AIA CRAN: Notes From the Wright Symposium
In 1910, Ernst Wasmuth published “Constructed Buildings and Designs by Frank Lloyd Wright” in Germany. What became known as the Wasmuth Portfolios illustrated not just Wright’s innovations in tectonics and planning, but a breakthrough in the very nature of architectural space. Wright had “broken the box.” It is said all work ceased for the day when the folios arrived at the Berlin offices of Peter Behrens, where a young Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) were all apprenticing at the time. A new generation of architects would soon flock to work with Wright. Four of them—Czech-born-and-trained architect Antonin Raymond and his wife, French-born American artist/designer Noémi Pernessin, and two young Austrian architects, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra—joined Wright’s employ through the 1910s and ’20s. This past fall, the Raymond Farm Center for Living Arts & Design gathered Barry Bergdoll of Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, Judith Sheine of the University of Oregon, writer/lecturer Barbara Lamprecht, and William Whitaker, curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Louis I. Kahn Archives, to participate in a day-long symposium, “After Wright—Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Antonin and Noémi Raymond: Pathfinders of Regionalism and Sustainability.” These distinguished scholars picked up the story of Wright’s influence from there.
Tokyo and the Farm
Barry Bergdoll’s kickoff presentation, “Tokyo and the Farm: Wright’s New Departures in the 1910s and 1920s,” started by pointing out that although the Wasmuth Portfolios brought great fame to Wright, this was a terrible time for the architect, “filled with personal tragedy and professional setbacks.” Quoting Wright scholar Anthony Alofsin, FAIA, of the Univeristy of Texas at Austin, Bergdoll described how these “lost years” were actually rich ones creatively for Wright, who was incubating the concepts and forms that distinguished his work in the decades to follow. Displaying a “bird’s-eye” rendering that Noémi and Antonin Raymond prepared for Wright’s rebuilding of Taliesin East, Bergdoll conjectured that this unique perspective view was a contribution of the Raymonds’, and one that skillfully illustrated Wright’s concept of integrating buildings into the landscape—to be “of the hill” rather than “upon the hill.”
Crediting the work of University of Washington architecture professor Ken Tadashi Oshima, one of his co-curators for the MoMA exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” Bergdoll spoke of what an incredible undertaking Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel really was—in planning, engineering, and ornamental design. It was the Imperial Hotel that brought the Raymonds to Japan in 1919—Antonin as project architect and Noémi to work on the interiors and fine art.
After a falling out with Wright in 1922, the Raymonds parted ways with his firm to establish their own practice in Japan. Bergdoll paraphrased a letter from Wright to Antonin: Well, good luck but do not go about leaving anything resembling my own individual work planted in Japan—be yourselves.” Bergdoll noted that, although the Raymonds went on to develop their own fusion of modernism and Japanese craft, their work still reflected many of Wright’s imperatives—especially architecture’s relationship to nature—and their interest in materials, especially wood frame and reinforced concrete.
Bergdoll turned to the idea of regionalism itself, noting the social critic Lewis Mumford’s book, “The South in Architecture,” and Mumford’s correspondence with Wright at the time. Bergdoll cited Mabel O. Wilson’s contribution to the “Unpacking the Archive” show, which featured a little-known Wright project, The Rosenwald School, “a progressive school for negro children” proposed for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute of Virginia (now called Hampton University). Bergdoll pointed out that Wright adapted the court typology of other Rosenwald Schools to the warm southern climate by incorporating a sheltering loggia, and that his “teepee-like” central gathering space for the school harkened back to indigenous Native American architecture.
Bergdoll then spoke of MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin’s contribution to “Unpacking the Archives”—the “Little Farms Unit: Nature, Ecology and the Community”—which focused on Wright’s idea of “a pocket farm as a building block of settlement.” Wright would later incorporate the Little Farms Unit into his Broadacre City Plans of the 1930s. Bergdoll stated that we should not conflate Wright’s Broadacre concept with the suburban sprawl that followed World War II. Wright conceived something much different, a “rural urbanism” of “being within nature and working the land.” According to Bergdoll, the Raymonds and Wright both credited hard work, and farming in particular, with forging individual character. He referenced the Raymonds’ New Hope Experiment at the Raymond Farm in New Hope, Pa., and its parallels to Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in Wisconsin, “where apprentices and staff would work the land and learn the practice of architecture and of life.”
