New York’s MoMA celebrates Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th anniversary
An archival exhibition that fetes the architect’s work
He’s been called America’s greatest architect, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is set to demonstrate this with its 11th exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright—the highest number of exhibitions the museum has given any architect. Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive looks at the latest materials MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery architecture library received from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Arizona in 2012.
As it happens, ‘unpacking’ is an apt and literal reference to the physical unboxing of the haul: A total of 55,000 drawings, 285 films, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, at least 2,700 manuscripts, and 125,000 photographs and other photographic items.
But the word also alludes to a close re-examination of Wright based on these new materials. After the curation process, some 450 items spanning the 1890s through the 1950s were picked for this exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth. Their aim: To position Wright as an international rather than a regional figure, centring on his extensive travels and interactions with architects and clients around the world, notes curator Barry Bergdoll of MoMA’s Department of Architecture & Design, who is also Columbia University’s Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History & Archaeology.
More than a dozen scholars, historians, architects and art conservators were sought out to bring fresh perspective to the 12 subsections in the exhibition, which has been described by critics as a display of immersive art as much as it is design, given Wright’s elaborate and colourful architectural sections and plans, and the building’s intricate stained glass windows, hexagonal chairs, and concentric-sphere murals. These subsections are organised around a central chronological spine that features key events in Wright’s life and career before his death in 1959.
Born in 1867, Wright began his decades-long career in Chicago and later set up his practice in Oak Park, Illinois. The exhibition underscores how the radical designer and intellectual embraced new technologies and materials along the way, pioneered do-it-yourself construction systems as well as avant-garde experimentation, and advanced original theories regarding nature, urban planning, and social politics.
Wright’s best-known building in Asia is the now-demolished Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he combined his western design principles and a fascination with Japan. And a section of the exhibition is dedicated to this, encompassing 800 drawings of the project, as well as Wright’s illustrated Teikoku Hoteru book about the building that was published in 1923.
The Chicago Tribune notes that while the ‘star-chitect’—acclaimed for his earth-hugging Prairie-style houses as well as an unbuilt mile-high skyscraper for Chicago—is at the risk of being analysed to death, the exhibition shows there are still fresh things to say about him. After all, some of the more provocative interpretations of Wright’s work zoom in on little-known events in his career. He called African Americans “darkies”, for example, as documented in a Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue sponsoring a model of a school for black children. Arguably however, that was accepted language in the 1920s.
And although Wright is known for his environmentally conscious designs, he culturally appropriated Native American imagery in generic rather than sensitive ways—as seen through an examination of plans for an unbuilt country club in Wisconsin. He also mixed exotic plants with native ones, contrary to the commonly held belief that he was an advocate for prairie landscapes.
But the design genius also showed his deep engagement with how buildings can “uplift the lives of individuals and communities”, as seen in a little-known 1926 proposal for a nine-block area of downtown Chicago, writes Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune.
What’s clear is that the architect was light years ahead of his time, a view which has held up in the numerous exhibitions on his works, either by MoMA or other esteemed institutions the world over.
Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive is on at MoMA, New York City, from now until 1 October 2017.
By Cheah Ui-Hoon