Frank Lloyd Wright’s Influence on Australian Architecture

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014
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Frank Lloyd Wrights’ architecture came to prominence in Australia when his former protégé, Walter Burley Griffin’s , designed the Australian capital in Canberra.

Marion Griffin also was working for Wright at the time Griffin won the competition. Griffin was a master architectural perspective artist who contributed to Burleigh’s submission for the Canberra design and devised many other renowned renderings attributed to Wright’s office. In addition to his work for the Canberra masterplan, when Griffin lived in Sydney he completed a number of residences, and larger commissions such as incinerators.

One of the Griffin’s great buildings by Griffin, which has since been demolished, was the Pyrmont Incinerator. At the time of its demolition, a number of the concrete block modules had been removed and were being recorded. These were similar to Wright’s use of his textile blocks in 1923 and 1924 Californian houses, but the similarity with the designs influenced by Wright’s observations of American Mayan and Incan ruins were striking.

In terms of a close influence, I would suggest there would be none closer than the work of Ed Oriben, who practiced in Cairns and Northern Queensland for most of his professional life, and who has an AIA award named in his honour. In the late 1980s, I was invited into Oriben’s home in Stanthorpe, Queensland. Very few of Oriben’s works have been documented in an accessible way for students of architecture. Even before discussing his house with him, it was obvious that he was influenced by Wright. Built over and around the grey granite characteristic of the Stanthorpe region, Oriben had purchased a block of land that most thought would be a difficult assignment. While discussing his projects and surrounded by balsa and cardboard models, Oriben also acknowledged the influence of Wright protégé Bruce Goff on his own architecture.

goldcoast skyline

Gold Coast skyline

The corrugated tin roofs of Oriben’s house appear to float over lightweight tin and ply cladding in homage to the traditional Queensland house and in a way that is also reminiscent of Japanese timber vernacular buildings. Oriben’s shower was exposed to the sun and moon with a privacy screen and a stone wall made from opalized rock, and featured a small stone ledge for a soap holder.

Oriben incorporated passive design and ducted hot air throughout the suspended timber floors, which made this lightweight building warm even in the midst of winter. Glass was positioned through the space in the roof trusses to vistas through mature trees.

The design had been placed lightly in the landscape, providing privacy from the street, retaining almost all the mature trees, and offering remarkable natural forest vistas visible from within.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

In Oriben’s studio and creative area hang a number of curios, timber joint details, models, and hand drawn sketches. The building is a remarkable tribute to the principles of organic architecture, which was all the more remarkable because Oriben had a hands-on role in building the house, including fabricating all the timber roof trusses.

Another Queensland architect who has paid homage to Wright’s organic principles is Rex Addison. Like Oriben, Addison has used simple materials such as timber framing and corrugated iron. His buildings often use passive ventilation and simple sun shades, and pay homage to what we have come to understand is the vernacular Queensland house, with open verandahs, timber floors and high ceilings vented naturally.

In Addison’s work, the influence of “Falling Water,” one of Wrights most iconic and revolutionary residential works, is evident. Soaring cantilevers appear to defy gravity. Perched above a bubbling waterfall, for students of architecture a masterful use of strong geometry, are balconies that have no support columns to hinder vistas.

Falling Waters was a strong influence on Harry Seidler’s own house, which also has cantilevered balconies which appear to require a sky hook for support. Seidler acknowledged the influence of Wright’s Falling Water on this project, with Australia providing many dramatic natural settings as a backdrop for organic architectural principles.

Wright’s work and writings have influenced architects the world over, and his ideas have translated well to an Australian context. He wrote about a democratic and organic architecture inspired by the patterns and geometry found in nature. Ed Oriben, Rex Addison, Harry Seidler and many other Australian architects have written and spoken about their admiration for and the influence of Wright’s organic architecture. Each found a different but nonetheless compelling expression of Wright’s principles in their own work.

Even Australia’s most iconic building, the Opera House was influenced by Wright’s organic ideas on architecture.

Bribie Island

Bribie Island

Architect Jorn Utzon visited Lloyd Wright’s US home – Taliesin West, in the Arizona desert – in 1948. Utzon acknowledged Wright’s influence while still in architecture school and acknowledged that Aalto and Wright were  major influences on his work.

Although Wright died April 9, 1959, his ideas and work continues to influence generations of architects in Australia.

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