These two books make important contributions to our understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright's long career and the formation of his critical and historical reputation, now extending into our own time well over a half century after his death. Both cast significant new light on overlooked or minimally examined aspects of Wright's life's work.
Making expert use of the rich archival holdings of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and many other sources, Kathryn Smith has produced a compelling account of Wright's negotiations and preparations for a career-long series of exhibitions of his work, mainly in the United States, but also in Europe. Although Wright's exhibitions are mentioned in earlier biographies and scholarship, they had yet to receive focused and consistent scholarly attention. Thus, Wright on Exhibit admirably fills a lacuna in Wright studies, and its chapters are fascinating in their accounts of the difficulties and successes surrounding the staging of these important events during his lifetime. The range of media involved (different kinds of drawings, models, and photographs), the design of the exhibition spaces, the preparation of the catalogues and related documentation, the shows' funding, their publicity and reception, the collaborative role of apprentices and curatorial contemporaries, from Wright's first participation in a group exhibit in Chicago in 1894, one year after he started his independent practice, to his last solo show in New York in 1959—all of these come dramatically into view in this book's seven chapters. Before this book, Wright's history as an exhibiting architect seemed a natural by-product of his productivity and innovations. But what Smith's narrative shows is that this aspect of his career was, like his building projects, anything but inevitable. What is striking is how, repeatedly, Wright had to fight for the conditions under which his work was exhibited.
Smith concentrates on Wright's most important exhibitions throughout his career, as distinct from a large number of smaller events of less scope and impact. Chapter 1 traces Wright's program of exhibition with the Chicago Architectural Club, where he participated in eight exhibitions from 1894 to 1914, including his three most important early individual shows, in 1900, 1902, and 1907. Smith describes how he then established an approach to the exhibition of his works that he would follow throughout his later life. Wright chose to exhibit the largest possible quantity of items in a distinct space of his own, then pursued publication of his designs in a lavishly illustrated format he designed himself. He would accompany this with a separate publication of his philosophy; additionally, a colleague sympathetic to his work would evaluate it in a different illustrated publication. This chapter clarifies how Wright's meticulous attention to the design of the exhibitions, along with his commissioning of installation photographs, directly informed his crafting of related publications, including his two major book projects with Ernst Wasmuth Verlag in 1910–11.
Chapter 2 narrates the story of Wright's engagement with the generation of American architectural criticism informed by the advent of the European modern movement after World War I. Wright's efforts to reestablish his importance in this climate culminated in major exhibitions of his work from 1893 to 1930 held at Princeton University and the Architectural League of New York, both in 1930, and his participation in the International Style show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York early in 1932. The show at the Architectural League was his first in New York as well as his first traveling exhibition; it moved to the Art Institute of Chicago later in 1930. This was a pivotal event in the rehabilitation of his reputation in the architectural world and beyond. As he had done before and would after, Wright exhibited a number of works simultaneously in the show, rather than focusing on a single project, in order to demonstrate how his work as a whole explored his unifying themes. In 1931, the exhibition's arrival in Amsterdam and Berlin excited considerable critical controversy over Wright's role in relation to contemporaneous Dutch and German modernism. Wright's participation in MoMA's landmark show of 1932 marked the first time he did not himself curate a major exhibition of his work, and the show's relegation of him to a relatively minor place helped to motivate his reinvention of himself during the 1930s.
Chapter 3 focuses on the exhibition and related program of publication devoted to Wright's unveiling of Broadacre City in 1935, as the Great Depression continued. Wright again was fully in charge of this project at Rockefeller Center, and it became his most prominent exhibition to date, attracting extensive critical commentary and attendance of forty thousand. As it traveled nationally, the didactic Broadacre City exhibit was also the first of Wright's shows to include large wall areas devoted to text panels surrounding the central 12-foot-square site model. In addition, this was the first occasion on which Wright employed a public relations firm to advance his cause.
Especially illuminating in chapter 4 are a series of discussions of Wright's twenty-year relationship with the Museum of Modern Art and the uncertainty that characterized the negotiations for almost every one of his shows there, from the first in 1933 to the last in 1953. Wright's interactions with successive cohorts of leadership at MoMA were closely related to his renewed program of publication of major new works from the mid-1930s, such as the two comprehensive special editions of Architectural Forum (January 1938 and January 1948) that he designed. The first of these immediately preceded MoMA's (and Wright's) first show devoted to a single building, Fallingwater. But the pivotal project at MoMA was the major retrospective exhibit of the architect's work held in 1940, along with its ex post facto catalogue by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, In the Nature of Materials: The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, 1887–1941 (1942), a book for which Wright, as collaborating author, approved all the visual materials and their captions. MoMA's retrospective was encyclopedic by design, and it marked the first time that so many original drawings from all phases of Wright's career were displayed together. A number of later exhibits at MoMA appeared in a swirl of critical discourse about Wright's relationship to modern architecture, which went unresolved during his lifetime. But as Smith notes, “He did benefit immeasurably, as an artist-architect, from display in a museological setting” (167).
