- Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect
Frank Lloyd Wright left more than four hundred buildings and nearly half as many unexecuted projects. But his enduring appeal, at least in the public eye, has been the edifice he built to himself—in lectures, in books and articles, and in his uncompromising, often strident relations with clients. Whether justifiably or not, he has stood as the proponent par excellence of “architecture for architecture’s sake.” Wright’s persona is familiar to all of us, yet the allure of biography remains, fueled by two recent works, Brendan Gill’s journalistic Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (1987) and Meryle Secrest’s novelistic Frank Lloyd Wright (1992). Thankfully, the opening of the archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (formerly studio-home of Taliesin West) in Scottsdale, Arizona, has again focused critical attention on the development of Wright’s work. Its director, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, has so far edited three volumes of the Collected Writings (1992- ), giving a clearer voice to the architect himself and sorting out the chronology of his journals, correspondence, and numerous publications up to 1939. [End Page 266]
The MOMA retrospective, organized by the museum’s curator of architecture and design, Terence Riley, in consultation with Pfeiffer, comes on the crest of Wright research, including another retrospective that toured Japan in 1991.1 Unprecedented in scope, the exhibition includes some three hundred drawings and models, nearly all on loan from the foundation, in addition to a few full-scale details of buildings created expressly to help the visitor appreciate Wright’s innovative use of building materials. Curiously the examples of Wright’s furniture are rather sparse: one expects the dining-room set designed for the Frederick Robie House (now in the Cochrane-Woods Art Center at the University of Chicago), but finds instead a facsimile reproduction of part of a bedroom from the Usonian house of Herbert Jacobs. Similarly, while the first few drawings in the exhibition reveal the influence of Louis Sullivan’s organic concept of design, the visitor gets no more than a cursory glance of the eclectic studio-home in Oak Park. Yet anyone who has visited its interior and seen the historiated gesso frieze inspired by the Parthenon or the floreate oak carvings and inscription around the hearth will realize that the young cosmopolitan Wright had a lingering taste for beaux-arts style that went beyond the level of dry academic exercises. Obviously all architectural exhibitions require the spatial imagination of the spectator, and curators can go only so far in transplanting the elements of a built environment to render a unified effect. This is particularly demanding in the case of Wright, whose ornamental flourishes are often lost in the sweeping simplicity of his interiors.
The accompanying catalogue includes five essays, beginning with William Cronin’s exploration of Wright’s formative influences: his Welsh upbringing, his mother’s educational progressivism, and the pervasiveness of transcendentalist themes in his writings. Cronin recognizes Ralph Waldo Emerson, not Friedrich Froebel, as the basis for Wright’s vision of an organic architecture, though the obvious connection between Emerson’s dictum of self-reliance and Wright’s insistence that architecture should be self-sufficient has hardly eluded earlier scholars. For Cronin, Wright not only reveres nature but exults in its relentless attack on the man-made environment, symbolized by the notorious leaky roofs in Wright’s buildings. One wonders whether the refrain of dripping rainwater in Herbert Johnson’s dining room or in the sanctuary of Beth Sholom synagogue was really meant as a personal tribute, or whether it resulted from the architect’s obstinate refusal to sacrifice the integrity of his design to basic functional necessities.
Anthony Alofsin, a consultant to the exhibition, traces the gradual divergence between Wright’s influence in Europe and his response to the new movements taking shape in Germany, Holland, and France between the wars. Wright was at best a reluctant modernist, and though his glass-skinned administration building at the Johnson Wax complex in Racine, Wisconsin, approached...