Thursday, April 3, 2003

Frank Lloyd Wright's Chinese Connection Part I

Frank Lloyd Wright's Chinese Connection Part I
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Frank Lloyd Wright's Chinese Connection Part I

Frank Lloyd Wright did more to alter the face of American cities, for better or worse, than any other architect, planner, or designer in America.

Wright's "Broadacre City," encouraged the growth of Suburbia. Some would refer to this growth, also known as "urban sprawl," as "cancerous."

Wright's "Prairie House" meanwhile, revolutionized ordinary Americans' conception of the American home. Wright's Prairie Houses were like nothing Americans had seen before, for good reason. Their formal vocabulary derived not from traditional European architecture, but rather from traditional Chinese architecture and Japanese variations on traditional Chinese themes. Unbeknownst to most Americans, American cities look the way they do today in part due to architectural influences from China.

What follows is a series of articles highlighting Frank Lloyd Wright's "Chinese Connection."

Let's start by examining one of Wright's most famous residential designs, "Taliesin." Taliesin was Wright's personal residence, Taliesin was to Frank Lloyd Wright what Tara was to Scarlett O'Hara, the heroine of Margaret Mitchell's epic novel, "Gone with the Wind."

Everyone, architect and layman alike, has at one time or another, had his or her own "dream home." Taliesin was the dream home of arguably the greatest architect who ever lived. As Wright biographer Brendan Gill writes:

"Like any architect, Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to make his own house an epitome of everything he stood for emotionally, spiritually, technically. And so on the family property in Spring Green, Wisconsin on the brow of a hill he built this great, long, rambling, beautiful, hugging the ground house which he called Taliesin and it was going to be his statement to the world."

What did Wright consider the "epitome of everything he stood for for emotionally, spiritually, technically?" What did he consider worthy of being "his statement to the world?" See for yourself.

The first illustration is Wright's own rendering of "Taliesin." The second illustration is a detail from the famous Qing Dynasty horizontal scroll landscape painting, "Qin Ming He Shang Tu". Any resemblance between the two is purely intentional.

China's geographical isolation from the European portion of the Eurasian land mass resulted in a highly distinctive Chinese culture, including a highly distinctive architectural style. Chinese architectural forms as a result will never be mistaken for Greek, Roman, Gothic or Renaissance forms. Precedents for Wright's Prairie House will not be found in Europe for the simple reason they don't exist in Europe. The formal elements of Wright's Prairie House were derived from China -- directly via Chinese architectural precedents and indirectly via Japanese variations on Chinese precedents.

Please do not misunderstand what I am saying.

I am not saying that the design for Taliesin was copied from the Qin Ming He Shang Tu.

I am not saying that Wright's Prairie Style was derived from any specific work of Chinese architecture, real or illustrated.

I am saying that as an avid collector and connoisseur of Chinese art, Wright was fully aware of Chinese architectural design precedents, and that these precedents clearly influenced both his design philosophy and design vocabulary. This is in addition to his exposure to Japanese variations on Chinese themes, such as the Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Western architectural historians have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge this obvious and undeniable connection, for reasons I leave to the reader's imagination, but it is high time someone pointed this fact out for the sake of historical accuracy.

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: Frank Lloyd Wright's Chinese Connection Part I
Illustration(s): Rendering of Frank Lloyd Wright's home "Taliesin". Famous Chinese landscape painting "Qin Min Shang He Tu"
Author: Bevin Chu
Affiliation: CETRA Design Information Section
Source: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect
Publication Date: 2003
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect

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