One major unrealized project at MoMA was the construction of a Usonian house in the museum's northern courtyard. As detailed in chapter 5, this idea came to fruition in 1953 with the culminating exhibition of Wright's career, Sixty Years of Living Architecture, which was staged on the site of the future Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. This show's preparation and reception were closely related to Wright's efforts to realize this late public monument. The exhibition originated in Italy, where it opened at the Palazzo Strozzi in 1951, part of a broad postwar Italian engagement with Wright's work, led in part by Bruno Zevi. With at least nine hundred drawings and sixteen models, this Florentine-born show was the largest Wright exhibition, and possibly the largest one-man architecture retrospective, ever mounted. After it toured Europe, the show returned to the Guggenheim site in the fall of 1953, where it occupied a temporary exhibition pavilion and featured a full-size Usonian house. This last was important to Wright because, as he repeatedly said, architecture could not be well understood through representation in photographs and drawings alone; it had to be experienced three-dimensionally. This belief led him to self-fund such constructions at great financial sacrifice. But this show, accompanied by extensive publicity directed toward architects, museum professionals, and the general public, helped win local approval for the building of the Guggenheim Museum. Related television appearances raised Wright to the status of a national celebrity at a time when, approaching the age of ninety, he had more commissions than ever before.
Smith stresses that Wright's lifelong exhibition program was centered on projecting his ideas to the public with a sense of artistic and cultural mission that transcended commercial or professional aims. Helpful in Smith's volume are the two appendixes, in particular the second, which documents all of the known models made of Wright's architecture for the exhibitions. Princeton University Press deserves commendation for its generous production of this book, especially its extensive program of high-resolution color images. This press set a high standard along these lines with its publication, in 2016, of Neil Levine's The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive is an intellectually rich, multiauthored catalogue published to accompany the exhibition that opened at the Museum of Modern Art on Wright's 150th birthday, 8 June 2017. This exhibition celebrated not only the sesquicentennial but also the near completion of the five-year process of transferring the archives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation from Taliesin and Taliesin West to the joint ownership and stewardship of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was conceived in relation to the museum's long tradition of showing Wright's work, as detailed in Kathryn Smith's monograph. (Full disclosure: I was one of a group of scholars, critics, and historians who participated in a one-day workshop held on 1 May 2015, in the early stages of the brainstorming for this exhibition, but had no part in its subsequent development or the preparation of this catalogue.) The project's goal was to interrogate the richness and diversity of the archival holdings, and thus present fresh perspectives on Wright.
The catalogue is less monographic than kaleidoscopic—offering a view of new scholarly possibilities. In this spirit, the editors' introduction describes the collection's scope and utility, as well as the meticulous process of its current curation in its new institutional environs. Following this are sixteen concise, focused essays organized into five thematic groupings: “Nature,” “Culture,” “Process,” “City,” and “Archives.” Almost all of these are by scholars who have not published on Wright extensively, but who have expertise in a range of topics related to different aspects of his work. They were invited to develop their contributions based on materials in the archives that intrigued them individually. Interleaved between the essays are groups of high-resolution images of Wright's drawings that demonstrate the high standards for their current photographic documentation in the archives' new home. These give the volume an exceptionally rich visual character.
The first essay in the first group, by Therese O'Malley, well represents the spirit of the project. Exploring the implications of one of Wright's drawings in “The Floricycle: Designing with Native and Exotic Plants,” O'Malley probes the significance of this planting plan for the Darwin D. Martin House (1903–5) in Buffalo, New York, as a point of entry into the broader question of Wright's knowledge of and interest in garden design, including schemes involving both native and Asian plants produced for his Prairie Houses. Wright's interest in these living design elements continued through his work in Southern California into the 1920s and his later architecture for the Arizona desert. Jennifer Gray's essay, “Pattern behind the Realism: The Jensen Graphic,” examines the encoded meanings in the graphic Wright designed for the landscape architect Jens Jensen some time between 1913 and 1927. Gray argues that the geometries of this logo, created for the Friends of Our Native Landscape, when explored in the light of related texts and Wright's and Jensen's documented attitudes toward the prairie landscape, show the political implications of the group's emphasis on landscape preservation as a program of empowered control. The group's social construction of landscape, embodied in its projects of that period, was ultimately embedded in a complex settler ideology. In her essay “Little Farms Unit: Nature, Ecology, and Community,” Juliet Kinchin unpacks the history of a 1932 commission from Walter V. Davidson that resulted in a model for a small farm envisioned amid the New Deal's concerns for reviving such basic units of production. Kinchin shows how the project melded with Wright's valuation of farming, and how he appropriated Davidson's concept as part of his vision for American landscapes, soon expansively developed in Broadacre City.
