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Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation | Jan 1, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright admitted to only three influences: the Froebel Kindergarten Gifts he had played with as a child; Louis Henri Sullivan, his early mentor; and the Japanese woodblock print. Of particular significance to his developing aesthetic was the woodblock print and the culture that produced it.

A renowned architect on the 20th century international stage, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867—1959) was a man of many and varied interests. He traveled and lectured widely, read exhaustively, and wrote prolifically. He was a keen observer of the world around him and found beauty in both the remarkable and the mundane. Surrounded as he was by a host of scientific and technological innovations, from which he drew enthusiastically, he admitted to only three influences: the Froebel Kindergarten Gifts he had played with as a child; Louis Henri Sullivan, his early mentor; and the Japanese woodblock print. Of particular significance to his developing aesthetic was the woodblock print and the culture that produced it.

Wright was introduced to the print in the late 19th century and by early in the 20th century had established himself as a major player among the small coterie of American collectors. In the ensuing decades thousands of prints found their way into American collections through the Wright connection and the architect still had 6,000 in his own collection at the time of his death in 1959.

Japanese prints were at the center of Wright’s attraction to Japan, but his interest in and knowledge of Japanese arts and culture were extensive and enduring. He found much to admire in this country he once described as “the most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth.”[1] Wright interacted with Japan on several levels, from physical reality to spiritual communion.

He made his first trip to Japan in 1905, travelled there again in 1913, and between 1917 and 1922, he spent almost three full years there as the architect of the New Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (demolished 1968), during which time he also added to an extraordinary personal collection of screens, textiles, pottery, lacquer, and sculpture which he incorporated into his architectural spaces with carefully considered effect.

Wright was outspoken about his admiration for Japan and its inspiration, frequently seizing opportunities to lecture on the subject. One of his first encounters was no doubt the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, where Japan and the arts were well represented. The main Japanese building, the Hōōden, was superbly crafted, gracefully proportioned, and elegantly furnished. It represented over 1,000 years of Japanese design and demonstrated that buildings that were structurally honest could be beautiful as well as functional, an aesthetic principle Wright would argue for his entire career.

On his first trip abroad in 1905 he went to Japan, where he found the country in the midst of unbridled modernization. He chose largely to ignore this “modern” Japan, focusing instead on destinations where the charms of old Japan with which he had become enamored through the prints could still be found. But, in addition to the romantic legacy they recorded, the prints had caught Wright’s attention because of their inherent beauty: the flat designs captured in clean lines, abstracted forms, and elegant patterns. And with his discovery of the woodblock print, he soon came to appreciate the geometric structural basis of Japanese art in general. In The Japanese Print: An Interpretation,[2] a treatise on Japanese aesthetics he published in 1912, he wrote, “The most important fact to realize in this study is that, with all its informal grace, Japanese art is a thoroughly structural art…It is always, whatever else it is or is not, structural.”

He goes on to emphasize that “structure is at the very beginning of any knowledge of design” and that structure designates “an organic form, an organization in a very definite manner of parts or elements into a larger unity—a vital whole”[3]—a characteristic inherent in all the arts of Japan and the basis of Wright’s own architecture. He defined his architecture as “organic”—buildings that grow and harmonize with their surroundings in much the same fashion as a tree, all parts contributing to the whole, each part necessary to form and function—and his attraction to the arts of Japan had much to do with what he considered their organic character. Through the poise, balance, and rhythmic play of parts, all Japanese arts and crafts—and all of Wright’s work—are studies in the harmonies of form, line, and color.

 

As Wright moved decisively away from the path American architecture had been following to open new vistas—literally as well as figuratively—Japan provided a revitalizing source of inspiration. Wright believed the secret behind the eloquent simplicity of Japanese art was the elimination of the insignificant. He wrote, “The first and supreme principle of Japanese esthetics consists in a stringent simplification by elimination of the insignificant and the consequent emphasis on reality…Always we find the one line, the one arrangement that will exactly serve…that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form and is its determining character….”[4] Wright came back to this principle of the elimination of the insignificant again and again as the foundation of his own architectural philosophy: “If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken. The gospel of elimination preached by the print came home to me in architecture.”[5] However, he also warned against the elimination of the significant:

Five lines where three are enough is stupidity. Nine pounds where three are sufficient is stupidity. But to eliminate expressive words that intensify or vivify meaning in speaking or writing is not simplicity; nor is similar elimination in architecture simplicity—. In architecture, expressive changes of surface, emphasis of line, and especially textures of material, may go to make facts eloquent—forms more significant….To know what to leave out and what to put in, just where and just how—ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.[6]

Wright was also struck by the importance of beauty in Japanese daily life. They saw no reason not to make everyday things beautiful as well as functional. And within this pervasive presence of beauty, Wright found an inherent spiritual quality that would have been in keeping with his own ideals inspired by the Transcendentalists and his family’s Unitarianism. Their buildings were built not to shut out the natural world, but to be another element of the landscape, one that offered shelter from nature’s inconveniences, but allowed the inhabitants to remain closely in touch with the seasons. The reverence and respect for Nature and nature’s materials displayed by the Japanese and the ability of the Japanese artist to grasp and reveal the essence of Nature fascinated him, both because of the beautiful result and its relevance to his own work.

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in his own homes, Taliesin and Taliesin West.  In these spaces his vision reached beyond physical beauty or aesthetics as an end in itself to awaken the dormant spirits of the materials with which he built and the works of art he thoughtfully placed, bringing the spaces themselves to life. These remarkable interiors combine the best of the natural and human worlds, bridging and uniting them. While many Wright spaces have been called inspired, these two represent his most eloquent spatial expressions, developed as they were over decades where, as his own homes, he had the luxury of rethinking and rebuilding as his vision evolved.

[1] FLLW, An Autobiography, p. 194 (1943).

[2] Frank Lloyd Wright. The Japanese Print: An Interpretation (Chicago, Ralph Fletcher Seymour, 1912). Reprinted in The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright. Also available as an eBook through iTunes.

[3] Japanese Print in Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, 67.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5]  An Autobiography,  205.

[6] Frank Lloyd Wright. Modern Architecture: Being the Kahn Lectures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932). Reprinted in Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, 196.

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