ARCHITECTURE : REVIEW : Preaching to the Converted : Given the accomplishments and renown of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the fact that it’s been 40 years since he died, it’s surprising that his major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art breaks so little new ground
Ask any American to name the most famous architect he or she can think of and chances are good that the answer will be Frank Lloyd Wright. Chances are, in fact, that his will be the only name you get. Which is just the way Wright would have wanted it. He was a formidable figure with a Barnum-like flair for publicity, a turbulent personal life, and a seemingly endless, phoenix-like career: He was born in 1867, began working in the 1880s, appeared washed up in the 1920s, made a stunning comeback in the 1930s, and was still at it, more famous than ever, when he died in 1959. He designed nearly 1,000 buildings, about half of which were built.
More important, Wright was a big-thinking iconoclast whose best buildings still surprise us: the iconic and ever-controversial Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the innovative headquarters for S. C. Johnson & Son in Racine, Wis., and the extraordinary Edgar Kaufmann house in Pennsylvania, better known as Fallingwater.
Wright was the first architect to “break the box” of traditional architecture. His early Midwest houses, designed mostly for middle-class, progressive clients, revolutionized the single-family house and anticipated International Style modernism. His own houses in Wisconsin and Arizona, both called Taliesin, seamlessly integrated architecture and nature. Wright designed an atrium hotel long before John Portman, and a passive solar house in the 1940s. This country had never seen his like before, and probably never will again. But now, 40 years after Wright’s death, what have we learned from the legend?
An ambitious presentation of the architect’s work can be found in the exhibition “Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect” at the Museum of Modern Art through May 10. Organized by Terence Riley, chief curator of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, and Peter Reed, assistant curator, in cooperation with the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive in Scottsdale, Ariz., it is, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a really big show. It covers 190 of Wright’s built and unbuilt designs from all points in his long career. The visitor can pore over 350 drawings, many by Wright himself, 30 scale models, 126 photographs, architectural fragments such as leaded windows, sculptures and decorative concrete blocks, and six full-scale reconstructions of walls from various Wright buildings, including one from the Storer house, one of Wright’s “textile block” concrete houses built in Los Angeles in the 1920s.
There are wonderful things here: a plaster model, long believed lost, of Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a huge, elaborately ornamented building that survived the city’s devastating 1923 earthquake only to succumb to the wrecking ball in 1968; a cutaway model of the S. C. Johnson offices, showing the soaring central space supported by slender concrete columns whose lily-pad-like capitals seemed to support nothing but a ceiling of pure light; lush pencil drawings in Wright’s own flowing style; a lovely photograph made in 1896 by Wright of “Romeo and Juliet,” an elegant windmill he designed for his aunts in Wisconsin. The wall reconstructions remind us how fearlessly imaginative Wright was (although not always entirely successful) in his attempts to solve building problems in new ways and to experiment with new building materials.
Wright used to joke that he would just shake designs out of his sleeve, and this show more than amply illustrates the breadth and variety of the architect’s output. But its emphasis on quantity exacts a price in quality.
The museum bills the exhibition as “the first critical examination of Wright’s architecture achieved with full access to the archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.” The latter contains the largest collection of the architect’s drawings anywhere, and it, as the keeper of the Wright flame, has long eyed outside scholars and critics with suspicion. Full access, however, does not seem to have turned up much that broadens our view of Wright’s work, and the show’s position throughout is, in fact, one of uncritical acceptance with surprisingly little examination of even that material that has been available to us for years.
Wright’s career as a whole has been examined over and over again--indeed, it has been the subject of numerous exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, whose relationship with Wright was always a contentious one that reflected the Modern movement’s ambivalent view of his significance. This exhibition signals Wright’s rehabilitation among Modernists (although he never fell out of favor with the rest of the world), and while its sweep is impressive, I left, after three visits, wishing that the museum had chosen to examine fewer projects under much closer scrutiny. We’ve seen the big picture many times before, isn’t it time for some close-ups?
