On Feb. 14, 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright and wife Catherine left their Oak Park home for a three-month trip to Japan. The influence of Japanese architecture, art and culture on Wright's workâ€"and Wright's influence in Japanâ€"has long been a favorite subject of debate for Wright scholars. But an important and ongoing exchange of ideas certainly began with this journey.
Now, 100 years later, Unity Temple will host the Wright in Japan Centennial Festival to commemorate Wright's first trip. The festival will span four months and is expected to draw international visitors to Oak Park.
"It's great that this is happening here," says Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. "Unity Temple was designed right after Wright came back [to Oak Park] in 1905. It was his first public building and arguably the most Japanese of his buildings."
The centennial, adds Bringe, marks "a seminal moment in the history of American architecture," and is an "extremely important anniversary for the people of Japan." Wright returned several times to Japan in the years after he left Oak Park, designing a number of projects including Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, which Wright worked on from 1915 to 1922 (it was torn down in 1968).
The idea for the festival began percolating several years ago, says Bringe, who notes that there's "an extraordinary Japanese visitation" at Unity Temple. Plans firmed up when Japan's Consul General in Chicago, Yutaka Yoshizawa, offered to help with a centennial celebration. Other partners are the Japan Information Center and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
The festival begins this weekend with the premiere of a feature length documentary, Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan. Filmmakers Karen Severns, a Chicago native, and Koichi Mori of Tokyo, spent five years researching the film, which includes interviews with surviving members of Wright's team, his apprentices and historians, and previously unreleased archival material.
Severns and Mori will fly in from Tokyo to attend the screenings at Unity Temple at 6 p.m. on Jan. 15 (in English) and Jan. 16 (in Japanese). Both evenings will feature koto performances by Curtis Patterson and Jeff Wichmann. Patterson, an American who also lives in Tokyo, is the film's musical director. (A koto is a traditional Japanese string instrumentâ€"a large wooden zither, with 13 strings stretched and arched over 13 movable bridges positioned across its 6-foot length.)
According to Bringe, the film, "long awaited in Wright circles," takes the "controversial" position that "Japan saved Wright and Wright saved Japan. After Mamah Cheney's murder [Wright left Oak Park and his family with Cheney, a client's wife, in 1909], Wright goes to Japan and they give him commissions and nurture his genius. In return, Wright fosters the concept of historic preservation in Japan," he says.
At a time when the Japanese were tearing down historic buildings to make way for new ones, the film argues, Wright's "appreciation for the art, culture and architecture" of Japan may have prevented more widespread destruction, explains Bringe.
The festival continues with a lecture series on three successive Saturday afternoons at Unity Temple, beginning on Jan. 22. Speakers will examine the relationship between Japan and Wright's designs for art glass, windows and lamps (Jan. 22); the influence of the Japanese Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (Jan. 29); and Wright's fascination with Japanese woodblock prints (Feb. 5). At the Feb. 5 lecture, a group of rarely seen woodblock prints from Wright's collectionâ€"he owned more than 5,000 at the time of his deathâ€"will be on display, made available by Wright's great-grandson, S. Lloyd Natof, a Chicago furniture maker.
For a complete description of the lectures, see the festival schedule sidebar on page 62. The $7 fee for each lecture ($5 for youth and seniors, free to foundation members) includes a tour of the building.
Finally, on April 16, the Restoration Foundation will hold its annual gala, which will feature cocktails, dinner and a concert by virtuoso Japanese pianist Naoko Okai with violin and cello. Cost is $90 per person.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is also commemorating the centennial with a 12-day trip to Japan in the spring. Travelers will visit Wright's remaining Japanese buildings and explore ancient buildings, gardens and craft studios. Don't rush to sign up, though, since the over-$5,000 per person trip is already sold out.
Why Japan matters to Wright
Wright's passion for Japan predates his 1905 trip. He wasn't alone in his interest, explains Sidney Robinson, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and preservation consultant at Taliesin. "The West didn't know much about the arts of Japan until 1854 after [Matthew] Perry sailed in. Then there was a rush of interest in Europe and America. [Japanese art] was known to be important to painters in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," he says.
Wright was already collecting Japanese art and artifacts in the late 1890s. He became particularly interested in woodblock prints, becoming one of the top two or three dealers in them in the first decade of the 20th century, according to Robinson.
