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A Step Into Wright’s Grand Vision

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Few architects could think big like Frank Lloyd Wright. And few could be more pragmatic. That is the lesson of “Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932,” currently at the Orange County Museum of Art. The bulk of the show focuses on several large-scale unbuilt developments that are more than just beautifully rendered architectural dreams. They offer a model for the American landscape that is both remarkable for its utopian breadth and for its total believability.

The show, which began at the Canadian Center for Architecture and traveled to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art before arriving in Newport Beach, spans a decade when Wright’s star seemed to have fallen. His Chicago triumphs were behind him. He had little work. In the midst of it all, Taliesin, his Wisconsin workshop, burned to the ground for a second time. Wright, Philip Johnson quipped dismissively at the time, would be remembered as America’s great 19th century architect. The work here shows how wrong Johnson’s claim was.

Wright, in fact, was in the midst of one of the most creative periods of his life. Like his European and Soviet contemporaries, many of whom had spent the decade concocting grand urban schemes, Wright was struggling to create not just individual buildings but a vision of a new world. How will we live in the future? In shimmering glass towers or sprawling suburban lots? For the Europeans, the answers lay in inventing a new metropolis. Wright, however, loathed the city. The projects shown here revel in the open American landscape, in what the architect once called “this gorgeous sense of speed and space.” They are a celebration of themes that still, to a degree, define the American myth: the conviction that you can always start over, the freedom to get up and go.

The show starts small. There are several remarkable drawings of Wright’s textile block houses, all built in Los Angeles during the mid-'20s. But these are only hints of what’s to come. The show takes off with a large horizontal drawing of the never-built Doheny Ranch Development, designed in 1923 for a dramatic site in what is now Beverly Hills.

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Here, variations of Wright’s textile houses become part of a bucolic community woven together with wonderfully terraced roads and viaducts. Wright does not challenge the fundamental structures of suburban life--he accepts the single-family home as the basic unit, for example--but he transforms that life entirely. Houses are embedded in the sides of steeply sloping hills. Narrow roads extend across deep canyons. Rooftop terraces seemingly melt into the dense landscape. Circulation, dwelling, nature--all are spectacularly balanced. The drawing only shows a fragment of the plan: Wright’s community would have included roughly 200 homes spread over 411 lush and craggy hillside acres. Only about a tenth of that can be seen here.

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But that’s plenty. Wright’s plan is designed like a kit of multiple parts. Each of the scheme’s three prototype houses blend all of the elements of the typical suburban landscape--nature, home, car--with remarkable ingenuity. House B, for example, has a monumental grandeur, yet its roof terraces and gardens anchor it tightly into the rough landscape. The house’s linear scheme--it stretches out along the face of the hill--allowed Wright to link it directly into the road, which extends out elegantly over a viaduct. House C, meanwhile, is wedged between the two sides of a gorge, its two wings folding in around an octagonal terrace. It is as if Wright were showing off his genius--the more difficult the site, the more beautiful the possibilities. Look, Wright is telling us, at the city you would inhabit if an architect of my talent had a hand in its design.

Other projects are equally exuberant celebrations of their settings. For the Lake Tahoe Summer Colony, Wright designed a series of hexagon-shaped, floating bungalows. Each bungalow locks into a pier, nearly 1,000 feet long, which stretches from the shore to the lake’s only island and a central inn. Too congested? Just pull up the anchor and cast off. In another resort scheme, San Marcos in the Desert, the building’s long angular form is nestled up against a desert hill and dramatically cut in two by the entry road. The building, in effect, frames the view for the car.

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But no project better demonstrates that total faith in the bond between car and nature than Wright’s Automobile Objective, designed for developer Gordon Strong in 1924-25. Strong wanted a bold plan to draw nearby tourists up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland’s highest peak. Wright designed a spiraling form that is as massive as a Mayan pyramid. Cars and pedestrians twirl up to the top on dramatic cantilevered ramps. At the building’s center is a massive dome that houses a planetarium.

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The structure’s geometry is deceptively simple--it is in fact an intricate interweaving of different functions. But the helical spiral is also the perfect symbol for the intertwining that Wright sought between man, machine and nature. Cars rise up to greet the horizon while the celestial world is enclosed within the structure’s belly. Everything is bound together in one ecstatic moment.

More than 30 years later, many of these ideas were recycled in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959. With no mountain to dictate the form, Strong’s spiral was shrunk and turned upside down. Pedestrian museum-goers replaced cars; art replaced the view. Yet Wright was never allowed to build a true community on as massive a scale as the designs in this show suggest. Looking at the drawings, you can’t help feeling what a loss that has been.

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Los Angeles, of course, is car culture’s ground zero. And here the loss seems particularly acute. Many of Wright’s masterpieces were built here and some are crumbling away. At the Hollyhock house, the damage done by the 1994 Northridge earthquake still has not been completely repaired. The Samuel Freeman House, owned by USC, is in such a bad state that the school is at a loss as to how to raise the more than $2 million it says is needed for repairs, and meanwhile the building continues to crumble. What better place to begin restoring Wright’s vision than there?

* “Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932,” Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, through Dec. 28, (714) 759-1122.


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