A worthy core idea: on Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA

History has chipped away at his reputation, but has never completely sullied it

by Samuel Medina  |  24 August 2017
A worthy core idea: on Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA
Pedro E. Guerrero's 1953 photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright (left, © 2017 Pedro E. Guerrero Archives) and an undated picture of the architect by an unknown photographer (© 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.)
Frank Lloyd Wright was the elder statesman of American architecture. Nearly 60 years after his death at 91, the gerontocrat—with his feathery white hair and flappy jowls—remains fixed in our imaginations. It is impossible to picture the man in any other phase of life. Perhaps we prefer our architects in their dotage, be they Wright or Frank Gehry, once the impudent aspects of personality, libido and work have ostensibly softened. Even then, the hoary auteur can still be animated by youth. A client writing to a 60-year-old Wright captured some of this contradiction: “O dear theorist—you talk as a Moses just back from Sinai. What they want is a Peter Pan.” Wright could play both roles and often did.

Of course, Wright was an old man for a long time. He was in his 60s when production of the Model T hit its peak, in his 70s when the first jet engine was first put into the air, and in his 80s when televisions began entering American living rooms. He took stock of these innovations and attempted to incorporate them into his designs. With television in particular, he intuitively grasped its communicative potential and gamely stepped into the studio spotlights. He appeared on several network programmes, including the baldly titled Conversations with Elder Wise Men, the celebrity game show What’s My Line? and, memorably, a multi-part interview with the news anchor Mike Wallace. Snippets from the 1957 Wallace interviews are prominently screened in Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

With great patience for Wallace’s glib, showy manner, Wright vocalises his unshakeable commitment to “organic architecture” and pacifism and his distaste for organised religion and the common man, which he generalises, then lobotomises, as the “mobocracy." He is unhurried and didactic but also playful, toying with Wallace whenever the mood strikes him. Claiming that a building design of his could withstand an “atomic attack” better than other structures, Wallace asks if he is “talking scientifically or is this just a pure hunch?” “No, sir, scientifically,” Wright answers half-seriously, adding, “I never talk otherwise.” More than once he flashes a smile, pleased with his witty repartee.

The MoMA exhibition opens with another film clip, showing an aged Wright dressed in a fine suit and seated at a drafting table. He looks stiff as cardboard, maladroit, then suddenly he springs into action. His movements are sprightly as he whirls a drawing triangle from one hand to the other, making swift marks with his pencil in between. A pause to raise hand to chin, an intensely discriminating gaze trained on the page: it’s a virtuosic act, muscle memory combined with mental acumen.

Several of his drawings line the walls of the entrance gallery. They depict, in pencil and coloured crayon on yellowed trace paper, the architect’s milestones, including the S.C. Johnson headquarters (1939) in Racine, Wisconsin, and Fallingwater (1937) in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. They also constitute a kind of timeline, bobbing from Wright’s apprenticeship in the Chicago offices of Adler and Sullivan at the end of the 1880s to his development of the Prairie School Style over the subsequent two decades. The crescendo comes in the second half of the 1930s and drifts off into the airborne fantasies of Wright’s twilight period. An intricate model of Price Tower (1956), turned copperish green over the years, is tucked into the corner; the only three-dimensional object in the space, it vies for attention and still the drawings hold their own.

The unveiling a 22-foot-high rendering of The Mile-High Illinois on 16 October 1956 in Chicago. (© 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.)
The unveiling a 22-foot-high rendering of The Mile-High Illinois on 16 October 1956 in Chicago. (© 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.)
The exhibition benefits from the inexplicable lure of an anniversary year and from the bounty of material the organisers had at their disposal. Of the 450 objects on display, the majority are drawings, a small fraction of the 55,000 stored in the annals, which have now come with Wright's archive to MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Art Library. This embarrassment of riches impelled the curators Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray to ratchet up the aleatory factory. They selected a handful of architectural scholars unaffiliated with or indifferent to Wright and set them loose on a treasure hunt into the archives. Their findings, spread over a dozen or so little galleries, are fascinating, but they are minor disquisitions—triangulations, really—that offer neither definitive judgments nor sustained argumentation. They openly contest the familiar Wrightian platitudes about nature, democracy and America, but with the combative force of a butterfly.