Schindler and Wright
Judith Sheine’s presentation, “Schindler and Wright: The Second and First Space Architects,” shifted the focus to Wright’s revolutionary innovations of the first decade of the 20th century and how in its third decade, Rudolf Schindler expanded upon them. In his very first projects, the Kings Road House and Lovell Beach House, Schindler advanced an abstract formal spatial language he called “space-architecture.” Sheine pointed out that these buildings lacked ornament, reflecting Schindler’s understanding of (and agreement with) the theories of Adolf Loos, whom he knew from his studies in Vienna. Sheine then demonstrated that although Schindler rejected Wright’s use of ornament, he deeply respected Wright’s forming of space and use of natural light. In an unbuilt project, “Translucent House,” which Schindler designed for Aline Barnsdall (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House client), Sheine noted that their courtyard organization and battered walls are virtually the same. But, in Schindler’s version, Hollyhock House’s monumental ornamented brow is supplanted by a floating lantern-like form. Schindler would adapt another Loos concept, “the Raumplan”—interlocking, split-level volumetric rooms within a compact formal cube—and combine it with Wright’s concept of flowing internal and external space in his California hillside projects, the Wolfe House, the Oliver House, and the Manola Court Apartments.
Sheine then turned her attention to Schindler as builder. Schindler was often the contractor on his own projects. He was constantly seeking to reduce costs, first by experimenting with tilt-up concrete construction and later with reusable formwork, but eventually he abandoned concrete all together and shifted to a “light wood-frame system with a thin plaster skin.” In the 1936 How House, Schindler went even further, reducing the external cladding to mere building paper pinned down by wood battens. Schindler developed and patented “the Schindler Frame” system, published in the May 1947 issue of Architectural Record. It was perfectly suited to the California climate, creating thin walls and roofs, and keeping costs low by leaving much of its construction exposed.
Although Wright denied ever being influenced by anyone, Sheine speculated that “inspiration” between Schindler and Wright went both ways. Schindler’s reductionist palette and experimental wood construction systems can be seen in Wright’s Usonian houses of the same period. Sheine concluded her talk reflecting on the legacy of Schindler, particularly in his use of space, natural light, cross ventilation, and rough-frame construction. In a series of images, Sheine concluded with an overview of Schindler’s lasting impact on the work of California architects, among them Raphael Soriano, FAIA, Charles Moore, Ray Kappe, FAIA, and the subsequent generation that included Frank Gehry, FAIA, Frank Israel, and Thom Mayne, FAIA.
Barbara Lamprecht, author of “Neutra: The Complete Works,” opened her presentation, “How to Stretch Space: Richard Neutra’s Strategies for Trickery,” with August Schmarsow’s 1893 scold to architects, “Why do you wring your hands about which historicist styles to use? Do you not remember that architecture’s raison d’être is the body’s movement through space… [the body] is the ‘creatress’ of space.” She then postulated that, although there is no direct evidence that Neutra knew of Schmarsow’s challenge, Neutra may have been the first to embody it in his work.
Lamprecht discussed how Neutra was fascinated by the 1874 book “Principles of Physiological Psychology” by Wilhelm Wundt, which concerned sensory systems and the effects of environmental stimuli. A doctor’s son, Neutra held a deep interest in life sciences—in evolutionary biology, Gestalt psychology, and cognitive sciences. It would lead him to reject Cartesian dualism, the separation of mind and body, and to reject any notion of a “man vs. nature” dichotomy. To him, they are part of a single system. Lamprecht stated, “It led Neutra to recognize humans as both plastic and fixed, unique and generic, individual and universal.” Neutra was famous for his probing “client interrogations” that blended “the elements of architectural programming, a cross between a medical examination and a psychologic analysis.”
Lamprecht pointed out that Neutra’s interest in the landscape had preceded his coming to America, and that his first employer—the Swiss landscape architect/theorist Gustav Ammann—had sought to “merge man with nature.” Neutra’s first independent projects were works of landscape architecture—a forest cemetery in Luckenwalde, near Berlin, and, in America, the landscape designs for Wright’s Barnsdall House, and Schindler’s Lovell Beach House and How House. Neutra’s 1930 trip to Japan only intensified his concept of merging of building with landscape.
All of these elements come together in what Lamprecht called “Neutra’s strategies for trickery—of making small spaces feel gracious and more expansive.” She referenced Neutra’s 1937 Miller House in Palm Springs, Calif., as an example of using foreshortened spatial functions and tectonic framing devices that “borrow” the natural landscape, making the modest 1,164-square-foot house seem as vast as the Palm Springs desert beyond. According to Lamprecht, one needs to understand Neutra’s use of the distant horizon line. Although it may have its origins in Wright’s notion of the horizontality of the Midwestern prairie, for Neutra, it’s more primal. It goes back to our emergence from the forest into the expanse of the African savanna. Yet, there doesn’t need to be a distant desert or plain, “it is distance itself that creates the serenity.”
