“My way has been too long and too lonely,” Frank Lloyd Wright telegraphed Philip Johnson shortly before the 1932 opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) epochal International Style exhibit, in an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw from the show, “to make a belated bow to my people as a modern architect … ” Wright’s way was certainly long. Born only two years after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and dying only four years before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—from the Age of Steam into the Age of the Atom—Wright outlived every era and style into which curators like Johnson have always been eager to place designers. To measure his long span in another way, consider that H.H. Richardson was 30 years old when Wright was born, and Frank Gehry, FAIA, was 30 years old when Wright died.
And Wright’s way was certainly lonely. Despite all his accolades and acolytes—the latter more cultishly organized than most thanks to the Taliesin Fellowship—Wright’s formal language was at once so inimitable and so mutable that, unlike the reducible and thus reproducible formalisms of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (his 20-years-younger peers), Wright left many mourners but no real heirs. “Wrightian” is thus the most repellent of designerly adjectives, indicating the insistent presence of Wright’s many tropes—sweeping horizontals, Cherokee reds, pinwheeling plans, catch-and-release cross-sections, hollyhock pictograms in leaded glass—but the profound absence of whatever it was that animated those tropes into enduring art. The enthusiasm of civilians for this sort of thing generally horrifies contemporary architects only slightly less than a client’s expressed interest in, say, Louis Comfort Tiffany or Christopher Alexander.
Yet in his long and lonely way, this historical outlier and self-described contrarian set the universal template for the contemporary performance of architect as cultural figure: the Randian secular prophet in the mode of Howard Roark, the universal theorist in the mode of Buckminster Fuller, the worldly artiste in the mode of, well, Philip Johnson and everybody else. The unpunctuated telegram Wright sent Johnson in 1932 continued with the refusal to make that belated bow, “in company with a self advertising amateur and a high powered salesman.” That was a dig at Raymond Hood and one-time apprentice Richard Neutra, respectively—however much Wright’s own mastery of the American arts of serene amateurism and sanguine salesmanship paved the way for Hood, Neutra, and all the rest.
Wright’s work, despite his telegrammed demurral, was ultimately featured in MoMA’s 1932 show—albeit with visible ambivalence in both architect and curator. He was the first architect, in 1940, to receive a solo retrospective at MoMA’s new midtown building, and now he is back in “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal,” an exhibit on the occasion of the recent joint acquisition of Wright’s archives by the museum and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. On the rather slender premise of Wright as a theorist of high-rise hyperdensity in service of a landscape of pastoral sparsity (call it “towers because gardens”), the exhibit assembles exquisite original drawings and models of Wright’s notable tall buildings, plus the Broadacre City project he began in 1934.
The showpieces are towering 1956 elevations for the unbuilt Mile High Illinois skyscraper that Wright proposed for Chicago, plus three large-scale models that were part of the archive acquisition. An 8-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide 1940 model of an unbuilt 24-story Sullivanesque skyscraper, originally developed for The San Francisco Call newspaper in 1913, features low-relief, white-painted wood worthy of Louise Nevelson. There’s also a 6-foot-tall wood, plastic, and metal model of Price Tower, the mixed-use residential and commercial tower incongruously built in the low-lying town of Bartlesville, Okla., in 1956; and a 12-foot-by-12-foot wood-and-cardboard diorama from 1935 of Broadacre City, cinematic in detail and as gorgeous as a Persian rug in its muted jewel-like colors. Home movies show Taliesin apprentices tinkering with the Broadacre model in a scrubby Arizona field—a landscape within a landscape—while an entertaining period film illustrates, among other things, how easily a pencil-skirted secretary can ascend an elevator in Wright’s 1943–50 Racine, Wis., Johnson Wax Research Laboratory Tower, to carry a file from her desk to an obliged chemist’s hands.
Despite the charisma of the models, the real stars are the smudgy working drawings and annotated construction documents—many presented in glassed-in picture boxes, tilted in the manner of drafting tables, that recall Wright’s own installation of his work at MoMA in 1940. Mixed in with more polished and familiar images, the drawings reveal all the fuss of an architecture office hard at work. There, in the margins of Call building perspectives, is a set of hasty cross-sections in which Wright appears to work out where he might conceal electric lighting in the overhanging cornice. There, on the obverse of a Mile High tower sketch of a typical floor, is a cascade of calculations for different square footages and budget targets. There, scrawled in Wright’s looping hand across the top of a night-time rendering of a carport, is a note to someone named Peter, to “build this up in black and white for reproduction.” Side-by-side with a much-published ink-on-paper axonometric of the unbuilt 1924 National Life Insurance Company Building in Chicago is the far more energetic document that must have been its underdrawing, all graphite and blue pencil on yellow trace—and, scooting along the base, swift little doodles of Duesenbergs and Packards.
