Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was not only a radical architect but also an immensely popular one. As Barry Bergdoll, the curator of a new retrospective of Wright’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, remarks, he is “the only architect who is more popular with the general public than he is with practising architects today.” Which is not to suggest any lack of affection on their part. In 1991 the American Institute of Architects voted Wright “the greatest American architect of all time.”
It helped that he was a character – oracular, entertaining, irascible – somewhere between nonconformist preacher and caped dandy. Yet it’s not witticisms but accomplishments that ground an architect’s reputation. Over the course of Wright’s astonishing career, which spanned 70 years, he produced over 530 buildings, including the Willits (1901) and Robie houses (1906), which with their ribbon windows and broad, overhanging roofs echo the flat lines of the American prairie; the simple, affordable homes he designed during the Great Depression (named “Usonian” to refer to his vision for an achitecture native to the US); Fallingwater (1935) and the Guggenheim Museum (1956), the most famous examples of Wright’s “organic” architecture, which sought to make work that was in harmony with its inhabitants and setting. With his structurally innovative yet comfortable buildings, and streamlined yet still highly decorative aesthetic, Wright changed the course of American architecture. Today, his homes are popular tourist destinations, and many of his innovations have been incorporated into the language of design.
Wright has been the subject of at least 16 previous shows at MoMA. The curators of this latest exhibition, “Unpacking the Archive”, were faced with the challenge of how to present him in a new light. Instead of devising a single overarching theme, they invited scholars – some of whom are experts on Wright but many with other specialities – to dig into a trove of material belonging to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive.
The exhibition is composed of 12 sections featuring both little-known efforts and re-evaluations of canonical projects. There is one on “ecologies and landscapes” which focuses on his interest in natural conservation (it includes astonishing pattern studies of the barrel cactus by Wright’s apprentice Eugene Masselink). There is one on the architectural drawings produced by Wright’s studio, works of art in themselves; another on his building systems, which were conceived to ease the mass-market construction of Wright’s homes; as well as portions on his demolished Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, an experimental farm plan, a model school building for African-American youth, and his Mile-High skyscraper proposal for Chicago.
Unpacking this archive is like opening a dusty and intriguing chest; it yields contents that are both fascinating and, to the uninitiated, difficult to decipher. While this may not be an ideal introduction to Wright, this is a show which is as gripping as it is granular.
Unity Temple, Chicago (1905-1908)
Wright’s “temple to man”, now his only remaining public Prairie-style building, is an early masterwork of reinforced-concrete construction. At the time, concrete was used to build only factories and warehouses. Wright used the material to break decisively with traditions of ecclesiastical architecture. There are no spires or stained glass here. Instead the temple is a heavy, square building whose opaque exterior walls out the world, producing an ethereal central space lit only by clerestories and skylights – a church which does not rise to the heavens but lets their light in.
Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1913-1923, demolished in 1968)
Wright admitted to very few influences. One was his first employer, Louis Sullivan. The other was a country, Japan. He admired the Japanese idea of a culture in which every object, human and action were combined in order to make an entire civilisation a work of art. He thought that American and European architecture, by comparison, was full of clutter. His one commission in Japan, the Imperial Hotel, is reminiscent of Japanese temple architecture and has vernacular ornamental features alongside Mayan Revival touches. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1968. The show explores the building with the help of Wright’s own copy of a rare book about it for 1923.
Ready Cut Homes, various locations (1913-1917)
Wright wasn’t content to design only for the affluent. He also wished to provide affordable designs for a mass-market audience. “I would rather solve the small-house problem than build anything else I can think of,” he said. The best-known examples of his affordable homes are his mid-1930s Usonians, one-storey structures with flat roofs and cantilevered overhangs, for which Wright coined the word “carport”. The American System-Built Homes, developed between 1912 and 1917, were an earlier foray into mass-design. They weren’t prefabricated – nothing was assembled in advance – but each component was pre-cut and shipped for assembly. About 20 were built.
St. Marks Tower, unbuilt, proposed for New York City (1927)
After calling the skyscraper “a threat, a menace to the welfare of human beings”, both inhuman in scale and a source of unmanageable congestion, Wright proceeded to design a cluster of them in New York. His inspiration was the pinwheel, a shape that broke with the aesthetic of most skyscrapers at the time, which were designed to look like sheer curtains of glass or steel. In a nod to nature, he used a taproot form, with a central core accommodating all of the building’s weight and each apartment cantilevered off it, thus avoiding thick external walls and supporting columns, and enabling balconies. The model is an original, and its restoration a story of its own: one quarter was left untouched to display the ravages of time.
Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania (1934-1937)
In 1934, Wright was asked to design a home that would showcase his clients’ favourite waterfall. What he built was a house that would be voted the “best all-time work of American architecture” by the American Institute of Architects. From the outside, the structure looks like a cross-hatching of cantilevered balconies sitting on top of the waterfall. Walk inside, and you will see that the rock ledge protrudes through the living room floor, with a suspended staircase that descends to the stream below.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City (1943-1949)
When Wright built his spiral museum, he gave it a coat of white paint. And yet, the exhibition reveals, he explored other, wilder colours like pink. That would have been a welcome sight on Manhattan’s fusty upper west side and, surely, would have left those critics of the museum, who derided it when it was completed as a “washing machine” and a “giant toilet bowl”, grasping for more colourful analogies.
Mile High Building, unbuilt, proposed for Chicago (1956)
Late in life Wright devised a plan in the centre of Chicago for a skyscraper of promethean height, a 528-story building served by 76 elevators, making one of America’s tallest skylines look diminutive by comparison. As Bergdoll notes in an essay, “On Wright’s sectional rendering the taproot is depicted as almost as deep in the earth as the Empire State Building is tall in the sky.” The design builds on principles familiar from St. Mark’s, with all the floors cantilevered from the core in order to avoid the flat monotony he loathed in the towers of his modernist peers. The effect is arboreal with, in Wright’s words, “floors radiating as limbs, and the sides hanging in suspension like leaves”.
Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive Museum of Modern Art, New York City, until October 1st