Modern Times II Keypad March-issue: Architalk

Click here to Keypad to see the original (P.70)   | 中文版

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Translation by Ee Yen Ng (Keypad)

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issue-24-1

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One scorching summer afternoon, the newly hired butler requested from the house owner some gasoline, claiming that he needed them to clean the carpet. Having had his own wife evacuate the house, the butler locked all the windows and doors up, before pouring the cleaning oil on the carpet and setting it on fire. Wielding an axe just as the fire began to spread, he cornered the house owner’s wife, slashed her into parts, before turning his attention to her ten-year old son and her nine-year old daughter…

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The described incident happened to a renowned architect. Following the coverage of modernist architectural pioneers Mies and Corbu in the previous issue, the architect whom we are referring to is none other than Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), widely recognized in the US as the greatest architect of all time.

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A tragic hero, a pure genius and a controversial figure, Wright was famous for both the right and wrong reasons. Born to a Welsh-American family in 1867, Wright earned his fame 。before the times of Mies and Corbu. At a time even before modernism was conceptualised, Wright was working on his famed Praire-style designs. Commonly categorised as an ‘Arts and Craft Movement’, the uniqueness of the Praire style is in its emphasis on the harmonic balance between the built and the natural environment.

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02 praire style

草原式

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Although Wright’s works displayed resemblances to the modernist design (even the founders of Bauhaus credited the influence of Wright’s works to their work), it remains debatable today as to whether Wright was a modernist at all. In fact, Wright was a vocal critic of the Eurocentric development of modernism, which he felt was dehumanizing and unrepresentative of the spirit of architecture. For instance, he lambasted Corbu’s design philosophy, arguing that though a home can function like a machine, it should not look like one. Also, he attacked the three partners of the American architecture firm SOM for their mindless and relentless pursuit of imitating the popular designs of Mies, calling them the “Three Blind Mice”.

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international style

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Nonetheless, the Bauhaus design was well-received across the Atlantic to within the United States, eventually becoming mainstream as it evolved and became popularized as the international style. In contrast, the Praire style lost its shine, and was largely ignored during this period. Such circumstances did not bode well for Wright’s ego, which took a further hit when architects began referring him by his nickname, ‘Frank Lloyd Wrong’ – an old-fashioned architect who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the obsolescence of his designs.

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Rubbing salt to Wright’s wounds, Philip Johnson, a disciple of Mies, ridiculed Wright publicly. At a time in the early 20th Century, Johnson claimed Wright as the greatest architect of the 19th Century – an indirect insult that Wright was way past the times.

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philip-johnson

约翰逊

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Fallingwater

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It was not until 1937 did Wright complete his comeback with the famed Fallingwater, attribute by the American Institute of Architects as the greatest building in the history of the United States.

 

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The proposition began with the house owner notifying Wright of the waterfall running through his property, and of his desire to have a place with a view overlooking the waterfall. In response, Wright cleverly suggested building a house directly above the waterfall, such that it would appear as though the property was floating above the water current. Blending the house into its natural surroundings, it would allow its inhabitants to hear the sound of running water, without actually seeing it.

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01 falling Water

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Fallingwater

Fallingwater

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Interestingly, the design for Fallingwater is distinct from the Prairie style typical of Wright’s works. Perhaps the most obvious distinction stems from the inclusion of elements often associated with the modernist design: despite having flat, open but asymmetrical flowing spaces, flows roofs and also clean horizontal lines, the design for the Fallingwater nonetheless reflects Wright’s traditional emphasis on the need to embrace the use of natural materials such as wood and stones to harmonise the built environment with its natural physical landscape. Such a stroke of genius was Wright’s work that the Fallingwater was instantly recognised as a masterpiece proving once and for all that the architect’s class was permanent. More critically, the Fallingwater epitomises the perfect complement between modern architecture and the natural environment After completing his comeback, Wright later went on to design landmark buildings such as the Tokyo Imperial Hotel and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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Imperial_Hotel_Wright_House

东京帝国饭店

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guggenheim museum 2

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In a life full of twist and turns, Wright’s personal story outside of his career is equally eventful, with of course the horrors of the Taliesin case worthy of mention. After receiving a project in 1903 to construct a home for a client, Wright fell in love with the client’s wife, eventually eloping with her to Europe. He returned to the US a few months later to construct a “dreamhouse” in which he intended to live with his lover upon her divorce. The house would later be renamed as Taliesin – a Welsh term for ‘under the oak tree’ – the architectural style inspired by the prairie plains.

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Word got out quick that Wright had abandoned his wife and his six children for a client’s wife, which tarnished his reputation and cost him the trust of his clients.

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Sadly for Wright, the worst was yet to come as the case of Taliesin occurred on 15th August 1914. Investigations would later reveal that the butler Julian Carlton had set the fire after being notified of his dismissal, although the exact motives for murder remain a big mystery.

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As the story goes, on that fateful day the house was set on fire at noon, before Wright’s lover, along with her son and daughter, was axed to death by Carlton. But even the other employees were not spared by Carlton’s moment of madness. Some escaped the fire with success, only to meet their doom outside the house where the axe-wielding Carlton was waiting. In the end, only two of the nine present survived the attack. The police would later arrest Carlton in the basement of a house nearby, but the man suspected of mental illness would not speak a word till his death, by hunger strike, right in his cell.

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The sudden loss of his love ones dealt a heavy blow to Wright, but still he was determined to rebuild Taliesin to the way it was. However, just as many suspected that the land was cursed ever since, the refurbished home would later be destroyed by lighting. Today, the third-generation building stands on that spot.

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Notwithstanding his achievements in the field of architecture, Wright is best remembered for his resilience and vitality towards life. Time and time again, we witness in his life his strength in facing and overcoming adversities in life. Perhaps why, in 1991, Wright was named by The American Institute of Architects as the greatest architect in the history of the United States.

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