02/19/2014

Architect of City and Country, Skyscraper and Suburb

By Thomas A. Kligerman

It seems an Ike Kligerman Barkley tradition to think about Frank Lloyd Wright on National Holidays. I continued it this President’s Day by paying a short visit to the exhibition dedicated to – as Joel wrote on the Fourth of July – “Our American Architect.”  

Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal” at the Museum of Modern Art took the architecture floor stateside for a change, following their exhibitions on Frenchmen Labrouste and Le Corbusier. (All three were curated by Barry Bergdoll.

I’ve been looking forward to the show for a while now, as it’s the first public outcome of the collaboration between MoMA, the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The two New York institutions asssumed the architect’s Archives this year, bringing them to New York from Taliesin West. I think it’s also the first Frank Lloyd Wright museum show I’ve seen, though I got to visit Falling Water a couple years back.

Entrance to the Exhibit, featuring sketches of The Illinois. 

"Frank Lloyd Wright and the City," beautifully arranged and a manageable size, could alternately have been titled "Frank Lloyd Wright Didn't Really Like the City." As Wright once said of the American urban landscape: "A parasite of the spirit is here, a whirling dervish in a whirling vortex." 

But outside the entrance to the exhibit, a plan for the unbuilt Illinois, a mile high skyscraper in Chicago, stretches from floor to ceiling. Walk inside the room, though, and a flat, 11 x 11 foot model of his utopian Broadacre City extends before you, hugely horizontal. You appreciate the tension as Wright grapples with the eternal urban question: to build up, or out? 

Out, was Wright's main answer, it seems. The Broadacre City model, his unbuilt utopian community, has horizontally oriented green space arranged on a grid of acres. It is navigable mainly by separate roads for automobiles and pedestrians. (Sketches also show autogyros, or personal flying machines, whirring above Broadacre. I guess we haven't gotten there yet.) 

Tall buildings punctuate the landscape, but they are few and far between. He thought skyscrapers could best embrace light and landscape if they weren't all craning their necks and competing with other tall buildings, like his Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Usonian houses. 

His model seems part city, with its mix of buildings, part suburb, with its green acres and roads, and part commune, with integrated live-work areas. With our perspective, however, the whole thing can seem at times scarily suburban, the beginning of sprawl. But I can't help but wonder how great a suburb could be if arranged in a compact patchwork like the Broadacre model, all dotted with Usonian houses. 

The exhibition as a whole was wonderful to see: drawings, with typos and erasure marks included, were organized in an easel like arrangement on the gallery walls. Photographs and videos showed Taliesin apprentices working on the various models. The objects had the same handcrafted warmth that his buildings seem to have, whether built in country or city.

What's really amazing is "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City" showed only a tiny fraction of the documents in his vast archive. I can't wait to see what else comes out of it.