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Frank Lloyd Wright, Herbert Jacobs House #2, 1943–48, Middleton, WI. Interior. Photo: Ezra Stroller. © Esto.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Herbert Jacobs House #2, 1943–48, Middleton, WI. Interior. Photo: Ezra Stroller. © Esto.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, Herbert Jacobs House #2, 1943–48, Middleton, WI. Interior. Photo: Ezra Stroller. © Esto.

HALF A CENTURY AFTER PHILIP JOHNSON acidly proclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century,” a new traveling retrospective makes the case for Wright’s relevance to the twenty-first. “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward,” organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, explores Wright’s expression of interior spaces on his buildings’ exteriors, as in the perfect example of the Guggenheim’s concrete coil. With a generation of architects modeling building shapes with functionally coded blocks of blue foam, external form is once again understood as an outgrowth of “program,” even if today this is more a representational tactic than, as for Wright, the realization of “organic” principles.

The urge to canonize Wright’s work according to a spatial strategy follows on the desire to bring him into the fold of those International Style modernists Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, from whose company Wright, with his romantic affectations and predilection for outré ornament, was historically excluded. It’s not a new corrective: In 1960, architect and critic Peter Blake established a modernist trinity of “master builders” with Le Corbusier as master of form, Mies as master of structure, and Wright as master of space. But Wright remains somewhat in modernism’s backstory, the “half-modern” missing link, as characterized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Wright deliberately set himself apart from this history. In a 1939 speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects, he voiced an architectural “Declaration of Independence,” calling for “independence of all imposition from without, from whatever sources not in touch with life; independence of classicism—new or old.” It is in this broader register that the phrase “from within outward” reveals itself not only as the formal articulation of the interior on the exterior but as an escape from calcified styles, whether the eclecticism against which Wright reacted early in his career or the later design prescriptions of an increasingly orthodox modernism. While the International Style’s clear precepts facilitated its dissemination, the expansive model of Wright’s organicism was not so much a set of architectural credos as the expression of the architect’s singular subjectivity—an impulse fusing space, material, function, site, and structure.

At times, the Guggenheim exhibition’s emphasis on abstract space threatened to whitewash (sometimes literally) Wright’s synthetic sense of color, ornament, and materiality. With the distinguished exception of an exploded basswood model of the earliest Usonian house, the show’s twelve newly commissioned models were uniformly colorless, thus calling attention to the structures’ spatial attributes. But in so doing, they followed after the International Style’s emphasis of volume through the use of continuous, smooth, and monochromatic surfaces—a strategy not without ideological overtones. For the proponents of the International Style, white, alongside the centripetal plan and the raised plinth, was a means of differentiating building from landscape. Wright refused to resolve this distinction. His buildings reached into the landscape or, incorporating local materials, appeared to emerge from it. At his best, Wright engaged the site as a pretext to integrate aesthetics with function. With his 1943–48 Herbert Jacobs House #2, a “Solar Hemicycle,” the landscape itself performs functionally. An earth berm protects the rear of the crescent-shaped house from northern winds while a sunken garden, to the south, allows winter sun to warm the glass facade. Following Wright’s example, the potential for passive heating and cooling systems to generate novel forms is currently being reassessed by a number of environmentally minded architects. The merger of building performance and formal innovation offers an alternative to the piecemeal scoring of LEED points by a series of architectural add-ons.

Wright’s close attention to the relationship between building and landscape, however, could also spawn low-density urban plans that today resemble unchecked suburban sprawl. The exhibition put such designs in the context of Wright’s “outward” practice, conceptually linking his initial formal move to “dynamite the box” (in the words of Sigfried Giedion) to his unrealized plans to advance the Usonian house across a tamed American wilderness. Two side galleries collected Wright’s domestic projects and urban schemes, foregrounding the significance Wright accorded the single-family dwelling in determining its urban context. Neil Levine suggests, in the accompanying catalogue, that the pinwheeling Prairie Houses already anticipated their serial production within the Chicago gridiron. In the Cloverleaf Quadruple Housing project (1942), garden plots seem to spill from the projecting wings of the buildings, defining a patterned fabric of landscape and street. These schemes, of course, all relied on the automobile. The carport itself becomes an architectural figure projected into the landscape. In the drawings for Wright’s most developed urban vision, Broadacre City, carefully rendered flying pods and strange automobiles expose a tacit assumption that the flexibility of modern transportation would eliminate the need for urban planning. Yet this is not the case in another of Wright’s large-scale proposals (and one of the exhibition’s revelations), a spiraling roadway on the outskirts of Baghdad that used the car as the catalyst for a monumental urbanism.

With sixty-four projects represented by two hundred original drawings, it was impossible for the exhibition to reveal the full range of Wright’s often contradictory seven-decade practice. But for a show marking the Guggenheim’s fiftieth anniversary, it is notable that the museum’s closest built precedent, the V. C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco (1948), was not on view. With an interior ramp gently sloping toward a translucent ceiling of acrylic bubbles, the shop is contained behind a flat brick facade punctuated by only an arched entry. Wright maintained a strict divide between the centrifugal organization of the interior and a masklike elevation, in full contradiction of the modernist ideal—and the exhibition’s thesis—of exterior spatial expression. By Wright’s own admission, he “could not help being most interested in the exception that proved the rule.” The Morris shop is a reminder as to why Wright’s work might never be forced into a strictly modernist mold, making him all the more pertinent to our own moment of protracted pluralism. Wright, it turns out, may even have offered his own wry confirmation of Johnson’s quip (and beaten the postmodernists to their appropriationist game): The Morris shop’s Romanesque arch is a clear reference to Henry Hobson Richardson, that other of America’s greatest nineteenth-century architects.

“Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward” travels to the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, Oct. 22, 2009–Feb. 14, 2010.

Michael Wang is based in New York and works between the fields of art and architecture.