When he was a child, Frank Lloyd Wright's mother gave him simple wooden Froebel blocks with the intention of raising an architect. Friedrich Froebel was a nineteenth century German educator who invented "kindergarten" and an educational system built around a series of "Gifts" which include the wooden blocks.
I have long been skeptical about these Froebel blocks really having any connection with Wright's work as an adult. How could these simple cubes and rectangles have any bearing on Wright's elaborate and sophisticated designs?
But I recently read several essays in the book On and By Frank Lloyd Wright: A Primer of Architectural Principles. The Froebel blocks and other "Gifts" are mentioned repeatedly in essays by various scholars. Richard MacCormac especially focuses on the topic in his essay Form and Philosophy: Froebel's Kindergarten Training and Wright's Early Work.
After reading this I was intrigued and decided to buy some Froebel blocks myself. It struck me that it would be possible to design a Froebel version of Wright's famous Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. On a recent trip to Chicago, I took a side trip to visit Unity Temple so that I could make comparison photographs for this post.
The following are several excerpts in Wright's own words taken from Frank Lloyd Wright: An American Architecture edited by Edgar Kaufmann:
I finally pushed the staircase towers out from the corners of the main building, made them into free-standing, individual features. Then the thing began to come through as you see.
The Unity Temple of 1906 was reinforced concrete. It was the first building to come complete as architecture cast from forms....Why not make the wooden boxes or forms so the concrete could be cast in them as separate blocks and masses, these grouped about an interior space in some such way as to preserve this sense of the interior space, the great room, in the appearance of the whole building?...The wooden forms or molds in which concrete buildings must at that time be cast were always the chief item of expense, so to repeat the use of a single form as often as possible was necessary....This, reduced to simplest terms, meant a building square in plan. That would make their temple a cube -- a noble form in masonry.
Wright made the overall form of Unity Temple a cube. The stair towers are separated in the corners as vertical blocks (and represented in the Froebel version of Unity Temple with two stacked cubes : ) Even the lighting inside Unity Temple is made of cubes and spheres. Wright called Louis Sullivan "mein liebe meister" (German for "my dear master") having apprenticed with him. But it seems his design bears more resemblance to the spare simplicity of Froebel, than it does to the exuberance of Sullivan as seen in this detail of Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Building.
Two dimensional grids form the basis of several of the Froebel Gifts. A grid pattern can be clearly seen both inside and outside at Unity Temple. Notice how two squares of the paving pattern match the width of a stair tower on the exterior. Inside, this grid continues in the pattern of the skylight in the ceiling.
Did the exposure to Froebel as a child really propel Wright's creativity? Are there other such direct examples of this phenomenon of play leading to design?