Frank Lloyd Wright believed dense urban cities would never make it into the next century. He wrote that “the citizen of the near future preferring horizontality — the gift of his motorcar, and telephonic or telegraphic inventions — will turn and reject verticality as the body of any American city.” Yet, he was one of the most visionary architects of vertical skyscrapers, one that even towered a mile high. This duality is the focus of Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal that opened earlier this month at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The exhibition is the first presentation from the joint acquisition of Wright’s archives by MoMA and the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. That 2012 acquisition with some 23,000 architectural drawings along with models, thousands of photographs, and personal correspondence should be fertile grounds for many future exhibitions that tackle the more contradictory and complicated aspects of the architect. His ideas on city planning are a good place to start, as while the designer of urban icons had a decided love/hate relationships with cities, he was more interested in reforming them than abandoning them entirely.
His main argument for restructuring cities is the centerpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright and the City. The sprawling wooden model for his Broadacre City — “A New Pattern for Living in America” — takes up much of the one-room show. The model was created from 1934 to 1935 and debuted at Rockefeller Center just north of MoMA. It shows his vision for a city where each person got their own acre of land. The infrastructure, with its arterial highways, is aimed at the individual, where everyone had their own car, or perhaps flying machine (this is a utopian future, after all).
“The present city … has nothing to give the citizen … because centralization [has] no vital forces of regeneration,” he stated. The result with its heavy greenspace around single family homes may seem suburban, but it is laboriously structured and is aimed at being a city, not an escape from it. Wright obsessed over the plan for Broadacre City until his death in 1959, incorporating many of his unbuilt designs into its scheme.
One of the repeating little towers in the landscape is quite familiar to me. I grew up just blocks from the Price Tower, Wright’s only realized skyscraper, completed in 1956. Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is by no means a metropolis, but as an oil town that had enough of a boom for a cluster of nondescript downtown towers, the Price Tower still has some urban contrast. I remember distinctly Wright’s description of the green copper building as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” and the way the floor plans got smaller as you ascended through the narrow elevator and stepped out into angular rooms that radiated out like branches. Even without much of an urban forest to escape — and Wright was very conscious of not dwarfing people with gloomy skyscraper canyons as he laid out in his 1920s skyscraper regulation proposal for vertical growth — it is an idealistic respite from the boxy office buildings.
Wright originally planned for three Price Tower-like buildings to cluster around St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in a 1927–31 design. However, the economy and planning didn’t work out, and the idea for urban living with an open feel became yet another of Wright’s unbuilt dreams. The exhibition is haunted by them, from the staggering Mile High Illinois from 1956 that could hold over 100,000 people and is drawn looming over the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, and Pyramid of Cheops that are mere miniatures in its wake, to Wright’s earliest skyscraper, the 24-story San Francisco Call Building from 1913.
Yet while these behemoths seem contradictory to Wright’s Broadacre City with its rural-style urban design, they were another step in using skyscrapers as a place to concentrate industry and business while leaving nature more free. Sure, there’s a bit of folly in it all, but it’s not a bad thing to look at on 57th Street where just next door Jean Nouvel’s Tower Verre is going to shoot up 1,000 feet into the skyline. Even if Wright could design so well for the compact urban living, his utopic ideas on the greater city show a consciousness of how a less crowded city could exist, although it may be for a future that will never arrive.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal is at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 1.
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