Letter from Europe

Frank Lloyd Wright in Europe

Issue no. 2017/18

Picture above: A new take on the classical villa: Robert Mallet-Stevens' Villa Cavrois at Croix (in French Flanders) has clear echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright. The villa is one of many buildings in the Wright idiom featured in Gwyn Lloyd Jones' new book 'Travels with Frank Lloyd Wright' (photo © Rifberlin / dreamstime.com)


Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Lloyd Wright. He is often regarded as a quintessentially American architect, a man who perhaps was never really comfortable in Europe. But the great advocate of Prairie Style has a legacy in Europe, where many architects were profoundly influenced by Wright's work.

Dear fellow travellers

Whether Frank Lloyd Wright was a great man is of course a matter for debate. He was certainly an interesting man and a very talented architect. Today is the 150th anniversary of his birth, but even in that bland detail there's a backstory.

Wright had a tremendous capacity to reinvent himself. He gave a Welsh veneer to his biography by changing his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd and naming both his Wisconsin studio and his winter home in Arizona after the Welsh bard Taliesin. To be fair, Lloyd was his mother's maiden name, so there was a dash of Welsh DNA in Wright's blood. He was famously coy about his real age, often insisting that he was two years younger than he really was. So if FLW had his way we'd not be marking 150 years since his birth until 2019.

Frank Lloyd Wright is often seen as the quintessentially American architect, albeit one who was deeply influenced by early visits to Japan. Wright and Europe don't naturally go hand in hand. The one significant European project on which he embarked - namely the memorial house to Angelo Masieri on the Grand Canal in Venice - was never actually built.

We have a sense that Frank Lloyd Wright was never really comfortable in Europe. Whether it was devotees of Beaux-Arts in France or Constructivists in the Soviet Union, Wright didn't approve. Even when he had the chance to link up with his European contemporaries, he passed on the opportunity. When visiting Berlin in early 1910, having eloped with the wife of an American client, he missed the chance to meet Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier (who were at the time both working in the German capital).

But discerning travellers do often detect something of the Wright idiom in Europe. And few traveller-architects are more discerning than Gwyn Lloyd Jones. In a newly published book, Jones picks up on Wright's hidden legacy in Europe (and elsewhere outside North America). Travels with Frank Lloyd Wright: The First Global Architect was published last month by Lund Humphries, a London publishing house which has a special connection with Wright. It was Lund Humphries who in 1939 published the texts of Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark London lectures under the title An Organic Architecture.

In Travels with Frank Lloyd Wright, Gwyn Lloyd Jones ventures to some pretty obscure spots to showcase European buildings which have that distinctive FLW flair, emphasising the links between Wright and the originators of those structures. So he does go to Udine in Friuli to see the Casa Romanelli, designed by Masieri and Scarpa. Then he dips down to the Adriatic coast to see the Villa Spezzotti at Lignano Pineta. In England, he detects the clear influence of FLW in a number of houses in Warwickshire, all the work of English architect Robert Harvey. And is there not just a hint of Broadacre City in Milton Keynes?

As Gwyn Lloyd Jones implies in Travels with Frank Lloyd Wright, the temperamental American architect didn't always get on well in Europe. Shortly after his 70th birthday in June 1937, Wright visited Europe to attend an architectural congress in Moscow. The British architect Clough Williams-Ellis (another man born outside Wales who espoused Welsh connections) was also bound for the convention. The two men were booked on the same evening train from Berlin to Moscow.

Williams-Ellis, who had spent the afternoon in Potsdam, almost missed the train. He had been unexpectedly delayed, having taken refuge in a public lavatory to avoid having to salute a passing parade of Nazi soldiers. Despite that detour, Williams-Ellis made the train where he met FLW in the restaurant car. The two men had never met before. Just three hours out of Berlin, the two architects had barely finished dinner when their train arrived at Zbaszyn, in those days the Polish frontier station. Williams-Ellis was unfazed by the border formalities, but Wright adamantly refused to open his luggage for inspection. Williams-Ellis had to coax the petulant American who was set on turning around and heading back home. "You would rather turn back than have your shirts and socks inspected?" he asked. "You cannot possibly do anything so utterly silly."

So Frank Lloyd Wright continued on the train to Moscow where he received a warm welcome. A few days into the conference, Williams-Ellis recorded that Wright was favourably impressed. "These are the people. Theirs is the future," said Wright. It was surely one of the most positive comments that Frank Lloyd Wright ever made about Europe.

We take a more extended look at Frank Lloyd Wright's European connections in the upcoming issue of hidden europe magazine. Issue 52 is published on 11 July.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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