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Frank Lloyd Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio.


By 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright felt he was at an impasse.  Although he had become one of the best known architects in Chicago and his Prairie Houses had been recognized by pioneering clients to be the height of modern, his failure to attract commercial clients for large office projects led him to a career dead end.  Perhaps, the final insult was that his design for Harold McCormick's palatial Lake Forest home was rejected in favor of an Italian "palazzo"  by a New York architect.   Edith Rockefeller McCormick had decided that Wright's breathtaking chain of Prairie pavilions atop a Lake Michigan bluff was just too unconventional for someone in her social orbit.

The Burnham factor

Daniel Burnham's influence of historicism had all but destroyed interest in modern design.  Ironically,  "Uncle Dan"  had earlier offered to take care of  Wright's wife and children while sending him to Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts for four year's study and then in Rome for two more followed by a position in his firm.  Wright declined.

Wright was visited by a German lecturer from Harvard, Kuno Francke.  After he  saw what the architect had accomplished here, he invited him to come to Germany because, "It will be a long time before your own people will be ready for what you are trying to give them."  Wright again declined.

A few months later, Ernst Wasmuth, the Berlin publisher of expensive art books (probably informed by Francke) invited Wright to produce a monograph of the architect's best buildings.   

Wright's mid-life crisis had led him away from his wife and six children into the arms of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of an earlier Oak Park client.  This time a stay in Europe now seemed to offer an escape from small town gossip.  They decided to both leave for Berlin so that he could attend to the publication of the monograph, now titled Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright.  Translated, Studies and Executed Buildings... would be further Americanized into Wasmuth Portfolio.  

Wright's Oak Park office, which had produced nearly 140 buildings since 1893, was turned over to Herman von Holst, an architect Wright had just recently met.  The few remaining renderers and draftsmen had not been made aware of this cataclysmic change to their livelihoods and this may have led to the permanent break with his best, Marion Mahony.  She was long acknowledged to be the finest graphic artist Wright ever employed but after she finished the ongoing design jobs of the office, she married Walter Burley Griffin and went to Australia with him to design the new capitol city, Canberra.

Berlin and Florence

Wright and Mrs. Cheney registered at Berlin's Adlon Hotel as "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright."  Almost immediately, a reporter from America saw the register and relayed to Chicago that Wright was keeping company with a woman who was not his wife.  Whatever clientele he had cultivated in Oak Park was lost to any future commissions by the scandal.  His career was at an end there.

The Wasmuth publications (there were to be two separate works) were to consume him in Europe for the next year.  He and Mrs. Cheney toured Germany and Italy, finally renting a villa outside Florence to prepare the drawings.  He would translate colored renderings he brought from Oak Park into line drawings for the simplified one and two color lithographs meant for the main monograph. 

The American Olbrich

Ernst Wasmuth referred to Wright as "the American Olbrich," and probably hoped to do as well with this monograph as the one he produced with the Viennese modernist five years before.  But he was soon to learn that working with Frank Lloyd Wright could be an expensive proposition.  After it was decided to use two separate colored papers, (the darker ones were to be printed with an extra wash of white heightening) and there would be gold metallic powder on two illustrations along with the title page lettering,  the costs mounted beyond the budget.

Wright had borrowed $10,000 from a client to buy the American rights to the monograph but the entire print run was reduced nonetheless.  What had been planned to be perhaps 1000 copies was cut to about 650.  Apparently only 150 remained for the European allotment.  (Out of this there was also a limited number of “Deluxe” sets, perhaps twenty-five, whose plate and tissue sizes were slightly larger than the regular edition at 17 3/4 x 25 1/4 inches  and whose tissues were snowy white mulberry).

Wright brought the only renderer left in his office, Taylor Woolley, to Italy to work on the transfers.  20 year old Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (preferring to be known by the sole name, Lloyd) was a gifted renderer as well and was brought to the villa in Fiesole to draw for the project. 

The Japanese Influence

From at least the time of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, where he saw the serene Japanese house on the "Wooded Isle,"  Wright developed a taste for Japanese art.  For years after he had collected the hand-colored woodcuts by the great artists of the medium.  For his great portfolio, each plate of the unbound lithographs was to be Wright's answer to Japanese woodblock prints, even incorporating Wright’s "chop" (his square logo) as  an embossed blindstamp on each plate and tissue.  The perspective in a natural landscape, the floor plan with perhaps an elevation or detail was to be a complete story of the building that could stand alone as an art object.  Until this time, architects' monographs were "how to" books, in a sense. There had been other artful portfolios of individual projects produced,  The House for an Art Lover competition was perhaps the most famous.  Published in Darmstadt in 1901 by Wasmuth's competitor, Alexander Koch, the competition winners McKay Hugh Baillie Scott and Leopold Bauer were joined by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in three distinct portfolios presenting their ideas for an imaginary art collector's mansion.

Wright's creation of his portfolio became the architect's new career.  The studio renderings of Marion Mahony for various Oak Park houses and unbuilt projects were retraced down to the foliage for the lithographic stones.  Her foliage is almost the only way to tell that the image originated with her drawing, being more naturalistic with  outlines in an "Arts and Crafts" language.  Wright's trees and flowers are constructed, at close inspection, like architectural forms; triangles, circles and snowflakes.

