Friday, March 02, 2007

When modernism went to kindergarten

Frank’s mother was ambitious for her young son. In fact, she was a bit of a stage mom. In 1876, she visited America’s epic Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. There, she happened upon a small building attached to the Women’s Pavilion that demonstrated a decades-old experimental German day-care system, and had an epiphany. Here, thought Mrs. Lloyd-Wright, were the fundamental building blocks to set her son on the path to architectural greatness. She returned home to Boston with a selection of the specialized learning equipment she discovered (including the building blocks), enrolled in an authorized teacher-training course, and set to work very deliberately and very successfully molding the mind of the quintessential Modernist architect. The name of the little building in Philly -- Kindergarten Cottage. -- Doug Harvey, LA Weekly
Frank, of course, was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the blocks his mother brought home to develop little Frank's mind were called Froebel blocks, named after the 19th century German scientist and educational reformer, Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, along with a host of tools to develop the creativity of young minds. You can see a set of Froebel blocks at Taliesin, the architect's home and studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Harvey's passage is the opening of his review of "Inventing Kindergarten," an exhibit at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena that closed in January. But you can still see a selection of the works and an introductory essay, at the online Institute for Figuring. The exhibit is filled with pedagogical tools that have a surprisingly modernist look to them, like the first two pages (pictured above) from Zum Nachzeichnen für Kinder (Copy Drawing for Children) by B.Adamek. Vienna, c. 1830.

The artifacts are from the collection of author, artist and gallery owner Norman Brosterman. The exhibit draws on the thesis of his 1997 book, Inventing Kindergarten, suggesting that Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't the only one. According to Brosterman, many of the founding geniuses of 20th century modernism -- artists like Braque, Klee and Mondrian -- were influenced by the geometry of modernism that was part of the Froebel legacy in their childhood education. Kindergarten, intended to expand the growing minds of little children, ended up seeding the garden of modernism with a unique way of seeing.

Clearly, many things influenced the development of modernism. Brosterman takes a single factor and explores it in depth, making for a provocative and thought-provoking analysis. And the visuals are gorgeous. You'll never see the visual environment of the 19th century in quite the same way again.

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