New York

Frank Lloyd Wright

Max Protetch

Frank Lloyd Wright was such a prolific architect that it is possible to attend exhibitions of his work year after year and still see unfamiliar projects, previously unexhibited drawings, and fresh ideas. As in any encounter with brilliance, his work becomes richer with repeated visits. Wright’s successes, and his failures, sustain belief in the possibilities of architecture as art, for even his misguided productions were in some way inspired.

In what one hopes will be an annual event, this gallery showed a selection of drawings diverse in content, medium, and execution. Wright was masterful both with pencil and with ink and wash, and he used drawings uniquely and effectively to develop, enrich, and communicate idea and form. Wright as the designer and thinker and Wright as the great promotional performer were represented with equal intensity in the show. Included were drawings for classic buildings such as the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; St. Mark’s Tower, designed for the Bowery, New York; and the Edgar J. Kaufman house at Bear Run, Pennsylvania. There were surprises as well: a 1947 “play resort” in the Hollywood hills, for Huntington Hartford, proposed a castlelike edifice of cylinders and rectangles, which seemed to erupt from the hilltop setting. Big extending saucers were to provide patio space and a cascading waterfall. In contrast to ’this extravaganza was a modest color-pencil drawing of a “solar hemicycle” house for Herbert Jacobs, from 1944; this was a poetic realization of Wright’s early “Usonian” concepts.

At the museum another carefully orchestrated exhibition focused on these concepts—on Wright’s role not only as a designer but also as a social theorist and spiritual leader. Pursuing a personal and inflexible bias unsympathetic to urban America, Wright had devised a concept of ideal community—“Usonia”—based on rural and middle class values, individual initiative, and a commitment to collective and cooperative life. (At its worst, this concept was exclusive socially, racially, and financially.) Seeking to unite philosophy with practical esthetics, the idealization with the constructed form, in the late ’40s Wright participated in the planning of Usonia, a development in Pleasantville thirty miles from Manhattan in Westchester County. This cooperative venture was entirely inspired by Wright’s tenets. Although he only designed an early, and ultimately unaccepted, site plan and several houses and other buildings, he served as a design consultant whose approval was necessary for any construction. Most of the design work was, carried out by Wright’s students and followers. All of the earliest initiatives strictly followed the Usonian principles of organic architecture, using materials sensitive to the site, and designs that supported an informal domestic lifestyle and that stretched horizontally into the landscape.

Pleasantville has progressed during the past thirty years in the convoluted manner by which many planned communities evolve. But the community has maintained its unique character. Generally, the site plan has been followed with sensitivity, and the original Usonian homes remain inspired and timeless architecture, comfortably absorbing the changes in their owners’ expectations and activities. Pleasantville’s greatest lesson is its failure as a utopian model; individual drive and communal concern must be homeostatic, and the synthetic relationship of vision, goals, architecture, and desire was something that Wright never entirely grasped.

But Wright left provocative, satisfying buildings, some of which are in Pleasantville. And his ability to be contemporary and visionary at the same time helped toward the construction of the future. In tandem, the two exhibitions disclosed both Wright’s eloquence and the dogmatism of his theories. His architecture left little to chance, but it never appeared inflexible; this is the great irony of his work. On the other hand, he was excessively unyielding when he moved to theory arid education. And Pleasantville did not become a community of stouthearted Usonians achieving balance in the tension between individualism and collectivism. Wright’s stature as an artist expands, yet his theory of community diminishes in importance and application. Dogma worked in the design of buildings but not in the design of living.

Patricia C. Phillips