The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library

After spending much of 2017 reading, thinking, and writing about Frank Lloyd Wright—and directing an hour-long television documentary about his Los Angeles houses to be broadcast next year—there is at least one thing I can say I’ve learned for sure: Wright at 151 is a whole lot more interesting, surprising, and compelling than Wright at 150.

By that I mean simply that the exhibitions, public events, and publications marking the 150th anniversary of the architect’s birth, on June 8, 1867, have been more revealing than I might have guessed—both about Wright and about us. The architect I picture when I think of Wright now, deep into this anniversary year, is a more complicated and in certain ways more impressive figure—and one more relevant to contemporary debates in the profession—than the one I would have pictured in the run-up to his big birthday.

The most consequential of these Frank-Lloyd-Wright-is-turning-150 events, without question, was held at the Museum of Modern Art. “Unpacking the Archive,” an exhibition organized by Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray and featuring a hydra-headed curatorial team of more than a dozen scholars, few of whom are Wright specialists, ran from June 12 through Oct. 1 in third-floor galleries freshly remade by New York–based Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Marking both the 150th milestone and the fact that MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library have acquired the massive Wright archive, it was a show simultaneously ambitious and dutiful, surprising and rote.

"Unpacking the Archive" at MoMA
Jonathan Muzikar "Unpacking the Archive" at MoMA

An Ambivalent Relationship
The show’s structure and curatorial approach say as much about how MoMA sees itself in 2017 as how it sees Wright. Bergdoll, a prominent Columbia architectural historian and from 2007 to 2013 chief curator of the museum’s architecture and design department, essentially outsourced the job of analyzing Wright instead of attempting the admittedly giant task of presenting a unified picture of his work and legacy. (Each guest curator was asked to pick from the archive a single project and build a room around it.) This is in large part, surely, a reflection of a culture rightly suspicious of confidently comprehensive summaries of important histories, architectural or otherwise, especially when they are delivered by middle-aged white males like Bergdoll at pillars of the establishment like MoMA. The approach paid some clear dividends; the sections on the relationship between Wright's architecture and race, labor, and landscape were especially strong.

A 22-foot-tall visualization of Wright’s Mile High Illinois tower unveiled at a 1956 press conference in Chicago
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library A 22-foot-tall visualization of Wright’s Mile High Illinois tower unveiled at a 1956 press conference in Chicago

Notably, Bergdoll decided to include a central gallery, a sort of spine, featuring exquisite presentation drawings of many of Wright’s most famous projects, including the Guggenheim and Fallingwater, that didn’t appear elsewhere. This clearly seemed an effort by MoMA to have its cake and eat it, too, or at least give the public what the museum assumed they came to see: namely, Wright’s greatest hits along with the b-sides, the overlooked but still somehow emblematic projects that Bergdoll’s team were specifically keen to focus on. Bergdoll did keep one room in “Unpacking the Archive” for himself, using it to analyze Wright’s 1956 design for a mile-high skyscraper, the Illinois, and how the architect, always a self-promoter and publicity hound, discovered his love for television around the same time. (The architect’s late-career interviews with Hugh Downs and a young Mike Wallace are worth tracking down on YouTube.) Yet even here Bergdoll barely tried to obscure his feeling that Wright could never quite match the inventive cool of an architect that Bergdoll has studied closely, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He included in his section a pair of Mies drawings, a 1954 collage of the Chicago Convention Hall, and a rendering of the 1921 Friedrichstrasse skyscraper in Berlin. They served to yank visitors out of Wright’s world and into that of Mies, an architect whose modernist bona fides, unlike Wright’s, remain unimpeachable.

Mike Wallace interviews Wright in 1957

Some of the show’s inconsistency, of course, can be traced directly back to the complicated, deeply ambivalent relationship that Wright maintained with MoMA—and vice versa. There was a mutual curiosity between the museum and America’s most famous (and one of its most prolific) architects and from time to time a mutual disdain. Wright was never a figure to be ignored; yet neither did he ever fit neatly into the museum’s definition of avant-gardism. There was always a sense that—to paraphrase a famous put-down by Philip Johnson, the founder of MoMA’s architecture and design department—Wright and his work belonged more to the 19th century than the 20th.