The picture that emerges from all these documents undermines, of course, that cultural figure, perfected by Wright, of architect as solitary genius. All those underdrawings have the look of documents passed through many hands. The same selection of works would have equally served an exhibit premised on collective creativity in practice. But a picture also emerges of singular obsession and compulsion. The best example of this is the pinwheel-plan, corncob-elevation design of the Price Tower, which first recognizably appears in 1927 as the unbuilt St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers project for Manhattan. Its particular plan geometry may have had something to do with the angle at which Stuyvesant Street hits East 10th Street and 2nd Avenue, and later with obscuring lateral views between towers when Wright proposed multiples for the St. Marks’s churchyard. But by the time the same essential design was built in Bartlesville 30 years later, or was planted across Broadacre City like so many toothpick flagpoles, the form was entirely self-referential.
And unlike the spatial layouts of the early Oak Park houses or early Usonian houses (which show up in Broadacre, too, in charming pink cardboard), the form isn’t especially functional or closely calibrated to ergonomics or routines. All perilous parallelogram stair treads and triangular rooms and awkward acute and oblique angles, the Price Tower plan is more a fugue on diamonds and triangles, radiating like the stamens and petals of a flower, than it is a design for life. As with Johnson Wax and the Mile High tower, the Price design insists on a poetic but not especially efficient “taproot” structural system in which a single central foundation pier anchors successive floors that are purely cantilevered from center to perimeter. Draft construction documents for Bartlesville show the intricate extremes to which Wright’s office went, embedding steel-mesh reinforcements at carefully calibrated angles, to finesse those concrete floor plates down to a palatable thinness at their edge. It’s an exercise in ingenuity that is the opposite of the organically integrated architecture whose image it serves.
Wright’s work is so familiar that it is easy to miss how strange it is. Grandiose solipsism, as modeled by Wright, is so much the manner of contemporary architects that it goes largely unexamined. To contemplate the elaborate frontispiece to the Mile High tower, with its stentorian Memorial Dedications to the likes of Elisha Otis (“Inventor of the Upended Street”), its Salutations to the likes of “Professor Pier Luigi Nervi”, its self-descriptions of its author only as “Son of Chicago” (and, endearingly, as recipient of honorary degrees in engineering from Germany and Switzerland), is to detect less a proposal for a particular building than the construction of a private cosmology.
To contemplate the Broadacre City model, as jolly and creepy as a model railroad in its self-contained perfection, in its accumulation of tidy artificial solutions for tidy artificial problems (including a grand house on a convenient mesa whose notional resident much surely have been Wright himself), is to see less and less the public proposal with which the exhibit, with perhaps willful credulity, presents it—and to see further and further into a private world. The model has the feel of one of those projects that, upon his death, an otherwise undistinguished clerk or draftsman is discovered to have constructed, complete with syncretic mythology and personal gods, in his basement.
The opening of “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” coincided, in January, with MoMA’s announcement that it would demolish the neighboring building that once housed the American Folk Art Museum. While the loss of that much-loved design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects is noteworthy, so is the loss of the fortuitous juxtaposition of the definitive modern mainstream with the vernacular and outsider tradition that is both its perpetual shadow and occasional inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Wright’s Broadacre City permanently installed in the Folk Art building, where it could splendidly anchor the use of that model-and-drawing-scaled-structure as MoMA’s architecture gallery. And where it would hold its own among the memories of Henry Darger’s “Realms of the Unreal,” or Achilles Rizzoli’s “Expeau of Magnitude, Magnificence, and Manifestation,” and every other such private world made poignantly public. Architects’ most gratifying self-understanding is that they are those worldly artistes: businesslike creatives, tasteful technocrats, visionaries who can also run a company. Perhaps their difficulty in assimilating Wright is not only aesthetic, but in how his thrilling weirdness, compounded by his scandalous domestic life and cultish enablers, reveals in him what architects all fear in themselves: that they are primarily authors of internal worlds, crowded and invisible, intricate and unbuildable. And that their outward success is not methodical or predictable, but occurs primarily in the embarrassing manner of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien, when some splinter of their interior landscapes and languages serendipitously pierces the culture at large.
Perhaps architects will concede the erasure of the Folk Art Museum building from the streetscape of West 53rd Street because, in some gesture of simultaneous pride and shame, they would erase that embarrassing shadow, that inference of interiority, from their own façades. Perhaps because architects are, in their own eyes, outsider artists: the kind of artists who, even as they seek recognition and remuneration, also have the impulse to distance their work from the material world it ostensibly addresses, to exceed the height and breadth of that worldly reach—to respond, as Wright did in the concluding words of his telegram refusing Johnson’s invitation, “sorry but kindly and finally drop me out of your promotion.”