those who came to hear Wright encountered their first authentic Englishspeaking Modern pioneer.
Wright had a different agenda. 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'.
Whether the sight of Stalin's awesome collective farms reminded Wright of the American Midwest or not, we do not know. What we do know is that in 1939 he did find inspiration in Europe.