There were one hundred images in the two volumes, 72 plates of heavy, laminated paper (meant for the perspectives) and 28 tissues attached in a glued flyleaf (reserved for the plans of the adjacent perspective though there were a few tissues with perspectives, as well).  The plates were simplified line drawings that were either placed off center to the top half of the eventual plate (15 3/4 x 25 1/4 inches in the regular editions), leaving ample, empty "negative" space  or married to the plan or elevation detail in one plate as balanced, graphic elements.

A few perspectives filled the plate and some buildings were afforded more than one plate and several tissues: Unity Temple, the Larkin Building and the largest houses for McCormick, Dana and Coonley.

The Classical Scourge

Within a pocket at the front of the first of the two volumes of the lithographs was the index to the drawings as well as a seventeen page essay Wright wrote as an introduction to the monograph.  Beginning as a lyrical ode to Florentine painters and sculptors and the traditional Italian architecture of stucco walls and tile roofs, his essay becomes an obvious rant against the "corrupt styles" of the Renaissance that he detested as antithetical to Organic architecture.  "It proves itself a most wantonly destructive thing in its hideous perversity."

He appreciated the "Gothic spirit" of the Middle Ages, though, and considered its buildings organically designed for their exploitation of materials and uses.  But the Renaissance was a particular target of scorn for its builders' appropriation of Greek and Roman forms as a type of wallpaper unsuited to function.  No doubt, the "White City" of Burnham's 1893 world's fair buildings stilled rankled the modernist in him and any chance he could attack Beaux-Arts Classicism would be given full throttle.

The Prairie House

He returned to the point when discussing the houses he included in the plates.  "The horizontal line is the line of domesticity."  Emphasizing their prairie-like sites where every vertical deviation becomes even more powerful, he writes, "All unnecessary heights have for that reason and for other reasons economic have been eliminated, and more intimate relation with outdoor environment sought to compensate for loss of height."

The portfolio’s very  first image is that of his first independent commission after being dismissed by Sullivan, the 1893 William Winslow house in River Forest (Plate Ia).  Not yet a "Prairie" house, he showed obvious pride in the work by presenting it in subtle gold metallic ink or powder on grey/green paper.  The framing foliage used a whitish toning on the leaves in hanging tendrils of gold.

His Oak Park studio (Plate VI) was included as well as the Hillside Home School he built for his aunts in his boyhood valley (Plate Xa). The plans (with rugs and furniture lightly indicated) were drawn set into complete landscape designs.  One of the  perspectives was arranged on the paper as a triptych flanked by designs for carpet and fabric (Living Room for Harley Bradley  Plate XXII).

Wright's built work, and those structures he chose to include in the "Wasmuth," were primarily two distinct building types: the domestic "Prairie House" with its open plan and layered, overhanging roofs and the institutional, monumental constructions with concrete appearing vertical surfaces.  His Larkin Administration Building of 1903 (Plates XXXIII a,b,c)  was built of load bearing brick whose unadorned smoothness anticipated streamlined forms of the 1930s.  It "read"  in the plates as poured concrete and thus its exterior plastic language and central,  five story interior room made it an instant icon of modernity to the European architects.

European Admiration

But it was the elemental architecture of Oak Park's Unity Temple (Plates LXIII a,b Plates LXIV a,b), built in the following year, that may have been Wright's answer to Josef Maria Olbrich's great Secessionist building in Vienna.  Wright presented the exterior wall planes and stair towers without applied ornament, saving the abstracted foliation for the pier/columns that separated clerestory windows.  Cantilevered roof slabs over these openings provided the horizontal dialogue with the vertical piers and concrete walls.  The larger square worship space is linked by an entry loggia to a lower oblong parish house used for sunday school and kitchen.  The asymmetry of the total building made it a far more dynamic form than Olbrich's balanced, arguably "European" statement.

Unity Temple, along with the Prairie houses, of which there were no European counterparts, became a sensation in Germany and Austria.  The plans of the houses, often crosses of interpenetrating spaces pivoting around massive, unadorned fireplaces, were unlike anything the Europeans had seen.  "Rooms" were nearly nonexistent, replaced by "volumes" divided by piers or screens from other volumes.  The Dutch regarded both Wasmuth Portfolios (which included the lithographs and Ausgeführte Bauten, sometimes known as the "Little Wasmuth," a less grand work published in 1911 using half-tone photographs and plans) as important guideposts of the new modernity that was also changing painting.  A smaller formatted German edition and an even more reduced Japanese version were later reprinted.

Architect H.P. Berlage and Painter Theo van Doesburg were the greatest Dutch champions of the Wasmuth publications but it may have been the Germans who found in Wright's monograph new fuel for their idealism.  When  the portfolio reached the office of Peter Behrens in Berlin, among his twenty-something apprentices who would have seen the work, were Walter Gropius, Charles-Eduard Jenneret and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Mies later said, "Wright's work presented an architectural world of unexpected force, clarity of language and disconcerting richness of form." 