Part of the problem appears to be a poorly matched contest between words and images. Video monitors show each of the guest curators adeptly describing their selection process, but the device is just that, a half measure; rarely does Wright come alive in them. For instance, nowhere do you get the sense of how groundbreaking his drawings were to the European avant-garde when they were published in the Wasmuth Portfolio of 1910. Wright’s graphic work, as with the web of piers and plans in Unity Temple (1908), prefigured the De Stijl movement by a decade and implied Mondrian’s canvases of the 1920s. This is not an overstatement—to the Dutch especially, Wright presented an alternative modernity to Art Nouveau rambunctiousness and Secessionist froth.

The critic Charles Jencks once wrote, with characteristic overkill, that “architectural power grows out of the barrel of a 4B pencil, and those who can wield it reign, like monarchs, over their profession.” Wright’s “reign” at the head of the architectural discipline was anything but serene or sovereign. In actuality it was riddled with calamity and rupture. His work can be cleaved into discrete periods of activity, a sine wave of creative boom and pecuniary slump. In the lull of the 1920s, Wright wrote to his former master, Louis Sullivan: “I am extremely hard up—and not a job in sight.”

Born in 1867 in a rural Wisconsin town, Wright roughed it on the family farm, where he gained an appreciation for the virtues of sun, space, toil and cow dung. His mother gifted him a set of Froebel blocks, a new developmental toy meant for young children, which roused his feeling for construction. He briefly studied engineering before absconding to Chicago, eventually finding a job under Sullivan, the city’s leading architect and known for formulating the credo “form follows function.” Wright opened his own practice in 1893, running it out of his home in the sleepy Oak Park suburb. At 42, he already had 140 projects under his belt. A few of them—the Larkin Building (1906) in Buffalo, New York, the Unity Temple in Oak Park and the Robie House (both 1910) in Chicago—are masterpieces.

Wright’s career was fast-tracked through a mix of genius, luck and an embrace of all media. While Adolf Loos was launching vituperative attacks on turn-of-the-century Viennese fashions, Wright was promoting his Prairie homes in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal. For years he courted its readers. As Jencks quipped, he hoped these “matrons of Middle America were going to lead the aesthetic shock-troops over the next visual barrier.” Indeed, Wright was deluded about the transformative powers of his art, but his appeals to the homemaker class seemed to have substantive effect—at least for a while. Years later, in 1956, after Wright unveiled his absurd design for a mile-high skyscraper at a Chicago press conference, a nonplussed housewife wrote to him. What was the reason for this, she wondered, before answering her own question: “This can only be a monument to the ego of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is unseemly [and] sheer folly. I am so terribly disappointed in you. You are prostituting yourself.”

That this sense of betrayal was so deeply felt speaks to Wright’s place within the culture and his charming manner of address. Throughout his long life, Wright maintained an uncanny ability to win supporters to his worldview, no matter how dubiously conceived or mendacious his designs could be. He did not always deserve his clients' trust. The roofs of his homes sometimes leaked. Building budgets were elastic. Nor did he earn the devotion of his draftsmen, many of whom weren’t given their proper due. Marion Mahony, one of the country’s first licensed women architects, was the best draftsman in his stable. She was crucial to the Wasmuth Portfolio, shaping its aesthetic direction. The influential book of drawings, which depicts the full spectrum of the Prairie School Style and the varied possibilities of its chief ingredients (horizontal sweep, ambulatory circulation, cantilevered roofs), is the unlikely amalgam of European decorative arts, the Chicago School and Japonisme. One specimen in the MoMA exhibition bears a note of Mahony’s acknowledging the influence of Hiroshige prints. It was one of the few drawings signed by any of Wright’s underlings.

