PRINT October 2017


Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, ca. 1943–59, gouache on paper mounted on board, 20 × 24 1/4".

ALMOST A CENTURY AGO, the world was already trying to have the last word on Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1940, New York’s Museum of Modern Art grandly proclaimed that its upcoming exhibition of the American master’s work would be “the first attempt to show the entire range of his astonishing architectural career.” In retrospect, this presumption of totality seems reasonable enough. Wright was already seventy-three, and the museum had assembled more than five decades of his designs, including several recently constructed masterpieces—the iconic Fallingwater house from 1937 among them—that felt like the crowning achievements of an extraordinarily protean career. As it turned out, however, the show was anything but comprehensive. Afterward, Wright would work furiously for another nineteen years, producing many of his most famous projects during that final period, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened to the public six months after his death in 1959.

In 1994, MoMA tried again, announcing a major retrospective that would “fully reveal” Wright, illuminating “every phase of his seventy-year career.” This time, the museum seemed poised for success. The show’s curators were the first to have full, unfettered access to his official—and now complete—archive, so surely they could at last produce a definitive account of the architect’s life and work.

But it wasn’t quite that simple. Even from beyond the grave, it seems, Wright continues to surprise us. In 2012, MoMA (in partnership with Columbia University’s Avery Library) acquired the archive itself, and to celebrate the completed acquisition and mark the sesquicentennial of Wright’s birth, the museum has mounted “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive.” Now, though, the return to Wright’s trove of material has taken the opposite tack. Rather than aim for conclusiveness—the definitive record—the exhibition’s curators, Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, posit the archive as a font of open-ended questions, the source of new possibilities and an occasion for “fresh perspectives.” Instead of demystifying Wright, the archive reveals how little we really know about him and how much there is still to tell. The numbers alone make a convincing case: The material is vast, including fifty-five thousand drawings (some unidentified, many unsigned or undated), three hundred thousand pages of correspondence, 125,000 photographs, 2,700 manuscripts, and hundreds of films and other artifacts. And in a surreal twist, the archive is still expanding, as new items continue to be discovered and identified.

It is an intriguing premise, but the show’s focus on perpetual discovery within the archive also foregrounds fundamental tensions in the institution’s role in making history. The museum—particularly any one with modern in its name—has, of course, always endeavored to construct a particular version of history. And even today, as academic tastes change and scholarship moves away from assertions of certainty toward multiple viewpoints and shifting narratives, museums still inevitably must make choices: They select, edit, and organize. Indeed, in a very real way, the archive and the museum are in stark conflict: How can the raw material of the past ever really be assimilated into the institutions that are in charge of the cultural record? The actual stuff of history—sprawling, messy, nearly infinite, chaotic—is an agglomeration of anarchy, a destabilizing force that is also, nevertheless, a body of evidence traditionally used as a source of authority. This is the famous dialectic Walter Benjamin described in his essay on unpacking his library: The organization of any collection is defined by “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” That affliction becomes acute with Wright. Of more than two million artifacts, some four hundred—less than two hundredths of one percent—are on view in the current exhibition. How do you choose?

Bergdoll and Gray deferred that question by inviting a diverse group of scholars to serve as guest curators of a kind, each focusing on one object or project within the archive and “unpacking” its historical significance, with the results of their research presented in twelve subsections of the show. The emphasis throughout is on demonstrating the depth and range of hitherto-unexplored material, whether through exhuming forgotten details of a major design or selecting a little-researched work. The results are mixed. Mabel O. Wilson examines an almost entirely unknown project, Wright’s unrealized 1928 design for a school for African American children in Virginia, sponsored by a Chicago philanthropist, in relation to then-typical designs for similar institutions and to Wright’s other educational projects, many of them for wealthy white clients—incisively demonstrating the ways in which architecture can embody a range of contradictory social and cultural forces. Juliet Kinchin has exhumed another obscure project, the Little Farms Unit, an experimental farm that Wright designed in 1932; but while she explicates the plans in impressive detail, the material she has assembled does not necessarily compel us to see the property as more than a footnote to Wright’s far more famous design for an agrarian suburb, Broadacre City, from the same period. And for their contributions to the section on “Ecologies and Landscapes,” Gray and Therese O’Malley each unearthed a selection of Wright’s drawings of nature and some of the most stunning works in the show: studies by Wright’s assistants, in which we see the derivation of abstract decorative motifs from a selection of desert vegetation, including cactus and lichen. But though the material is extremely rich, how it might change our understanding of Wright is not entirely clear, given that the integration of architecture and the natural world was one of the most celebrated tenets of his approach.

