Sunday, January 29, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra

The Stockman House | Mason City IA (1908) •
Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT AND MASON CITY: Architectural Heart of the Prairie. Charleston SC: The History Press, 2016, pp. 15-16—

Soon after his arrival in the U.S., a young German architect named Richard Neutra was walking through the neighborhoods of the Hyde Park area of Chicago, looking for Prairie School houses.

Earlier, in a European library, he had seen the Wasmuth Portfolio, an album of early buildings by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, he had come to Chicago to search for one of Wright’s most admired designs, the famous Frederick C. Robie House on Woodlawn Avenue.

Standing at last in the presence of the Robie House, Neutra was infused with emotion. He rang the doorbell and asked in broken English, “Is Mr. Robie in?” The present owner, who answered the door, replied, “Mr. Robie? Never heard of him.” There had been a succession of owners, and she had bought the house, she explained, because it was “very cheap” and the previous owner “had to get out.” She didn’t particularly like its design, Neutra recalled, and “had all kinds of petty criticisms.” 

In his autobiography, Neutra recalled that this happened repeatedly as he visited famous American buildings, well-known and admired by European architects. Inevitably, he found that the current residents (and their neighbors) had little or no understanding of the importance of the buildings that surrounded them. He was overtaken by what he described as a “sad wonderment.”

“I had arrived in fairyland,” he said, “but the fairies had gone. And the occupants of the enchanted forest looked entirely inconsistent and contradictory to what their setting called for. I was downcast, broken, and puzzled.”

Later, when Neutra actually met Frank Lloyd Wright, he told him how surprised he was that Chicago’s Prairie School houses were not surrounded by prairie. When those homes were built, he asked, were they then in the prairie?

“No,” Wright answered, “there was no prairie…but it was the spirit of the prairie that was recaptured with it and in it.”

• Design by Roy R. Behrens, using public domain portrait photograph (colorized) of Wright (c1926), from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, and a photograph of the Stockman House by Pamela V. White (2007), from Creative Commons, Wikipedia.