04 June, 2011

Villa Turiucum - The Wright Way (Revisited)

In an earlier post I introduced one of Frank Lloyd Wright's rejected renderings of Villa Turicum. A few people have asked me why and how these plans still exist. 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 Charles Platt. 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.

House for Harold McCormick (aerial view) Plate LVIII

What did he do? He moved to Europe. A few months earlier, Ernst Wasmuth, the Berlin publisher of expensive art books invited Wright to produce a monograph of his 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. A trip to Europe would afford him an escape from small town gossip. Wright left for Berlin (with Cheney) so that he could attend to the publication of the monograph, which would be titled: Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright. (Translated, Studies and Executed Buildings... would be further Americanized into the Wasmuth Portfolio.)

Villa Turicum indeed plays a role in what happened further; 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 masse. 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.

Perhaps Wright had been away too long? It is here that I am reminded of T.S. Eliot; "In my end is my beginning."

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