Lamprecht shared an image of Neutra’s “spider leg” post-and-beam design in his 1966 Ebelin Bucerius House in Navegna, Switzerland, and showed how it framed the distant ridgeline of the Alps, seemingly bringing it closer and making it part of the experience of the house itself. Lamprecht emphasized that such “trickery” is not to be thought of as a “fake” experience. “To Neutra, this is how we are hard-wired, both physically and psychologically. These spatial devices create a very real sense of the body in space, and the occupants feel fully present in the landscape.”
The Raymonds and the Place of Personality
William Whitaker’s closing presentation, “In this Room: The Raymonds and the Place of Personality,” brought the symposium literally home. Whitaker spoke briefly of the Raymonds’ relationship to Wright as they were assisting in the completion of the Imperial Hotel, citing Noémi’s peacock mural drawing, prominently displayed at the Oshima-curated room at MoMA’s Wright at 150 exhibit. Whitaker emphasized Noémi’s encouraging Antonin to make a clean break from Wright’s “rigid style” as they were planning their Reinanzaka House. They had started design shortly after they had lost their Japanese-style home in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923—the same quake that made the Imperial Hotel famous for its survival. Set on the high hill known as the Reinanzaka, in the Shinagawa ward of Tokyo, the new house was not only to be their home/studio, but a showcase for their forward design thinking and Antonin’s expertise in earthquake-resilient and fireproof concrete construction. However, Whitaker noted that the house also showed distinctly Japanese features—placement directly on the edge of the street, a compact garden court, and, rather than dedicated rooms in the Western style, a single large, open flex-space easily modified with movable folding screens. In this, their very first independent work, the Raymonds were integrating culture, region, climate, and seismic building conditions, while building in a totally modern abstract idiom.
Whitaker highlighted the success of the Raymonds in this pre–World War II period—building schools, churches, factories, office buildings, banks, clubs, and residences, as well as a parade of embassies and diplomatic buildings. He went in depth on the 1927-28 Italian Embassy Villa at Lake Chuzenji—an early synthesis between Western (and somewhat Wrightian) modernism and Japanese vernacular building traditions. Whitaker explained the Raymonds’ use of salvaged bark from trees for the building’s timber framing and exterior sheathing, applied in a folk checkered pattern.
Whitaker then contrasted the embassy to the Raymonds’ 1930–33 concrete Akaboshi Kisuke House in Tokyo. Although it was thoroughly International Style and could easily have been built in Switzerland or France at the time, Whitaker pointed to the house’s tatami mat floors and reminded us that tatami is a Japanese system of proportion called “ken” and very different from Western module systems. He also noted that Noémi’s bent tubular steel chairs were designed so that they can easily glide without damaging the tatami mats.
At this point, Whitaker credited the Raymonds with mentoring many young Japanese architects, among them Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and, most notably, Junzo Yoshimura, who helped the Raymonds deepen their understanding of the subtleties and philosophical dimension of traditional Japanese architecture. The 1931 Weekend Cottage of Shiro Akaboshi in Fujisawa demonstrates the strong influence of Yoshimura on the development of the Raymonds’ fusion of East and West, modern and traditional.
Whitaker then posed the question, “What is regionalism anyway?” He spoke about the Raymonds’ own Karuizawa Summer Studio in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, which was inspired by the Errázuriz House, an unrealized project Le Corbusier designed for the coastal resort of Zapallar, Chile. Whitaker, first forgiving the Raymonds’ “borrowing” of the Errázuriz’ butterfly roof and Corbusien internal ramp, then dug deeper, identifying the differences between the buildings. The Errázuriz House was to be bearing-wall masonry; the Karuizawa Summer Studio is timber frame with wood sheathing—well-suited to the climate. The Errázuriz House was to be set upon the ground; the studio is elevated on a concrete plinth. The Errázuriz House was to have a tile roof, and had no solar protection systems; the studio uses thatch over the metal roofing to keep it cool and traditional roll-down screens called “sudare,” to protect its glass from summer sun. Whitaker noted that Noémi furnished the studio with rustic chairs derived from saplings of the same local species of trees used for the structural timbers. This is regionalism.
Whitaker then spoke of the Raymonds’ tour de force, the 1936-45 Golconde, or dormitory, for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. It’s considered the first modern work of architecture in India, and a young George Nakashima was the project architect. Simple in concept and finely executed in detail, the Golconde features glassless apertures protected from the sun by adjustable concrete louvers. Sri Aurobindo Ashram is the first Brutalist work of architecture to be found anywhere, preceding Le Corbusier’s own Béton Brut projects by nearly two decades, and is an exemplary work of “critical regionalism” some 50 years before the term was even coined.
