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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY FOUR Stories from the Kindergarten

The Porsche test track at Weissach is quite something. There is a link below that will take you round at high speed. I don't think I got out of second gear - but they did let the Race Marshal roar round on her Harley, which must be a first. But even there, I still couldn't think of the Porsche as a European car. A bit like Toyota in Japan basing their Land Cruiser series on American army jeeps, Porsche made one of their early models a car specifically for the Californian market - open-topped and with low cut window sills for casual elbows.

But then, cultures do affect one another. Frank Lloyd Wright, whom we have encountered briefly in the last couple of days, was heavily influenced by the cultures both of ancient Colombia and, particularly, Japan. He first went to Tokyo in 1902 and then made many visits during the building of his Imperial Hotel (where I often took clients for lunch during the happy days of expense account living). During Wright's time in Tokyo he made an extraordinary collection of prints: short of money in 1920, he sold 400 portraits of Kabuki actors by the Katsukawa artists and landscapes by Hiroshige to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wright was close friends with C R Ashbee, a doyen of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, and when Ashbee suggested that he had followed Japanese design ideas, Frank responded vigorously: "Do not say that I deny that my love for Japanese art has influenced me - I admit that it has but claim to have digested it - Do not accuse me of trying to 'adapt Japanese forms' however, that is a false accusation and against my very religion. Say it more truthfully even if it does mean saying it a little more gently".

Earlier blog posts have stumbled along some of the many paths of European modernism - William Morris, the Bauhaus, the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne and the Athens Charter - and in its development Corbusier was a key vector. He grew up in the modern movement: his architecture school in Switzerland found him a place in Peter Behrens' Berlin atelier in 1910 -11, working alongside Mies van der Rohe. He would also have known Walter Gropius, who had only just left Behrens' employ. Gropius then was completing one of the world's first modernist buildings - the Fagus Works in Alfield. And the year of Corbusier's arrival witnessed a step-change for Behrens' Deutscher Werkbund when they were invited to show at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. That Salon is remembered now for Cubism, but at the time the headlines in the French press also read: Our art menaced by Bavarian decorators.

The Fagus Building by Gropius 1911-13 (c)wikicommons

Corbusier was more than impressed by the creative ferment around him: 'When I admire Germany I always feel more Latin. But when I open my eyes I am compelled to see that this country's architects are our masters today'.

There were many other influences on the young Corbusier. Before he came to Berlin, he had travelled to Budapest, to Vienna (where he met Gustav Klimt), and to Paris. Here he spent a year in the atelier of Auguste Perret, a pioneer in the use of ferro-concrete, a medium that Corbusier would use extensively in the decades to come. Then to Berlin for two years and, still only 23 years old, he headed off down the Danube through Hungary and the Balkans to Istanbul - his Voyage d'Orient, sketching, noting, thinking.

But it was during 1910, that first year in Germany, that he became part of one of those conjunctions that change the course of cultural history - when Behrens, Gropius, Mies and Corbusier were joined in Berlin by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright had come over to promote a portfolio of his designs which was being published in Berlin by Wasmuth Verlag, the company founded by Ernst Wasmuth, dealer in architectural books. Though Ernst had died in 1897, the company continued to pioneer books on art and architecture - Hermann Muthesius's Das englische Haus and Georg Dehio's seminal Handbook of German Art History. Frank Lloyd Wright could have come to no better city or publishing house for this, his first book to appear anywhere in the world.

By 1910, Wright had been creative for two decades and the Wasmuth Portfolio, as it is known, contained 100 lithographs of designs for his American buildings. Published in German, and launched with an accompanying exhibition of some of the lithographs, the Portfolio was a sensation: when it arrived at the Behrens office, work stopped while the staff headed straight for the show.

Wasmuth Portfolio: floor plan of the Dana-Thomas House (wikicommons)

The Dana-Thomas House, Springfield Illinois

There is little question that the Wasmuth Portfolio influenced the course of European modernism. Mies van der Rohe, writing in 1940:

At this moment [1910], so critical for us, the exhibition of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright came to Berlin. This comprehensive display and the exhaustive publication of his works enabled us to become really acquainted with the achievements of this architect. The encounter was destined to prove of great significance to the European development.

As far as Wright was concerned, the exchange was one way. He always denied any European influence on his architecture. Le Corbusier, too, was in denial: he seldom referred to Wright - though he had bought a copy of the Wasmuth Portfolio and you might care to compare the two buildings below.

The Martin House (on the left) built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 and the Jeanneret House, La Chaux des Fonds (on the right)) by Le Corbuser in 1912

In his book Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: the Great Dialogue (1984), Thomas L. Doremus writes: their buildings often bear startling resemblance if compared to each other. I have found, on close comparative examination of their work, that the substance of their philosophies at the most profound level is essentially the same.

And there may be a reason why they shared a philosophy of building 'at the most profound level' - the influence of Friedrich Froebel, the man who invented the kindergarten. Froebel recognised the critical importance of educational method in the first years of childhood. (A century previously, Voltaire had put into Ignatius Loyola's mouth the Jesuit maxim: 'Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.)

Froebel's ideas evolved from his work at one of Johann Pestalozzi's schools. Pestalozzi was an educational reformer whose initiatives had, by 1830, virtually eradicated illiteracy in Switzerland. For Pestalozzi, learning should be "by head, hand and heart" - a mantra that Froebel turned into a coherent programme for the under-5s based on the idea that children learn best through playing games.

Froebel founded his first kindergarten in 1837: here children learned through singing, dancing, gardening, and - importantly in the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier - self-directed play, for which one of the main tools were Froebel's Gifts - an age-specific series of educational play materials.

Gift One (up to 12 months): a squashy coloured ball on a string

Gift Two (1 - 2): a wooden sphere, cylinder and cube (Froebel was always delighted, apparently, by an infant's awareness of the differences in shape)

Gift Three and Gift Four (2-3): eight cubes and long rectangular blocks (proper building materials)

Gift Five (3 - 4): blocks divided into halves and quarters

Gift Six (4 - 5): irregular shapes, including triangles

If you want your child to be an architect, then Froebel's Gifts should be in the nursery. The prime shapes in Gropius's Bauhaus were the square, circle and triangle. The De Stijl movement focussed on the straight line, the square, and the rectangle.

Le Corbusier went to a Froebel school and Wright's mother bought a set of Gifts for him after having seen them at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Certainly, Froebel's ideas had a lasting effect on young Frank. He was later to found the Taliesin Fellowship at his summer home in Wisconsin: some fifty or so 'apprentices' would come to Taliesin to study in an atmosphere that Froebel would have recognised.

I can't get out of my mind an infant Frank and his tiny friend Charles-Édouard sitting on a mat with boxes of Froebel's Gifts looking at what each other had made.

The Froebel influence shows

A drive round the Porsche test track at Weissach, near Stuttgart. The large image at the top is the film - click it to play -

An entertaining film in which Dr Wolfgang Porsche, son of the founder, chooses his favourite five cars - all made by Porsche - -

Le Corbusier's model city of Chandigarh -

A summary of the Arts and Crafts Movement - C R Ashbee appears at about 3 minutes 15 seconds -

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (built 1935) -

So Long Frank Lloyd Wright - Simon and Garfunkel -

Biography of Friedrich Fröbel -

A 'mother-play' song written by Friedrich Fröbel -

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