Fountainhead of Diagonality
There is no other architect in the world who has had a more profound and lasting impact on the emergence of Diagonality in the 20th century than the American Frank Lloyd Wright. From the start of his career to its end, Diagonality was a driving and sustained force. There are various factors that influenced Wright's engagement and experimentation with the Diagonal motif—including Froebel Toys, Victorian architecture, Japanese Art, the Octagon Fad, and Cubism. The earliest and most impactful influence was a gift from his mother, the Froebel Toys.
In the summer of 1876, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother traveled to Philadelphia—along with ten million other visitors from the US and abroad—to celebrate the 100th birthday of the signing of the Declaration of Independence at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. Wright’s mother, Anna, a progressive schoolteacher, was certain her 9-year-old son, Frank, would become an architect. In the Friedrich Froebel Kindergarten exhibit, in the Education annex of the Woman’s Pavilion, she saw a Froebel Kindergarten chest of toys (1838-1840) that included wooden blocks in varied geometric shapes and 12-inch square sheets of German paper intended for paper folding. The latter was an activity upon which Froebel, a German crystallographer-turned-educator, placed great educational value. Upon returning home, Mrs. Wright purchased a Froebel chest of toys. Wright later wrote of their influence in his development as an architect. "For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top…and played…with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks…All are in my fingers to this day." Reportedly they influenced his design (and the interior decorations) for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and many other projects before and after. The hotel was one of the earliest examples of Mayan Revival, which took design cues from the architecture and iconography of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. Although the hotel complex is strictly orthogonal, Wright employed numerous diagonal decorative motifs throughout the wings of the building.
Froebel's toys did not involve just blocks. They also included the weaving of straws and folding paper horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Having been a crystallographer, Froebel had a special affinity for diagonal lines
Given the fact that the Froebel blocks profoundly influenced Wright (he was a lifelong sponge of external influences), one wonders if this modern master had also been influenced by the intricate and complex angular geometry of cut glass, so popular during his youth. Although no hard evidence yet supports this notion, Wright’s possible inspiration by the prismatic geometry of cut glass would not be surprising. If alive today, however, he’d probably reject the suggestion because it would reference too directly his roots in asymmetrical Victorian design, which he later felt the need to disparage, no doubt to inflate (unnecessarily) his own originality. As time passed, however, Wright became a fountainhead of diagonality in his stained-glass window designs, wall surface decoration, furniture, and the geometric organization of his floor plans, which are clearly crystalline in the geometric patterning and three-dimensional massing and spatial organization of the spaces he created. Froebel’s influence on Wright was rooted in part in lattice building exercises, which had a demonstrably powerful effect on Wright as evidenced in the floor plan below— one of many such plans that he executed throughout his career.
It is reasonable to assume that Wright and his mother would have read news reports about discoveries in the field of crystallography in the 19th century, given the fact that Froebel himself was a crystallographer and because Mrs. Wright became deeply involved with everything Froebel. One is therefore left to wonder whether Wright was influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the prismatic cuts in the decorative glass of that era.
It is also reasonable to imagine that makers of cut glass were influenced by the stream of reports about discoveries in crystal structure that surfaced throughout the 19th century, beginning in 1826 with Moritz Frankenheim’s Crystallonomische Aufsätze in which he presents his discovery of thirty-two kinds of crystal shapes. Some of these geometries seem echoed in the patterns Wright saw in the designs of his mentor Louis Sullivan. With this background, it is understandable that Wright became a fountainhead of ideas and examples in the emergence of Diagonality throughout the 20th century.
Architectural historian Anthony Alofsin points to 1910 as a pivotal year in Frank Lloyd Wright’s design methodology. In the previous decade the square and rectangle had been the predominant geometric module in his architectural designs even though there were instances of some diagonality in his work. Rigid axiality and the orthogonal grid resulted in a predominance of bilaterally symmetrical floor plans. As Alofsin points out, even in projects where the overall plan was asymmetrical, “local symmetries” were to be found. But in 1910 the architect returned from his travels in Europe with a new vision.
Wright’s first experiments with asymmetrical diagonality involved non-orthogonal rotation and alterations to square elements in architectural ornament. This progression is much like the progression from diagonal patterning in mosaics that prefigured floor plans with incipient forms of diagonality nudging the layout out of the grip of the right angle. Although Wright had previously used trapezoids and angled elements in the composition of earlier ornament, the effect was mostly symmetrical. Alofsin suggests that Wright’s methodology of ornamental composition used grids, matrices, and geometric rules developed under the influence of Louis Sullivan. He lists the Midway Gardens as a beginning point in Wright’s experiments with asymmetrical diagonality in ornament. The repeating motif, which Wright called “Dancing Glass,” was a series of ornamental cast concrete panels. The motifs were composed of altered lattice grids within a square upon which a double square rectangle rotated by 30 degrees is overlayed. These rectangles are linked together with another rectangle rotated 60 degrees in the opposite direction forming a running border pattern. These, along with other angular sculptures and moldings, helped to produce, according to Alofsin, an “exotic effect.”
Wright’s experiments in asymmetrical diagonal ornament found “unparalleled achievement” in his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, mentioned above. Here, as with the Midway Gardens, Wright used a rotation system of rectangular elements as the prime generator of ornamental motifs. These ideas were expanded upon, using techniques of multiple frames and the layering of multiple diagonally rotated matrices, to create a sense of visual tension that Wright often balanced and contrasted with the inclusion of orthogonally organized, primary geometric forms.
From ornament, the next step in Wright’s evolution in diagonality was the utilization of this methodology in the composition of his building plans. His earlier plans, as illustrated in the design for the Nakoma Country Club, utilized square, rectangular, and regular polygonal forms radiating from a core structure along diagonal axes. The diagonal method of spatial organization allowed Wright to use non-rectilinear polygons (such as the triangle in the un-built San Marcos hotel resort and the hexagon in the “Honeycomb House”) as the primary spatial modules in the generation of his plans.
Wright’s embrace of the diagonal motif and his trailblazing experimentation was a challenging but potentially rewarding departure from the right angle architecture of the past and would seem to justify referring to the first quarter of the 20th century in this architecture-oriented virtual museum as the Age of Wright.