Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive
Exhibition review by Louise Noelle
DATE: 27/7/2017
8 June 2017 marked Frank Lloyd Wright´s 150th birth anniversary, and it was celebrated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. A unique exhibition based on Wright´s archive, currently guarded by two important New York institutions.

Indeed, in September 2012, Columbia´s Avery Architecture & Fine Arts Library and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation signed an agreement to transfer to the first two the archive that, up to that point, had been sheltered by the campus located in the two residences of this notable architect, Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. The Avery Library guarded an impressive collection that comprises approximately 55,000 drawings, 125,000 photos and a good number of documents –including his correspondence. Furthermore, there were a dozen models that became a part of MoMA´s collections some of them have been restored and are showcased at the exhibit. Faced with the enormous task of selecting and classifying, and a fixed time limit to put the exhibition together, the curators, Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, and Jennifer Gray, Project Research Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, set out on a new approach towards the archive and the renowned architect.

Hence the subtitle of the exhibit, Unpacking the Archive, as this was exactly the wager of the curators. The guiding axis was to extend an invitation to collaborate to a group of specialists, not necessarily in architecture, to go through a part of the archive that was of interest to them or that was close to their organization and conservation. For most of the scholars, the starting point was to select an initial drawing that would serve as a guide for their research and to complement it, be it with materials from the archive or from other spheres, in order to suggest a section of the exhibit and a text on the namesake catalogue that was published for this occasion. The result was that of thirteen proposals and the people in charge of those proposals and various chapters in the catalogue are: Barry Bergdoll, Michael Desmond, Jennifer Gray, Elizabeth S. Hawley, Juliet Kinchin, Neil Levine, Therese O´Malley, Ken Tadashi Oshima, Michael Osman, Spyros Papapetros, Matthew Skjonsberg, David Smiley and Mabel O. Wilson.

A special acknowledgement has to go to the restaurateurs of drawings and photographs as well as models, which recovered much of their splendour to be exhibited; the catalogue recounts as well the conservation work of Ellen Moody and Jannet Parks, while Carole Ann Fabian, Director of the Avery International and Fine Arts Library offers an interesting representation for the visualization and organization of the Wright archive.

With regard to the exhibit, the visitor often discovers novel and intriguing sides to Wright, on whom countless publications and numerous exhibitions have been made through time; amongst others we can recall that in 1994, MoMA itself took on an important retrospective in charge of Terence Riley and Peter Reed, while in 1998 the Vitra Design Museum organized the exhibit Frank Lloyd Wright and the Living City, both shows accompanied by outstanding catalogues.

This exhibit wanted to stand out as having a particular approach to the analysis and study of the work of the famous architect, thus allowing us to find subjects as “The Floricycle. Designing with Native and Exotic Plants” by O´Malley to get to know Wright as a landscape architect, a fact that has been scarcely studied to understand how gardens where fundamental within his architectural designs. This is accentuated by the work “Little Farms Unit: Nature, Ecology and Community” by Kinchin, that points out an early interest in collaborating in agricultural and ecological processes, alongside with his active participation in diverse urban undertakings. Therefore, in the case of “Abstracting the Landscape: Galesburg Above and Below the Surface” by Desmond or “Broad Acres and Narrow Lots” by Smiley, an interesting and novel narrative arises on the subject of urban design and dwelling relative to nature.

The approach to matters such as the one brought forth in “Rosenwald School: Lessons in Progressive Education” by Wilson, opens up new perspectives about the relation of Wright with education within the African-American community at the end of the 1920s; likewise, it showcases an architect convinced that a good architectural design influences the personal development of its users.

Some of the exhibit´s content has been studied previously, even though this showing tried to give these subjects a renewed approach; thus the subject of decoration achieves an important presence in the exhibition and the studies that accompany the catalogue. On one hand we find “The Jensen Graphic” by Gray and in parallel manner “Ornament from the Midway Gardens to the V.C. Morris Gift Shop” by Papapetros. However, it is “‘Playing Indian’ at the Nacoma Country Club” by Hawley that stands out for its originality given that it signals an interest by Wright to recuperate, in a Wisconsin club, the cultural and graphic traditions of the American Indians.

Another matter that was rescued by this exhibit and the scholars involved was that of technology, with a particular approach to the Usonian houses. In this way “American Built Houses” by Osman, but specially “Usonian Automatic System” by Skjonsberg, move closer to inspect and analyse the posture of the architect regarding these matters pertaining more to engineers. Culminating with “Reading ‘Mile-High’” by Bergdoll, which focuses on the study of a unique proposal for a building of great height; a series of explicit acknowledgements to some of the masters such as Louis Sullivan or noted personalities within the engineering world that Wright met such as Eduardo Torroja, Pier Luigi Nervi, J.J. Polivka and Robert Maillart are an addition to the structural audacity of the building.

In short, it is an important exhibition with novel wagers that go from landscape architecture to high-rises, crossing over ornament design and projects for progressive schools or constructive systems. However, in spite of the diversity in focus of the scholars the exhibit maintains a coherence that is the result of the vision and guardianship of the curators, complemented by the constant quality of the magnificent drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright who accompany the visitor throughout the tour offering well-known images as well as pleasant and unheard of surprises.    

Louise Noelle
Chair of Docomomo Mexico
Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas

Translation: Louise Mereles

Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
8 June - 1 October 2017
Curators: Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray

More pictures: PDF below (by Louise Noelle)
More details: website