Exhibition Review: Frank Lloyd Wright at 150—Unpacking the Archive
A discussion of the Frank Lloyd Wright legacy usually involves taking a side. Was he an anachronism from the start—the greatest architect of the 19th century? Or, as some admirers insist, the greatest architect of any age, stymied only by the hegemony of the International Style? At New York’s Museum of Modern Art this fall, the exhibition “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” and its eponymous catalogue disavow either extreme.
The exhibition title itself carries a marvelous double meaning. Its contents have been literally unpacked after transport from Taliesin to Columbia University’s Avery department of art history—and curators Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Grey have metaphorically unpacked some of the baggage weighing down the Wright legend. In walls and cases filled with historic renderings, they have included a few “greatest hits” (with the obligatory Fallingwater rendering), plus lesser-known works, including some that should make us wince. Beyond the iconic landmarks, the faux-indigenous-themed Nakoma Country Club and the Rosenwald School for African Americans bring social issues to the forefront, albeit not in a way that is necessarily flattering to the Master.
“Unpacking the Archive” suggests that while Wright may have offered few enduring solutions, he tackled important questions, including those that still resonate today. Such as this: how does one interpret an indigenous culture not of one’s own? In the exhibition catalogue, essayist Elizabeth Hawley points out that his wanton interchangeability of “tipi,” “teepee” and “wigwam” is surprisingly careless. So what is the use of showing such craven disregard? Because in colonial countries around the world, and particularly in Canada in the year of Reconciliation—we remain tortured about how to do this and, in many cases, we still get it wrong. Cultural workers everywhere tackle the complicated and multi-layered concepts of image appropriate and the distinction of diverse indigenous nations. It is useful to see the wayward depiction in an informed context.
And this: the imperilled quest for local self-sustenance. As frustrated communities watch the creeping land-grab by successive governments and mansion-builders on the surrounding region’s farmlands, we can look at Wright’s little-known and largely unsuccessful 1932-35 agricultural venture, Davidson Little Farms Unit. Its rectilinear layout, exhibited as a model with didactic panels, would be untenable for our land-starved time. But the yearning of agricultural self-sufficiency—very big in the starvation years of the Depression—is newly revived, thanks to the growing paucity of fertile land protected from real-estate development.
And this: building systems. Contemporary architects, as they did 10 and 30 and 50 years ago, continue to search for the definitive kit-of-parts or prefab solution to address ever-burgeoning housing needs. From Habitat 67 to sporadic experiments with shipping containers, we are still flailing. There is usually something to learn from the struggles of past masters.
And, finally, this: urbanism—the perennial hot topic of the last quarter-century. Wright’s solutions involved too much sprawl for contemporary cities. But his concept of urban organization was surprisingly in lockstep with Le Corbusier and Robert Moses and the Canadian government in the early 1960s, in that he (and they) endorsed the zonal separation of pedestrians and traffic, of residential and working and shopping. Jane Jacobs would show how this—but this, too, is something we see in retrospect. And although Wright’s plan for country homes at Galensburg, Michigan, is no paradigm for sustainable community planning, as a site plan it looks eerily beautiful, like a cluster of blood cells under a microscope. It reminds us of how the seductive qualities of order—or a semblance of it—has led us away from the more complex and messy workings of true urbanism.
The bravura of the times reached its zenith with Wright’s Mile-High Illinois: a conceptual proposal for a tower in Illinois of that unfathomable height, to be built with a “taproot” construction system of continuous inner core deeply rooted underground to support a building 1,600 metres high. It was—and remains—a farcical concept. The exhibition’s black-and-white image of the press conference, with three confident-looking men scrumming around its image, is revelatory of that time and place, but also of our own, when domineering tower-mongers in Vancouver and Toronto forgo the middle ground of gentle densification with proposals for sky-high glass towers plopped in tightly knit neighbourhoods.
A proper critical analysis of any architecture must first start with the design brief: what are the goals of building this way? Wright famously sought beauty by way of graceful proportions and spatial complexity. In that realm, he usually succeeded. He was wrong about a lot of things, along with all of the rest of his cohort. But both his triumphs and his mistakes have taught us much about the way homes, traffic, cities and human beings operate as part of larger systems, and for that we might be grateful.
A visitor, pondering the self-assured drawings on the exhibition’s white walls, might well think: what are we taking as gospel in our own current thinking, that the next generations will laugh or sneer or groan at? Perhaps that may be the greatest take-away of all.