DESIGN / Builder of the American Way: Frank Lloyd Wright has crossed the Atlantic at last. Tanya Harrod explains

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The Independent Culture
AS IF Frank Lloyd Wright's career was not remarkable enough, it was made more so by his longevity. He created his first buildings in the world of the Arts and Crafts movement, but by 1910 he had developed a quintessentially American version of modernism which he continued to develop in radical fashion until his death in 1956. He never built in Europe and a proper study of his architecture from coast to coast in North America is no light undertaking. But since 1974 the Victoria & Albert Museum has possessed a complete room designed by Wright in the mid-1930s - floor, ceiling, walls, furniture, carpets and textiles. Now, at last, this office, built for the Pittsburgh store owner Edgar Kaufmann, has been reconstructed and put in context with a permanent display of books, published plans, furniture, ceramics and stained glass designed by Wright. Wright had a genius for turning all kinds of New World dreams and aspirations into fluid, innovative architecture, and this is the best glimpse of it to be found in Europe.

In his extraordinary autobiography, which rivals Benvenuto Cellini's for egotism, Wright gives a gripping description of the evolution of his career. He starts with his prairie houses built in the first decade of the century - so called because their forms were inspired by the long, low horizons and emptiness of the mid-West. In fact the prairie houses were mostly in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago and they functioned poetically for their prosperous owners - as luxurious expressions of some of the idealistic anti-urban philosophies of the New World. They seem the essence of frontier-spirit spaciousness, with their asymmetrical ground plans dominated by a double-height living/dining room with long, low windows and a massive stone fireplace. In those early buildings, Wright magically gave architectural form to a specifically American vision - embodied in the writing of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Like his European modern movement contemporaries, Wright had a horror of the dark spaces of the 19th-century domestic interior - the cellar and the attic were abolished, as were fussy formal rooms for dining, withdrawing and receiving. There were many Arts and Crafts resonances here, not least in his dissatisfaction with the meanness and vulgarity of modern life. But unlike his friend and British near-contemporary C R Ashbee he was never to retreat into handicrafts, even if some of the early furniture in the V & A gallery has a distinctly Arts and Crafts appearance. Instead he went on to build a series of prefabricated concrete block houses and cheaper versions of his prairie style, while in the Arizona desert he explored the potential of lightweight, ephemeral structures.

Wright was always lyrical about new materials (glass, steel, concrete) and technologies - air conditioning, underfloor heating, the possibilities of reinforced concrete and the use of cantilever beams to make floating terraces, canopies and balconies. Indeed the cantilever was central to his romantic view of organic architecture; he often compared it to the extended branch of a tree and saw it as natural, easy and inevitable. Of course it was no such thing, as is shown by the heartstoppingly daring perspectives of his masterpiece Fallingwater, the country retreat contemporaneous with the V & A office and also built for Edgar Kaufmann. Wright first encountered Kaufmann at a low point in his career. From 1920 till 1934 he built little. His professional life was overshadowed by a series of highly publicised love affairs, sleazily written up in the tabloid press. He was dogged by nightmarish financial worries. He went into a kind of internal exile, devoting himself to the building of Taliesin near his childhood home in Wisconsin. This was to be a model estate, a retreat, a place of high thinking, simple living and manual toil and, not least, a fellowship where young men and women paid generous fees to work alongside the master. The master required total commitment from his apprentices; like many of Wright's ideas that strayed beyond architecture, the Taliesin Fellowship was simultaneously liberating and authoritarian. It closely resembled communities set up by charismatic spiritual leaders like Gurdjieff, of whom, perhaps significantly, Wright's third wife had been an ardent follower.

Where does the Kaufmann office fit in? On one level it was a good example of Wright's purely architectural interest in Utopian conditions for working as well as living. Though small in scale it echoes the monumental tranquillity of Wright's other work environments, above all the Larkin Building of 1904 and the ravishingly beautiful and practical Johnson Wax building of 1936-39. The V & A has recently acquired chairs and a desk designed by Wright for these which give some idea of the completeness of his approach to interior design. But the Kaufmann office was odder and less functional than those supremely efficient buildings. The office, as faithfully reconstructed in the V & A, has something of the claustrophic completeness of a Renaissance prince's studio. It looks modern but it seemingly makes no allowances for the apparatus of modernity - no provision even for a telephone. It is more like a Japanese temple tea-room than a place of intense commercial activity. That, perhaps, was the point.

Because he was so completely and imaginatively sensitive to space, structure and new materials, Wright was a great modern architect. But he also understood the old mechanics of patronage and the desire of merchant princes to appear remote from the sources of their wealth. He charmed and dominated such men, acting the role of misunderstood genius and maverick. 'I have a yearning to be with you for a few days to pore over plans,' wrote Kaufmann to Wright in 1935. Wright often treated his clients with rough contempt while testing their generosity and patience to the limit. But in turn he was supremely able to realise their subliminal longings and turn them into architecture. It is this strange empathetic genius which is so convincingly displayed in the V & A's Kaufmann office.

The office and gallery open on Wednesday. There is an excellent accompanying book, 'Frank Lloyd Wright: The Kaufmann Office' by Christopher Wilk (V & A Publications, pounds 14.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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