Gropius shortly thereafter designed the famous Fagus shoe last factory that was a breakthrough for modern European building.  The Swiss, Jenneret, later to rename himself "Le Corbusier"  also began to achieve his own mature language after his short tenure with Berhens.   He and Gropius were probably less influenced by Wright for their own future forms but Mies changed demonstrably, specifically utilizing a variation of "pinwheel" plan in his future houses that may be traced to Wright's Prairie house.  And his 1910 competition design for a monument to Otto von Bismarck shows pronounced Larkin/Unity influences.

Return to America

When Wright returned to America in 1911, he expected to be hailed as the modern architect who had the Europeans at his feet.  He couldn't have found a more inhospitable place to restart his career.  Oak Park, sickened by the position in which he left his wife and children, turned away en mass.   Chicago was no longer fertile ground for a modernist.  Classicism was now the leading language and Wright's brand of architecture (not to mention his brand of morals) was not the choice of the new elite building their homes and offices.  Wright had just been away too long.

In the face of Chicago's hostile publicity, he returned to his boyhood valley in Wisconsin where his mother had given him a plot of land.  He resettled in the area where he'd first built the windmill and schoolhouse for his two aunts and now started to build his own "Taliesin."  Topographically more like Tuscany than Chicago, he built his house "of" the hill instead of "on" its crown and thereby completed his theories of Organic architecture that would serve him the rest of his life.  He and Mamah restarted his practice in the connected studio he built and with a Chicago presence in the Orchestra Hall building (designed by Burnham, no less) he rebuilt his career with buildings as far removed from "Prairie" as his recent European journeys had been.  Abstract in a palpably Viennese way were his new "Constructivist" school building for the Coonley estate and the spectacular Midway Gardens concert/restaurant complex.  It was while he was building Midway Gardens that he first learned of the destruction of Taliesin and the brutal deaths of Mamah, her children and several other inhabitants.

Writing in his 1932 autobiography, Wright surveyed the damage after the 1914 butchery and fire that had destroyed his Wisconsin home.   The five hundred copies of his Wasmuth lithographs he'd brought from Berlin "...went up in smoke when Taliesin burned.  Some thirty copies only were saved.  The pile in the basement smouldered and smoked for three days after the house had burned to the ground."

The Portfolio's Effect

Though we have no record of his sales of the portfolio in the three years between his return from Berlin and the fire in 1914,  it's unlikely that none had sold in that time.  Or it's possible that he meant the "thirty saved" were those that had previously sold.  In later years, prints on the heavier paper and on the now brittle tissues have appeared at galleries and auction houses with water damaged edges or purple staining indicative of the blue paper they were wrapped in before final assembly into the coverboards.

Wright's dramatization of the loss notwithstanding, individual plates are rare and complete volumes rarer still.  The rarest of all was sold in the mid 1990s bearing Wright's handwritten dedication on the title page, "To Mein Lieber Meister... from his - Frank Lloyd Wright."  In the space after "Lieber Meister," the recipient himself carefully wrote in "Louis H. Sullivan." 

The Wasmuth Portfolio is not only an important graphic record of the greatest American architect's first golden age but a story redolent of the invention, arrogance and tragedy of one of the great artists of world history.  All important artists leave a trail of clues to their creativity.  Most of those fragments are left to biographers to piece together for a mere sketch of their lives.  Wright may well have known that it wasn't enough to just build his architecture, but that he had to communicate his architecture to a wider audience.  We are left then with a graphic invention even more important to history than any of his Prairie masterpieces.

Wright's early work from his first independently designed houses in 1893 to his European sojourn in 1910 turned out to be only the first great chapter in a seventy year life in architecture. His masterpieces of the 1930s would result in his inclusion in the world's pantheon of great artists.

Though the 1910 first edition of Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe was seen by relatively few, it was the "right" few who studied it who went on to define the architecture of the 20th Century.  Frank Lloyd Wright left a legacy of hundreds of buildings and countless essays and quotable anecdotes, but among the often self-aggrandizing portraits he painted of himself, his 1910 monograph is the clearest record of an American icon at the start of a fabulous career.

Link to Frank Lloyd Wright "Drawings" Essay

Click on image
to enlarge

Plate size for the regular edition is 15 3/4 x 25 1/4 inches

frank lloyd wright wasmuth
Title Page in gold lettering (Translated: Executed Buildings and
Studies of Frank Lloyd Wright)

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House for Harold McCormick (aerial view) Plate LVIII

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House for for Mr. Tomek (Detail) Plate XXXV

frank lloyd wright wasmuth
Living Room, Avery Coonley Plate LVI

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Concrete House for Ladies Home Journal (Detail) Plate XIVb

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House for Mr. Clark, Peoria (Detail.)Plate XXXIX

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Larkin Building, Buffalo (Detail) Plate XXXIIIa

frank lloyd wright wasmuth
Hardy House, Racine (Detail) Plate XVc

frank lloyd wright wasmuth
Plan for Thaxter Shaw (Detail) Plate XXXIVb

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Unity Temple, Oak Park Plate LXIIIa

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House for Norman Guthrie (Detail) Plate LXI

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Portfolios with title page and text


David Jameson
ArchiTech Gallery
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