Why is there no great Frank Lloyd Wright biopic? The seven-decade career of the 20th century’s most famous architect spawned icons like New York’s 1943–59 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with its spiraling atrium, and hundreds of quixotic dreams like the Mile-High Illinois city-in-the-sky for Chicago. And then there are the three wives, the murdered mistress, and even a posthumous scandal over Wright’s ashes, covertly exhumed from his Wisconsin family plot to Taliesin West in Arizona. Perhaps there’s just too much of the prolific architect, who can come across as equal parts genius and hubris, to fit into one film.
Wisely, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) does not attempt to offer a retrospective of Wright’s career, or even to focus on his more well-known projects. While Fallingwater and the Guggenheim do appear in his gorgeous architectural drawings and recently-conserved studio models, the galleries tackle more unexpected themes like Wright’s work on the 1923 Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that framed Japanese gardens with vertical windows, and his decades-long promotion of the Little Farms Unit, a prefabricated self-sustaining home and agricultural site. Discarded ideas including an orange or pink marble Guggenheim Museum are displayed alongside a newly conserved model of the unconstructed 1927-29 St. Mark’s Tower development for St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The exhibition, organized by MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll, is timed with the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth, and is mostly sourced from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, jointly acquired by MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library in 2012.
Regular MoMA visitors may be familiar with some of the objects. For instance, the 1950s Mile-High Illinois drawings and model of the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, appeared in the 2014 Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal. Many of the items, though, are on their first public view, and all are considered in a new light, with Wright’s propensity for experimentation at the forefront. Yet whether a 1957 unrealized plan for Greater Baghdad, in which Wright, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier were invited to imagine signature buildings for Iraq’s capital city, or the reinforced concrete 1905-08 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, the work was always recognizable as Wright’s.
Geometric patterns, often in an abundance of ornamentation that was incongruous with more minimalist modernist architecture; an embrace of global influences from Japanese woodblocks to more problematic appropriations of indigenous art (such as for the unrealized Nakoma Country Club that used stereotypical “Native American” statues as decoration); an interest in native flora and a connection to the environment even while he wanted to shape it; and an attention to organic materials is threaded through the work. Smaller projects like the 1948 V. C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco, with its own spiraling ramp that predated the Guggenheim, demonstrate how Wright worked through and refined these ideas, with each complicated drawing and model also recalling the large studio of employees who supported these designs.
And Wright directed the experience within his buildings right down to the carpets. I grew up a few blocks from the Price Tower, his one realized skyscraper (just 19 stories tall). It’s a structure that avoids curves and right angles. I remember tour guides anecdotally saying that Wright would only allow his patron, H.C. Price, to have a globe in his office if Wright designed it himself. Contained with a hexagon, the architect managed to corral even this sphere into his vision. Whether or not that story was entirely accurate, it’s believable in the larger-than-life character that Wright himself helped create. The MoMA exhibition has a “Wright on Television” room where you can watch the architect in 1956 playing as a mystery guest on the game show What’s My Line?, an example of how he embraced media to raise his profile.
Wright has hardly slipped into obscurity since his death in 1959, and some of his buildings, like the 1954 Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, recently relocated from New Jersey to the Arkansas museum’s gardens, are preserved as uninhabited art objects. Still, there have been losses. The Hoffman Auto Showroom in Manhattan was demolished in 2015; his Tallahassee, Florida, Spring House was on the 2014 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places due to its deterioration and need for restoration. Frank Lloyd Wright at 150 is a bit like dipping a toe into the huge pool of his archives, which has, along with models, films, and building fragments, around 55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, 2,700 manuscripts, and 300,000 pages of correspondence. It will reward return visits for architecture aficionados, although those less familiar with Wright’s work may be overwhelmed by the bounty of disconnected galleries, which may as well be their own exhibitions. And it’s probable, with the incredible amount of material he left behind, there will be many more to unravel the complex legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive is June 12 to October 1 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).
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