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Two wrongs don't make a Wright

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Jan 23, 2013 04:48 PM


Frank Lloyd Wright, Sixty Years of Living Architecture Exhibition Building (demolished), New York Perspective (presentation drawing), 1953 Graphite and ink on tracing paper, 91 x 196 cm Drawing © 1988 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona

It can be easy to get lost in some of New York’s museums—the Met is huge, the MOMA labyrinthine. A visit to the Guggenheim, however, doesn’t entail such a risk. Like many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, its design is readable and utilitarian; it is out of this dedication to practicality that its striking form emerges. This causes one to wonder, then, why the museum’s self-advertised “long-awaited tribute” to its designer is so difficult to find. For those considering a visit to “A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and Pavilion,” I’ll save you a little time and direct you to the exhibit: After entering the museum, take the elevator to the sixth floor, walk up the ramp to the seventh, enter the Gabriel Orozco exhibit, walk to the back of the room and around a small corner to another elevator, take this to the basement, go through the glass doors in front of you and viola! there it is. Despite this protracted odyssey to reach the show, I remained hopeful, thinking that the museum might have hidden away a gem, a sort of a holy grail of an exhibition only to be accessed by the truly deserving. After all, this was Frank Lloyd Wright we were talking about—the show had to be good, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The exhibition—if one can really call it that—is little more than a hallway with some archival photos and accompanying text. Meant to commemorate the Usonian House and exhibition pavilion that were constructed for the 1953 exhibit “Sixty Years of Living Architecture: The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright,” the current show opens with a small, 1:150 scale model of both buildings by Andrew McBride, an architect at the University of Richmond. This is the most visually engaging part of the show. From there on, the exhibition does a good job telling the history of the 1953 retrospective, but is so heavy on text and so light on, well, everything else, that a similar experience could be had by reading a few Wikipedia articles.

That being said, the history it covers is interesting, despite the show’s underwhelming curation. Wright agreed to design the Guggenheim in 1943 after being contacted by Hilla Rebay, the director and curator of the Guggenheim’s precursor, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. By 1953, while plans for the new building were mostly finalized, zoning and technical issues continued to delay construction, and a townhouse at the museum’s current location held the collection. A retrospective of Wright’s work had been touring internationally and, after declining MOMA’s invitation to exhibit the show, Wright approached James Johnson Sweeney, the renamed Guggenheim’s new director, about doing so. In addition to showcasing the materials that had been displayed across the globe, Wright wanted to build an exhibition pavilion to hold them as well as a full scale model of his Usonian house on the vacant lot adjacent to the townhouse. These would be the first Wright buildings in Manhattan.

The pavilion, built as a flexible pipe system lined with Cemesto and Brickrete and roofed with sandblasted glass, covered almost 10,000 square feet and housed sixteen models of Wright’s buildings, 8-foot square photographs of the same, as well as floor plans, drawings, renderings, and smaller photos documenting the architect’s work. Visitors entered the pavilion through a hole that had been cut in the side of the townhouse just for the show. They then continued to the exhibit’s main attraction: a full-scale Usonian house. As Wright explained in a souvenir booklet from the exhibition, the house was conceived in the 1930s as “the first truly democratic expression of our democracy in Architecture,” a uniquely American, affordable living space for the common man. It was small—just 1,700 square feet—but contained a living room, kitchen, children’s room, master bedroom, bathroom, and laundry. The open floor plan made the small space seem bigger as did large corner windows that, along with a courtyard garden, emphasized the sense of indoors and outdoors. Making this functional, economic living space even more impressive, the architect fully decorated the house, including furniture he had designed, artwork such as mobiles by Alexander Calder, and even cosmetics in the master bathroom.

The show opened to great acclaim on October 22, 1953. (The ultra-fast turnaround time from project approval to opening—less than three months meant that Wright’s drawings for the house still weren’t complete when construction began so he and David Henken, a former Taliesin apprentice selected as general contractor for the build, had to make many design decisions on site.) The Newark Star-Ledger noted that “The exhibit is jammed. And not by arty sophisticates, but by the good American people, engaged in the most exciting adventure of their lives—shopping for the home they will build.” In The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford said that Wright, “more than any other architect, has helped bring about . . . a change in our attitude toward American art . . . from formality and urbane gentility in our style of life to breezy openness and rustic relaxation.” Architectural Forum claimed that “So far as housebuilding is concerned, the 84-year-old architect could now lay claim to having reshaped the countenance of his country. . . . now there is scarcely a house built anywhere in the U.S. which does not in some way . . . show the imprint, however blurred, of this man’s hand.” Despite the fanfare surrounding the exhibition, the buildings found rather inauspicious ends: Heavy snow damaged the pavilion which was then discarded, and the house was dismantled, stored for thirty years, and—after being donated, auctioned, and donated again—ended up in the possession of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

 


Sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright sent to James Johnson Sweeney, illustrating the pavilion and Usonian house, May 23, 1953 Copy in the Estate of James Johnson Sweeney collection Drawings © Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona
Sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright sent to James Johnson Sweeney, illustrating the pavilion and Usonian house, May 23, 1953 Copy in the Estate of James Johnson Sweeney collection Drawings © Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona

In addition to the previously-mentioned model, scans of the blueprints for both the house and the pavilion are on display at the current show. Along with these, copies of photographs documenting the construction and correspondence between Wright and several key figures related to the Guggenheim help tell the story of the 1953 exhibit. It should be noted that all of the items in the exhibit save the model are reproductions: scanned copies and not original photographs, letters, or floorplans. As I said, the history here is interesting, but the exhibit itself is not. The Guggenheim provides a nice interactive timeline on its site that contains many of the images reproduced in the show and, paired with the exhibition page and digital versions of the original brochure and catalogue, there is little to be seen at the museum that can’t be viewed online. Why exactly, one asks, is a visit to a museum necessary if we can readily view scans without the trip and price of admission?

The thing that is most disappointing about this exhibit is that it had the potential to be incredibly engaging. There is no dearth of source material that could have been reused in this exhibition (the Architectural Forum review claims the original had “some 1,000 drawings and photographs”). The inclusion of any—preferably most—of the sixteen models from the 1953 show (which included Wright’s model for the yet-to-be constructed Guggenheim), Wright-designed furniture from the house, or really anything original would have done wonders for the modern version.

Shoved away in the basement, inaccessible without specific instructions, and lacking in engaging content, this show feels like it was assembled as an afterthought. The exhibition serves as an interesting history lesson, but fails to do so in a way fitting to either the institution of the Guggenheim or the architect it is supposed to showcase.

All images courtesy the Guggenheim; “A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and Pavilion” opened on July 27, 2012 and remains on view through July 2013. 

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