Frank Lloyd Wright, the Urban Theorist?

An exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright’s urban agenda exposes the architect’s near-irrational fear of real cities.

The proto-suburbian features of Wright’s agrarian utopia were Jeffersonian in character, but Fordian in detail. The city’s inhabitants would rely mostly on automobiles to ferry them back and forth across the landscape to shopping centers and entertainment grounds, while tractor trailers and other mechanized equipment would help them till their land.

All images courtesy The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

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The central showpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal—a sprawling 144-square-foot maquette of the architect’s speculative Broadacre City project (1934–35)—wants desperately to be pored over. Indeed, it’s hard to deny the model its charms, to resist scanning its pastoral spans or hunching over its homespun idiosyncrasies. And there are plenty of them: Gridded blocks of forests are as crisply dimensioned as sugar cubes, while splashes of primary color pop out from the De Stijl patchwork of cultivated fields. An array of miniature houses—representing housing types that range from the smallest, affordable “Usonian” homes to larger supine Prairie villas—punctuates the green-and-brown expanse, appearing, at least from above, as corresponding nodes of an abstract constellation.

Wright’s decentralized, “dispersed” territory for 1,400 families, each with their own homestead, farmland, cars, and even helicopters (imaginatively called “aerotors”) was conceived as an antidote to the supposed ills of urbanization. (The critic Lewis Mumford, normally a champion of Wright’s work, could not take the pill, definitively dismissing Broadacre as “anti-city.”) Jeffersonian in its dogged embrace of democratic values and its reactionary contempt for cities, Broadacre is a paragon of lazy utopia building, where the added hygienic values of air and greenery somehow justify the suburban sprawl it prefigured. Nevertheless, its architect exhibited it in various cities for years as both a comprehensive solution and architectural pabulum for the masses. Public disinterest and Wright’s own death in 1959 finally retired the model; for a half century, it sat collecting dust in the Wright archives at Taliesin West. Its arrival at the Museum of Modern Art in Density vs. Dispersal coincides with the acquisition of the entire archive—containing thousands of Wright’s personal drawings, models, pieces of correspondence, and film reels—by the museum and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

A Taliesin fellow scrutinizes a section of the Broadacre City model. Funded by Edgar J. Kaufmann, Wright’s great patron and for whom he would design Fallingwater, the model illustrates Wright’s idea for a dispersed population, with individual families sheltered in stand-alone homes, each furnished with an acre of farmland. It was unveiled at Rockefeller Center in 1935, before embarking on a national promotional tour.

Of these various materials, the Broadacre diorama is surely the largest and most encompassing. But despite the model’s prominence in the exhibition, it sidesteps the show’s main trajectory. Along the perimeter walls, scores of sketches and architectural drawings—plus two additional scale models—testify to Wright’s decades-long obsession with the skyscraper. Or rather, with one skyscraper. Curators Barry Bergdoll and Carole Ann Fabian have thought to include the architect’s earliest designs for office towers, like the 24-story headquarters for the San Francisco Call newspaper (1913) or the much-publicized National Life Insurance Company building, Chicago (1924–25), but it’s the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers project in New York (1927–31) on which the exhibit hangs its primary narrative thread.

This is the “density” half of the show’s lopsided tautological premise. With St. Mark’s, Wright developed an approach to the structure of tall buildings that he would repurpose and further elaborate on through the last phase of his career, culminating in the absurd plans for the Mile High Tower (1956) that packed enough square footage to house the population of Broadacre many times over. Unmoved by the generic steel frame of typical skyscraper construction, Wright endeavored to find a more bespoke, and, thus, “organic” solution. The result was the so-called tap-root system, consisting of a giant central column from which attenuated floor plates precariously cantilevered forth, like branches of a tree. The innovative, if inefficient, structural parti freed up the volumetric form of the tower, considerably shaped as it was by the chamfered edge of its Manhattan site.

An airborne view of Wright’s design for the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers project, imagined for Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Derailed by the market crash, the design would haunt the architect’s drawing boards for decades, becoming the model for his subsequent tower designs.

Whatever their origins, the pinwheel shape and oblique angles that characterize the final proposal—canceled soon after the market crashed—were elevated as principles of Wright’s architectural language. Subsequent versions of the St. Mark’s towers made their way into the Broadacre scheme, where they endow the plan with much-needed upward thrust. “The skyscraper is no longer sane unless in free, green space,” Wright wrote in The Disappearing City (1932), his attack on the industrialized urban center, which he compared to a cancerous growth. Only in the country, spaced one mile apart, may the skyscraper “stand beautiful for its own sake.”

The pinwheel floorplans of the St. Mark’s Towers would reoccur in Wright’s subsequent tall-building designs through the 50s, when he finally realized the type at the H.C. Price Tower in Bartlesville. The structure’s “tap-root” section represents a key innovation in the design of skyscraper, with the floor branching off from a single core.

It’s a telling sentiment that speaks to Wright’s overweening formal proclivities. One sees them in the inhospitable triangular geometries of the architect’s high-rise residential towers at Broadacre and the H.C. Price Tower (1952–56) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where the nauseating leitmotifs—parallelogram floorplans, polygonal windows, hazardous protruding corners—repudiate good sense. Again, they are evident in the Rogers Lacy Hotel (1946) in Dallas, a crystalline wedding cake whose glass-framed atrium garden anticipated the spatial histrionics of John Portman and, to a lesser degree, Kevin Roche. Here, Wright’s “organic” architecture, not content with pursuing mere metaphor, absorbs the bioorganic within its very fabric.

Such sweeping stylizations also figure in the plan for Broadacre, where they often come at the expense of any rigorous analytical thinking. The exhibition, too, suffers from its own problems, resulting from a mix of hero worship and unadventurousness. The curatorial agenda is self-immune to criticality, posing few to no discordant notes in its presentation, though there were several opportunities to do so. (A more comprehensive reappraisal of Wright may be tacked onto MoMA’s forthcoming 2017 retrospective, which will be the museum’s 11th show dedicated to the “Son of Chicago.”) It similarly disavows itself of the need to establish context. The Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal incentives, Fascism’s nationalist mythologies, and the collectivizing “threat” of Soviet Communism, are never explicitly mentioned here, though they all were consequential to Wright’s thinking. Instead, we’re given another rendition of Wright, Master Builder, only here he’s additionally flattered with the title of “urban theorist.” This added gloss further distracts the show’s bipolar schematic. Is a little focus too much to ask?

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