Bergdoll discusses Wright's Illinois skyscraper

While this may have been at least partly true in terms of Wright’s personal style and his favored brand of architectural representation, that combination of caped dandyism and sepia-washed drawings we’re all familiar with, it was never true of his approach to the art of building. From the beginning of Wright’s long career to the end, there were all kinds of detours, personal and professional, setbacks, crises, periods out of the spotlight, and dramatic reinventions. What stayed consistent was Wright’s restlessness, his desire—common to so many geniuses, musical and artistic as well as architectural—to press the boundaries of his field. He did so almost unthinkingly; there was something impulsive about the way he displayed his boredom with architectural problems he had already confronted.

Hollyhock House in Los Angeles
Credit: Ken Kanouse/Flickr via Creative Commons license Hollyhock House in Los Angeles

Houses for a Mayan God
Take the L.A. houses. For much of the year I’ve been working to finish “That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles,” a documentary set to air on L.A.’s KCET-TV next March. (The title is borrowed from a phrase Wright used in his autobiography to describe Southern California.) It’s true that L.A. was a place for him to hide out and slowly heal after Mamah Borthwick Cheney—the woman he’d run off to Europe with in 1909, abandoning both his career and family—was murdered by a deranged servant at Taliesin in Wisconsin along with her two children and four others in the summer of 1914. (Wright was in Chicago when it happened, working on the Midway Gardens project.) Yet he hardly used that recuperative period in California simply to lick his wounds. Wright turned his attention to pioneering a new method of bringing together structure and ornament that was entirely different from the work he had done up that point—and distinct from both the houses European modernists were designing and those the leading L.A. architects of the day were turning out, which were mostly variations on the Spanish Colonial Revival.

A detail from the terrace of Hollyhock House
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library A detail from the terrace of Hollyhock House

Between 1919 and 1924, Wright designed five houses in Southern California. The first, for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, was a transitional design; it marked the end of the Prairie Style, the possibilities of which Wright had largely exhausted by 1909, and incorporated, along with pre-Columbian elements and hints of the Midway Gardens design, influences he’d picked up during his European sojourn, most notably the Viennese Modernism of Otto Wagner and others. Colin Rowe called the result “so very Wagnerschule.”

The four houses that followed were something new, a clean break and a fresh chapter: experiments in modular construction that featured concrete blocks stacked in rows, threaded through with steel rods and stamped with a variety of ornamental patterns, most of them derived from Mayan ruins and other pre-Columbian sources. (Wright referred to this structural strategy as a kind of weaving, hence the phrase “textile-block houses.”) These crypt-like houses are hardly welcoming or especially domestic—Brendan Gill, one of Wright’s most perceptive biographers, called them “better suited to sheltering a Mayan god than an American family”—but are doubtless full of experimental energy.

Because we tend to see any architecture of that period that uses ornament, decoration, or historical quotation as retrograde, we have tended to overlook the radical nature of those houses from a structural point of view. The way Wright looked to rehabilitate the reputation of lowly concrete—which the architect correctly described as a “gutter rat” of the building trades—by bringing it into the domestic realm and the world of high design, is also not readily observed with 21st-century eyes, now that concrete walls in million-dollar loft apartments have become commonplace.

Ennis House in Los Angeles
Flickr user Scott Beale / Laughing Squid Ennis House in Los Angeles

Wright was trying to rebuild his life as well as his career while he was in Los Angeles. Aside from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which he was also designing during this period, he had very little work and few prospects. His son Lloyd lived in Los Angeles, having found work both as an architect and head of the design department for Paramount Pictures; otherwise Wright’s contacts were minimal. And yet instead of trading on the wide popularity of his Prairie School houses or producing his version of the widely popular Spanish Colonial Revival—either of which would likely have been a lucrative approach—he instead tried an entirely new and untested system that aimed to be modern and deeply historical at once, both of its time and out of time.