Cleanly and elegantly installed, the exhibition is arranged in a roughly chronological sequence and divided into sections that at the same time address key issues in Wright’s career. But each section is explained by only a single text panel that describes a given period and its issues, and makes passing references at best to the individual buildings that embody those issues. The buildings themselves are described largely by the drawings, models and photographs. And in this case a picture is not worth a thousand words.
This reliance on purely visual imagery is, paradoxically, a problem in architecture shows. Since they cannot present an actual building, but only a representation of it, how a building is explained and interpreted becomes important. Architects (and, it seems, curators of architecture shows) tend to take for granted that floor plans, sections and elevations make perfect sense to everyone when, in fact, they often make sense only to architects. But architects make up only a part of this exhibition’s intended audience, so shouldn’t this show speak as eloquently to those outside the profession as to those within it? Although the brochure and audiotape tour that accompany the exhibition offer some background on Wright and helpful hints on how to read a floor plan, this is information that should be included on the text panels. (And although it is abundantly and handsomely illustrated, the show’s hefty catalogue contains essays that are likely to appeal mainly to those with an academic interest in Wright.)
Moreover, images alone cannot convey the history of a given design, and in Wright’s case these stories are often fascinating. His relationships with his clients (even the non-romantic ones) were the stuff of legend themselves, and have been covered in numerous books, including Wright’s compelling (and often self-aggrandizing) autobiography, a copy of which, annotated by Wright himself, sits enticingly open in a display case, with nothing to indicate that it is one of the more fascinating artifacts of Wright’s career.
Ultimately, this is a show that perpetuates Wright’s myth without analyzing or, better yet, deconstructing it. It is neither fully enlightening for the casual viewer, nor does it offer many surprises for the serious scholar.
Wright’s personal life was a tabloid reporter’s dream, with three marriages, a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child, to name a few of the most sensational episodes. The exhibition politely sidesteps most of this material, perhaps out of deference to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which can’t bear to hear ill spoken of “Mr. Wright.” But more on Wright’s life would have been welcome, since the work and the life remain inextricably bound.
His groundbreaking early work in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and his published designs for affordable, efficient houses brought Wright worldwide renown, but his abrupt departure for Europe with his client’s wife in 1909 (he left a wife and six children behind) nearly destroyed his career. Wright’s romantic designs for the first Taliesin, in Wisconsin, reflected his renewed interest in the landscape and ornament after the increasing abstraction of the Prairie buildings, as well as his brief period of happiness with his paramour, Mamah Borthwick. She and six other people were murdered at Taliesin in 1914 by a deranged servant who then set fire to the place.
Apart from the elaborately ornamented Imperial Hotel (the work on which afforded the grief-stricken Wright a comfortably remote haven), his experiments with the patterned concrete block houses of the early 1920s, and the presence of a few adventurous (and wealthy) clients like Aline Barnsdall, for whom he designed the well-known Hollyhock house on Hollywood Boulevard, these were lean years for Wright, personally and professionally. (He also had a disastrous second marriage, to an actress named Miriam Noel, the denouement of which precipitated yet another scandal in Wright’s life.)
At the same time, however, the decade of the 1920s was one of his most inventive periods, for, as the exhibition suggests, Wright, unfettered by the demands of a thriving practice, felt free enough to design some of his most visionary projects, many of them in the West and Southwest. San Marcos-in-the-Desert (an Arizona resort for Albert Chandler), a Death Valley desert compound for A. M. Johnson, the Lake Tahoe Summer Colony and Doheny Ranch Resort (none of which was built), opened up a new world for Wright, and two of these projects gave him his first glimpse of the desert landscape that would change his work radically, inspiring designs with strong diagonal compositions and non-rectilinear geometries.
