ARTS; Prince of the prairie palace

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We call Frank Lloyd Wright a genius but why did he have so few followers? A new exhibition reveals all

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT still epitomises the architect as genius, unfettered, egotistical, a law unto himself. The survey of his early career now at the Design Museum - rich in rarely seen furniture, glass, and drawings and prints of Wright's prairie houses - cuts through the image-making to reveal the sheer artistry and team work of a practice dependent upon a special type of high-minded wealthy client. In that, it complements the beautifully contextualised Kaufmann office at the V&A. But this show also goes some way to explaining why, after the Second World War, young architects seeking to rebuild Britain did not look to Wright as any kind of model. Despite his avowed interest in the machine, his engineering skills and his technological adventurousness, Wright always remained on the cusp of the Arts and Crafts movement and Modernism. His genius seems more relevant to America's merchant princes than to the common man.

In 1906 the wealthy industrialist Avery Coonley came to Wright's Oak Park Studio to commission a house because "of all the buildings we have seen, yours seem to wear the countenance of principle". It would be difficult to imagine many English Edwardian magnates seeking out such qualities or being willing to commission what amounted to a Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art in which every aspect of furnishing was designed by the architect. But Wright was supremely adept at articulating the American dream in architectural form. He achieved this by going beyond the prevailing colonial revival style, focusing instead on images of pioneership and frontier spirit of the kind preached and sung by Emerson and Whitman. But this was not simple log-cabin stuff for, by 1910, his architecture was among the most advanced in the world.

Wright's love for the prairie landscape of the mid-West was translated into long, low buildings with floating horizontal planes that appeared to have grown out of the site - even if that site was a lush Chicago suburb. His understanding of pioneering was cosmopolitan. Some of his early houses suggest the architecture of pre-industrial Japan. The lovely Willits House of 1902, on a cruciform plan with extended wings, seems to quote the Palladian casa in villa which combined the look of a luxury residence with the functions of an isolated farm. His interiors were similarly freighted with dreams. They were invariably dominated by the hearth (with a living fire functioning symbolically in houses with central heating). Before the hearth stretched generous expanses of carpet, designed by Wright; their sparse patterns suggest the austerities of Navaho sand paintings. The selection of lithographs at the Design Museum gives the flavour of these remarkable interiors.

The catalogue of Wright's majestic collection of Japanese prints suggests how, in its early years, Modernism was fuelled by a good deal of what the anthropologist Brian Moeran has called "inverse orientalism" in which Eastern spiritual values and their artistic expression were seen as superior to those of the West. Wright saw Japanese wood-block prints and ceramics as an antidote to the "vain realism" of Western art and one of the most beautiful objects in this exhibition is a distinctly Japanese-looking plan chest made specially for the Avery Coonley house. Wright emerges as a fiercely bossy architect who in many ways belongs in the company of other early-20th-century gurus - men like Gurdieff, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath Tagore - who had the capacity to capture the hearts and minds of the wealthy with what appeared to be authentic insights that seemed to transcend the materialism of the previous century.

Wright could make supremely articulate objects. He designed a remarkable range of chairs for domestic interiors: tall hieratic ones for dining, generous, formally handsome chairs for lounging. These are well represented at the Design Museum. But there is also a steel desk of a kind made in quantity for the Larkin Administration Building of 1903. The Larkin desk, with its integral narrow chair that swivels out on a steel joint, suggests Wright's understanding of how design and architecture can operate to control and discipline a work force. It is a quietly brutal piece of furniture that reveals the gulf which Wright saw between his clients and their employees.

Of course the clerk's and the magnate's desk have been sharply differentiated since the beginnings of office design. But Wright was almost too good at making ideas about hierarchy manifest. And when he ventured away from the work place and the private palace his design vision seemed to falter. His city-planning ideas were nave. His unbuilt Broadacre city project of the 1930s was based on an individualistic quasi-agricultural economy - each man (not woman, apparently) would be given an acre of land at birth on which to grow food. Broadacre City was to be underpinned by cranky Social Credit and Distributist schemes and dominated by private industry.

It sounds like one of the grimmer solutions to unemployment in the Depression. Then there was Wright's Taliesin Fellowship, begun in 1928 and run on authoritarian lines, teaching his architectural principles to the sons and daughters of the very rich. Not surprisingly, Wright's ideas (as opposed to formal devices like his inspired use of the cantilever) were not developed by younger practitioners. The names of Le Corbusier, Rietveld and Mies van der Rohe were heard on their lips but not Wright. Despite his imaginative experiments with low-cost housing, he provided no useful model for the social architecture of the post-war world. At a deep level he always remained the merchant prince's architect celebrated in this exhibition.

!'Frank Lloyd Wright': Design Museum, SE1, 0171 407 6261, to 3 Sept.