Frank Lloyd Wright and the Epiphany of Mimetic Abstraction
FLLW:Johnson Wax Research Tower, 1944
“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature” Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright advanced an entirely new and revolutionary direction in the eternal concept of mimesis (the imitation of nature). Before Wright, mimesis generally took the form of ornamentation. Since the ancients, buildings have been clad in frozen homages to plant and animal life. The capitals of columns in Egypt imitated the lotus plant, just as the Corinthian column of ancient Rome imitated acanthus leaves. However, these buildings did not imitate nature in their basic form or construction. The use of masonry molded into an architrave, an arch, or a groin vault were evolutions in structure mostly unrelated from mimesis; they were merely a result of human ingenuity. Frank Lloyd Wright was the first to have large mimetic breakthroughs in regards to planning, form and structure. (One could argue for Antoni Gaudi and Viollet Le Duc, but their forms, while organic, were less mimetic and more alien.)
In the Ward Willits house of 1901, one sees an early example of Wright’s flowing pinwheel plan. The hearth stakes its place in the center of the house as the various rooms such as living, dining and kitchen protrude from it. The plan itself evokes a tree; the hearth being the trunk and the rooms being the branches. This is mimesis that goes beyond mere applied ornamentation. It is an intrinsic mimesis that uses the idea of the tree as an ordering device. Structurally, the use of the cantilever suggests a branch protruding from a trunk. The low hipped roof and the leading horizontal lines on the exterior contain a more abstract mimesis, evoking with their lines the uninterrupted and romantic vistas of the prairie. The prairie and the tree seem to be Wrights most imitated forms.
Structural and form-driven mimesis (almost unprecedented before Wright) shows up in further potent examples. Wright uses the shape of the lily pad for the dramatically slender interior columns in the Johnson Wax Building. The Hanna House utilizes the hexagon as a unit of design, effectively creating a beehive inspired residence. The Morris Gift Shop and early proposals for the Guggenheim suggest a nautilus shell. And perhaps most dramatically, the unbuilt proposal for the mile-high skyscraper in Chicago is designed structurally to be completely like a tree. The central core was to be the only supporting element, as the floor plates would protrude from it just like the branches off of a tree trunk. This trunk-core system sounds insane but was effectively utilized in the Johnson Wax Tower as well as Wrights only real built skyscraper, the Price Tower.
So, Frank Lloyd Wright innovated on an entirely new level the way that architecture could imitate nature. Paradoxically, Wright was also one of the first architects to abstract himself from nature (as opposed to expressly imitating it). This can clearly be seen in his early stained glass work. Louis Sullivan created an entirely original and new form of decoration on the facades of his buildings, however for the most part they were still literal evocations of actual natural plant life. Frank Lloyd Wright’s early ornamentation was indebted to Sullivan’s, which can be seen in his terra cotta work at the Winslow House. As Wright develops his prairie style this direct mimesis of nature in the ornamentation begins to break down into distilled forms. FLLW abstracted nature for perhaps the first time in his early stained glass. The Willits House was the first important example of this stained glass work and is made up entirely of geometric forms completely abstracted from the true natural form that inspired them. This breakthrough was no doubt helped by Wright’s gift for pure geometric form, which he learned as a child with Froebel Blocks. One wonders to what degree this early abstraction of nature influenced the modern art movement particularly in Picasso’s discovery of cubism and Mondrian’s reductive distillations of the visible universe. Abstraction of nature found in Wright’s work goes beyond ornamentation by using aesthetic devices such as low horizontal lines and shallow hipped roofs to evoke the prairie in distilled form. Structurally, the metaphor of the lily pad and the tree with branches is also a highly abstracted concept and in no way aesthetically evokes the natural forms that inspired them. Which brings us back full circle: FLLW managed to evolve mimesis to a whole new level, while at the same time completely abstracting it. This is a true and interesting paradox found in Wright’s work. His contributions to mimesis, as well as mimetic abstraction, were paramount in influencing the modern age. Subsequent early Modernists would abstract themselves from nature to such a high degree their buildings no longer appeared to have anything to do with nature. This abstraction of nature combined with the mimesis of the machine heralded the bold forms of Modernism in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Left:FLLW: Coonley Playhouse Glass 1912.
Right: Mondrian: Trafalgar Square. 1939.