Wright later designed his own desert compound, Taliesin West outside Scottsdale, Ariz., where five years earlier, in 1932, he had established the Taliesin Fellowship--part school, part extended family and part benevolent dictatorship. Wright had also tied the knot one last time, with Olgivanna Hinzenberg, a woman several decades his junior with whom he had a daughter, born before he was legally free of Noel, thereby causing the aforementioned brouhaha. It was Hinzenberg who finally restored stability to Wright’s life; she worshiped, cosseted and protected him--like a dragon at the gate, her detractors would say--from those who wanted a piece of the great man.
From 1930s on, the arc of Wright’s reputation continued upward. The ‘30s saw the creation of Fallingwater, Wright’s greatest house. With its abstract, planar composition, rugged materials and gravity-defying siting, Falling-water was simultaneously a Modernist icon and critique of that movement.
There was too much texture, too much feeling in Wright’s work for the Modernists’ rational tastes. And he, in turn, sneered that a house shouldn’t look like a machine, in response to Le Corbusier’s dictum that a house is a machine for living. Indeed, Wright’s own Usonian houses, conceived as affordable, custom-designed dwellings for suburban families of modest means, were warm, intimate buildings that hugged the landscape and opened toward it, turning their backs to the ever-busier streets.
Wright’s later years saw the creation of more grand-scale (and flamboyant) urban designs that mixed commercial, residential and civic uses, like the Mile-High Illinois, a technological tour-de-force skyscraper for Chicago that was, of course, never built, and the also-unbuilt Pittsburgh Point project. (One of Wright’s major civic designs, for Marin County, was indeed realized.) His fascination with natural motifs such as the spiral produced gems like the V. C. Morris shop in San Francisco and culminated in his design for the Guggenheim.
Even in his 90s, Wright’s star remained undimmed. It’s hilarious to watch him steal the show from a young callow Mike Wallace in a 1958 television interview. He tells Wallace, who keeps a cigarette burning, Edward R. Murrow-like, throughout the interview, “You shouldn’t smoke those things. They’re bad for your health.” (This interview can be seen in New York at the Museum of Television and Radio, and it would have been wonderful to include in the Museum of Modern Art show, since it conveys what a master of the news media Wright could be.)
The question of what to make of this remarkable career is not, in the end, answered by the exhibition. The curators proclaim at the start of the show, “At the close of the 20th Century, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright continues to reflect the most enduring of American cultural and societal values--a strong sense of common destiny and an equally passionate exaltation of individual liberty. . . . Wright’s architecture is the work of the most creative, prolific and influential architect of modern times.” In theory, Wright made much of his populist, and acre-of-land-for-everyman politics, which he formally outlined in his design for Broadacre City. But in practice (and this seems borne out in the exhibition, since these projects are covered in the greatest depth) it was the individual with the liberated checkbook--Edgar Kaufmann, Herbert Johnson, Solomon Guggenheim--whom he exalted the most passionately.
That is not to downplay his contributions to middle-class housing--the Usonian designs indirectly heralded the arrival of the suburban ranch house. And his Broadacre City and mixed-use projects demonstrated how shrewdly he anticipated the automobile’s decentralizing effect on American cities. However, while Wright was certainly prolific, it’s hard to see much evidence of his influence on contemporary American architecture.
In Riley’s essay for the show’s catalogue, he states: “The values reflected in his work must be reformulated yet again if they are to have any impact on the current needs of American society.” But he doesn’t propose how this is to be accomplished, possibly because Wright never really got that far himself. He was a showman who often got his designs built by the sheer force of his considerable will; he was never a consensus builder. He preferred to maintain the myth of the romantic individualist.
In the end, Wright was a tangle of contradictions, most of which have yet to be sorted out. But surely we now have enough material to go on; how long do we have to wait for an in-depth, clear-eyed assessment of his architectural and cultural contributions?
“Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect” offers us, in its staggering amount of visual information, a feast for the eyes. But in its unwillingness to dig deeply into the issues behind Wright’s work, the exhibition leaves the mind wondering why it’s still hungry.
* “Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect” continues at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through May 10 and will not travel. For information, call (212) 708-9480.