Art & Architecture





Abstraction and Representation in Modern Architecture

The book “Abstraction and Representation in Modern Architecture: the International Style of Frank Lloyd Wright”, by Neil Levine begins by highlighting the differences that Wright had with the international style of the Europeans referring to it as the “miscarriage of a machine age” (Levine, 1986, pp. 1). Wright often disagreed with the idea of international style and accused those who practiced it of worshiping machines (which it relied heavily upon). Levine tries to bring a different view point of Wright as he tries to explain his style of architecture. He tries to show that the style Wright used did in fact, incorporate aspects on international style and abstraction (Levine, 1986, pp. 1). He compares Wright’s work to that of famous paintings such as Picasso in the fact that it was free of history (Levine, 1986, pp. 2). In the text, Levine compares art to architecture noting the various differences between painting and sculpture, and that of architecture.

He observes that unlike painting and sculpture, which has clearly distinguished between abstraction and representation, architecture, is yet to do this. He notes that one can easily trace the history of both sculpture and painting but this cannot be done in architecture. He gives credit to Wright who has provided a chance to develop on the idea of architectural modernism by giving it greater relevance. Abstraction in architecture began in the period of 1920s as architects saw the need to depart from traditional forms. This is what is seen as the beginning of modern architecture. Heavy masonry and symmetry were forgotten and in came the machine age.

According to Levine, Frank was considered as having being instrumental in influencing the post-war European architecture (Levine, 1986, pp. 2). He diversified in his methods of construction. He used materials ranging from textile blocks, which he used in California to board and batten, which he had used while camping. Even his former critics confessed that his style was international (Levine, 1986, pp. 2). His inspiration came from everywhere. From nature to temples, he used different materials to represent a different style. Hitchcock and Johnson described Wright as a romantic individualist in his work. His style differed from international style, which used machine method, and this eventually led to the distinction between representation and abstraction. However, Levine is quick to observe that in architecture, this distinction is not yet clear.

Romantic individualism is seen as the major hindrance to abstraction. Levine continues in his comparison of Wright and Picasso. He notes that Wright was not in the reach of those who used abstraction because they used intersecting planes and flat roofs. In addition to this, he notes that Picasso was left behind by the likes of Doesburg and Mondrian who used reductive geometry in their painting (Levine, 1986, pp. 3). The other situation, in which Levine compares Wright and Picasso, is when he uses a painting that Picasso had done. The subject of the painting was a woman who was knitting. He did not actually paint what he saw and sought a deeper meaning as to what it might have actually represented. Sometimes, what Wright drew on canvas is not what he eventually constructed as the model. He did this in an attempt to avoid abstraction in his work, as he had not accepted the idea of abstraction in his work (Levine, 1986, pp. 9).

Levine notes the contrasting nature between modern architecture and the traditional one. Traditional architecture was characterized by the use of nature while modern architecture embraced abstraction. He compares Le Corbusier’s work with the machine art painting of Picabia and Duchamp. Le Corbusier had abstracted the international style in his work (Levine, 1986, pp. 11). Levine is not the only one who compares Wright to painters. Philip Johnson compared Wright to Michelangelo by saying that what Wright represented in modern architecture was what Michelangelo represented in art in the renaissance. However, Levine views Picasso and Wright as a more significant comparison ((Levine, 1986, pp.13)

Though their worlds were different, both artists had a lot in common. They lived in isolation and seemed to create their own world around them. They had both begun work with a lot of zeal and after a while, their work had seemed to go unnoticed or it had lacked the kind of quality that had made them known in the first place. After this, they both got a second chance (Levine, 1986, pp. 12). Wright had left his family for one year and gone to Europe. He later came back and designed the Taliesin in 1911. At first, both artists had used a traditional design in their work but they later transformed into more stylized work. They turned to other sources such as eastern and used non-traditional and non-western sources. Picasso adopted an African approach when painting in his work and Wright used the Japanese style (Levine, 1986, pp. 13). None of the artists wanted their work to seem abstract. In their attempt to avoid abstraction, their work sometimes appeared to be contradicting their beliefs.

The fields of art and architecture have some similarities in that both of them involve creating something that may not be too obvious at the time and making a final copy of something, which is visible and more often pleasing to look at. Levine has tried to bring out similarities between art and architecture. He has brought out issues that are not commonly seen in these two areas. He breaks down the work of art, either a house or a painting, into different elements with intersecting and overlapping planes. He has tried in his quest to show an understanding of Wright’s work and has appreciated other artists as well. Comparing art and architecture is not an easy thing because it means comparing a person in a painting (who has curves) and a house (which can be broken down into different units of different dimensions).


Works Cited:

Levine, Neil. (1986). Abstraction and Representation in Modern Architecture: The International Style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Spring: Spring publishers.

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