Whitaker then invited us to consider the room in which we sat—the main room of the Raymond Farmhouse. In 1937, with war looming in Japan and Europe, the Raymonds returned to New York. In 1939, on an 18th-century Quaker farm in Bucks County, Pa., they created a summer studio/home, similar to their studio in Karuizawa. They carefully modified the farmhouse, removing a warren of walls and creating a single unified flex space similar to their 1924 studio home in Reinanzaka. The detailing throughout reflected the Raymonds’ modernist-craft fusion, used first in their country houses in Japan but now juxtaposed to the 18th-century colonial details the Raymonds chose to retain. The double-hung windows, six-panel doors, stairs and banisters, and fireplaces, remain side-by-side with modern sliding glass doors and windows, and shoji screens and fusuma panels. All is visually held together by natural finishes on the newly added materials and by original casework that was stripped to a natural finish. The Raymonds removed the 19th-century, one-story wood-frame kitchen to the south and, cutting a two-and-a-half-story swath through stone wall, created a three-story bank of windows and sliding doors to flood the interior with natural light and open the view out to the farm ponds and meadow beyond. To the east, the Raymonds tore down an earlier two-story addition and replaced it with a modern farm kitchen, mudroom, and laundry on the main level and two bedrooms on the second. Noémi designed built-in cabinetry throughout.
Whitaker then shifted the focus to the quality of the room itself, and how it embodied the Raymonds’ lives and philosophy of “honest, natural, simple, economical, direct” and of the eclectic layering of time: “Noémi’s modern furniture and textile patterns next to the 19th-century antiques from her family home in upstate New York or those [they] found in Bucks County, or on their travels through China, India, Mexico, interspersed with their own artwork and that of friends and master craftsmen.”
Whitaker ended his presentation with an image of Antonin and Noémi sharing a meal on the terrace of the Kôgai-chô Studio they built for themselves in Nishi-Azabu district of Tokyo, shortly after their return to Japan in 1949. There, they reestablished their offices, successfully taking on more than 250 projects in the post–war years. Each summer they would return to the Raymond Farm to be with family. In the 1970s, they would retire there, their work and partnership having spanned more than 62 years.
The Group Discussion
I moderated the discussion that followed, starting with the observation that Schindler, Neutra, and the Raymonds all embraced the European avant-garde’s advancement toward pure abstraction, while Wright, as evidenced by his Imperial Hotel, Hollyhock House, and Textile-Block Houses of the same time, seemed to be doubling down on the idea of an architecture of “integrated ornament.”
Then I posed the question to the panel, “Just what set these European-born American architects and designers apart from their contemporaries?” Bergdoll, Sheine, Whitaker, and Lamprecht agreed that these architects were very aware of the avant-garde work on the Continent—in fact, their ambition and belief in the movement compelled them to innovate to stay ahead—but working with Wright and experiencing his work first-hand had set them on a different path. While these architects banished all ornament from their work, they advanced the abstract form/space that was Wright’s great innovation. What also remained was Wright’s near-spiritual understanding of nature, landscape, and dwelling within it.
Sheine and Lamprecht credited the mild California climate, dramatic terrain, and bohemian lifestyle for freeing Schindler and Neutra to experiment with spatial and psychological relationships more radically than Wright was capable of at the time. Wright would leap ahead in his seminal works in the 1930s, ’40s, and into the ’50s, but in many ways he was building upon lessons learned from his two West Coast protégés. I then pointed out that the Raymonds understood that the Japanese already had a profound relationship with nature. For the Raymonds, modern architecture was a means of returning to nature and turning away from the corrupting Western colonial architecture that invaded Japan in the second half of the 19th century.
These architects were responding to the particular places and cultures where they were building. Their work was specific to their sites and climates—it was regional, not universal. Schindler, Neutra, and the Raymonds saw modern architecture not as a zeitgeist of a new technological society—as many of their European contemporaries theorized—but as part of human expression, one that places us fully in the world. All these factors combined as they searched for and created their own responsive modern architecture, and contributed to what would become known in the ’40s and ’50s as Regionalism, in the 1980s and ’90s as Critical Regionalism, and the Sustainability movement we see in global architecture today.
John DeFazio, AIA, is an architect and planner, and director of the Raymond Farm Center for Living Arts & Design. He teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia and at New York Institute of Technology in New York City. “After Wright: Pathfinders of Regionalism” was organized and hosted by the Raymond Farm Center, co-organized with the AIA New York Cultural Facilities Committee, and assisted by the Center for Architecture + Design of Philadelphia. It was sponsored by AIA CRAN. The Raymond Farm Center for Living Arts & Design is a non-profit based in New Hope, Pa., at the former studio/home of the designer-architects Noémi and Antonin Raymond. In addition to our mission of preserving and revitalizing the historic structures that make up the Raymond Farm, the Raymond Farm Center is a forum in art, architecture, design, and culture, and an artist-in-residency, serving the Bucks County community and the greater Philadelphia/New York region.