Education About Asia: Online Archives

Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan

Download PDF

DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY KAREN SEVERNS
AND KOICHI MORI
DISTRIBUTED BY NEW YORKER FILMS
DVD, 126 MINUTES, COLOR, 2005

Reviewed by Elizabeth M. Owen

The celebrated modern American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) is less well known as an enthusiastic collector, exhibitor, and dealer of Asian art, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints in particular. The recently-released documentary, Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan, contributes to the growing body of scholarship that explores Wright’s profound engagement with Asian art and architecture.1 This DVD’s combination of rare film footage, plans, models, and photos with comments by leading Wright experts is sure to delight Wright aficionados, as well as students in high school and college courses.

Japan is the only country outside of the United States that is home to buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. These reflect and symbolize close connections between Japan and the West. Wright’s impact on Japan was so profound that thirty-two Wright-related terms appear in the Japanese architectural vocabulary. Magnificent Obsession highlights the connections between Japanese architectural traditions and Wright, his atelier, and early modern Western architecture. moreover, it examines Wright’s enduring legacy in Japan and how even today he continues to enrich Japanese traditions through architecture.

The documentary interweaves historical details, events in Wright’s career, his soap opera-like personal life, and fourteen buildings designed and/or constructed in Japan, as well as buildings by his followers. Japan’s welcoming of foreign experts and technology in the later nineteenth century set the stage for Western-style architecture often built of imported brick and in eclectic combinations of Western styles.

Thanks to his impressive collection of Japanese woodblock prints, Wright was familiar with Japanese art and architecture long before his first trip to Japan in 1905. According to Magnificent Obsession, Wright experienced a “second golden age” because of his engagement with Japan. From the prints and during several visits to Japan, Wright confirmed his own ideas as he absorbed and adapted Japanese timber-frame architectural features and ultimately developed what he called an “organic” architecture unifying man with nature. Details found in traditional Japanese buildings, such as the extensive use of natural materials, broad, overhanging roof eaves, open, flowing spaces, strong horizontality, and interior-exterior connections, among others, characterized Wright’s quintessential Prairie and Usonian Houses. Likewise, these Japanese features appear in many of Wright’s public and private buildings in the US and Japan.

The DVD outlines the saga of Wright’s Imperial Hotel, Japan’s first world-class hotel, from the initial negotiations and designs to the hotel’s survival, nearly unharmed, of the Great Kanto Earthquake on opening day in 1923, and ultimately its heart-wrenching razing. Today, visitors to Meijimura, near Nagoya, experience only small portions of the once-grand Imperial in reconstructions of the main lobby and bar. Other extant Wright buildings in Japan are also open to visitors.

Magnificent Obsession explores Wright’s interpersonal relationships with Japanese patrons, clients, associates, his students, and followers from around the world. Often overlooked, Wright’s atelier and assistants on the Jiyu Gakuen in Tokyo, the Arinobu Fukuhara Villa near Hakone, and the Tazaemon Yamamura House near Osaka, among others, receive deserved recognition. Followers, emulators, and imitators, including Antonin Raymond, Arata Endo, and Yoshiya Tanoue, preserved Wright’s design philosophies in Japan for nearly a century.

Wright’s followers deserve even more attention, as scant information on these dedicated disciples is available in English language sources.

This DVD is an excellent resource because it combines early modern Western architecture familiar to most students with traditional Japanese cultural and architectural features that may be less well known. Viewing Magnificent Obsession in Western and/or Japanese art and architectural history classes, as well as in studio and design courses, would highlight meeting points between East and West. Instructors may refer to detailed information available on the companion Web site, www.magnificentobsession.org.Another related Web site, www.wrightinjapan.org, provides invaluable information on current preservation efforts, news, and other features related to Wright and Japan. Thanks to Magnificent Obsession and its related resources, even the most enthusiastic fans will learn something new about Frank Lloyd Wright and his passion for Japanese art and architecture.

  1. See Julia Meech, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: The Architect’s Other Passion (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001) and Kevin H. Nute, Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Traditional Japanese Art and Architecture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Routledge, 2000), among other publications. See also Frank Lloyd Wright & Japanese Art, DVD written by Maia Rutman and directed by Kenneth Love (Kenneth A. Love International LLC, 1997).