Frank Lloyd Wright once defied "anyone to name a single aspect of the best contemporary architecture that wasn’t done first by" him. He had a point, writes Emily Bobrow ...
When Frank Lloyd Wright was in his 80s, he had more architectural projects in the works than ever. He cut a vital, distinguished figure, with his silver mane, natty dress and a cane he often twirled. Often seen smoking and wearing a modified cowboy hat, he was arrogant, mischievous and also a genius. "I defy anyone to name a single aspect of the best contemporary architecture that wasn’t done first by me," he once said. "Or a single aspect of the worst contemporary architecture that isn’t a betrayal of what I’ve done.”
For him, architecture was a space for life, not a façade, not a monument, not a box. “I started war on architecture as a box,” he told an American Institute of Architects convention in 1952, aged 83. In demonstration, he drew a box on a blackboard (“Now, you see, boys, there is the box”), which he then smudged, erased and reconfigured. Walls and roofs are meant to be stretched and redefined, he explained. The essence of a building is in its interior space, where people live, work and pray. “The architect is the pattern-giver of civilisation.”
Wright created many such patterns in a career that stretched across seven decades. He was a relentless innovator who bristled at "skinny glass boxes" and the "grandomania" of resurrected classical architecture. Instead he looked critically at our built environments, and imagined ways of making our spaces more sustainable, more nourishing.
This is the lesson of “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward”, a great new show of his work at the Guggenheim in New York. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the museum’s remarkable building, one of Wright’s best-known designs, this show uses stunning original drawings, new models and digital animations to explore a lifetime of ingenuity.
Architecture exhibitions tend to feel lifeless and decontextualised, almost medicinal. But this one is nearly giddy with weird ideas and fizzy energy. The space may have something to do with it. Ascending the museum’s signature ramp, we first encounter Wright’s earliest work, including sketches for his first studio and the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois (the town where most of his houses are based). Already he is cantilevering slab roofs and replacing walls with translucent screens, his lines modern and clean.
Other, larger projects follow (over 60 are included), such as his grand designs forTaliesin, his own sweeping prairie home in rural Wisconsin, and his seemingly futuristic work for the S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Building (described inLife magazine in 1939 as like “a woman swimming naked in a stream. Cool, gliding, musical in movement and manner”).
There are quite a few models for buildings and attractions that never got built. His plan for a greater Baghdad would have transformed the dusty city into a modern cultural capital. The model for his unbuilt Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium--a glorious mix of mid-century kitsch and star-gazing ambition--makes for a sad taunt. It is impossible not to wish it into being. What a fine destination for a road trip.
Wright consistently reconsidered our relationship with architecture, whether in aprivate home or a grand public space. His designs were organic, indigenous, evolving according to the needs of owners and the nature of his materials. His lowprairie-style houses, modelled on the flat terrain of the Midwest, featured free-flowing, hearth-centred spaces and blurred indoor-outdoor divisions. His stream-lined office buildings included grand atriums and skylights. Wright consistently proved that even when form follows function, buildings can be stupendous. But of course the main exhibit is the Guggenheim itself, that swirling, vertigo-inducing scene-stealer of a space—inside and out. “This is the screwiest project I ever got tied up in," complained a construction worker on the site in 1957. "The whole joint goes round and round and where it comes out nobody knows”.
The museum’s spiralling layout often frustrates artists and challenges curators, given the way it dictates the order of a visitor’s attention. (On my way to this show, I ran into a friend who hangs art at the nearby Whitney; "Oh, what a terrible place for art," he blurted, unprovoked.) And few visitors would care to come in a wheelchair. Yet it remains an entirely unique and breathtaking place, one that forces interesting questions about how spaces dictate behaviour. Wright, of course, knew all of this, though he never lived to see it completed. The museum opened in October 1959; he died in April of the same year, aged 91.