This desire to test himself often led Wright into problems. The L.A. houses, especially the ones on steep lots, began to crumble almost immediately, and water seeped between the cracks that inevitably opened up between one row of blocks and the next. Sometimes Wright courted these problems himself: Instead of siting the Millard House in Pasadena on the flat middle part of the lot, he perversely decided to build it right in the middle of a ravine that runs along one edge of the property. That made the house immeasurably more romantic but also essentially guaranteed, as soon as heavy rains came and filled up the ravine, that the basement would flood. It’s a cliché that modern houses, with their flat roofs, are vulnerable to leaking. Wright did his modernist counterparts one better, producing a house that took on water from above and below.

Millard House, also known as La Miniatura, in Pasadena, Calif.
Tim Street-Porter/OTTO Millard House, also known as La Miniatura, in Pasadena, Calif.
La Miniatura
Tim Street-Porter/OTTO La Miniatura

These Southern California houses, monumental and largely windowless as they face the street, are also primordial in tone and inspiration. The historian Thomas Hines has called them “aloof and impregnable bastions [with] fortress-like façades.” It’s here that we can begin to see some links between Wright and contemporary architecture. Whenever architecture becomes concerned with history—as was true in the 1920s, when Wright lived in a revivalism-crazed Los Angeles; in the 1980s, with Postmodernism’s ascent; and again today—there is nearly always a related effort to go back to prehistory, or a kind or primitivism. Wright examined the eclecticism rampant in Los Angeles and found it repulsed him; he tried to look deeper into history and produce an indigenous architecture authentic to the southwest, even if his quotations of pre-Columbian forms were sometimes scattershot or naive. Today, architects such as Chile’s Pezo von Ellrichshausen and Smiljan Radic and Switzerland’s Christ & Gantenbein and Herzog & de Meuron are similarly building an archaism into their work, a solid, Platonic kind of form-making that looks not to direct historical reference as much as architecture’s deep memory and archetypal forms.

Christ & Gantenbein's Wallraf-Richartz-Museum expansion in Cologne, Germany
Christ & Gantenbein AG Architekten Christ & Gantenbein's Wallraf-Richartz-Museum expansion in Cologne, Germany

I see their architecture more clearly weighed against Wright’s pre-Columbian designs, and vice versa. And that’s largely what I mean when I say that Wright is more interesting at 151 than 150. What’s been important is not so much the milestone itself as the way celebrations of it have played out against the backdrop of contemporary architecture. And maybe that’s why we carry out these ritualistic anniversary rites in the first place: Because in remembering the protean figures of the profession we learn something about our own cultural production and architectural priorities.

courtesy Herzog & de Meuron
Renderings of Herzog & de Meron's Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles
courtesy Herzog & de Meuron Renderings of Herzog & de Meron's Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles

Rushing into the Future
Philip Johnson did finally come around to Wright’s work, asking near the end of his life, according to Wright scholar Kathryn Smith, to spend one final afternoon in the Taliesin living room, a space he found deeply touching. And so have I come around, at least to a degree.

The elements of Wright’s work that once struck me as simply nostalgic now look much more complex and layered: more like a synthesis of forward- and backward-looking impulses, as interested in the future of modular systems, say, as in the importance of memory or the power of archaic form. His best work was American in a deeply historical sense—throughout his career he rejected imported models—but it was also American in an inventive, optimistic, and pragmatic sense, in its ad hoc and can-do spirit.

The capes and the gauzy rendering style and the towering self-regard—all those trademarks of Wright’s public persona—are still grating, especially to a 21st-century sensibility. They serve to drape his buildings with a nostalgic scrim and distort what they were fundamentally about. Because Wright created and carefully tended to that persona, I think it’s fair to place at least some of the blame for that misreading of his architecture at his feet. But if you strip all of that away and look at the work itself—and, more to the point, do your best to understand the buildings on their own terms, as I’ve been trying to do with the L.A. houses, for their structural logic and materiality as much as their formal vocabulary or picturesque qualities—what emerges is a figure rushing into the future more energetically than we remember. Wright wanted to experiment not just with his buildings but the limits of the field itself. He wanted to put an energetic new American architecture on a wide test track, open up the engine, and let the thing run.