Leading the second group of essays is Ken Tadashi Oshima's “Reframing the Imperial Hotel: Between East and West.” Its point of departure is a rare, fully illustrated book in the archives, Teikoku Hoteru (Imperial Hotel), published in August 1923, just before the building was threatened by the Great Kanto Earthquake on 1 September 1923. Its photographs and drawings document the design's development and realization, which, Oshima argues from a range of evidence, represented a fusion of Eastern and Western forms from multiple sources.
In “‘Playing Indian’ at the Nakoma Country Club,” Elizabeth S. Hawley explains Wright's design for the club's Nakoma Memorial Gateway as symptomatic of his abiding interest in Native American culture, which did not extend to a discriminating understanding of specific tribal variants. In this way, Wright's perspective was rooted in a general American fascination with “Indianness.” Mabel O. Wilson explores the question of Wright's relationship to African Americans in her essay, “Rosenwald School: Lessons in Progressive Education.” In this unbuilt project of 1928 for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Wright embodied the school's reformist agenda of educating ethical citizens, yet his design offered an interpretation of African American character as colorful and joyful, hence also racially different.
Studies of Wright's “process” begin with Spyros Papapetros's “The Finial and the Mousetrap: Ornament from Midway Gardens to the V. C. Morris Gift Shop.” This essay provocatively interprets Wright's use of ornament, which Wright claimed was integral with his architecture, as sometimes financially disruptive to the full realization of his ideas. Also, though often related to a specific building's program, his motifs could recur in varied projects. In “Abstracting the Landscape: Galesburg above and below the Surface,” Michael Desmond looks at Wright's design of 1946–49 for the Michigan community of Galesburg Country Homes as an example of his method of intertwining architectural forms with landscapes. He shows how this inextricability appears in Wright's earlier and later designs for both individual houses and groups in different geometries. Michael Osman looks at a different facet of Wright's process in his essay, “American System-Built Houses: Authorship and Mass Production.” He compares this program of prefabricated houses of 1915–17 with Wright's efforts to rethink the construction process in his later Usonian houses. Osman shows how these houses used standard details of Wright's authorship to create a mode of mass production rooted in the design process rather than the factory. In “Do It Yourself: Usonian Automatic System,” Matthew Skjonsberg interprets Wright's reuse from 1949 on of his earlier textile block system as a building method that would allow homeowners to craft their own varied dwellings, while also forming the environs of whole democratic communities. This approach to the factory-made house thus served Wright's aim of individual sovereignty.
In the first of three essays on the city, “Wright's Urbanism and the Skyscraper Regulation Project,” Neil Levine explores an unbuilt project of 1926 in relation to contemporaneous debate in Chicago about building form and the possibilities of elevated streets and sidewalks in response to the city's comprehensive zoning ordinance of 1923. Levine offers this analysis as a window into the larger question of Wright's lifelong engagement with twentieth-century urbanism. David Smiley creatively revisits a better-known project in “Broad Acres and Narrow Lots,” arguing that Wright's 1935 proposal for Broadacre City was partly embedded in its era's discourse of decentralization. Yet the original model and Wright's related text also explored the fiscal and economic potential of the proposal's central homestead unit and its core educational facilities.
In his essay, “Reading ‘Mile-High’: The Chicago Skyline and the Stakes of Fame,” Barry Bergdoll probes the project's genealogy as revealed in Wright's inscriptions to predecessors and contemporaries who influenced his thinking, and in the well-orchestrated campaign of media coverage in and beyond Chicago that included Wright's engagement with early television.
The final three essays, focused on the archive, begin with Ellen Moody's “Conserving and Exhibiting the New York Models,” which traces the condition, history, and conservation of Wright's models for the St. Mark's Tower (1929) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1945) and investigates the varied roles of models in Wright's work. In “Architectural Drawing: Materials, Process, People,” Janet Parks engages with the wide range of questions arising from the more than 55,000 drawings in the archive. These invite study of Wright's working relationship with his cohorts of assistants over his seventy-two years in practice, as they worked through phases of developing and documenting his projects. In the book's final essay, “Visualizing the Archives,” Carole Ann Fabian discusses recent data visualization techniques that aim to clarify the distribution and chronology of archival holdings relative to Wright's work in different regions of the United States and around the world.
These two important books leave us with large questions: What is the future of historical studies of Wright, and how might future exhibitions assess his importance for contemporary architecture? We do not know the answers to such questions, but we can be confident that the curation of Wright's archive will enable continuing examination and appreciation of his life's unparalleled scope of achievement.