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Wright in Japan Centennial Festival
Now thru April 16th, 2005 at Frank Lloyd Wright
January 23, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
Anyone who has traveled to Japan has come away impressed by the orderly nature of Japanese society. Such symmetry would inspire Frank Lloyd Wright after he first set sail for Japan on Valentine's Day, 1905.
Leaving his six children behind, Wright and wife Catherine went to Japan with his clients Cecelia and Ward Willits of Highland Park. They embarked from Vancouver, B.C., on the Empress of China, and returned to Oak Park on May 14, 1905.
Deeply inspired, Wright then began work on Unity Temple, now considered one of his crowning achievements. A Japanese influence can be found in the temple's asymmetrical layout and architectural details, including its hanging lamps, woodwork and windows (which resemble ramma, perforated ventilation panels over sliding screens). Some historians suggest that Unity Temple was inspired by the Toshogu Temple, which Wright saw when he stopped in Nikko.
Traveling across Japan by train, Wright clearly learned about the concept of shibui -- quiet understatement and restraint. The more he absorbed the serenity of the countryside, the more he appreciated order.
To commemorate Wright's first Japan trip, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation is presenting a Wright in Japan Centennial Festival, which runs through April 16 at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., in Oak Park. The foundation partnered with the Japan Information Center, the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
"We saw this as a great opportunity to explore a real important issue in the history of architecture," said Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. "One of the most impactful influences in culture between Asia and the United States is the vernacular that Frank Lloyd Wright created through the Prairie Style. It's all around us. Starbucks does Prairie Style places. So does McDonald's. And Wright had a lifelong relationship with Japan."
A decade later, Wright returned to Japan, reeling from the Taliesin tragedy of 1914. Wright's mistress Margaret "Mamah" Cheney was murdered at Wright's Spring Green, Wis., home, along with her two children and others by the family chef, who then poured kerosene along the windowsills and torched the building in an alleged salary dispute. Wright was disgraced after the press had a field day with him.
To distance himself from the tragedy, Wright quickly began work on the Imperial Hotel, which would become his best known Japanese project. (He designed the American Embassy in Tokyo but that project never came to fruition.) At only 5-foot-8, Wright accordingly designed the hotel to a small scale. Across from the majestic Imperial Palace, the hotel encompassed tiny terraces, little courts and narrow passages.
The hotel was built on land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay. Wright designed floating foundations, using mud as a natural shock absorber. He was concerned about the possibility of earthquakes and tsunamis.
With the Taliesin tragedy fresh in his mind, Wright built with a sense of urgency. Finished in 1922, the Imperial Hotel survived Japan's worst earthquake in 1923. The hotel was used by the U.S. Army during occupation after World War II.
With the destruction of the Imperial Hotel in 1967, Unity Temple became the last surviving major building of Wright's early period. Portions of the Imperial Hotel's front lobby have since been reconstructed in the Meji Mura, an architectural park near Nagoya.
Karen Severns and Koichi Mori wrote, produced and directed the ambitious documentary "Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan,"which has been screened at Unity Temple and is being shopped to television. "He absolutely built the Imperial Hotel against doomsday," Severns said during an interview last weekend at Unity Temple before heading home to Tokyo. "He was determined to make it the safest building, but also to prove to other Western architects there that steel frame buildings were wrong. And they were building lots of steel frame buildings back then."
Instead, Wright used fireproof red brick. The hotel also had a copper roof rather than traditional Japanese roof tiles. "Wright always swore he was not influenced by Japanese architecture, but by art and aesthetics," she said.
During the early 1900s, most American architects and artists were exploring Europe. In Japan, Wright eschewed the rapidly industrialized urban society, with its growing Western influence. Wright saw old Japan in the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples outside Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto and Tokyo. A camera buff, Wright took pictures of gardens and waterfalls he visited. Such Japanese themes played out in his later work, notably, Fallingwater (designed in 1936) near Mill Run, Pa.
In An Autobiography, published in 1943, Wright wrote, "Ever since I discovered the print, Japan had appealed to me as the most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth. Later I found that Japanese art and architecture really did have organic character. Their art was nearer to the earth and a more indigenous product of native conditions of life and work, therefore more nearly modern, as I saw it, than any European civilization alive or dead."
The seeds of the "Magnificent Obsession" documentary were planted in 1992, when plans were announced that the Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan school in Tokyo was going to be torn down. Built in 1921, the school was Wright's last public building in Tokyo. Severns and Mori became involved in a long but ultimately successful campaign to save the building. In his lifetime, Wright designed 12 projects for Japan, of which six were built. The school is just one of two that remain. (The other is the Tazaemon Yamamura House, circa 1918, which faces south to Osaka Bay in Ashiya.)
The Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan is now a public meeting place used for weddings and other events. "It was this little jewel in this strange place in Tokyo," said Severns, a Chicago native who first visited Tokyo on an exchange program through the University of lllinois-Champaign. "We didn't know about that, and I grew up knowing a lot about Wright." Her father is an architect based in Champaign. In the early 1990s, Severns began work on a screenplay about Wright's post-Taliesin redemption, with Japan becoming the catalyst for his return to favor.
"I got close to raising money for the screenplay and then realized the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation [which controls the rights to his name and legacy] doesn't allow docudramas about Wright," she said.
By 2001, Severns and Mori, to whom she is married, realized that Wright's stories in Japan were being eroded with the deaths of those with firsthand knowledge of such events. They began work on the documentary.
Before producing architectural videos in 1999, Mori traveled across Asia for a leading multinational as an expert on building management systems and environmental conservation. Severns has an MFA in film from Columbia University; her 2001 short film, "One Day Coming," was an Academy Award nominee. "No one has ever published anything about Wright's influence on Japan," Severns said. "It's always the other way around. Even specialists in Frank Lloyd Wright are relying on local experts. We did a lot of [Japanese] research that hasn't been done."
Upcoming events in the festival include these lectures:
*"The Hooden: The Japanese Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893," 2 p.m. Saturday: David Sokol, director of museum studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago will speak on the design, construction and influence of the Hooden (a.k.a. Phoenix Hall) on Wright. Wright was captivated by the way the building's phoenix-style wings embraced the pond at the exposition and also was drawn to its basic post-and-beam construction and its use of ramma.
*"Frank Lloyd Wright as Critic: On the Japanese Print," 2 p.m. Feb. 5: Sidney Robinson, associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, and consultant for preservation and educational programs at Taliesin, will discuss Wright's fascination with Ukiyo-e, "the floating world" of these works. Wright, an avid collector and dealer of Japanese woodblock prints, was once an apprentice to Chicago architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee, one of the earliest collectors of Japanese woodblock prints. Wright adored their vivid colors. When Wright died in 1959, he owned more than 5,000 examples of woodblock prints as well as folding screens, ceramics and textiles.
"There's been a lot of analysis on these things and historical information on the types of prints Wright collected, things like that," Bringe said. "But our lectures will talk about influence and that's something that has never been done before."
As part of the festival, a group of rarely seen prints from Wright's collection will be exhibited. For a complete schedule of festival events, call the foundation at (708) 383-8873.
Admission to the lectures is included with general admission to the Unity Temple building tour, which is $7 for adults, $5 for children and seniors.
Unity Temple seeks funds for a rehab
According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, one of every five Wright-designed buildings has been destroyed, resulting in the loss of nearly 100 architectural landmarks. One of the most important, the Unity Temple, at 875 Lake St., in Oak Park, is showing signs of a century of wear, and so the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation has been formed to spearhead a $12 million restoration project.
Many of the National Historic Landmark's fragile art glass features -- the largest from the Prairie School period -- are cracked or bowed and or need extensive cleaning or repair. Woodwork and floors also need to be restored.
Designed between 1905 and completed in 1908, Unity Temple was Wright's first solo public commission. The foundation's goal is to complete restoration by 2008, the building's 100th anniversary.
"It's hard to restore a church," said Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. "It's a challenge. Many people think, 'Why should I give money to a church?' Well, this church is open to thousands of people from all over the world, representing a huge economic development for the region. Contrary to trends since 9/11, Unity Temple's visitation has increased in double digits in each of the last two years."
Services are held in the Temple every Sunday by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, fundamentally the same group that commissioned Wright, a Universalist, to build the temple. "We have a great relationship with the congregation, but we're a separate, non-religious organization," Bringe said. "This allows us to access government and private foundation funds in a way that most churches can't."
Unity Temple was one of the first buildings in the world to consist of entirely of poured-in-place, reinforced concrete and the first to present such material as integrated surface aesthetic decoration. Wright chose this route to work within a small budget and to serve the congregation's desire for no overt religious symbolism.
To date, $1.5 million has been spent to restore Unity Temple. "The next restoration phase is fascinating," Bringe said. "We're still using the hot water radiator heating system that's nearly 100 years old. A comprehensive heating-air conditioning system is essential to the preservation of the building. We've made a commitment to green energy and have a plan for a $2.5 million heating and air-conditioning system that will rely primarily on geothermal energy. This will decrease our reliance on fossil fuels from 60 to 80 percent."
Unity Temple remains a world-class destination. "More than 60 percent of our walk-up visitors are foreign nationals," Bringe said. "There's a lot of rationale for support through cultural programming like the Wright in Japan Centennial Festival. This is an invitation for the Japanese and others who love Frank Lloyd Wright to come to Chicago and Oak Park to visit us."
For more information on the rehab efforts, call the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation at (708) 383-8873 or visit the group's Web site at www.unitytemple-utrf.org.