A 1927–29 model for Frank Lloyd Wright's ubnuilt St. Mark’s Tower in New York (© 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.)
A 1927–29 model for Frank Lloyd Wright's ubnuilt St. Mark’s Tower in New York (© 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.)
The 1920s brought Wright very little work, his string of “textile block” houses in Los Angeles being the exception. But these were hardly “lost” years. The creative leap he made in this period is astounding. One of the better aspects of Unpacking the Archive is the way it reveals Wright’s search for new challenges to tackle, new lines of inquiry to pursue. Wright was promiscuous in every sense of the word, but especially in aesthetics. Dismissing the Hellenism of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and others, he looked covetously to Mycenaean, Mayan and Native American building cultures. It was a syncretism of “earth-architectures,” Wright wrote; ziggurats and compacted earth abound. Primitivism is closely connected to cosmic thinking, which can be a disastrous thing in the hands of an architect. Wright began imagining buildings of a near-farcical scale, such as a 1,500-foot-tall glass-and-steel interdenominational cathedral housing several churches and side chapels. (That mile-high folly didn’t come from nowhere.)

Technology shares in his telos. In the 1920s, Wright began cultivating a fervent passion for the automobile and the liberatory idyll it promised. Not unlike other seers of the time, he mistook this “liberation” as emancipation. This was yet another alternative modernity, one that was both Machine Age and “organic,” a label Wright used indiscriminately. At one point, he found the time to clarify the term: “A natural architecture true to the nature and of the problem, to the nature of the site, of the materials and of those for whom it is built—in short, of the Time and Place and man.”

Eloquent words, yet projects such as the Nakoma Country Club (1924) outside Madison, Wisconsin, violate these very terms. Not enough in the MoMA exhibition is made of this. Scanning the hundreds of drawings, it is possible to see how recurring motifs—whole projects even—were recycled for entirely different locales and purposes. The unrealised but prescient St. Mark’s Tower design for New York (1927–29) is just one example. Wright reworked the scheme for decades after its cancellation, with only the backdrop swapped out. He repurposed it as a vertiginous counterpoint to his fictional Broadacre City (1929–35), a salubrious picture of exurban sprawl endowed with a Jeffersonian dignity. (And a Fordian one, too; this Elysium could only be traversed by car.) The high-rise was eventually built in diminished form as Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 30 years after its conception. For Wright, his architecture made all the difference by accounting for any deficiencies of site or geography.

Bergdoll has said that the exhibition is meant to highlight the contradictions in Wright’s personality and work. Two galleries in particular do so. One is devoted to the Nakoma Country Club, which is marred by cultural stereotypes. Wright conflates teepees and wigwams, distinct structures developed by different people for different climates. The other gallery looks at an unearthed 1928 design for a school for black children in Hampton, Virginia, which evinces his empathy for the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow era and his sense that a progressive education could ease their entry into society. At the same time, he appears entirely unaware of the casual racism of his day. Wright praised the joyful “negro spirit,” writing, with queasy paternal feeling, how his design proffered to pupils “something exterior of their own lively interior colour and charm.”

The demeaning racial bias, the panacea of sprawl, the car worship—these are the most dated aspects of Wright’s thinking, but we expect that much. As curios, they are neatly sequestered within their own galleries and not allowed to commingle in any meaningful way. They chip away at the Wrightian mythos but without coordination or conviction. Meanwhile, the various modernities Wright proposed and revised turn out to be shockingly resilient, if without wholesale application today. Both urban and disurban, national and local, Broadacre City remains compelling. Not one to leave well enough alone, Wright updated the concept in 1958, giving it a trivial futurist gloss (flying vehicles) that was instantly dated. But this has always been the lesson of Wright: that beyond the passé exuberance is a worthy core idea.

Samuel Medina is a writer and editor in New York.

Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 1 October

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