The Welsh architect Jonathan Adams believes that the proud Welsh heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright's maternal family influenced his philosophy and architecture, a claim Adams explores in a documentary and book. Plus, he discusses Wright's ahead-of-its-time attention to nature in this article by WTTW.
Superlatives abound in discussions of Frank Lloyd Wright. Take his Unity Temple just outside of Chicago in Oak Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been called the world’s first modern building, and contains what has been described as one of the most beautiful interior spaces in America.
“If you go there, you’ll come away convinced that he was special, he was a unique architect,” says Jonathan Adams, a Welsh architect and host of the documentary Frank Lloyd Wright: The Man Who Built America. Unity Temple, which was recently restored, is the work of Wright’s that Adams most recommends people see, because it “crystallizes everything that he was about.”
The building, completed in 1908 for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to which Wright’s mother, Anna, belonged, was technologically innovative in its extensive use of reinforced concrete. Its powerfully horizontal orientation is an example of Wright’s Prairie Style. In typical Wright fashion, it compresses space as you enter before suddenly opening into a large room, taking the visitor on a journey. The radical simplicity of the building and lack of a spire or much ornamentation as compared to most historic church architecture is also characteristic of Wright, who sought to create a new American architecture and wanted each of his buildings to perfectly fit their site and purpose: to be unique.
But Unity Temple did not emerge out of nothing, as Wright would have people believe. Adams thinks that a Unitarian chapel in Wales provides the model for two of the building’s most unusual features: the sanctuary’s square shape, and the positioning of the entrances into it on either side of the pastor, so that you are facing the congregation rather than the minister as you enter. Wright’s mother Anna was Welsh and had visited the chapel in her family’s ancestral home shortly before Wright began designing Unity Temple, and presumably brought word of it back to Wright.
“Having visited both buildings…the experience going in is so similar, it’s quite extraordinary,” says Adams. “It’s obvious, having been there, that Unity Temple’s sanctuary is basically a kind of simulacrum of the old temple in Cardiganshire.” Wright also drew on the layout of a medieval chapel that he had visited in Japan when designing Unity Temple, according to Adams. “That’s his real genius, I think, is his ability to take ideas from all these really odd, heterodox sources.”
Unity Temple is not the only part of Wright’s life or work that shows the influence of his Welsh family, Adams believes. Adams traces that influence in a new book, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Architecture of Defiance, which will be published in the United States in January, 2023 by University of Chicago Press. The book grew out of the documentary.
Taliesin, the home and studio Wright built near Spring Green, Wisconsin is the most obvious example of Welsh influence. Not only is its name Welsh for “shining brow,” referring to its location on a hill; Taliesin was also the name of a sixth century Welsh poet whose work had been revived by the eighteenth century Welsh poet and scholar Iolo Morganwg, whom Anna’s family knew back in Wales. (Morganwg was eventually found to have forged some of the ancient literature he claimed to have rediscovered.) Morganwg’s famed motto, “Truth against the world,” both encapsulates Wright’s radical philosophy and is represented throughout Taliesin in its symbolic form of three lines. To read more, click here.
A little hint of E. Fay Jones likely will dot the streetscape of College Avenue in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The city's Arts Council on Wednesday reviewed preliminary drawings for medians to be placed along College Avenue from North Street to near the Northwest Arkansas Mall. The medians are part of the city's 71B Corridor Plan, which kicked off in 2018. The plan aims to get car traffic flowing better along the corridor, make pedestrian and bicycle pathways safer, add bus shelters and transit lanes and improve the overall aesthetic.
Cary Thomsen with hired consultant RDG Planning & Design in Omaha, Neb., presented the panel with two potential themes for the medians, which he referred to as gateways for certain sections of the stretch. One theme was inspired by the works of E. Fay Jones, a well-known architect from Fayetteville who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The other theme took inspiration from Googie architecture, a style that was prominent in the United States from the mid-1940s to the 1970s featuring bright Space Age signs intended to attract drivers from highways to businesses such as restaurants, hotels and gas stations.
The panel, after about 45 minutes of discussion, opted for the Fay Jones theme. Working artists and professionals in arts-related industries comprise the panel, which advises the City Council on arts-related matters.
Thomsen said the plan is to have six or so decorative medians placed on College Avenue. The designs of the medians will influence other aspects of the corridor's streetscape, meaning decorative elements such as street lighting, vegetation or art installations. Read more here.
Last week the city of Sarasota, Florida and a local not-for-profit selected 18 firms for the opportunity to design a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center. For the selection, City representatives and members of the Van Wezel Foundation winnowed down an initial list of 43 respondents to these 18.
To further narrow the field, the partners are inviting the public to task force meetings and will solicit further input over six public meetings. A short list of four to six finalists will travel to Sarasota to present their plans to residents. (The selection process is different from a City Council–appointed panel that will make recommendations around the ownership, operation, reuse, and mission of the performing arts center.)
The old arts center was inspired by seashells and designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, the now defunct successor firm to the one founded by Frank Lloyd Wright. The city needs a new Arts Center because TAA's building is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Water incursion has already damaged the 60-year-old Van Wezel Hall’s electrical systems and weakened its concrete. In light of these threats, planning for a new performing arts commenced in 2018, when the Sarasota City Commission okayed a master plan for nearby Bayfront Park that included a new Arts Center. The new Center will also sit seaside but it will be raised out of the flood zone, as well as upgraded with modern theater technology. The chosen design will also add more capacity to the 80,000-square-foot hall, which currently seats just over 1,700 people.
The Van Wezel Foundation will operate the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center as a nonprofit, while the City will own the building. More here.