did Modern come from mud?

“Vernacular architecture” is essentially a fancy term for “traditional buildings not designed by architects”. A more sophisticated definition might be “architecture that uses locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances.” Since anything developed as “new” always rests on the shoulders of something that came before, it’s not surprising that the Modern movement was influenced by certain architectural traditions of the deep and not so deep past. I’ve often wondered if the Modern movement was in part inspired by the earthy edges of southwestern adobes and the ethereal white blockiness of seaside hovels in the Aegean sea. As it turns out, it was!

Although he denied it (“Resemblances are mistaken for influences.”), Frank Lloyd Wright was clearly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. He saw the Ho-o-den, the Japanese building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was an avid collector of Japanese prints (his design depictions were clearly influenced by these prints). And he most likely read Edward Morse’s book “Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings” published in 1886.

Wright was likely inspired by the horizontality of Japanese architecture as well as the large eaves and open spaces, elements that appear in his Prairie and Usonian phases. While in Japan overseeing the construction of the Imperial Hotel, he experienced the Korean tradition of heating a room through pipes in the floor, something he would employ later in his Usonian homes.

Photos of the Ho-o-den at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition

Wright, as well as many of the Modern masters, were either directly or indirectly influenced by the Arts and Crafts (also called the Craftsman) movement, a movement characterized by simple forms, local and natural materials, and hand-made (vernacular) craftsmanship intended to rebel against the machine-age and over-indulgent Victorians. Started in England about 1860, Many Craftsman houses included built-ins and furniture meant to compliment the architecture, traits picked up by the Modernists.

Indirectly, Wright, through the publication of his Wasmuth Portfolio in Germany in 1910, introduced his Japanese influences to the germinating Modern movement in Europe. However, vernacular architecture also played a more direct role in the development of Europe’s modernism. While prospecting for marble, Adolf Loos, he of “Ornament and Crime”, happened upon the architecture of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea (Skyros in particular). Cycladic architecture is cubic and blindingly white (sound familiar?). These buildings are blocky and flat-roofed to resist strong winds and white to reflect the hot sun. And herds of these blocky white buildings huddling against the mountainside is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s easy to understand how buildings on these little islands greatly influenced Loos’s architecture.

Scenes of Skyros. Catch your breath!

Interestingly, about the same time, Mediterranean architecture from a different shore and continent was being planted into the early Modern movement in California through the work of Irving Gill and Frank Mead. Gill worked for Adler & Sullivan in Chicago the same time Frank Lloyd Wright did before moving to San Diego (Louis Sullivan advised employees to “look toward the silent walls of Africa”). In 1900, Gill worked to stabilize the ruins of the Mission San Diego de Alcala and became impressed with its straightforward simplicity, economy in the use of materials, and emphasis on utility, elements he began to include in his own work. In 1907, he teamed up with Frank Mead to design what many consider to be the first Modern homes in California (or, at the very least, the first protoModern homes). Mead, as part of a commission to photograph Bedouins in Northern Africa, documented the vernacular architecture of northern Africa and the Mediterranean, something that clearly influenced the simple white structures the two designed during their brief one year collaboration.

Mission San Diego de Alcala.

Rudolph Schindler, a student of Loos, traveled the western United States in 1915 including Taos, New Mexico, writing that he had found "the first buildings in America which have a real feeling for the ground which carries them". Schindler was smitten by the native pueblo architecture and even designed an adobe-inspired house while he was there. In a letter to Richard Neutra, he wrote “When I speak of American architecture I must say at once that there is none. . .The only buildings which testify to the deep feeling for soil on which they stand are the sun-baked adobe buildings of the first immigrants and their successors — Spanish and Mexican — in the south-western part of the country.” 

Later in the trip, Schindler traveled to California where he saw (and photographed) several of Gill and Mead’s houses. He later worked for Frank Lloyd Wright before heading out on his own in 1921. His first project out on in his own post-Wright was his own house, influenced, in part, by the New Mexican pueblos. The El Pueblo Ribera Court Apartments in San Diego are also influenced by pueblos and sometimes described as Pueblo Revivalism.

Schindler knew how to ride a horse (photo'd in the Land of Enchantment).

Taos Pueblo (photo by Schindler).

The country home Schindler designed (unbuilt).

Similar to Loos, Le Corbusier was also influenced by the architecture of the Aegean Sea, but he was also influenced by vernacular architecture of a more recent vintage and purpose. As illustrated in his 1923 book “Towards an Architecture”, he was smitten with grain elevators! At first this might seem ludicrous, but grain elevators tend to be geometric, unadorned, and purely driven by purpose. The photos of grain elevators in Corbusier’s book came from an article published in 1917 by none other than Gropius, another fan of Midwestern grain elevators.

These grain silos are totally hot.

And finally, Wright, whether he liked it or not, was later influenced by Loos, Corbusier, Gropius, and even Schindler. The development of Modern architecture was a beautiful hot mess of cross pollination with each architect observing, learning, assimilating, adapting, and processing as they each developed their own style. All of it, as it turns out, has Organic roots, re-employing what was learned long ago by ancient builders and adapting lessons to modern living, a process that continues today.

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