Wright in New York

Packing the model of Broadacre City and the skyscraper projects into one room, the exhibition curated by Barry Bergdoll and Carole Ann Fabian marks the first public event of the partnership between Columbia University and the MoMA for the management of the impressive FLW Archives.

 

Reviews / Sabrina Puddu

A truck crossing America from the Arizona Desert to New York carrying a 13-ton load of drawings and photographs in custom-built boxes and pallets glaringly reopens the narrative of an architect whose work was – and continues to be – much described, photographed, copied and reinterpreted.

Installation view of the exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal". February 1– June 1, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Thomas Griesel

Upon arrival in New York after their long stay in Taliesin West, Scottsdale, the paper material of the Archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation passed into the care of the archivists of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. The 3D material (models, prototypes and furnishings) had arrived from Taliesin Spring Green, destination the Museum of Modern Art. Conserved in a barn in the Wisconsin Prairie and infested with insects, everything had to be fumigated before entering the museum stores to avoid contaminating its other artworks.

Installation view of the exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal". February 1– June 1, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Thomas Griesel

While we cannot but imagine a wry smile on Wright’s face as he watches the march of the Taliesin insects towards the city, the return of The American Architect from voluntary exile in the countryside is one of the key events of New York’s recent architectural season. The operation was prompted by a partnership involving two major cultural institutions, Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, and the significance of the FLW archives has been magnified by this unusual shared management and the impressive mix of expertise and media force that comes with it. This is the realisation of a grandiose educating machine that – with its combination of academic research, teaching, cataloguing procedures, conservation methods, exhibition and publishing media, and even the refined art of the museum-shop fetish – will reach an astonishing array of potential architecture consumers.

As we look forward to the exhibition scheduled for 2017 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of FLW’s birth, MoMA has recently opened Frank Lloyd Wright and the City. Density vs. Dispersal, the inaugural event of this new Wright season. Curated by Barry Bergdoll and Carole Ann Fabian with Janet Parkse and Phoebe Springstubb, the exhibition packs the wooden model of Broadacre City and the skyscraper projects produced by Wright’s studio into one room.

 

Installation view of the exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal". February 1– June 1, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Thomas Griesel

The 4x4m Broadacre model comes across as both a media offering, a stage model, and a study and work tool. Broadacre was never actually designed but rather outlined in the narratives of The Disappearing City (1932) and The Living City (1958) and developed via the model, recently restored in the MoMA workshops to reveal a model-palimpsest with signs of subsequent alterations, new buildings constructed over the footprint of previously demolished ones. As Bergdoll explains, far from being frozen at the moment of conception, the model evolved over time, reiterating mechanisms peculiar to the real city.

Installation view of the exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal". February 1– June 1, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo Thomas Griesel

By contrast, the sequence of documents on the walls, carefully selected from the mass of archive materials, showcases FLW skyscrapers from 1913 to 1956. Although not immediately apparent, the key drawing for a grasp of the exhibition is a pencil perspective of the St Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers drawn in a disguised New York, transfigured – almost to the point of being unrecognisable – by the superimposition of dense vegetation on the cityscape. The drawing is accompanied by the story of two captions, one replacing the other, that illustrates a shift of thought and interest in FLW’s mind. The first caption to the drawing is St Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, New York – the site for which the tower had indeed been commissioned. This was covered with tape and replaced with the name of the project’s declared location: A MILE APART IN THE COUNTRY. A déjà-vu disengages us from a story that had, until then, seemed linear – the series of proposals for one or more apartment blocks commissioned by the curate of St Mark’s for a triangular site in the Manhattan grid – and thrusts us into the dialogue between the skyscrapers  displayed on the walls and the Broadacre model.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Broadacre City Project. 1934–35. Model: painted wood, 386.1 x 386.1 cm. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Although the first skyscrapers interpreted the metropolitan state of New York or Chicago – a state that Wright himself tried to redefine in a counter proposal to the building code in 1926 –, the St Mark’s Tower [1] epitomises the tension between this and a different urban condition, a renewed idea of urbanity that both looks to and repudiates the existing metropolis. The Disappearing/Broadacre/Living City is not only described in the books and given concrete form in the model but constantly embodied in his building designs for real clients. Certainly, the experimentation with an idea of an agrarian city centred on the individualistic possession of an acre is crystal clear in the house. It is less so in the tower, the architectural device of America’s metropolitan urbanity which is, in fact, the thought limbo in which the city/rural Wright found himself.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Grouped Towers, Chicago. Project, 1930. Perspective. Pencil on tracing paper, 48.3 x 71.8 cm. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Apart from the most obvious dichotomies, scattered vs. compact, vertical vs. horizontal, city vs. countryside, FLW managed to pursue a concept of the city-in-transition for more than 20 years. He also shows us how a project commissioned by a client with a specific programme and site can serve instrumentally outside its particular circumstances and within a vaster reasoning, namely to advance a potential idea of the city. 

His reasoning continues much without interruption to Mile High Illinois, the drawings of which end the exhibition – and sponsor it at the entrance. As in the St Mark’s drawing, a second skyscraper – called Golden Beacon – can be glimpsed in the background of Mile High. Is this an attempt to expand the size of the Broadacre towers, distanced in a technified and infrastructure-full countryside, to an XXL? Or does Mile High introduce the concept of a different city? IN this way, a 90-year-old Wright – perhaps gripped by a close-of-career publicity burst –  destabilised the consolidated perception of his audience, planting the doubt of an anti-Broadacre, and generating posthumous speculation on his work. An annotation on a drawing not in the exhibition apparently maintains that the whole Broadacre population could be contained in Mile High.

 



Notes:
1. In sequence: the project drawings of the San Francisco Call Building (San Francisco, 1913); the National Life Insurance Company Building (Chicago, 1924–25); the building code proposal for skyscrapers (1926); the several design solutions for the St Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Tower (New York 1927–31) to their transposition in the  Grouped Towers (Chicago 1930); the preparatory drawing for the model, the single buildings, the sketches and the texts of the Broadacre City project (1934–35); the SC Johnson & Son. Inc. Research Laboratory Tower (Racine, Wisconsin, 1943-50); the Rogers Lacy Hotel (Dallas, 1946-47); the project and working drawings of the H.C. Price Company Tower (Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 1952-56); Mile High Illinois (Chicago, 1956).