It has been said that it is always darkest before the dawn, and so it was with Frank Lloyd Wright, for it was in the year 1911 that Europeans came calling. The Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1836-1934) visited the Chicago area and visited buildings by Sullivan and Wright. However, Wright was already in Europe, having gone to Berlin at the invitation of a publisher of expensive art books, Ernst Wasmuth, who wanted to do a portfolio, a monograph of his best work. The publication, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright or (“Completed Buildings and Designs by Frank Lloyd Wright”) became famous and known in America by its short hand title, the Wasmuth Portfolio. This portfolio contained one hundred plates of exquisite lithographs from drawings done in the Oak Park days. Redraw in Europe, the group included some seventy buildings and projects reproduced in brown, gray and bronze inks on gray and white paper overlaid with some twenty-eight tissue overlays. According to Jeanette Fields in her article on “The Return of the Wasmuth Portfolio,” the original intent of the Portfolio was not necessarily for the edification of European architects. She noted that the Wright biographer, Anthony Alofsin, realize in 2011 that the Portfolio was aimed at an American audience. However, the entire project was fraught with scandal, as Wright had disappeared from Illinois and had fled to Europe with his new lover, leaving his wife and six children behind.
The individual portfolios were luxury items, exquisitely prepared and printed, and fronted by a long essay by Wright himself. He explained his design philosophy, which was based upon the arts and crafts credo, a return to the organic nature of Medieval communal architecture. In explaining the aesthetic of the Prairie houses, he announced that “The horizontal line is the line of domesticity” and the lack of height in his homes brought the structures and their owners closer to the surrounding environment. European architects, Berlage and Theo van Doseburg, preached the significance of the portfolio and when one of the more affordable and less fragile versions (The Little Wasmuth) landed at the Berlin office of architect Peter Behrens, his young apprentices, such as Walter Gropius, saw the future of modern architecture. In Holland, Berlage became the chief proselytizer for Wright’s domestic projects. He saw a unique change in the concept of what a building could be—that a structure should be more than a façade that encased a grouping of rooms. A Frank Lloyd Wright building was three dimensional, designed along a cruciform interior which pushed forward and back and shoved spaces from side to side.
In thinking of blocks or units rather than of exterior design and ornamental motifs, Wright had taught the architects the way out of historicism. The America was not in thrall to the history of architecture to the extent that his European colleagues were engaged in the past, and his was a fresh vision. Wright was fond of saying that “the problem is the answer,” a functionalist and pragmatic approach to architecture that appealed to Dutch architects. The precise nature and extent of Wright’s influence on Dutch architecture is still a matter of conjecture, but it seems clear that the De Stijl architects were interested in his work, but for their own purposes. Wright may had stressed “organic” architecture and natural materials, but he also understood the impact of the machine on architecture and this was the aspect of his thinking that appealed to the Dutch architects, seeking a modern style. When looking at the leading examples of De Stijl architecture, with the bright primary colors, one can see only a tenuous connection to Wright’s Prairie Style. However, it is not just the exterior but also to the interior that one must look.
Berlage lectured on Wright in the Netherlands and in Germany, spreading the concept of his open interior space which Berlage referred to as “plastic,” meaning that he understood Wright’s homes to be works of sculpture. The Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud compared Wright’s use of sculptural blocked shapes to the “aestheticism, spiritual self-denial” of Cubism to the architect’s “exuberant plasticity” and “sensuous superfluity” and “fullness of life” that could only be American. Jan Wils argued that Wright had “opened the way for the new architecture” with what Wils called “openness, lucidity, and the concentration of related activities are the basis of his ground plans..”In the ground plan,” he asserted, “lies the true modernity of Wright’s architecture.” The Dutch architect continued, writing, “Therefore if there is to be a modern architecture, there will have to be a complete revolution in the ground plan of buildings—resulting from out change in lifestyle.” The Dutch architect Robert van’t Hoff traveled to Chicago, met Wright and toured his famous buildings the Oak Park homes, the Unity Temple and the Larkin Building. When he returned to Holland, this founding member of De Stijl rejected the previous model that had inspired Dutch architects, the English style house which was arranged around a hallway. The presence of the hallway was the only organizing principle, allowing for a random assortment of individual rooms to sprout off as leaves from a stalk.
