Art

The Japanese American Architect Who Was a Disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright

Kaneji Domoto, a little-known architect from the Bay Area, designed five houses for the famous planned community of Usonia.

The Lurie House, designed by Kaneji Domoto (photo by Thad Russel)

When a Columbia University architecture professor signed the contract for her new house in Usonia — the historic community near Pleasantville, New York, that was planned by Frank Lloyd Wright — its previous owner handed her four of its original blueprints. They’d been drawn up by the late Kaneji Domoto, a little-known Japanese-American architect from the Bay Area. Having inherited one of his homes, Lynnette Widder decided to learn more about Domoto and his practice. Her journey led her to rediscover one of Wright’s students through oral histories from his family members, who’d also saved his sketches, photographs, and blueprints.

Kaneji Domoto’s Bier House (photo by Thad Russel)

The culmination of her research is a small exhibition she curated at the Center for Architecture that celebrates the career of the only Japanese American to leave a mark on the famed Usonia. Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia examines Domoto’s contribution to Wright’s suburban community, where the houses were meant to be affordable, beautiful, sustainable, and unique. Of the 47 homes built on the 100 acres of land, Domoto designed five that came to fruition.

The exhibition features mostly drawings by Domoto that are difficult for the untrained eye to understand, but they’re accompanied by clear explanatory texts and contemporary as well as period photographs of the buildings’ exteriors and interiors. There’s also an original model of Domoto’s first and largest Usonian house, the Bier House, an 1,800-square-foot structure built in 1949 and set into a sloping site. Its layout recalls one of Wright’s most famous works, Fallingwater, with a spacious living room wrapped around a large hearth and open ceilings with skylights.

Widder had procured the Lurie House, another one of Domoto’s earliest homes at Usonia. Built the same year as the Bier House, it exemplifies the architect’s reputation for listening carefully to his clients and responding to their needs — traits that made him stand out. For Mrs. Lurie, who was less than five feet tall, he built a kitchen with counters as high as tabletops; the two young girls in the family received separate rooms that mirrored each other identically, with a folding plywood door dividing them. The living space was intended to be bright yet cool, featuring windows that stretch from floor to ceiling and a cantilevered eave that faces south. A display of the house’s construction documents on the Center for Architecture’s mezzanine level offers a closer look at its anatomy, using it as a case study to consider how one might preserve a Domoto home today. It features reproductions of the blueprints Widder inherited.

Kaneji Domoto, blueprint of the Lurie House, elevation view
The Lurie House (photo by Thad Russel)

Meanwhile, at the Harris House, which was built around the same time as well, Domoto put an enameled kitchen sink in the bathroom so his clients, an orthodox Jewish family, could keep kosher. The large Bier House features a formal dining room unlike those of the other four homes, since its original owners, an exuberant doctor and his wife, liked to entertain. Their living room was a dramatic split-level space that boasted high ceilings.

Domoto was also known for respecting his client’s budgets — something Wright himself did not always manage to do. The three houses the renowned architect built at Usonia all ended up costing significantly more than they were supposed to, Widder said.

“If you look at Wright’s Usonian houses, the premise of these houses is that they were accessible for the middle class,” Widder told Hyperallergic. “They were lower cost, easier to build, and easier for contractors to understand. But there are a lot of indications that those actually weren’t Wright’s foremost concerns … If you were really trying to make something affordable, you would constrain yourself to the industry standard. Wright does not do that.”

Domoto, however, was strictly economical, using low-cost materials and techniques that were relatively new to the market. He embraced plywood as an interior finish, illuminated spaces with strip fluorescent lighting, and used steel pipes to make the handrails of staircases.

“Domoto embraces a whole bunch of readily available industry products and bends them to his will,” Widder said. “You see him taking an idiom that he learned that he credits Wrights with having taught him, but moves it into a kind of construction that’s completely different.”

Kaneji Domoto relaxing at Usonia (photo courtesy Jack Holme)

Domoto also stood out from the other Usonian architects for his strong identification with Japanese traditions, particularly the Japanese landscape. The exhibition features a large timeline that summarizes how his particular life experiences influenced his practice. Born in 1912 and raised in northern California, Domoto spent years working as a nurseryman in his family’s landscaping business, which was the largest in the Bay Area. The job taught him about Japanese environmental culture, which he integrated into many of his projects. At the same time, he was distant from other aspects of his heritage. He didn’t see woodblock prints or hear Japanese poetry until 1939, when he arrived at Taliesin, Wright’s school of architecture. Tellingly, Domoto was adamant about referring to himself as American Japanese.

In 1941, he was among the tens of thousands of citizens interned as part of Executive Order 9066. He became a member of the construction crew at the camp in Amache, Colorado — work he credited with having taught him methods of building. Two years later, he was released and moved to New York, where he found work as an architect and draughtsman.

Kaneji Domoto, sketch of the entrance to the Harris House (1949)
The Harris House (photo by Thad Russel)

Domoto was part of Usonia’s building committee for about two years, until he and Wright had a severe falling out. Claiming that Domoto’s work was derivative, the American architect vetoed one of his projects in 1950; Domoto broke off from the community. His response, measured yet heavy with frustration, is on display in the exhibition. It includes the lines: “An Idea is never born fully grown. You have given me an Idea but at the same time would kill it before it can grow.”

Wright “got on the wrong side of all [the Usonian architects],” Widder said. “For whatever reason, Domoto was the one who took it most to heart and the one who walked away from Usonia, until after Wright was no longer on the building commission.”

When Domoto returned a few years later, he served as a landscape consultant and built two houses, which both feature very literal references to Japanese architecture. The Silson House recalls a shogun temple, with its axial symmetry and steep roof overhangs; the Siegel house features sliding Shoji screens and a koi pond in its garden.

The Siegel House (photo by Thad Russel)
Interior of the Siegel House (photo by Thad Russel)

Nearly all of the houses at Usonia have been expanded in the last few decades, but the exhibition offers a chance to study the original spatial and material efficiency of some of Domoto’s homes. Featuring deep overhangs and radiant floor heat, and typically oriented to the south or southwest, Domoto’s relatively small houses represent early testing grounds for environmental design measures we might easily recognize today.

“There are enough studies that show it’s not just the amount of stuff we own and the decreased cost of stuff that have a huge environmental impact,” Widder said. “It’s totally facilitated by the size of houses we live in now and their environmental implications.

“There’s a sweet spot in this moment that these modest houses are being built, and I find that very compelling.”

Interior of the Harris House (photo by Thad Russel)
Lurie House under construction in 1949 (photo courtesy Walter A. Slattery)
Kitchen of the Lurie House (photo courtesy Jack Holme)
Interior of the Lurie House (photo by Thad Russel)
Kaneji Domoto, elevation view of the Harris House
Interior of the Harris House, c. 1950 (photo courtesy Jack Holme)
The Bier House (photo by Thad Russel)
The Bier House (photo by Thad Russel)
The Bier House (photo by Thad Russel)
The Siegel House (photo by Thad Russel)

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia continues at the Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Pl, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through August 26.

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