Architecture: The rescue of Frank Lloyd Wright: He looked washed-up until he met the Kaufmanns. Then, at 70, his supreme creativity blossomed. Jonathan Glancey reviews a turbulent career celebrated by a new exhibition

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Along with Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most important architect of this century. His career spanned 70 tumultuous years, from 1889 to his death at 92, in 1959.

He invented a new type of house - the 'prairie house', an ideal open-plan way of living for the new suburban Chicago middle classes of the 1890s. He designed one of the finest houses ever (Fallingwater, built out of the rocks and over the waterfall at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, in the late Thirties). His was the wilful, spiralling Guggenheim Museum facing Central Park on New York's Fifth Avenue. He dreamt of building a mile-high skyscraper in Chicago, and inspired Ayn Rand's romantic novel The Fountainhead (later made into a Hollywood movie starring Gary Cooper as the architect-hero) and generations of young architects across the world. He still does.

Wright never built in Britain - although King George VI presented him with the Royal Institute of British Architects' prestigious Gold Medal in 1941 - but from today you can visit the new Frank Lloyd Wright gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London.

For all his brilliance, Wright rode the wheel of fortune: between 1920 and his meeting with the Kaufmann family - wealthy Pittsburgh department store owners - in 1934, he built virtually nothing. He might have been very much in the news during those years - his private life was a catalogue of scandals and disasters that make Camillagate look as outlandish as a Tupperware party - but by the time he was 67, his career looked at an end. Then the Kaufmanns asked him to design a weekend retreat for them in rural Pennsylvania (what was to be Fallingwater).

The Kaufmanns spurred him into his supremely creative seventies, the wheel of fortune taking a washed-up Wright back to the pinnacle of his profession.

At the heart of the V & A exhibition is an office, complete with walls, floor and ceiling, decorative woodwork, furniture, carpets and textiles, designed by Wright between 1935-37 for Edgar J Kaufmann. The V & A has owned the office since 1974, but has lacked the space to display it. It is an important design, because it marks one of the turning points in Wright's career. It also gives those who have not visited a Wright building the opportunity to see how this great and egotistical architect designed everything himself, down to the last detail.

It is a curious design, based unyieldingly on a 4ft grid - the ceiling, for example, is 8ft high, the main door 4ft wide and two subsidiary doors each 2ft wide - and the room makes use of very few colours and materials (mostly plywood veneered with swamp cypress). This gives it a sense of being a place of meditation rather than a conventional business executive's office.

Originally, the room occupied the north-west corner of the 10th floor of the Kaufmann department store in Pittsburgh. After the death of Kaufmann in 1955, it was moved in its entirety to become a part of the headquarters of the Edgar J Kaufmann Charitable Foundation and Charitable Trust. It remained unchanged for the next eight years, before being put into storage until 1972, when Edgar Kaufmann Jr offered it lock, stock and barrel to Elizabeth Aslin, then the assistant director at the V & A.

The office is the museum's first 20th- century room, and acts as the centrepiece of the Frank Lloyd Wright gallery. See it over the next few weeks and compare its satisfying calmness, order and craftsmanship with the bedlam of your own office. And while gazing at Kaufmann's exquisite inner sanctum, reflect that this room marks the point at which Wright went on to design some of the most important buildings of our century and, in the case of the Kaufmann's Fallingwater, of all time.

The Frank Lloyd Wright gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7, opens today (071-589 6371).

(Photograph omitted)