According to Anthony Alofsin in Frank Lloyd Wright: Europe and Beyond, Robert Van’t Hoff, the first Dutch architect to actually visit Wright, adopted Wright’s more sculptural and logical plan which was more rational, with space responding to the needs of the structure which was built around a central cruciform axis. Alofsin considered the response of the Dutch architect to be “abstract” “realized with the help of modern building techniques.” Van’t Hoff’s response to Wright replicated the heaviness of horizontal planes and the bulk of the reinforced concrete which was leveled by overhanging horizontal roof lines. What the architect evolved towards was an increasingly simplified planar surfaces. The flat room becomes a line, the large sections of unbroken windows become reflective rectangles, the designs by Van t’Hoff became less architectural than a series of flat expanses. Wils was convinced that Wright’s low structures reflected the flat lines of prairie itself. But the Prairie Houses had a lightness in contrast to the heaviness of the Unity Temple and Van’t Hoff’s homes replicate the sturdiness of the solemn temple transferred to a domestic setting.
While the Great War raged outside the borders of the Netherlands, the Dutch architects had an unbroken period in which to study Wright’s architecture and to actively build, responding to his premises. By the 1920s, the Dutch architects had evolved their own modern vocabulary for architecture. Beginning early in the century, they pursued their quest for het nieuwe bouw or what the Dutch called “the new build.” In Frank Lloyd Wright they found a kindred spirit and based their architecture on the principles of sobriety and functionality and efficiency. Although the skeleton was covered with a layer of concrete could look stolid, the use of steel beams guaranteed that it was actually quite light-weight and thin, allowing the walls to be open to air and light with expansive windows. However, the Dutch architects, unlike Wright himself, associated with painters and considered painting and architecture as being entangled, rather than separate, and thought, as can be seen with Van t’Hoff, for example, of architecture as being a series of flat shapes arranged into an enclosure. In addition, the Dutch architects were integrating Cubism into their designs, stripping away the local flavor of the Midwest savored by Wright. The result was an assemblage of clean horizontal blocks, stripped of any materials other that those of the machine. In the book he edited, Frank Lloyd Wright: Europe and Beyond, Alofsin noted that “The term ‘Hague School’ is used to denote a cubist building style typical of The Hague in the 1920s and 1930s..”
Oud’s building for the Weissenhof project in 1927 used clerestory windows at the upper level of the walls, which granted privacy on the street face and allowed light to stream in from on high. But it is important to point to different approaches in De Stijl architecture. On one hand, there was Van’t Hoff who was concerned with form and Oud who quarreled with Wright and retreated to Cubism, but on the other hand there was Theo van Doesburg who thought that painting and architecture should be integrated, a practice of which Mondrian disapproved. however, it was just this combining of painting and architecture, meaning that painting became architecture, painted shapes became concrete planes, and Mondrian’s trademark asymmetry replayed in architectural balance.
With De Stijl architecture, the integration of painting and architecture resulted in simple forms both interior and exterior that acted like floating (picture) planes that could carry large areas of primary colors, resulting in a very different tendency in architecture. Wright tended to use materials congruent to the environment and always knitted the structure into its site, organically. De Stijl architecture was the modernist extension of Wright’s concepts, which were adopted by many modern architects. The exuberant use of color set those Dutch architects apart from their German counterparts who were doctrinaire in their use of the white surfaces, untouched by color. Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House of 1924 in Utrecht were informed by De Stijl painting and designed according the De Stijl spiritual and communal concepts, which as shall be seen in the next chapter deviated significantly from the Americanisms of Frank Lloyd Wright and expressed uniquely Dutch ideas.