Woodblock prints, once an inexpensive and popular art form in Japan, may have first appeared in the West as wrapping paper for Japanese blue and white porcelain, a popular collector's item, notes Bringe.
To make the prints, a separate wooden block was carved for each ink color used in the print. Colors were added one on top of another, until the print was complete. The prints often have flat areas of bold color without perspective or shadow.
No detailed itinerary of Wright's 1905 trip survives, but information from photos and notes suggests that the Wrights saw what you'd expect tourists to see: monuments, shrines, temples, waterfalls.
But it's impossible to believe that Wright could ever be just a tourist, says Robinson, who will be presenting the Feb. 5 lecture. "He was always consuming the world."
And it's a mistake, he warns, to look for evidence of features Wright may have "lifted" from Japanese architecture in his post-1905 buildings. "There's no 'gotcha,' I don't think," he says. It's not even an interesting question, and shows a lack of understanding of how Wright looked at the world, he suggests.
"Wright was a great creator and had the power of translation," says Robinson. He was able to look at a building, or a piece of art, and see "the principle lying behind it."
In the woodblock prints, Wright found "a unification of two and three dimensions," where the surface patterns of the print are as important as the thing they represent, he explains. "For Wright, the idea of organic architecture is an ideal of separate things fusing into a singularity, a unification. Form and function are one. A Japanese print is a lesson in one."
In Japanese formal architecture, Wright found a model for ideas he had before he went, continues Robinson. "Wright used geometry as an organizing principle for his buildings; he was aware of their pattern making." In Japan, he saw "the discipline in Japanese aesthetic, the pattern. There was a discipline of carpentry and construction and he picked up on it. It helped him clarify and focus. He didn't have good models before."
"Japan was a source for Wright's development," he concludes. "It stimulated his own search."
Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan
Premiere of the feature length documentary. Produced by Chicago native Karen Severns and Tokyo's Koichi Mori, this exhaustively researched film includes previously unreleased archival material and insights into Wright's legacy.
Narration in Japanese by Masato Harada. Narration in English by Azby Brown.
With koto performances by Curtis J. Patterson, the film's director of music, and Chicagoan Jeff Wichmann
â€˘ Jan. 15 in English, 6 p.m.
â€˘ Jan. 16 in Japanese, 6 p.m.
Reservations required. $15 for members of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy; $20 for non-members. Includes post-film reception and discussion with the filmmakers.
Wright and Japan Saturday Lecture Series
All lectures are free with general admission to the Unity Temple Tour Program. Arrive one hour early at 1 p.m. for a comprehensive tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's first public building.
$7 for adults. $5 for youth and seniors. Free for members of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Light of Japan
â€˘ Jan. 22, 2 p.m.
By Rolf Achilles, professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and curator, Smith Museum of Stained Glass. The talk will explore the relationship between Japan and Wright's designs for art glass, windows and lamps. Wright's influences ranged from traditional lamps to shoji screens and can be seen in most of his Prairie period work.
The Hooden: The Japanese Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
â€˘ Jan. 29, 2 p.m.
By David Sokol, director of museum studies, University of Illinois at Chicago. The talk will focus on the design, construction and influence of the Hoodenâ€"or Phoenix Hallâ€"including new information on the rarely seen Ra-ma, exquisitely carved panels.
Frank Lloyd Wright as Critic: 'On the Japanese Print'
â€˘ Feb. 5, 2 p.m.
By Sidney Robinson, associate professor of architecture, University of Illinois, and consultant to preservation and educational programsâ€"Taliesin. Wright was an avid collector and dealer of Japanese woodblock prints and wrote one of his most expressive and objective essays on the subject. The talk will explore Wright's fascination with Ukiyo-e, the "floating world" of these masterworks of art. A group of rarely seen prints from Wright's own collection will be exhibited.
The 2005 Restoration Gala featuring Naoko Okai
â€˘April 16. Tickets: $90 per person
Sponsored by Community Bank Oak Park River Forest
Reading Group: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro
Wright acknowledged the influence of this literary masterpiece. Unity Temple Restoration Foundation will host a reading group to explore concepts of space, beauty and culture. Go to www.sacred-texts.com/bud/tea.htm to download the essay, then call 383-8873 and register for a group discussion at Unity Temple. Groups will be moderated by Mark Brewer, lecturer in Japanese history, U. of I. at Chicago.
For more information, contact:
Unity Temple Restoration Foundation,
â€"Information courtesy of Unity Temple Restoration Foundation