"The maple-wood blocks...are in my fingers to this day," said Frank Lloyd Wright, attesting to the influence of the Froebel blocks on his work. The blocks were developed by Friedrich Fröbel in the 1830s for children to learn the elements of geometric form, mathematics and creative design.
Frank Lloyd Wright was interested in architecture early in his life and his mother purchased a set of Froebel kindergarten blocks at the Centennial Expostition in Philadelphia so that he could begin building. Frank was fascinated by the blocks and much of his architectural design was influenced by the geometric shapes he experiemented with as a child.
"Now came the geometric play of these charming checkered colour combinations! The structural figues to be made with peas and small straight sticks; slender constructions, the jointings accented by the little green pea-globes. The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterwards leaves the fingers: so form became feeling. And the box with a mast to set upon it, on which to hang with string the maple cubes and spheres and triangles, revolving them to discover subordinate forms"
"That early kindergarten experience with the straight line; the flat plane; the square; the triangle; the circle! If I wanted more, the square modified by the triangle gave the hexagon, the circle modified by the straight line would give the octagon. Adding thickness, getting 'sculpture' thereby, the square became the cube, the triangle the tetrahedron, the circle the sphere."
"These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects... which were ever got into the architecture of the world"
During his lifetime, Frank Lloyd Wright assimilated many influences into his architecture. The earliest of these influences, which was to have a lasting effect upon him, was the kindergarten method of Friedrich Froebel. Wright's mother introduced him to Froebel's ideas and to Froebelian toys. They consisted of geometric blocks to assemble in different ways, encouraging the child's sense of three-dimensional composition, and paper to fold in various shapes, aiding the child's perception of planar elements. Early in his career, Wright began to construct buildings with a definite geometric clarity, such as the Winslow house in River Forest, Illinois of 1893. The Froebel toys undoubtedly led the way to this type of design, so advanced for its time. In the 1890's, most other architects were still reviving past styles in their designs (the neo-classic was especially popular).
As mythmakers continue to spin Frank Lloyd Wright’s life into legend, a small corner remains on a solid foundation — of Froebel blocks. The invention of 19th-century German educator Friedrich Froebel, these carefully proportioned maple shapes were just one of 20 “gifts” in an elegant, unified system of play-learning he created for the very young.
After Froebel died in 1852, his revolutionary “garden for children,” or kindergarten, spread to American shores where, in the 1870s, it impressed progressive-minded mothers like Anna Wright. Though her architect son was rarely modest about his own genius, he paid life-long homage to the sense of form and feeling that came from handling Froebel’s blocks.
"The poet's message at heart, I wanted to go to work for the great moderns, Adler and Sullivan: and finally I went, warned by the prophecy and equipped, in fact armed, with the Froebel-kindergarten education I received as a child from my mother. Early trainging which happened to be perfectly suited to the T-square and triangle technique now to become a characteristic, natural to the machine age. Mother's intense interest in the Froebel system was awakened at the Philadelphia Centennial, 1876. In the Friedrich Froebel Kindergarten exhibit there, mother found the 'Gifts.' And 'gifts' there were. Along with the gifts was a system, as a basis for design and the elementary geometry behind all natural birth of 'Form'."
"Here was something for invention to seize, and use to create."
"The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: so form became feeling."
"Mother learned that Friedrich Froebel taught that children should not be allowed to draw from casual appearances of Nature until they had first mastered the basic forms lying hidden behind appearances. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should first be made visible to the child mind."
"Taken East a the age of three to my father's pastorate near Boston, for several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and among other things, played upon these 'unit lines' with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod) - these were smooth maple-wood blocks. Scarlet cardboard triangle (60o-30o) two inches on the short side, and one side white, were smooth triangular sections with which to come by pattern--design--by my own imagination. Eventually I was to construct designs in other mediums. But the smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day."
"Also German papers, glazed and matte, beautiful soft color qualities, were another one of the 'gifts'--cut into sheets about 12 inches each way, these squares were slitted to be woven into gay colorful checkerings as fancy might dictate. Thus color sense awakened. There were also ingenious 'constructions' to be made with straight, slender, pointed sticks like toothpicks or jack-straws, dried peas for joinings, etc., etc. The virtue of all this lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structure in Nature -- giving the child a sense of innate cause-and-effect otherwise far beyond child-comprehension. I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to 'see' this way and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals to Nature. I wanted to design."
In 1876, Anna Wright visited Philadelphia and, fortunately for world architecture, bought her son, Frank Lloyd, a set of wooden blocks. Designed in the 1830s by Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, the German pioneer who created kindergarten, the blocks were part of a system of "gifts" intended to inspire young imaginations. They inspired Wright, who would remember them all his life. "Mother found the `gifts,' and what gifts they were," he once wrote. "I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to `see' this way, and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals of Nature. I wanted to design." Froebel blocks are deceptively simple. Playing with them shows how, for example, two rectangles form (or come from) a square, which in turn divides into two triangles. Concepts like proportion and spatial relationships are thus absorbed through play--and the memory is long-term.
These classic maple blocks are availble from The Froebel Gallery
letters to the editor - ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST
From: J. Froebel-Parker
The Froebel Gallery
22 March 1998
I read with great interest the article (April 1998) about Joel Silver's Frank Lloyd Wright House in Los Angeles. One of the key quotes which struck me most was from Eric Wright, his grandson, who stated that his forefather had been "trying to create something beautiful, with its own character and quality."
Indeed, Wright's own mother had brought him as a child into contact with the educational ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel founder of kindergarten. His philosophy was that children, when cherished and nurtured, would grow into beautiful grown-ups each unique in his or her own characteristics and qualities. Wright never failed to credit Froebel for his earliest architectural yearnings for he later stated,"The maple-wood blocks...all are in my fingers to this day." This was a reference to Froebels revolutionary educational acitivities involving blocks, spheres, and cylinders which Wright's mother had purchased for him at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It is little wonder that one of Wright's later architectural partners was Edgar Tafel, who had also attended the Modern School, based on Froebelian principles.
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