Indeed, while the exhibition brilliantly demonstrates the archive’s possibilities, it underscores the problem of choice—the sheer size of the repository means that there will always be more to explore, more details to uncover, and that novelty alone is not a worthy criterion for selection. In other words, to unpack the archive is not enough, simply because one can never do so completely. In the end, most of the exhibition’s twelve sections are precisely as interesting as the materials they present, and yet it is not always clear why that specific material was selected. (Bergdoll and Gray add to the confusion by offering viewers little information about the scholars themselves and no indication of why they were chosen, other than emphasizing that, in their own quest for fresh perspectives, they focused on researchers who had not studied Wright before.)

The exhibition is most successful when it explicitly shifts from presentation to analysis, looking not so much at Wright’s output as into the working methods behind it. Ken Tadashi Oshima revisits one of Wright’s most famous international projects, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in 1923, through a series of previously unexamined photographs of the building—an extraordinary set of images in which Wright sketched or painted over photographs of the completed project in marker, tempera, and other media to study further changes to the design, adding foliage, shifting the surrounding landscaping, or altering construction details. The over-drawings suggest that the building was never really finished in Wright’s mind, and that it lived in his imagination as much as at the actual site in Tokyo. This point is made doubly clear now, given that Wright himself never saw the completed project. Construction finished a year after his final visit to Japan, and the building was demolished in 1967 to make way for a new high-rise in booming postwar Tokyo. Such documents allow contemporary viewers a specificity of experience—of the building’s status and projected future—that is otherwise unavailable; and remind us that a built structure itself is only one element in a constellation of media.

In another section, Spyros Papapetros offers further insight into the development of Wright’s ideas by focusing on the topic of ornament. Assembling the most varied selection of materials in the show—everything from glassware to furniture to cast concrete blocks and textile designs—Papapetros shows that Wright often worked on similar geometric patterns for decades, and that his ideas flowed freely across scales, materials, and time periods; in doing so, Papapetros suggests that the chance to perform this kind of comparative analysis may be one of the great opportunities offered by the archive. At its most fulgent, the archive reveals less about architecture than about architectural thinking: not just the ideas behind a building but the ways in which those ideas are produced. The answer to the question of choice, then, is that you can’t ever really choose. You have to shift the criteria from selection to analysis, from material to method.

This shift in perspective reinforces the idea that the true power of the archive lies not only in discovering the unknown but in helping us see the known in a new light. Ellen Moody makes this clear in a fascinating section on Wright’s models, which includes a large and meticulously detailed study for the Guggenheim. Having arrived at MoMA in suspiciously good condition, with a seemingly fresh coat of white paint, the model was analyzed, and conservators discovered that it had originally been a darker and warmer shade, beige gray rather than cool white. An inquiry revealed that an analysis of the building itself had revealed the same transformation in its own walls, and a search through the Guggenheim’s archives exhumed a color sample of beige paint from 1958, with Wright’s initials indicating approval. Further examination of his correspondence showed that he had felt strongly that white was inappropriate for the museum, and had considered a wide range of tones (a point made startlingly clear by sketches, also on view, of the museum’s familiar spiraling geometry rendered in a bright pink). The color shift, now almost entirely forgotten, occurred during subsequent renovations and restorations of the museum, long after Wright’s death, when both interior and exterior were repainted in a stark white, reflecting changing curatorial tastes. This particular dive into the archive suggests that buildings themselves are dynamic media, animated by a range of social and political forces. Archival research can bring buildings to life, just as it can expose historical uncertainties—reminding us that buildings are never really finished any more than history is definitively written.

“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through October 1.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.